There was little enough for Indonesian fans to cheer during their oh-so-lucky 2-2 draw against host Vietnam in the Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup 2014 in Hanoi on Saturday, but they can at least take some pleasure in the performance of forward Samsul Arif Munip.
Coming on as a second-half substitute for Persipura Jayapura’s Boaz Solossa, Samsul looked sharp and lively up front.
Where before Sergio van Dijk had lurked up top a lone figure, now here was some back up. Injecting fresh pace and enthusiasm, Samsul was soon closing down defenders and looking to force errors in a jittery back line and he fully deserved his 83rd minute goal.
It is tempting to look upon Samsul as the latest in a long line of promising youngsters, but he is in fact 29 years old. He first made an impression with his hometown club Persibo Bojonegoro when it was in the second-tier Divisi Utama and was called up for Indonesia B during the Independence Cup back in 2008.
The problem he faced was one familiar to many promising young players in Indonesia. The big clubs were unwilling to take a punt, preferring to opt for more familiar, and ageing faces, or the big, burly foreign strikers.
He moved to neighboring Persela Lamongan but after a season there, where he netted a reasonable nine goals, he was soon back with Persibo, where he continued scoring a goal every three games on average.
He moved again to Persela before finding himself at Arema in 2013 alongside the likes of Keith “Kayamba” Gumbs, Cristian Gonzales and Alberto Goncalves da Costa.
Opportunities were limited in that first season as the coach went for the more traditional ageing foreign striker option, but with Kayamba leaving at the end of the campaign, Samsul seized his opportunity and his 16 goals during the 2014 campaign was the highest by an Indonesian striker.
He also translated that prolific run into the national team, scoring against Nepal, Malaysia and Timor-Leste in friendlies ahead of the AFF Cup.
His cameo against Vietnam showed to the region what many in Indonesia have long known: given an opportunity, Samsul is a talented player but one who has been left on the sidelines for too long.
Twenty-four hours later and there was another 29-year-old diminutive striker putting on a show. The venue was the new National Stadium in Singapore and the player was Khairul Amri.
Like Samsul, Amri was impressing observers from an early age. He was picked up by Singapore’s developmental squad, the Young Lions — a team that competes in the S. League and is designed to harness the best young players in the country and expose them to playing competitively.
Amri shares many of Samsul’s traits: Pacy, awkward to play against and with an eye for goals.
After graduating from the Young Lions, he was snapped up by the Tampines Rovers where he enjoyed several good seasons, netting 21 times in 45 appearances. His form was enough to make foreign clubs sit up and take notice, and he followed the Singaporean exodus to Indonesia, signing for Persiba Balikpapan in 2010.
Unlike Samsul, Amri was called up by the full Singapore team as far back as 2004 and has since made 90 appearances for his country, scoring 24 times, including the close-range header against Thailand on Sunday evening.
For 45 minutes against the Thais, Amri put on a master class of his own. Playing through the middle, he looked sharp and his pace had the visiting defenders on their toes on more than one occasion. It was as if he had finally chosen this game to show the world what he was capable of. It was thrilling — and unusual — to see Amri in full flow. He has spent much of his career injured and on the sidelines, so Singapore has never really seen the best of him for a sustained period of time.
Even against Thailand, finally free of injury, his stand-out performance didn’t last. The Thais tightened things up at the back and in the middle for the second half as it went for a win in its opening game.
The cameos of both Amri and Arif were both heartening and disheartening to see. Heartening because finally here was an opportunity to see two players in fine form showing what they can do on the international stage.
And disheartening because we can only wonder what might have been had their careers taken a different path.