Indonesia advance in Asian Cup qualifiers to give long-suffering fans some much-needed joy
Gabriel Tan
October 11, 2021
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For a nation boasting some of the most passionate supporters not just in Asia but all of world football, there has not been much for Indonesia fans to shout about in recent times.

On Tuesday, they were however presented with a sliver of optimism as their national team kept alive their hopes of qualifying for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup with a 5-1 aggregate win over Chinese Taipei in the playoff round.

Having to go through these preliminary stages is a far cry from the Indonesia that qualified for four consecutive Asian Cups between 1996 to 2007, although their cause has not been helped with off-field problems which culminated in a FIFA-imposed suspension back in 2015.

Of course, the result in itself is not something to get overly excited about. After all, Indonesia only found themselves having to participate in these two matches following some woeful displays in the second round of qualifiers, which concluded in June.

From 40 teams that entered the previous stage, only the bottom four teams (excluding North Korea, who withdrew midway through the campaign) did not either qualify automatically for the Asian Cup or advance into the third round, but instead had to go through the knockout-format playoffs.

Despite being handed a relatively kind draw, the Indonesians finished bottom of a group that also consisted of heavyweights United Arab Emirates and three Southeast Asian rivals in Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia.

Their record of just one draw and seven defeats -- with a negative goal difference of 22 -- forced them to venture via the playoff route to keep alive their Asian Cup qualification hopes.

To their credit, Indonesia rose to the occasion over the past week starting with last Thursday's 2-1 win in the first leg against a Chinese Taipei outfit currently 24 places above them in the FIFA world rankings.

Remarkably, that result was the first win for coach Shin Tae-yong -- who masterminded South Korea's stunning 2-0 win over then-champions Germany at the last FIFA World Cup -- since he took over in December 2019, although it has be noted that was only his 7th match in charge due to the coronavirus pandemic over the past 18 months or so.

He now has two wins to his name in the span of five days and perhaps the biggest positive that will be heartening to Indonesian supporters is his continued commitment to ushering in the next generation, just as he did in the second round of qualifying.

From the 29-man squad he assembled for the matches against Chinese Taipei, only two have more than ten caps to their names -- captain Evan Dimas and defender Rachmat Irianto on 31 and 35 international appearances respectively.

Even with 32-year-old Fachrudin and 36-year-old Victor Igbonefo tipping the scales on the older end, the average age of Shin's latest team is just under 24 years.

While team success has eluded Merah Putih for a long time now, there have been stories of individual success with a number of talented youngsters earning moves aboard.

For awhile, Egy Maulana was the name on every Indonesian fan's lips when he signed for Polish club Lechia Gdansk although he has since moved to Slovakia with Senica.

Lechia wasted no time in replacing him with compatriot Witan Sulaeman, who featured five times in the Serbian SuperLiga for Radnik Surdulica prior to his move in the summer.

Closer to home, Asnawi Mangkualam has been something of a revelation for South Korean second-tier outfit Ansan Greeners, while a handful of others can also be found plying their trade abroad in Malaysia and Thailand.

This up-and-coming talent pool would already have been enough to give Indonesians reason to be hopeful, although their loyalty has hardly wavered even after years of underachievement.

But with their Asian Cup dream alive at least for another year -- with the third round of qualifiers set to run until next September -- and with the regional AFF Suzuki Cup also on the horizon at the end of the year, it is indeed exciting times once again for a sleeping giant of the continent.

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