Indonesia on cusp of being Asia’s story of the year

Indonesia started the year without being able to play international football, but they are just two games away from shocking the whole of Southeast Asia...

It was only November 19 but it now seems like a long time ago since FourFourTwo mingled with Indonesian fans prior to the opening game of the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup outside the Philippine Sports Stadium.

They were delighted just to be there after the country's year-long ban from the international game had been lifted by FIFA in May.

The general consensus was that a semifinal spot would be satisfactory. It seemed optimistic at the time.

After all, the Garudas were grouped with four-time champions Singapore, ambitious co-hosts Philippines and Thailand, title-holders. The 'Group of Death' is one of the worst cliches in football but it was certainly the tougher half of the draw.

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Indonesia showed that it pays to be brave

It was looking very tough indeed at half-time. Thailand were 2-0 ahead after two defensive mistakes and while Indonesia had caused a few problems going forward, the early elimination of the Garudas was expected.

Everything that has happened since has confounded those expectations.

Nobody at half-time on that wet Saturday afternoon in Manila would have expected that the two teams (it seems likely that Thailand will not let a semi-final first leg lead of 2-0 slip against Myanmar in Bangkok) would be meeting again in the final.

It is fitting. This is a year of surprises. As well as a depressing list of celebrity deaths, 2016 will be remembered as being a time when conventional wisdom counted for nothing. Brexit and Donald Trump showed that off the pitch while on it Leicester City demonstrated that what is utterly unexpected can come to pass.

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Indonesia are two games away from making history

While the odds of Indonesia winning the trophy are considerably shorter than the Foxes' triumph, it would still be the biggest Asian football story of 2016.

It may not make as many international headlines as the latest world famous player or coach going to the Chinese Super League, Son Heung-min setting the English Premier League alight earlier in the season or the latest match-fixing scandal but it would be the biggest and best achievement in Asia this year.

Just consider the facts. The country has been one of the worst-run association in football for years. Nurdin Halid was imprisoned during his time as chief of the national association, known locally as PSSI.

The election following his eventual ouster in 2011 merely heralded a new wave of political mayhem. This included the setting up of rebel federations, leagues and national teams, and the country hitting the international headlines after the death of Diego Mendieta in 2012 as the Paraguayan player could not afford medical treatment due to the fact he had not been paid by his club.

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Even the Golden Star could not withstand Indonesia's attack

The FIFA ban then was almost a relief when it came in May 2015 though it soon hurt. The national team was thrown out of qualification for the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup while clubs had to exit the AFC Cup mid-campaign too.

There was no league and not much money for clubs, officials, coaches and players to be paid with. Sponsors were scared off and various youth developmental and coach education initiatives fizzled out.

This was the situation that Alfred Reidl found himself in when he returned for a third spell in June. If the draw made it hard, the fact that he was limited to selecting no more than two players from each club (the unofficial Indonesia Soccer Championship was set up before the ban ended meaning there was no provision made for international breaks as there wasn't expected to be any) made it tougher.

It was looking especially tough at half-time in that opening game but then Indonesia got going. Two quick goals levelled the scores and though the Thais eventually won 4-2, it was a flattering scoreline and Reidl's men had showed they would be serious competitors.

Even so, Philippines expected to take three points from their meeting. It ended 2-2 but the Azkals were relieved to take a point as they had struggled to contain the opponents' attacks.

Indonesia's spirit and attacking prowess was confirmed in the final game, again one that the other team expected to win.

Singapore took the lead and then sat back to allow their much-vaunted defence to do the rest. It didn't and the Merah Putih took the game 2-1 and second spot in the group.

Once again, the semifinal against Vietnam was expected to be lost. Even after the first leg ended 2-1 to Indonesia, most thought the Golden Stars would do the business in Hanoi. While the thrills and spills in that clash can be read elsewhere, it finished 2-2 giving Indonesia a 4-3 win on aggregate.

And next comes the final, probably against Thailand. Few will expect anything other than the Thais taking a fifth title but this Indonesia team is nothing if not capable of the unexpected and has what it takes to take the trophy for the first time.

The year 2016 started with little prospect of Indonesia even being allowed to play football. It may be about to end with the country celebrating a first Suzuki Cup win. It would be quite a story and one unmatched in Asian football this year.