Singapore's fate hinges on battle with unpredictable Indonesia
In the first tournament after the lifting of their FIFA ban, underdogs Indonesia stand between Singapore and a place in the semi-finals of the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup. No one gave the Merah Putih a chance coming into the tournament, but Alfred Riedl’s ragtag squad would now have no qualms about facing up to the four-time champions on Friday.
In 10 attempts, the Indonesians have never won the south-east Asian event, losing four finals. But they are attracting a growing band of neutral fans at the Philippine Sports Stadium, with their spirited, yet flawed, performances.
Indonesia coach Alfred Riedl could only select two players from any one club in his squad. Photo: Getty Images
They gave defending champions Thailand an almighty scare by equalising at 2-2 early in the second half last Saturday before losing 4-2 against a side that had outplayed Asian champions Australia just four days earlier. And then on Tuesday, they drew 2-2 with host nation, the Philippines, and were perhaps unlucky not to come away with a win.
Indonesia’s year-long FIFA suspension, for government interference in football matters, was only lifted in May, which means that the country’s Super League won’t resume until March next year. Players have been taking part in the unsanctioned Indonesia Soccer Championship, but the hastily arranged format was far from the perfect breeding ground for a successful national team.
With the 2016 ISC season ongoing, out of kilter with the rest of the region, Austrian Riedl was allowed to select only two players from any one club. That meant a few big names were left out, and some unproven youngsters were thrown into the deep end.
But many of those who ended up travelling to Becoue, near Manila, have excelled. Captain Boaz Solossa, who made his national debut in 2004 and hails from Papua-based Persipura Jayapura, has enjoyed a late-career revival, scoring two goals in two games. Tiny winger Andik Vermansyah, a star in Malaysia with Selangor, has caught the eye with his dashes down the right-hand side. And Dutch-born midfielder Stefano Lilipaly has impressed with his deft passing and precise set pieces.
“I think when we arrived here everyone saw us as underdogs, but now they see we can play, and after one year suspended, we are still here. We still show what we’ve got,” Lilipaly told ESPN FC.
“We wanted to start very good, and let the supporters see that we fight for the country. We are very confident [that we can beat Singapore]. We want to win, and stay in the tournament.”
Lilipaly, whose father is Indonesian, plays his club football with Telstar in the Dutch second tier. He represented the Netherlands Under-16 and Under-17 sides before being capped at senior level in 2013. But, with only a handful of caps in three years, he was almost forgotten until Riedl recalled him for the 2016 tournament.
The Indonesians have had mixed success with other naturalised stars, such as Cristian Gonzales (Uruguay), Greg Nwokolo (Nigeria), and Sergio van Dijk (Netherlands). Lilipaly is the only player, based out of south-east Asia in the 22-man Indonesian squad.
Not yet on the national radar is 17-year-old forward Martunis, who is on the books of Portuguese club, Sporting Lisbon. Martunis, who survived the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that hit his Indonesian island of Aceh and killed his mother and sister, was signed by Sporting’s Under-19 squad in July.
“It’s the first time that you tell me this there is a player, nobody told me [before],” coach Riedl told ESPN FC.
“I don’t know him, but all good players playing in [overseas] clubs are difficult to catch. We’re lucky to get Lilipaly. He’s a good player, who has helped us. But the other guys, who play even higher, we cannot get them.”
Defender Arthur Irawan, 23, is another Indonesian with European experience, who has faded from the national radar. After going through the Espanyol youth academy, and reportedly catching the eye of Manchester United scouts, he played only a handful of games in the lower leagues of Spain and Belgium.
So, with a far from full-strength squad, Indonesia will look to improve their poor recent record against Singapore, with only one win in their last eight games. However, that victory – a 1-0 result at Singapore’s Jalan Besar Stadium – did come in their last meeting, in the group stages of the 2012 AFF Cup.
Lilipaly says that the Indonesians, who have been suspect defensively with some inexperienced men at the back, will continue to play the only way they know – with carefree, attacking verve.
“We will do everything we can to win from Singapore, and I think Singapore also have to play different from [their first] two games because if they want to stay in the tournament, they also have to play a more attacking style,” he said.
“If we play good, and we take our chances, we can win.”
With Indonesian football emerging from a chaotic couple of years, don’t put it past Garuda to swoop on an experienced, but sterile Singaporean side which has scored only one goal in its last six matches.
Former Herald journalist Jason Dasey is the Singapore-based Senior Editor of global football website: www.espnfc.com