Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, now is a good moment for football fans to reflect on the past and reminisce fond memories. Today, we go back almost 10 (!) years to witness the last, but exciting competitive victory of Timnas Indonesia in a World Cup qualifier(2014) and the hectic months before this game.
2010 AFF Suzuki Cup and the breakaway league
It all began with the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup. Timnas performed very well as co-hosts of the group stage with victories over arch-rival Malaysia and by knocking out hot favorites Thailand. The team of late Austrian coach Alfred Riedl was unbeatable in the run up to the two-legged final. The regional tournament’s disappointing and controversial games against Harimau Malaya (Malaysian fans allegedly used laser beams to distract Indonesia’s players and staff members) had unexpectedly destroyed the long-awaited hope of fans of winning an internationally recognized football trophy.
Two weeks after this shocking end of the tournament, the Indonesian Premier League (IPL) kicked off its inaugural match in Solo. This breakaway football league, formed by local businessman Arfin Panigoro, was founded with the aim of further professionalizing Indonesian football. But the split of the top-flight division in two separate entities, turned out to be a nightmare.
The well-structured commercial and lucrative plan initially caught the interests of many existing teams, but only four clubs eventually decided to join the IPL. Even though intentions from the organizers were sincere and good-hearted, the Indonesian football association (PSSI) was not amused with the establishment of the IPL.
The PSSI threatened defected players, coaches, and referees with banning them from playing for the national team and revoking their licenses, respectively. Nevertheless, the IPL received clearance from the local authorities and then-minister of Sports and Youth Affairs Andi Mallarangeng to hold matches. This ‘dualism era’ marked the beginning of the dark days of Indonesian football.
The aforementioned situation also put head coach Alfred Riedl in a difficult position: he was unable to select his preferred national team squad. Only the players who remained loyal to the Indonesia Super League (ISL) and PSSI were eligible for international matches and tournaments. This meant that Indonesia would not be able to field the strongest possible team in the upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers and something even worse was looming: a suspension by the international governing body (FIFA) from participating in international competitions was a possibility if ‘dualism’ persisted.
In aiding the PSSI to solve this internal football crisis, FIFA had appointed a “Normalization Committee” that brought together prominent local stakeholders from outside the federation. They temporarily took charge of the PSSI’s Executive Committee until a new president was elected in the next extraordinary congress. Meanwhile, the two top-level leagues were allowed to conclude their ongoing seasons and all IPL players were declared eligible for FIFA-sanctioned competitions. With this, FIFA offered Indonesia a way out of the conflict without facing a devastating ban.
Alfred Riedl out, Wim Rijsbergen in
In the heat of this intense fight on the governing level, one would almost forget about football itself. Likewise, the leagues also felt the impact of this ongoing conflict: there was an even greater lack of professionalism than ever before in both the ISL and IPL. The league operators and clubs struggled financially, fan violence still existed, and more specifically with regard to the newly founded IPL teams: inexperience in running football clubs led to (huge) mismanagement.
Fortunately, there is a bright side to every situation: there was a great influx of foreign coaches and players along with the creation of IPL who were ready to start an adventure in Indonesia. Amongst one of them is Dutch former World Cup player Wim Rijsbergen who accepted the job of head coach of defected club PSM Makassar. He arrived together with former Ajax and ADO Den Haag midfielder Richard Knopper and performed well in difficult circumstances, as PSM finished third in the first and only round of the IPL. “Even though I am not always satisfied with my players, I enjoy being here in Indonesia. I have experienced a lot of things here the past couple of months, which I learned from and aim to apply in my next challenge”, according to Rijsbergen during an interview by a Dutch newspaper. At this time (around July 2011), it was rumored that he would replace Alfred Riedl as coach of the Garudas.
After a chaotic and sluggish election process, in which multiple candidates withdrew, Arifin Panigoro-backed Djohar Arifin Husin was finally chosen as the new head of the PSSI. The start of his tenure coincided with changes in the (long-term) plans of the federation, including the controversial dismissal of the popular Riedl. The Austrian’s contract was told to be not legally binding, as it was signed by an affiliate of the federation (Badan Tim Nasional) rather than the PSSI itself. Rijsbergen accepted the offer from the new leaders to replace him. He had the extremely challenging, but honorable job of leading Indonesia through the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil qualifiers. He only had two weeks to prepare for his debut.
The dry plain of Ashgabat
This two-legged round was part of the very long path that every Asian country had to follow to qualify for Brazil 2014. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) only received 4 direct and 1 indirect (intercontinental play-off) spots for this tournament, which meant that a country like Indonesia had to survive at least 4 rounds to qualify. This was a near-impossible mission to complete, but the experience teams gained along the way could nonetheless be of great significance to its players and officials. Rijsbergen’s initial focus, however, was to get through the second round of the qualifiers, as Indonesia luckily received a bye for the first round.
This seemed a demanding task itself given the following circumstances he had to deal with. First of all, Rijsbergen’s squad mainly consisted of footballers playing in the (for him) unfamiliar ISL. The limited preparation time of two weeks made it difficult for the players to adapt to the intended playing style of the coach. Moreover, the players were not completely fit. They have not played competitive football for nearly two months since the end of IPL and ISL in June. What made matters worse for the Dutch coach was the lack of information about drawing partner Turkmenistan. This meant a trip to an unknown place and against an unfamiliar team.
On the other hand, the (temporary) end of the feud in Indonesian football brought a wave of hope and excitement among the avid players, journalists and fans. The IPL footballers especially were relieved and thrilled to finally represent their country again. The supporters looked forward to seeing the strongest possible side from the memorable 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup on the pitch. Moreover, the short, but intense week of training coincided with reports of the (near-completed) naturalization process of a group of potential Timnas players, including young talent Stefano Lilipaly and veteran domestic league striker Greg Nwokolo. All in all, Rijsbergen and co. boarded the flight from Jakarta to the Turkmen capital Ashgabat with optimism and pride.
Upon arrival in Turkmenistan, the team experienced a climate significantly different from that of Indonesia: hot and very dry. The former Soviet state is characterized by beautiful empty plains, which cover a large part of its territory. These arid circumstances also affected the pitch of the Olympic Stadium in Ashgabat, where the crucial World Cup-qualifier was set to take place. It was a miracle that the pitch passed the AFC’s pre-match examination at all. The field was in such a poor state (even by Indonesian standards) that the ground-based possession playing style of Rijsbergen’s squad seemed almost impossible.
Nevertheless, the disappointing state of the field did not discourage the players from entering the match and fighting for a place in the next round. The match went as predicted: very difficult to pass over the ground and with a lot of mistakes from both sides. The biggest chances came through set pieces, such as the goal from Turkmenistan. A powerful shot from an indirect free kick from Hojageldiýew’s side went into the far corner passing Indonesian goalkeeper Ferry Rotinsulu. The rather small Turkmen crowd cheered, but this did not affect the minds of the brave Garudas, as they searched for an equalizer. Boaz Solossa and his teammates knew the circumstances were not beneficial to their playing style, but tried to overcome them and were eventually rewarded. Fifteen minutes before half-time, winger Ilham scored a rebound off the Turkmen goalkeeper after elegant set-up play by Bustomi and Ridwan. The 1-1 boosted the minds of the Indonesians in Ashgabat, because they knew that a draw would be a good starting position for the return match in Jakarta. The second half was more or less the same with set piece threats from the host, including a red card for Artur Geworkýan (he shortly played for Persib 8 years later) and occasional counter-attacks from the away team. The match ended in 1-1 and Wim Rijsbergen’s team had a realistic opportunity of advancing to the next round.
The magic of Gelora Bung Karno
The second and decisive match five days later in Jakarta marked the debut for Rijsbergen in the 88,000-seated Gelora Bung Karno (GBK) national stadium. Never before had he tasted the unique atmosphere of this historic site, where numerous memorable matches of Timnas had taken place in the past. The big chance of progressing to the next round, the never-ending support from the fans and the highly motivated players made this moment the ideal opportunity to relive another magical evening.
A serious factor that worried the coach was the serious lack of match fitness. This became evident in the previous game, as the low stamina and concentration level towards the end of the match almost cost Indonesia the draw against its better in shape opponent. Garuda had been warned.
The match started in completely different circumstances than in Ashgabat. The first ten minutes could be described as one-way traffic due to the constant waves of attacks initiated mainly by striking-partnership Boaz Solossa and Cristian Gonzales. The opponents were unaccustomed to the humid conditions and the intimidation of the fanatical crowd. After just nine minutes into the game, Uruguayan-born Gonzales managed to open the score, sending the sold-out stadium into excitement. Ten minutes later, he netted his second of the night after proper build-up play and a magnificent cross from the energetic Solossa. The latter created a handful of chances himself (including a dribble where he went past 4 (!) opponents at once) but failed to extend the lead. The third goal eventually came from the right foot of fullback Nasuha who beautifully curled the ball into the net from outside the box.
This comfortable 3-0 lead was the score at half-time and brought the Indonesian fans into ecstasy, which they deserved after months of conflict. The next round was within reach with just 45 minutes to go, but like always: in football anything can happen in a matter of seconds. The experienced Rijsbergen had also foreseen this and warned the team not to celebrate too early. The fitness level nearing the end of the game could be crucial to the eventual outcome.
The second half started in the same fashion as the first, with the Indonesians trying to add another goal to their tally. The supporters also did not lose their enthusiasm and continued to passionately support their team. Only this time, the Turkmen attempted to disrupt the possession of the local side by bringing in three fresh players within 15 minutes of the start of the second half. The weaknesses of Indonesia were exposed by Turkmenistan after Nasuha scored an unnecessary own goal.
The bodies of the Indonesians deteriorated more and more over the course of the match, so the players and fans symbolically synergized their last bit of energy to take the win. They knew they needed each other now more than ever. This magical connection between fans and players resulted in Ridwan scoring the fourth goal for Indonesia. With Rijsbergen still uncertain of the victory, he brought in winger Maniani and defensive midfielder Sucipto as a precaution.
Later on, just like in the previous game, the away team was reduced to ten men, because defender Hojaahmedow received his second yellow card. The unpredictability of football now took over the game and the Turkmen managed to score two simple goals in a time frame of five minutes. The comfortable lead suddenly disappeared, and the Indonesian players felt that a total nightmare was on its way. For this reason, the crowd passionately ‘carried’ Timnas during the last tense minutes of the game and they succeeded, as the score of 4-3 was sufficient to make it to the next round. What followed was an unprecedented explosion of joy, relief, and pride in the GBK.
The loyal support of the fans was ultimately the decisive factor in achieving the win. This glorious victory was a pleasant gift to every Indonesian football lover after all the troubles of the past months and it also provided a foundation to build on. Rijsbergen was retained as head coach after this match and led the national team for the third round matches against stronger opponents, such as Iran, Bahrain and Qatar. However, he was quickly replaced due to disappointing performances and the ongoing feud at the PSSI. A decade-long winless streak in the World Cup qualifying campaigns followed. This is the bitter reality that still stands to this day. The only thing fans can hope for in the future is to experience a similarly exciting match again, as the wonderful connection between fans and players during this qualifier perfectly illustrated the truly unique character of Indonesian football: never-ending love and passion.