MANILA -- Indonesia's first competitive soccer game in two years may have ended in a 4-2 defeat against a talented Thai team on Nov. 19 but the country's soccer future looks considerably better than its recent past.
Just being present in the Philippines at the AFF Suzuki Cup, Southeast Asia's premier international tournament, was a good start. Indonesia has been excluded from international soccer since May 2015, when it was banned by the Federation Internationale de Football Association.
The ban was imposed after the Indonesian government suspended the Football Association of Indonesia, known by its Indonesian initials as the PSSI, after an argument about the eligibility of certain clubs to play in the domestic league. Government interference in the running of the game is contrary to global rules set by FIFA, the sport's governing body.
The ban had an immediate impact. The national team was thrown out of the qualification process for the 2018 World Cup and the 2019 Asian Cup, and Indonesian clubs were forced to withdraw from the AFC Cup, a continent-wide tournament for local teams. Youth development programs dried up, and sponsors exited the game. With no league games in 2015, clubs struggled to make ends meet and to pay players, coaches and officials.
On top of its administrative problems, the local sport also has a violence issue. At least 54 fans have died in clashes between supporters of rival teams since 1993, including several this year, according to Save Our Soccer, a local campaign group. In May, Muhammad Fahreza, 16, was killed while watching a game between Persija Jakarta and Persela Lamongan.
The international ban was lifted last May after the government reinstated the PSSI following the establishment of a new domestic league. This open the way for the national team's participation in the AFF Suzuki Cup, which is held every two years, featuring eight teams from the Asia-Pacific region.
Indonesia has been a runner-up in four of the past 10 tournaments. Fans have been desperate for a win in the past and remain very keen even though the domestic game's recent problems should have lowered expectations.
"We do have a special situation this year," Alfred Riedl, Indonesia's Austrian coach, said in Quezon City, where the team is staying was staying for the tournament. "I don't think they understand back in Indonesia though, as they tell me that on social media that expectations are ... high," said Riedl, who led the team to the final in 2010. "I don't think people know about the difficulties we face, or don't care."
A 3-0 win over Malaysia in September in a friendly game, the first national team action for 18 months, may have raised hopes. "It was awesome," said Andik Vermansyah, a winger who starred in that victory. "We were waiting for so long to play and it was so emotional to win. The ban was hard for Indonesian football, but we are happy to be back."
The ban has indirectly restricted Riedl's selection options. The new league, founded while international matches were banned, did not provide for a break in domestic matches to allow players to appear for their country at the AFF Suzuki Cup. A compromise arrangement forced Riedl to take two players from each club, to avoid putting any at a competitive disadvantage.
"There are some teams from which I wanted three or four players," said Riedl, who said the quota reduced the potential strength of his squad by 20%-30%. "They have to make new contracts with players, television and coaches and all the rest."
Pangeran Siahaan, a television presenter for beIN Sports in Jakarta, agreed the selection issue had handicapped the national team's prospects. "People in Indonesia think the two-player per club rule is ridiculous," he said. "There are not that much expectations in the country with all that has happened. If the team can get to the semifinals, that will be fine."
That is still possible. After the loss to Thailand, Indonesia tied with the Philippines 2-2 in another encouraging performance. The team needs to defeat Singapore on Friday and hope that Thailand does not lose to the Philippines. Riedl gives his team a 50-50 chance against Singapore.
Whatever happens there have been promising signs for Indonesia on the pitch. Now it is time to make progress off the field. The election of a new PSSI president, Edy Rahmayadi, has the potential to change the game for the better.
The new boss, a former general, has big plans. "We're... getting closer to the 2017 Southeast Asian Games and, of course, the 2018 Asian Games," Edy told reporters on Nov. 11. He mentioned a plan to ensure that Indonesia's under-23 team qualifies for the 2024 Olympic Games.
However, there are other priorities, including cutting a path through the politics that have bedeviled the game for decades. Past soccer chiefs include Nurdin Halid, a prominent politician who was jailed on corruption charges in 2005 while holding office.
"The first and most important challenge is to establish a legitimate and professional league," said Pangeran. "[Edy] knows football and helped turn a military team into a professional team, so that is encouraging," he said, referring to his role in bringing the PS Tentara Nasional Indonesia team into the Indonesia Soccer Championship in April with the help of players released by struggling club PSMS Medan.
Riedl's first priority is the national team's performance at the AFF Suzuki Cup tournament, which will conclude on Dec. 17. But he also sees the new PSSI president as vital to the game's future. "I talked to [Edy] in front of the players just before we left," Riedl said. "I told him to look to the youth and to start with the foundations, not the roof of the house."
Riedl knows that this is not always easy. "It costs money and time, in a country that has much bigger problems than football," he said. "On the other hand, football makes so many people happy here. How can you measure that?"