Friday, November 18, 2016
Why I Love The AFF Suzuki Cup
I gave up on England years ago. Nay decades ago. The last time I saw the Three Lions was in Katowice in 1993 when Graham Taylor was the manager. The last home game at Wembley was in 1988 against Sweden and it was a dire game. So dire I have never bothered going to Wembley since. At least Poland away was a laugh. But Wembley? Train to Waterloo, tube to Baker Street, change for Wembley Park. Even now, more than a quarter of a century later the journey is indelibly engraved in my psyche.
I only ever enjoyed one game, against Yugoslavia in 1986. I witnessed some veritable goal feasts against the likes of Luxemburg and Turkey and even saw Brazil when Kevin Keegan was still playing for us but I never really enjoyed the experience. I went because, well, I was a football fan and it was my country and I could afford it. But years of underachievement and predictable media hype had their toll and I just decided enough.
World Cups and Euros passed me by in a blur. Seen one, you’ve seen them all as far as England are concerned. We must have a player in our squad who is deemed untouchable by the media, even when they don’t perform. Keegan was one, then Bryan Robson. Yes, they were good players but they weren’t the world beaters the media would have had us believe just like more recently the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney aren’t the world class talents some wish they were.
It wasn’t until I saw my first ASEAN Football Federation Championships in 2008 that I felt I could enjoy international football again. For a start I wasn’t so involved as I had been with England. There was baggage with the Three Lions, the ASEAN Championship had none. It was a clean slate and through my writing I had been able to get inside the camps of some of the nations involved in a way I never could have, nor wanted to, with England.
2008 saw Indonesia play host to Singapore, Cambodia and Myanmar. From the build up and the tension ahead of the games I could tell this competition, though minor on the world stage, and that is a different argument, meant something regionally. Local pride was at stake in a way it never could be when England play Austria for example.
2010 was though the game changer. Indonesia again played host, this time to Thailand, Malaysia and Laos. Coach Alfred Riedl had introduced exciting young players like Irfan Bachdim and Okta Maniani and the nation was rivetted. Indonesia cruised the group beating Malaysia and Laos comfortably setting up a semi final with a newly resurgent Philippines.
With Manila lacking a decent venue if its own to host one leg of the semi final it was agreed both games would be played in Jakarta and more than 170,000 fans saw both games. A friend of mine told me had had gone through school experiencing the national anthem every Monday morning and had become slightly cynical about the whole nationalist ethos. 2010 changed that for him and a great many others. ‘For the first time hearing the national anthem I felt shivers down my spine,’ he related to me.
They were certainly electric nights. Celebrities of TV and film would go to the games followed by their own mini paparazzi as they declared their undying love for their national team. The games themselves were hard fought affairs, Cristian Gonzales scoring the only goal over the two legs but Indonesia was buzzing. New heroes, a new league on the horizon, surely all was good in the world of football?
Indonesia lost in the final against Malaysia over two legs and subsequent division of the game into two rival leagues showed how fragile the dream was but for those present on those nights we witnessed how football could unite.
Indonesia have failed to reach those heights since and go into the 2016 event off the back of a lengthy FIFA suspension which has limited preparations even more than usual. However a new PSSI leadership could be cause for optimism for those hose glasses are easily half full.
They will come up against Thailand, Philippines and Singapore in Manila and it is fair to suggest this is no group of death. The Thais, fresh from earning their first point in the Asian Qualifiers at home to Australia are favourites and many feel the hosts will also go through to the semi finals. Singapore bring a squad heavy on experience but low on goals and will always be a tough nut to crack. No, Indonesia face a mountain to get out of that particular group and they start on Saturday with the toughest mountain, against the Thais. A point would be nice but let’s not get carried away.
No, I’m not going to Manila in expectation of an Indonesian triumph. What I’m going to see is a full blooded competition for teams who know this is their only serious tilt at silverware. There is professional pride knowing they are in the best shop window in the region and there is patriotic pride knowing a good showing can lift spirits back at home and create new heroes for 15 minutes at least. It may not produce the most technical football but then who cares. For passion and commitment there is little than can beat the AFF Suzuki Cup.