Once SEA football's basket case, Indonesia is turning the tide

While things have not been exactly great in Singapore and Malaysian football in recent years, there was at least some consolation in the fact that Southeast Asian rival Indonesia was worse off. That feeling, however, is not so certain anymore...

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Thanks to the year-long FIFA ban that started in May 2015, Indonesia had no national league at all in 2015.

The version that was then staged in 2016 wasn’t recognised by the global governing body, so had very little credibility.

The major difference between this season and past campaigns ... is the presence of a number of veteran stars with EPL experience

Indonesian clubs were not allowed in the AFC Cup and the national team had to withdraw from qualification for both the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup.

This followed years of political infighting, rebel leagues and federations, negative international headlines and much more besides.

But that situation has now changed. The end of 2016 saw Indonesia, newly returned to the international fold, make it all the way to the final of the AFF Suzuki Cup, playing an exciting brand of football.

Once there, the Merah Putih gave champions Thailand a serious test.

At the same time Malaysia and Singapore didn't make it past the first round and managed just one win between them, and even that was a slightly fortuitous victory over Cambodia, the weakest team in the tournament. 

Indonesia's Suzuki Cup return was so impressive

The relaunched Indonesia Liga One season is also going reasonably well. The major difference between this season and past campaigns in Indonesia, as well as the current seasons in Malaysia and Singapore, is the presence of a number of veteran stars, all with considerable English Premier League experience.

It is quite a change. In the space of a few weeks, Indonesia went from having no famous imports to having half a team. 

Michael Essien, Carlton Cole, Peter Odemwingie, Mohamed Sissoko and Didier Zokora are all recognisable names

There is a long-running debate as to whether these kind of signings work. As always, there is no hard and fast answer. They can, but it depends on a number of factors, such as the attitudes of players, clubs and coaches.

Also, it’s not just about what they can do on the pitch but how they are utilised off it.

Malaysia hasn't gone down the route of signing big names. Pablo Aimar made a brief appearance in 2014 and didn't make the impact that anyone wanted.

Singapore had Jermaine Pennant earning a record S.League salary last year, a player who was big news. But while he made an effort, he was on his own and ultimately left also without making the impact many had hoped.

Essien's credentials are undeniable

Yet across the Straits of Malacca, there is something different happening. There are five players who arrived around the start of the season whose signings would have been big news on an individual basis. 

Michael Essien, Carlton Cole, Peter Odemwingie, Mohamed Sissoko and Didier Zokora may not – the first of those names perhaps excepted – be huge stars, but they are all recognisable names with careers that include some seriously big clubs.

Odemwingie's goals could steer Madura United to the title this year. Current leaders PSM have a fine foreign contingent too, although not at the same level in terms of profile. Yet PSM can benefit from the arrival of those bigger stars just as everyone else can.

The arrival of these famous names has also helped change the narrative in Indonesian football, at least internationally. 

After years of negative headlines at home and overseas, the spree of signings provided a different subject to write about. It created some positivity that likely wouldn’t have been there otherwise. 

[UP NEXT: How are the big names performing?]