How should Merah Putih fans react to a 2-2 draw against the Philippines in Manila? It all depends on one's expectations. Taking the optimistic view, any positive result on the road is a good one, especially as the national team faced what has been called the strongest Azkals team ever while fielding 13 guys from the officially sanctioned but still clearly second-best Indonesian Premier League plus three disgruntled Papuans from Indonesian Super League clubs.
Road friendlies are fairly rare for Indonesia. It only played one last year -- a 1-0 loss at Jordan in a match kindly set up by Prince Ali, who just happens to be friendly with the new leadership of the PSSI, because no one else would play it -- and none in 2010. In 2009, Indonesia played local clubs in Oman and Kuwait in preparation for Asian Cup qualifiers, while the only national team it played in a friendly was away to Singapore, where it lost 3-1. The point is, Indonesia doesn't have much experience playing in hostile environments, which shows during times like the team's collective pant-soiling in a 3-0 loss at Malaysia during the AFF Cup finals. The Merah Putih won't have the luxury of home field at this year's AFF Cup in Thailand and Malaysia -- assuming they're allowed to play and not banned from international competition after multiple finger-waggings from FIFA -- so the ability to score away from home and salvage a result is not to be underestimated.
That is the charitable view. It's not wrong, but neither does it fully take into account the problems facing Indonesia -- and they are vast. (More after the jump)
One unwelcome revelation from the game was that the culture of cynicism and indiscipline that marked the previous incarnation of the national team was just as prevalent in the IPL-dominated squad. Professional pretty boy and part-time footballer Irfan Bachdim touched off a bench-clearing brawl with 10 minutes to go, taking a swing at Philippines captain Chieffy Caligdong as the Azkals tried to take a quick free kick. Coaches and officials on the Indonesian bench also waded into the brouhaha. Irfan, Caligdong and Manny Ott, another Philippines player, were sent off, but the host dominated the last 10 minutes despite playing 9 vs. 10.
There was also a disappointing -- but certainly not shocking -- amount of cynicism showed by the Merah Putih. Goalkeeper Markus Haris Maulana was his usual infuriating self, flapping in vain at crosses, set pieces and long throw-ins, writhing in agony whenever an Azkal dared to challenge him on a high ball and driving Philippines fans mad with his incessant time-wasting. Even while Indonesia had a man advantage for the last 10 minutes, at least three players stayed down for extended breaks with "injuries" and all the national team's actions betrayed a side that was happy enough with a draw and content to get out of Dodge, an opinion backed up by coach Nil Maizar after the match.
Was Indonesia that desperate to preserve its record of never having lost to the Philippines? Or was the siren song of a draw away to a team higher than it in the FIFA rankings too irresistible? Some culture of cynicism is understandable, of course. Regardless of what level, Indonesian players usually stand a 50-50 chance of getting their wages on time. With win bonuses the only reliable way of paying the bills, players being willing to slide in with two feet studs-up on their grandma to secure three points is probably only natural. That said, the players' willingness to behave in such a way in a match with nothing at stake and after a week in which four football fans died at matches in Indonesia was shameful.
There's also the not-insignificant matter of the defense. Markus has always been a shot-stopper first and a goalkeeper second. He can pull off crowd-pleasing saves, but just as often he struggles to control his penalty area, deal with set pieces or organize his defense. In the second half alone, Indonesia's defensive breakdowns gave the Philippines six clear chances to score.
- 53rd minute: Indonesia's defense mysteriously parts and gives Angel Guirado a free header from eight yards out. The striker obliges by heading weakly at Markus' feet.
- 59th minute: Satrio Syam turns the ball over with a sloppy pass deep in his own end. A hard-charging James Younghusband collects the loose ball, surges into the penalty area and beats Markus to make it 1-1.
- 61st minute: Indonesian defenders stand idly by as Guirado settles, turns and shoots from 15 yards out under no pressure. Markus tips the shot over the bar, leading to a botched corner kick from which Irfan made it 2-1 on a counter-attack.
- 76th minute: Markus flaps at a cross, leaving Hamdi Ramdhan to clear a shot bound for an empty net.
- 84th minute: Immediately after the Irfan-Chieffy handbags (or rather, after the five minutes the Taiwanese ref needed to get both teams back to their benches and send off three players), Dennis Cagara's free kick from the left finds Younghusband at the far post. He heads the ball back across goal to brother Phil Younghusband, who has time to settle and score from eight yards out -- again under no pressure -- to level the match 2-2.
- 90th minute: Phil Younghusband again finds time in the Indonesia penalty area, forcing Markus into a difficult reflex save. The keeper stays down "injured" as the Merah Putih bravely cling to a draw against a team they haven't lost to in 54 years.
[EDIT: According to Jonny in the comments section, the Mauritania match didn't count toward the FIFA rankings, either. The FIFA site backs that up, so I can only offer a mea culpa there. Indonesia's ranking didn't change either way, staying 151st in the June ranking that came out today. Other than Thailand, which shot up five places, everyone else in Asean was flat or moved up or down one place.]
Indonesia also played friendlies against five local clubs -- winning one -- and lost to a weakened Inter Milan as well as drawing with Iraqi Kurdistan and losing to Palestine B in the Nakba event. Even adding in the unconfirmed reports of a home friendly with Algeria later this year, it's hardly the kind of preparation one would expect from a country desperate to win the AFF Cup for the first time. However, it's exactly the kind of skint existence one would expect from a PSSI that still struggles to attract sponsorship and relies on funding from the government and its patron, oil tycoon Arifin Panigoro. It's yet another example of the hand-to-mouth existence Indonesian football endures despite fanatical support across the country. People who claim to love football and want to see Indonesia succeed won't stump up a measly $1 million to bring in Tom Byer, the guy who helped lay the groundwork for Japan's dominance in Asia, and the PSSI slashed in half the number of schools and class sizes for its network of academies over a lack of funding, all but killing the project before it starts. Of course, there's no end of people willing to bring in big European clubs or lure national teams like Uruguay and Argentina with $2 million-plus paydays because events like that are sexy and "advance the brand."
Going by the FIFA rankings and regional teams' trajectories, Indonesia's flashy, short-term approach is bearing sour fruit. Vietnam, which won the 2008 AFF Cup, heads the Southeast Asian class at 97th in the world (15th in Asia). Further down the table is three-time champ Thailand (141st, 20th), followed by the Philippines (148th, 22nd), Indonesia (151st, 24th), defending champion Malaysia (153rd, 26th) and two-time winner Singapore (158th, 29th). Then you have the also-rans: Laos (173rd, 35th), Cambodia (174th, 36th), Burma (175th, 37th), Brunei (201st, 45th) and East Timor (204th, 46th). Thailand has long been at the top of Asean while Singapore has regressed in recent years. Vietnam and Malaysia have definitely passed Indonesia, while the Philippines has made great strides and could threaten what was once Indonesia's assured place in the region's top four. After a 0-0 draw at Malaysia and a performance at home that could easily have secured a win against Indonesia, the Azkals can rightfully feel that they have shaken off doormat status in Asean. Indonesia suffered its first loss against Laos at any level at the 2009 Southeast Asian Games, and it probably won't be long before the Philippines can claim that long-awaited first win over the Merah Putih.
Of course, it wouldn't be a day in Indonesian football if there weren't off-field shenanigans to accompany the goings-on between the lines. There are unconfirmed reports of Indonesian fans at the match in Manila mocking the Azkals for using "imported players." True, the Philippines roster is dotted with players with names that don't exactly sound Filipino and who play in places like England, Germany, Denmark and Belgium. Whether these guys are naturalized or of mixed heritage doesn't matter, though. This is 2012 and regardless of what some chesty nationalists would have you believe, using players who are naturalized or of dual nationality is not taboo or an admission of weakness. Hell, the guy who scored the winning goal in the last Asian Cup was a Korean-born Japanese.
Oh, and in case any self-righteous Indonesians forgot, the Merah Putih isn't above calling in reinforcements, either. Irfan? Half Dutch. Joey Suk, Tony Cussell and Ruben Wuarbanaran? Born Dutch. Sergio van Dijk and Diego Michiels? Also Dutch. Kim Kurniawan? Born German. Cristian Gonzales? A Uruguayan who married an Indonesian. Stefano Lilipaly and Jhonny van Beukering? Netherlands youth internationals now playing for Indonesia. Greg Nwokolo and Victor Igbonefo? Nigerians who stuck around long enough to get naturalized.
Enough with this silliness. Indonesia has too many problems to turn up its nose and mock other countries for how they do their business. The latest FIFA deadline for the PSSI to get its house in order is nine days away, and barring some swift and unforeseen changes, the politicians and money men ruining Indonesia's favorite sport could face a long, lonely hiatus in which to ponder their future.