He may not be a global household name but, in football-mad Indonesia, striker Bambang Pamungkas is the sport’s undisputed national pin-up. Asia’s third-most populace nation have no shortage of passionate supporters, and it is the prolific Bambang whose name is most revered among the hordes in Jakarta’s imposing Gelora Bung Karno stadium whenever the Merah Putih (Red and White) take the field.
It has been that way ever since the lithe forward, who hails from the humble central Java city of Salatiga, debuted as a 19-year-old over a decade ago. With well over 30 international goals to his name at a rate of better than a goal every other game, not to mention a century of strikes in the country's domestic competition, the mobile Bambang has earned his status as a national hero. With stints in both Malaysia and the Netherlands under his belt, Bambang could also have been starring in the Australian A-League, however a recent proposed move to Wellington Phoenix failed to materialise.
The 31-year-old has now set his sights on an international swansong at the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil. Such an achievement would be quite a coup for a nation who recently took their first steps on the road to Brazil, with a squad named by new coach Alfred Riedl. Of the 22 players named for the camp, only six had previously played for the Merah Putih, with the talismanic Bambang among those listed.
Indonesia’s first test will be December’s AFF Suzuki Cup, where south-east Asian supremacy will be on the line. Indonesia will co-host the tournament with Vietnam, allowing the Merah Putih the chance to secure a crown they have surprisingly failed to collect in seven previous attempts. Nevertheless, it is a competition that provided Bambang with his first taste of international stardom, with his eight goals sufficient to collect the top goalscorers crown in 2002 - partial consolation after the Indonesians lost the final on penalties in Jakarta.
This December's tournament would have been a perfect lead-in for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, but Indonesia narrowly failed to qualify after being drawn in a tough group alongside Australia, Kuwait and Oman. “This is the first time we will miss out on the Asian Cup which is a big disappointment for the players, fans and the country,” Bambang told FIFA.com. “With new players and coach we have to do more for the World Cup qualification (than we did for the Asian Cup).”
Football has long been entrenched in the national psyche, with Indonesia the first Asian nation to appear at a FIFA World Cup, having appeared under their pre-independence title of the Dutch East Indies in 1938. Bambang believes that his nation, whose football fans he describes as “very fanatical”, is a sleeping giant waiting to be roused. “We have many young talents here,” he says. “Now we need to find the formula to bring the young players through to senior level so that in the next five or ten years they will become stars for the country. For me, our young players are excellent.”
Bambang spends some of his downtime doing charity, working and promoting the Bambang Pamungkas Foundation, which he set up to provide financial assistance and resources to schools in Indonesia. The striker, who says he aspires to be a teacher or chef after hanging up his boots, is also involved in raising funds for children’s cancer charities. Combine such benevolence with a humble nature, not too mention a prolific goal return, and it is little wonder that Bambang is a hero to millions.