Assuming this weekend’s Indonesian Football Association elections go smoothly and assuming the stalled domestic league season can get back on track at the end of the month, then perhaps the powers that be can turn their attention to the small matter of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, which begin in June.
The draw for the Asian qualifying rounds were made on Tuesday and perhaps the only solace Indonesia can take in the journey is times are quite short. But make no mistake: sharing Group F with Thailand, Vietnam, Iraq and Taiwan is no walk in the park for a national team that has no coach.
The Merah Putih open their campaign with a trip to Taiwan to take on Chinese Taipei on June 11, the only nation in the group ranked lower than Indonesian in the FIFA rankings. It reached the group stage of the qualifiers by defeating Brunei 2-0 in Bandar Seri Begawan in the first round after losing the first leg on home soil 1-0.
That triumph was its first win since defeating The Philippines 2-1 in the Peace Cup in Manila, Philippines, in 2013; a run of eight games that produced just five goals and seven defeats.
With a number of its players plying their trade in mainland China, the bulk of Taiwan’s squad will be drawn from local clubs such as National Taiwan University of Physical Education and Sport Team, Taiwan Power and National Sports Training Center Football Team; hardly regional powers likely to cause sleepless nights to Boaz Solossa and company.
While it won’t do to underestimate the Taiwanese, Indonesia knows that the first game offers its only realistic hope of picking up anything from its travels beyond air miles and fridge magnets.
Five days later and Iraq will return to the scene of its greatest triumph in recent years. Back in 2007 Indonesians got behind Younis Mahmoud and his teammates as they took on Saudi Arabia for the right to be crowned AFC Asian Cup winner at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in South Jakarta. It was an emotional night for the Iraqis, who had seen their country torn apart by an invasion and secular terrorism, but they won 1-0 and everyone in the stadium partied with them.
The atmosphere will be less friendly when they take to the field against Indonesia on June 16. But this is an Iraq side that defeated its bitterest foe Iran back in January at the AFC Asian Cup in Australia, triumphing on penalties after twice seeing its lead in extra time pegged back by a determined Iranian side. And it has the upper hand in the head-to-head, defeating Indonesia six times in recent nine meetings.
September sees Indonesia return to Vietnam. Drawn in the same group for the 2014 Association of Southeast Asian Nations Football Federation Championship, the record books show Indonesia earn a credible 2-2 draw against the host. Those who witnessed the game however have a different story to tell, the Vietnamese by far the better side over the 90 minutes and even then coach Alfred Riedl admitting they were fortunate to earn a point.
On Oct. 8, Indonesia plays host to AFF Championship winner Thailand. It will be the first meeting between the two sides since an AFF Championship semifinal in 2010 when Indonesia won 2-1, but the Thais triumphed on away goals and has since gone from strength to strength, runner-up in 2012 and winner last year.
Coach Kiatisuk Senamuang, who has scored the most goals and played the most games for his country, has a wealth of talent to draw upon including Teerasil Dangda, Charyl Chappuis and Chanathip Songkrasin; in fact so deep is the pool, he is often forced to rotate players, a luxury his Indonesian counterpart can only dream about.
It is difficult to look beyond Thailand and Iraq qualifying from the group. Both have too much savvy and experience for the rest while Vietnam will be an outside tip. The good news is that even if finishing in the top two and passing on to the third round of the World Cup Qualifiers is beyond Indonesia, the remaining clubs have the chance to battle on for the AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates in 2019.
The country that finishes third can go on to the Asian Cup while the fourth placed team has a chance of challenging for a spot in the tournament, depending on results in other groups. For once, Arsene Wenger’s mocked comment about finishing fourth being as good as a trophy has some meaning as Indonesia’s chances of doing better look pretty slim.