The first Asian team to have participated in a FIFA World Cup™, at France 1938, Indonesia now find themselves struggling to qualify for their continental finals. The past week has seen them lose two successive qualifiers for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup against China and Iraq, results which condemned the Southeast Asians to early elimination.
Despite these disappointing results, the team, under new Brazilian coach Jacksen Ferreira Tiago, did show some improvement in their recent outings. They produced one of the biggest surprises in the third qualifying round a month ago, battling from behind to draw 1-1 with China at home to briefly reignite their hopes. The result remained the only point they gained during qualifying, and marked the first time they avoided defeat against the East Asians, a side 65 places above them in the FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking, since 1963.
Indeed, the China game came as more than just a draw for the Indonesians, with the result catapulting them eight rungs to 162nd in this October's global pecking order. Since reaching their highest place of 76th in September 1998, the Merah Putih (The Red and White) had been on a downward spiral which saw them sink to an all-time low of 170th this September. With the spirited performance against the Chinese, though, they brought the decline to a close.
"It was a morale-booster for us,” Tiago, who took over the reigns in the middle of this year, told FIFA.com. "It was my first real test since my appointment so we had spent a lot in preparing for this match. We warmed up with friendlies against Netherlands and Philippines and we studied the opponents thoroughly. So it was no surprise the players maintained their form even when we conceded a first-half goal and we equalised in the second half"
Having spent the past two decades in Indonesia, Tiago perhaps boasts more knowledge about Indonesia's football than any of his imported predecessors. However, he proved totally mistaken about their game when he arrived in the country in 1994.
"I am Brazilian so regarded Indonesia as a country in the footballing wilderness when I came here," continued the 45-year-old. “But I was immediately taken aback by the local atmosphere. I can tell you the Indonesians are second to none in footballing passion. The fans are probably more fervent and supportive than in many other places in the world.”
As the Brazilian has learnt, Indonesia had been one of Asia's major pioneers. Aside from playing in France 1938, they represented Asia at the Olympic Football Tournament at Melbourne 1956, where they reached the last eight. Meanwhile, Indonesia were a force to be reckoned with on the continental stage, emerging as bronze-medalists in the 1958 Asian Games. They also sealed qualification for four AFC Asian Cups in succession from 1996 to 2007, although they failed to progress beyond the group phase.
The recent years have, however, seen Indonesia slip from Asian contenders to regional strugglers. As the four-time finalists, they were dumped out of last year's Suzuki Cup group campaign and the elimination from the ongoing AFC Asian Cup qualifying came as another bitter pill to swallow, having missed out on the previous edition at Qatar 2011.
On the surface, their status as underdogs remains unchanged following the recent qualifying losses. But there have been positive signs in the team's recent performances which earned respect from their rivals. China interim coach Fu Bo attributed the 1-1 draw to Indonesia’s "better tactical strategy" and despite winning 2-0, Iraq’s new manager Hakeem Shakir lauded the hosts' plucky performance.
"We were surprised by Indonesia's performance,” he said. “They are a very organised team and even after conceding two goals, they still showed good form.”
The player inspiring Indonesia's rebuilding is captain Boaz Solossa, who scored the team's two goals during the campaign. He opened the scoring in a 1-2 loss against Saudi Arabia, before scoring the leveler against China.
"Solossa is an amazing player," Tiago spoke of the striking-ace from Persipura Jayapura, a side he is also coaching. "He provides the national team not only with goals but also inspiration. He has good vision, a sharp nose for goals and can score with either foot.
"This team have been making progress," he concluded. "Indonesia has a great deal of footballing potential but at the moment they are having a difficult period. What they need most to improve is its organisation. And in order to gain sustained development, they should draw up long-term goals as well as short-term schemes."