Bambang Pamungkas, better known as ‘Bepe’ by almost three million followers on Twitter, is an Indonesian legend. His 37 goals and 83 appearances for his country are both national records and, as captain of the national side, he continues to be an inspiration for a younger generation of Indonesian footballers. It was almost very different for Bepe, who confessed football was not his first calling.
“At first it never crossed my mind to become a football player, my dream was to become a teacher,” he told FIFA.com. “On my eighth birthday my father gave me a pair of football boots, and from there on I wanted to become a footballer.”
He impressed in early youth tournaments and signed professional terms with Persija Jakarta in 1999. His first season was a sensation, with Bepe grabbing 24 goals in 30 games in Indonesia’s top flight to see him finish top scorer. He reveals it was a combination of determination and the element of surprise that saw him succeed in his maiden year.
“At that time I was highly motivated to prove that I deserved to compete with the all of the top strikers in Indonesia,” he continued. “On the other hand, maybe the defenders had not got used to my style of playing, which made it a little difficult to play against me.”
Bepe’s goalscoring exploits attracted the interest of foreign clubs and, after training with German sides Borussia Monchengladbach and Cologne, he signed a deal with Dutch third division side EHD Norad. Even though his time in the Netherlands was short-lived, the striker still appreciates the experience.
“My time in Holland was one of the most important moments of my career,” he said. “I learned a lot about how to live as a professional footballer. Unfortunately at the time I was still young, far from family and friends as well as living in a different culture, which made me homesick. Another thing was the cold weather, which made it a little difficult to adapt. But, to be honest, the lessons I learnt during my time in Holland formed my character.”
He returned to Indonesia and won the league title with Persija Jakarta in his first season back. In 2005, Bepe received an offer to join Malaysian outfit Selangor, where he enjoyed another remarkable campaign. His first year in Malaysian football saw him win the domestic treble.
He said: “The 2005/06 season was my best season. I scored 41 goals in 43 matches in all competitions and won three trophies. The most important thing was to play in every match without receiving any yellow or red cards and without suffering any injuries. It was a fantastic year.”
The frontman once again returned back to Persija in 2007, where he has remained ever since, in spite of a trial for New Zealand outfit Wellington Phoenix in 2010. Bepe remains open to a move away from Jakarta in the future, though.
“Once again, the cold weather in New Zealand made me think twice, as it would have been difficult for me and my family to live there. Maybe it would still be possible for me to play in south-east Asia.”
Bepe began his international career not long after he signed his first professional contract with Persija, scoring on his bow against Lithuania in 1999. He admits it was difficult to handle the pressure as an 18-year-old debutant.
“It was really hard,” he confessed. “People started to recognise me and talked about everything I did. This was an important point in my career, because if I could not control myself then I would become a big-headed person. I managed to keep my focus, because I thought this was just the beginning and I still had a very long journey ahead.”
Even though he holds the national records for both goals and appearances, the striker still retains an ambition to win silverware with his country.
“Those records are meaningless without a trophy that could be enjoyed by all Indonesian people,” he said. “An important trophy for Indonesia would be a sweet ending to my career. Winning a trophy before I retire is my main target.”
From the pitch to the kitchen
Having recently enjoyed his 32nd birthday, Bepe has a chance to reflect on his career, and attempt to act as a role model for the Indonesian youth of today. He cites his family as a strong influence in his career.
“Both of my parents are the ones who set my character as a person," he said. "After I got married, my wife and three daughters became an important aspect in my life. What I am doing now, I am doing it for them, the ones that I love.”
Bepe also recalled the players that most influenced him in his early footballing years. “At the beginning of my career I was an attacking midfielder and in my opinion Paul Gascoigne was a genius in that era," he opined. "When I was a teenager, Kurniawan Dwi Julianto was a superstar in Indonesia, almost all teens regarded him as an idol, including myself. In 2000, we played together in the national team and it was a dream come true.”
In his spare time, Bepe likes to update his personal website and message his followers on Twitter, but the Indonesian also likes spending time in the kitchen. “I love to eat,” he said, smiling. "Every person who loves to eat surely wants to learn how to cook. Jamie Oliver is my favourite chef - his cooking style is expressive and innovative.”
Asked what he would be doing ten years from now, Bepe seemed philosophical. “Honestly, I have not thought about that," he said. "Maybe I will be shouting instructions to my players from the sideline as a coach, or maybe in my room accompanied by a laptop and a cup of coffee as a writer. Or even busy working on a few orders in a kitchen, as a chef!”
Bepe also had a message for the Indonesian youth of today: “Never stop dreaming. Right now I am the one who is playing for this country, but one day it could be all of you replacing me, so prepare yourself as best as you can.”