It may be year and a half late, but it's finally happening: Philippines versus Indonesia at the Rizal Memorial Stadium this coming Tuesday, June 5, 7 p.m.
The teams were supposed to meet in the 2010 Suzuki Cup semis in a home and away format. But since we didn't have a stadium that met ASEAN Football Federation criteria, it turned into an "away and away" series. A pair of 1-0 losses to the Merah Putih (Red and White) at the intimidating Gelora Bung Karno stadium in Jakarta and we were out of the competition.
There's a score that needs to be settled, and things couldn't be more different now. Indonesian Football has a black cloud hovering over it, one that could kick them out of FIFA. Their federation, the PSSI (Persatuan Sepakbola Seluruh Indonesia) is embroiled in the sort of political brouhaha that we think only happens in the Philippines.
The federation only recognizes the Indonesian Premier League and not the the breakaway Indonesia Super League. The ISL is therefore also outside the FIFA kulambo, which is why its players, some of the best in the nation, were not allowed to suit up in their recent World Cup Qualifier vs Bahrain. Result: Bahrain 10, Indonesia 0. The score was so bad that FIFA investigated it for possible match-fixing, since Bahrain needed huge goal difference help to progress. Ironically, a late equalizer by Qatar against Iran scuppered that and Bahrain were eliminated anyway.
The ban has been lifted, so the Indonesian stars in the ISL will be showing up on Tuesday. But the troubles are far from over. FIFA has given PSSI and the gloriously named Indonesian Football Saviour Committee until June 15 to sort this morass out or the country could be suspended.
(As an aside, I just want to say that the acronym PSSI really cracks me up. During the 90s, Pol Medina made his character from Pugad Baboy, Polgas, into a Rambo-like fighting machine. One of his chemical weapons was Pawis Ng Singit ng Sundalong Iraqi, or PSSI. I am currently unable to think of the Indonesia Federation without thinking of this. Ok. Moving on. )
As if things couldn't get any worse, last week supporters brawled after a game between Persija Jakarta and Persib Bandung at Gelora Bung Karno. Three fans lost their lives.
The team must forget all this when they take to the field on Tuesday. History will be on their side. Indonesia has never lost to the Philippines in 19 previous meetings. The only draw was in 1977 in neutral Kuala Lumpur. The most famous hiding the Philippines suffered was the 13-1 demolition in the 2002 Tiger Cup. For many of you that is just a score in a record book. Unfortunately I had the misfortune of actually watching that debacle live on TV. Indonesia needed goal difference help that day and threw everything at the Philippine goalkeeper. Naturally the only score amongst the blizzard of goals I remember was Ali Rojas Go's strike for the Philippines from the edge of the penalty area.
Today's Indonesian squad will have a Papuan flavor to it. Titus Bonai, Oktovianus Maniani, and Patrich Wanggai all hail from the archipelago's easternmost region. The three combine amazing athleticism with astonishing technical skill. Maniani is a wizard on the ball, although he does tend to overdribble. Patrich Wanggai has a Howiter for a left foot and will be dangerous on free kicks.
Indonesia haven't selected their naturalized Uruguayan, Christian Gonzales, and neither will the iconic Bambang Pamungkas make the trip. But Irfan Bachdim will be suiting up. Son of an Indonesian man and a Dutch mother, Bachdim was a product of the Ajax Amsterdam and FC Utrecht youth systems. He now plays for Persema Malang in Indonesia and has struck twice for the national team in twelve caps. His good looks make women swoon and he shills for sports drink, shampoos, and other products. He is Indonesia's Phil Younghusband.
Bachdim will need to be on song, because the team he'll face will, simply put, be the strongest to ever wear the Azkals jersey, even though Stefan Schrock had to leave for a family emergency.
Younghusbands? Check. Etheridge in goal? Check. Dennis Cagara? Check. Mulders manning the midfield? Check. Gier and Sabio at Centerback, or maybe Lucena there? Check. Chieffy? Check. Denis Wolf or Angel Guirado up top to partner with Phil? Check. Among the marquee names, only Aly Borromeo, still getting to 100%, is missing. Juani Guirado tweaked his knee last Friday and is iffy, but he was probably going to cede the Left Back slot to Cagara anyway. Look for the Fil-Dane to maraud from the flanks with his overlaps.
But this collection of galactics will have to gel better than they did against Malaysia. The midfield looked disjointed then, with Schrocky slashing through the Malaysian defense only to have no one to pass the ball to.
The throaty home crowd will need to play a part. As of press time, Ticketworld lists the ticket availability as "Limited."
This game marks the end of an era too. It will be the last game at Rizal Memorial before the Bermuda turf, now contaminated with four or five different species of grass, is torn up and replaced with artificial grass.
When this turf was new last July for the Sri Lanka, it looked like a putting green. It was fit for a Premiership game. I wanted to tumble around it, with or without clothes. But the Filipino predilection for destroying anything nice raised its head. The park was mercilessly overplayed to the point that it was a ragged, pockmarked minefield by the time Malaysia came to town last February. It's been rested since the Asian 5 Nations Rugby concluded last April and it should be acceptable on Tuesday. I'm not mourning its passing too much. Artificial grass, now more natural-feeling than ever, is the future of Pinoy Football for so many reasons.
The Malaysia game last Friday was a mild disappointment. The Azkals Nation will demand nothing less than a W on Tuesday. Indonesia will be tough, but our squad, like the Avengers in cleats, will be up for a scrap.