Indonesia making up for lost time in fairytale run
By Calvin Tham
When the draw for the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup group stage was made in Yangon on August 2, you could hear a pin drop when the announcer read out a Group A which comprised of co-hosts Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia.
Almost immediately, it was labelled as the ‘Group of Death’ with talks of whether the Azkals or four-time champions Singapore would join Kiatisuk Senamuang’s all-conquering War Elephants in the final four.
Fast forward to November and it is the underrated Indonesians who have stormed into the final along with the Thais.
A stroke of luck some say, but if you look at the way they opened the campaign, a hard fought 4-2 loss to Thailand, Alfred Riedl and his charges were hungry for success.
The Garudas were a lost cause for over a year as they sat out international competitions because of FIFA’s suspension.
When the news broke that the ban was over, the sunny skies in Jakarta were ready to welcome back the country’s number one sport.
In came wily tactician Riedl, who had the urgent task of picking 23 men to go into AFF Suzuki Cup battle on his third stint as Indonesia’s head honcho. His task was made even tougher when the Indonesian football decision-makers told him he could only pick two players from each local club.
Not the most ideal of situations but there was method in the madness with the Austrian’s appointment. Having coached Vietnam thrice, Riedl’s experience came through in the semi-finals when he outfoxed the Golden Stars coach Nguyen Huu Thang, who was one of his key players during his time as Vietnam coach.
He knew how Huu Thang’s tactics encapsulated a passing game and countered it with a watertight backline to force Vietnam into long-range shots.
And true to form, the Garudas collapsed to the ground in ecstasy at the final whistle in My Dinh Stadium with a 4-3 aggregate win, to send millions of Indonesian fans back home celebrating throughout the night.
The final will see them go up against the mighty Thais, but Riedl and his fearless charges have an ace up their sleeves, in the form of the football-mad locals.
Indonesia’s biggest footballing result in recent years was dampened by the fact that they were unable to play the knockout stages in the red-hot Bung Karno cauldron due to renovation works for the 2018 Asian Games.
Despite not having 90,000 screaming supporters in Bogor, the 30,000 who did managed to get into Stadion Pakansari for the semifinal first leg sent the noise decibels to a whole new level.
Now with in the final against Thailand coming up, another display of fervent home support is needed for what many have dubbed as ‘Mission Impossible’.
But try telling that to Indonesian midfielder Stefano Lilipaly and you’ll get retorted with a defiant “we can beat anybody” war cry.
The Dutch-born playmaker has been one of the revelations of this tournament, alongside speed demons Andik Vermansyah, Rizki Pora and captain Boas Salossa as the quartet danced past the Singapore and Vietnamese defences with consummate ease.
That same pace and trickery to play on the counter will come to the fore once again when they face the Thai pass-masters in the finals.
Kiatisuk’s game plan will see Thailand dominate possession on every count as they seek to pass their way through the Indonesian defence with Chanathip Songkrasin and Sarach Yooyen leading the charge.
In all fairness, the Thais have arguably not had to get into top gear so far and should they lose the ball high up the pitch, Indonesia’s speedsters must be ready to capitalise and force Kawin Thamsatchanan to justify his reputation as Southeast Asia’s top glovesman.
If Lilipaly and his teammates can breach the Thai defence, we could witness another miracle title win akin to that of Portugal and Leicester City, in what has been dubbed ‘the year of the underdogs’.
So for all the talk of Thailand steamrolling their way to a record fifth AFF Suzuki Cup triumph, it’ll be foolish to write off the boys from Indonesia.
We await a football feast.