Indonesia’s men can restore pride to the country’s football when they contest a major regional final on Tuesday, following a deadly stadium disaster and humiliation at losing the right to host the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Indonesia booked its place in the gold-medal match against Thailand at the Southeast Asian Games with a pulsating 3-2 win over holders Vietnam.
Gold for Indonesia would be its first in men’s SEA Games football, which is contested between under-23 teams.
Taufany Muslihuddin was Indonesia’s semifinal hero, hitting a 96th-minute winner in Phnom Penh on Saturday.
Underlining what it means to Indonesian football after a turbulent seven months, Taufany collapsed face-down on the grass and shook with emotion, before his teammates piled on top of him.
When the final whistle blew, Indonesian players and officials celebrated wildly on the pitch.
After the win, which came despite having a man sent off on the hour mark, head coach Indra Syafri said that the final was “the moment we’ve been waiting for to wake up Indonesian football”.
Match-winner Taufany echoed that sentiment, noting the “momentum of recovery for Indonesia and the players”.
Indonesia, which is ranked 149th in the world, has qualified for the expanded AFC Asian Cup, which takes place in Qatar in January-February.
The last time they contested the regional showpiece was in 2007 as co-hosts.
Signs of success on the pitch come during a dark time for Indonesian football.
In October 135 people were killed at a stadium in East Java when police fired tear gas, causing a stampede among spectators.
The tragedy was followed by ignominy when the world governing body FIFA relocated the Under-20 World Cup from Indonesia to Argentina because of opposition in the Muslim-majority nation to Israel’s participation.
That meant Indonesia lost its automatic qualifying spot for the tournament.
Indonesia may have beaten SEA Games holders Vietnam and won all four group games with just one goal conceded.
But they face a stern test in the final at Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium. Seven-time winners, Thailand eased past Myanmar in the semifinals, winning 3-0.
Despite a fervent fan base, Indonesia, a country of 270 million people, has had little success in football.
They have qualified only once for the World Cup, in 1938, as the Dutch East Indies.
The game in the country has long been dogged by mismanagement, rickety infrastructure and violence in the stands.
A gold medal won’t solve those endemic problems overnight, but coach Syafri said: “Hopefully this can serve as an encouragement, as a momentum for the Indonesian FA and Indonesian football.”
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