Friday, December 02, 2011


The Lost Generation

Bambang Pamungkas is the Gary Lineker of Indonesian football. Even the masses who loathe and mock the local game as unworthy of their attention recognize Bepe, as he is known, as a rare rose amid fields of energy sapping mud. His cherub looks and calm demeanour have crossed over from the football field to the advertising world where his face sells various products from billboards and buses.

But Bambang’s time at the top of Indonesian football is coming to an end. He has not been first choice for the national team for 12 months, unthinkable for a generation of fans, as first Alfred Rield and latterly Wim van Rijsbergen have gone with the older, and naturalized, Christian Gonzales as their first choice striker.

His goal against Iran in the latest World Cup Qualifier, a 4-1 defeat at the Bung Karno Stadium, may well be his last in competitive football for the country he has served so well for the best part of a decade; a shame that there were perhaps less than 2,000 in the stadium to witness it.

Bambang, like so many of his generation, will look back on his career and wonder what if. Yes, there will be money in the bank, and plenty of it, but footballers also crave glory. Silverware, trophies and medals are the public face of a successful career, something to show the grandchildren, and for all the respect he has acquired over the years all Bepe has to adorn his trophy cabinet from nigh on 10 years with Persija Jakarta is one league title. Think George Best’s talent and compare with Gary Neville’s medals!

Ironically the success, and recognition, that footballers crave has come his way. Ask any fan of Selangor in Malaysia about Bambang and they will go misty eyed, recalling his two year spell with the club in the middle of the opening decade of the 21st century. The first season saw him amass three trophies as well as averaging a goal a game. Instead of building on that success Bepe returned home to Indonesia after a second, less prolific season.

As a young player Bambang spent a few months in the Netherlands with a lower division team, Erhad, but frustrated by the lack of game time he was getting he soon returned to familiarity of Indonesia and Persija. Later a move to the A League in Australia, restricted by a salary cap and relatively high taxes, never materialized, probably because no club there could match his wage demands.

Bambang’s generation is in danger of fading from the scene leaving behind little more than memories.

Erol Iba is another player who reportedly attracted attention from down under. Until he did the maths and decided he and his family would be better off in the provincial East Javan town of Kediri and not Sydney with its beaches and harbor.

For Bambang’s generation, playing overseas has invariably meant Malaysia. But similarities in language and culture make this less a leap into the unknown and more a short stay with distant cousins a few miles away. It is unlikely any of the Indonesians who plied their trade across the Melaka Straits would complain it was like being in a foreign country as Ian Rush famously once opined about his short stay in Italy.

Ponaryo Astaman, an elegant midfielder, also spent time in Malaysia before returning to the creature comforts of home and family. He did once attract interest from a team in Singapore where the coach at the time really rated him but it was a move feted never to happen. Despite the material wealth in the island city, football is starved of funding and there is no way any Singaporean club could afford to put together a package to seduce one of indonesia’s top players.

Other players like Elie Aiboy and Budi Sudarsono have seen their time playing overseas limited to short spells in Malaysia before they too happily returned home. Aiboy left former Bayern Munchen coach Ottmar Hitzfeld drooling after a friendly in Jakarta while Sudarsono, who so impressed during Persik’s AFC Asian Champions League campaign in 2007, has endured a couple of barren spells with Persib and Sriwijaya and has moved to Deltras in search of kick starting his career.

The lost generation may look at their bank balances and say that yes, their career in football was successful. Many players come from kampongs where money is always tight and nature a feared mistress. The influx of easy cash will always be an attraction, especially when it comes in their comfort zone and there are large families to support. But in their quiet, introspective moments, on a personal level, there will be doubts. Did they make the best use of their talents, did they take enough risks, did they become as good as they should have been?

Football is like nature. Bambang’s generation are being shunted to the sidelines while new, younger, fresher players are starting to make an impression. Players like Syamsul Alam, part of the FA programme initiated under the previous leadership of Nurdin Halid, where teenagers were sent to Uruguay to further their football education. Alam impressed so much he was signed by local giants Penarol on loan. And while he may not have featured too much in the current SEA Games time is still on his side and he is a strong candidate for Myanmar in 2013 and Singapore two years later.

The future of Indonesian football looks bright. The SEA Games performances of players like Ferdinand Sinaga, Patrick Wanggai and Diego Michels proves that. Add in young players like Yericho Christiantoko, playing in Belgium, and Arthur Irawan, signed for Espanyol in Spain, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

The best lesson these young players can learn from Bambang and his generation is that opportunities to play overseas need to be taken while they are young. Because while Indonesia maybe home and the familiar but the politics surrounding the game do nothing to improve one’s career.

(First appeared in Jakarta Globe)

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