Van Dijk: One last challenge

Veteran Sergio van Dijk feels it is a great pity to see his adopted country in its current state, but looks back fondly on his time playing there in a career that has also taken him to Australia, Thailand and Iran...

As Indonesia’s absence from the world of football prepares to enter its tenth month and with seemingly no end from the FIFA ban in sight, Sergio van Dijk revealed his immense sadness at the current state of Indonesian football.

I still can’t believe that it can’t be solved. Almost a year and nothing.

Speaking exclusively to FourFourTwo from Adelaide, where he returned to play in Adelaide United’s AFC Champions League playoff with Shandong Luneng, the Dutch-born striker said he felt sorry for friends who were stuck in limbo as a result of Indonesia’s FIFA ban.

“It makes me feel sad,” the 33-year-old said. “Especially to see my friends and former teammates without a job, because that also impacts their families because they take care of their whole families – their grandparents, their parents, cousins, brothers.

“I still can’t believe that football can be such a big business and it still can’t be solved after almost a year now. Almost a year and nothing.

“If football is such a big business, how can you not see the urgency of getting it on track again? And that makes me sad, because I guess they will have to start so low again.

“They have to win confidence from sponsors; where is the money coming from? And the players and fans are the only ones that will suffer from all of this.”

Despite the issues currently plaguing football in the archipelago, Van Dijk, capped five times by the national team, rates his time in Indonesia with Persib Bandung as one of his most enjoyable stops.

“The best thing about Indonesian football is the fans, their support is immense,” he recalls fondly.

“It’s so big football and every game was almost sold out. And even the big games, people came to the stadium and it was sold out, but there were still people outside the stadium standing there and just listening to what was happening.

“You couldn’t go anywhere without being recognised or shaking hands or signing tops. It was really my best experience when it comes to fans and football.”

Indonesian footballers don't deserve their current plight, says Van Dijk

Van Dijk moved to Persib after three years with Australian side Adelaide United, leaving the Reds to move closer to his extended family and obtain his Indonesian passport, making him eligible for the national team.

I grew up in Holland, I had all the opportunities and then I was standing there on the pitch in the Indonesia national team.

His debut for the Merah-Putih came in an Asian Cup qualifier in March 2013 against Saudi Arabia in front of 75,000 fans at the cavernous Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta, which Indonesia lost 2-1, and remains one of the proudest moments of his career.

“I was very proud of course,” he said, recalling the moment he first stepped out in the famous red strip.

“That moment was also spent thinking back about my grandparents who lived in Indonesia and had a tough life and struggled and had to make a life changing move to travel to Holland.

“But by then making those difficult choices, my life was very easy. I grew up in Holland, I had all the opportunities and now I was standing there on the pitch in the national team.

“That was something special, that was the thing that went through my mind.”

After only 29 games for Persib, Van Dijk headed west. Far west, to the more unfamiliar surrounds of Esfahan, Iran to play for one of Iran’s biggest clubs in Sepahan.

While reports in the western media are often unkind towards the country, the striker says the reality was far different.

“Obviously you read and see the stories in the media about ‘Iran this and that’, but it’s better than what people think,” he explained. “I had a great experience getting to know the people there, the culture and also the type of football.

“The Iranian players are individually very technical.

Van Dijk's career has led him to some exotic football cultures

“To be honest I think it’s the league with the highest level that I’ve played in and you can see why the Iranian national team is the highest ranked team in Asia in the FIFA rankings.”

But a change in coach meant Van Dijk was out the door after just six months, returning to Southeast Asia to sign with ambitious Thai club Suphanburi FC, who had risen from Division 1 to challenge the bigger clubs in the Thai Premier League.

“They’re very ambitious,” he explained. “They’re from a province about 100 kilometres north of Bangkok. The club president is a politician from the area and he wants to put the name of the province on the map.

“So he really did make some serious changes in the club like having a good training facility with their own pitch fenced off, with a gym, with dressing rooms and a nice stadium with a good pitch.”