Finally, after numerous false starts we are at the dawn of a new Liga 1 season with champions Bhayangkara set to entertain Persija in the season opener at Bung Karno Stadium later this evening. History tells us it is nonsense to try and anticipate how a season will pan out, we can anticipate more WTF moments is about the only guarantee, but let's try and consider the new campaign from a purely football point of view.
One thing we can look forward to hopefully is larger attendances with some of the biggest clubs in the domestic scene back in the top flight. PSMS, PSIS and Persebaya return and with them will be some large crowds; Persebaya last season attracted the largest crowd in South East Asia when over 50,000 packed Bung Tomo for a Liga 2 game.
The geographical make up of the Liga remains very Java centric with fully half the 18 teams coming from Indonesia's most populated island. The remaining clubs are spread around the country with Sumatra (2), Kalimantan (3), Papua (2) while Bali and Sulawesi have one each. Location is important of course given the travelling some clubs are forced to do. For example every away game for PSMS and Sriwijaya will involve trips to their local airport while clubs based in East and Central Java can look forward to many uncomfortable hours on the island's numerous pot holed roads.
Arema have massively underachieved over the last few seasons in the league and the supporters have responded by staying away in droves. With Joko Susilo at the helm and a new skipper in Dendi Santoso can the remaining fans look forward to a new season with any optimism? I fear not. Big things are expected from their new Montenegran number 10 Balsa Bozovic (ex Persela, Melaka United), while Ahmet Atayew has been retained from last season. With Cristian Gonzales moving on it will be interesting to see how much game time Dedik Setiawan gets. He impressed at the start of the last campaign.
After coming so close to winning the title last time round, Bali United have unsurprisingly kept faith with their coach Widodo Chayono Putro. However they have a gaping void to fill after the departure of record marksman Sylvano Comvalius who moved to Suphanburi in Thailand. They also released Dutch midfielder Kevin Brands after he failed to impress pre season. To replace Sylvano signed Ilija Spasojevic, formerly of Bhayangkara, and undoubtedly he has the credentials to fill the space left by the 37 goal Dutch striker. Bali could also have an edge over their rivals having already played competitive football in the AFC Cup.
Barito Putera are one of those clubs that operate below the radar but they do seem to have a plan having retained Jacksen F Thiago as their coach. The experienced Brazilian coach looks to have completed an astute signing when he brought in Samsul Arif from Persela and it will be interesting to see how the former international teams up with Patrick da Silva who was recruited from relegated Gresik United. While Jacksen will be looking to his experienced pros to help improve on last season's seventh place finish keep an eye on local lads Rizky Pora, Hansamu Yama, Paolo Sitanggang and Gavin Kwan.
How do you follow up last season's surprise title success? That is the challenge facing Simon McMenemy as he plans for a second season with Bhayangkara minus a few key names. Spasojevic, whose goals in the second half of the season played such a major role in the run in, has gone to Bali United while youngsters Enav Dimas and Ilham Udiin have signed for Selangor in Malaysia. Three key pivots from the team moving on leaving McMenemy with some big decisions to make in the transfer market. The inspirational Paolo Sergio has been retained while former Persib defender Vladimir Vujovic has been brought in to add more experience to the back. Veteran striker Herman Dzumafo was brought in to add presence up front but surely the main choice will be new Serbian signing Nikola Komazec, an unknown quantity in Indonesia but boasting a good record from stints with South China and Pattaya United.
Forward thinking Borneo have kept faith in coach Iwan Setiawan and made a splash internationally when they signed ex West Ham United player Julien Faubert. He may attract some headlines but surely the addition of Marlon da Silva will be more crucial in the coming campaign. The 28 year old Brazilian striker will start the season with his third East Kalimantan team, completing the set, and has scored goals wherever he has been. The experienced Titus Bonai has also joined the club as has Persija's Ambrizal Umanailo while Lerby Eliandry has been retained. And in Ridho Mohammed they boast one of the top keepers in the country.
Madura United lost the services of Gomes Oliveria after a disappointing pre season and will now look to Milomir Seslija to improve on last season's credible fifth place finish. Madura have adopted an interesting transfer policy, signing foreign players who have been naturalised; Greg Nwokolo, Cristian Gonzales, Raphael Maitimo, OK John make up that merry band. They have also signed Zah Rahan, the Liberian player maker who has come in from Malaysia. As is often the case it is the big name swho will attract the headlines but Milo won't be understimating what Bayu Gatra and Slamet Nurchayo bring to the team.
Little known fact. Mitra Kukar, now with new coach Rafael Berges. boast the highest paid player in the league in ex Newcastle United midfielder Danny Guthrie. The unfashionable team from a bend in the Mahakam River have a fine record in uncovering exciting foreign strikers and they will be hoping Spaniard Fernando Rodriguez follows in that tradition; 26 goals in the Philippines for Ceres Negros suggest he could well do. Former Persipura keeper Yoo Jae-hoon has come in as has Brazilian defender Maurico Leal. Arif Suyono and Ahmad Bustomi have been retained as has the promising Septian David Maulana. They may not win any honours but other clubs will be watching Mitra Kukar very carefully.
Persebaya are back. Indonesian football isn't quite the same without the Green Force from Surabaya and with their fanatical following they are sure to attract interest everywhere they play. The new owners are prioritizing stability over splashing big money on players and coach Angel Alfredo vera seems to be buying into that philosophy; Robertinho and Otavio Dutra are three foreign players who know their way around Indonesian football while David da Silva maybe new but brings a years of experience in the middle east. Persebaya are true sleeping giants, expect to hear alot about them no matter what happens on the pitch!
Unfancied Persela hit the headlines last season following the tragic death of their long serving goal keeper Choirul Huda and his passing left a dark shadow over the club, and the town, for the rest of the season. Coach Aji Santoso is now having to build a new team, a new era for this well run club and one of his first signings was former PSG striker Loris Arnaud. Japanese import Shohei Matsunaga has also been added to the squad. Unfancied they maybe but their fans are among the most loyal in the country, nearly every game at their Surajaya Stadium is full to capacity.
Perseru just are, aren't they? I don't think anyone knows much about this club beyond the fact they are extremely difficult to get to. They have a new coach, the one time tough tacking midfielder I Putu Gede and a new signing who may be familiar to Indonesian football watchers; Djamel Leeflang played for Deltras back in 2011/12. It will be interesting to see how he gels with Silvio Escobar. Expect Perseru to be strong at home, weak on their travels but ultimately to survive.
The last couple of seasons have been a bit of a disaster for Persib whose supporters must have been hoping the 2014 ISL title would have been the launch pad to greater things. Sadly for the Bobotoh it was not to be and the club have become a byword for managerial incompetence as coaches have found their hands tied. Mario Gomez is used to working with large egos, he was with Johor Darul Ta'zim after all but at least the serial Malaysian champions invested in infrastructure. Gomez has already gone public with his frustration over training facilities and with the Persib manager now, officially, allowed to be involved again, it looks like another firey campaign behind the scenes. What about on the pitch? Oh Ink-yun brings plenty of experience new foreign recruits Bojan Malisic and Jonathon Baumann are unknowns in Indonesia. Eka Ramdani has returned while Gomez has added Victor Igbonefo, Muchlis Hadi and Ghozali Siregar to the ranks. If Gomez is allowed time and space to do his job, Persib could do well. Time and space are rare commodities in Indonesian football, in Persib they are all but impossible.
For the first few months of last season Persija fans wanted coach Teco gone. After finishing fourth and qualifying for the AFC Cup they love him. They also love new signing Marko Simic who hit 11 goals in the President Cup and a hat trick in the AFC Cup. The Jakmania are drooling over the prospect of seeing Simic line up alongside Addison Alves (ex Persipura) with Bambang Pamungkas as support. After the usual 'where will Persija call home' drama that saw them linked with Karawang, Solo and Bantul it was announced earlier this week they would after all play their home games at Bung Karno. Keep your eyes open for their games with Persebaya!
Last season was that rarest of rarities, An anonymous campaign for Persipura. They finished 6th in Liga 1, a campaign they never really go going as a number of coaches tried to bring back the consistency the Black Pearls were once so famous for. It looked like 2018 would go ahead with the team as they struggled to find sponsors and withdrew from the President Cup. Englishman Peter Butler is now at the reigns and he can look to the familiar old guard of Boas Solossa and Ian Louis Kabes as well as bringing in new imports Marcel Sacremento and Hilton Moreira. Butler has taken to social media drooling over the young players at his disposal and we can expect to see few given their chance in the upcoming season.
Where would we be without a club changing name. And city. PS TNI have rebranded themselves PS Tira (which translates as People's Military) and relocated to Bantul for the new season but despite the hard work being done by coach Rudy Eko Priyambada and his exciting squad they will still be seen as a military backed club. The core of the team remains Abduh Lestalahu and Manahati Lestusen while Rudy has added the experienced Gustavo Lopez to prompt from the middle of the park. Will they attract much of a following from the people of Bantul whose own team, Persiba, are now in Liga 3?
PSIS haven't kicked a ball in anger but they have already got rid of their coach, with Subangkit paying the price for what was considered to be a poor pre season. Newly promoted teams need a core of local players who know their way around the top flight and, despite adding Ruud Gullit to their ranks PSIS do seem to be short of top class local know how and it remains to be seen how quickly a foreign spine of Peter Planic, Ibrahim Conteh, Akhlidin Israilov and Bruno Silva can adapt to the rigours of Liga 1, especially as only Conteh has any prior experience.
Stability seems to be paying off for PSM. They finished third last season under Robert Alberts and have managed to persuade Marc Klok, Wiljan Plun and Steven Paulle to stick around for another campaign. Ferdinand Sinaga has returned after a short stint with Kelantan while Zulkifli Syukur, Zulham Zamrun and Rizky Pellu have also been persuaded to extend their stays in Makassar. PSM were scintillating at times last season; if they can get more from their travels expect them to mount another title challenge.
Another team with strong military ties, PSMS as a football club are a welcome addition to Liga 1; it has been a few years!.With ex Persib coach Djadjang Nurdjaman at the helm and the evergreen Legimin Raharjo as skipper PSMS could be a surprise package this season and read between the lines on the opening two sentences. Apparently their major shareholder has stepped down from his PSSI duties to focus on the Governor election in North Sumatra so no matter how much we wish it wasn't so, we are never far from political intrigue in local football.
Are Sriwijaya back? The two time champions have brought back Rahmad Darmawan as coach, signed Hamka Hamzah, Makan Konate, Patrich Wanggai and Alfin Tuasalamony and retained Alberto Goncalves, now an Indonesian national. They are a team packed with experience yet boast a first choice goalkeeper, Teja Paku Alam who is 23. Palembang is in the spotlight this year as it is co-hosting the Asian Games. Surely the perfect opportunity for its local football team to regain the spotlight?