How Indonesia became a top destination for stars hunting a final payday

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From Mario Kempes to Lee Hendrie to Carlton Cole, Indonesia has produced mixed experiences for players looking to wind down their careers

26 October ~ Chinese clubs have been making headlines with their big-money imports but the Indonesian league too has now become a favourite destination of players previously with European clubs. In the 1990s, Mario Kempes and Roger Milla joined clubs there as did Lee Hendrie and Marcus Bent at the start of this decade but there has never been an influx like 2017.

Just before the start of the season five ex-Premier League stars arrived. Carlton Cole teamed up with Michael Essien at Persib Bandung while there was Didier Zokora at Semen Padang, Peter Odemwingie at Madura United and Mohamed Sissoko with Mitra Kukar. It all led to some excitement, especially as this was Indonesia’s first official league season in three years, FIFA having imposed an international suspension in May 2015, due to political interference – a ban that ended up lasting for a year.

Persib, champions in 2014, are one of the biggest clubs in south-east Asia and regularly play in front of 30,000. Their games with Jakarta rivals Persija are often violent affairs with spectator deaths an all-too-regular occurrence and expectations are high and immediate. Despite being in the top three early in the season, fans were unhappy at the style of play and pressure started to build on the coach. It was not helped by the poor form of the big-money imports, especially Cole who looked unfit and lacked sharpness. Waiting around in the penalty area for crosses and passes that never came, the 33-year-old rarely threatened. Essien was not great either but a few flicks and the occasional goal meant all the pressure was on his team-mate.

Early in the season, head coach Djadjang Nurdjaman – who was soon on his way, replaced by a local as, unlike China, Indonesia has not yet started hiring famous foreign coaches – tried to explain the pair’s less than stellar performances. They were struggling to sleep, he said, due to the climate. Yet it was not long before team manager (senior to the head coach in Indonesian football) Umuh Muchtar was publicly slating Cole. The striker had played a combined hour in the first two games of the season. A three-week gap had fans wondering where he was. A recall on May 7 lasted one half. Muchtar claimed that the player had been selected to show supporters just how ineffective he was. He also said that having Cole in the team was like playing with ten men.

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Clubs in Indonesia used to be financed by city and regional governments but are making the transition to existing on private sector cash from business tycoons and companies, with Internazionale part-owner Erick Thohir the most prominent as he has shares in Persib. They are quick to cancel contracts of foreign players who do not perform and it was expected that Cole would be on his way in May, but he got a reprieve. There was an appearance in June and one at the end of July. Nothing had changed. Shortly after he was heading home, accompanied by more criticism from Umuh who said that Cole was a “weird person”.

Cole, who had kept as quiet off the pitch as he was on it, hit back through social media accusing Umuh of using him as a scapegoat for the team’s poor results that had seen a dive into the bottom half. “I have not once mentioned this man’s name in a bad way, [yet] he has not once supported me since I arrived at the club. I haven’t been treated fairly but I kept my mouth shut and worked hard and kept everything professional.”

The Englishman left for home but, back in south-east Asia, results have improved since with the team collecting seven points from the next nine. That included a 6-0 thrashing of Gresik United in which Cole’s Chadian replacement Ezechiel N’Douassel scored.

Perhaps it didn’t help Cole that Odemwingie has been fantastic at Madura United. The former Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion forward started scoring from the off, racing to 13 goals from his first 12 games. Former Liverpool star Sissoko has been solid but Zokora has also already been released. He never really impressed and there were grumbles about his work ethic but the club put his release down to cutting costs. At the time of writing, Cole is training with Southend United. Essex may be not be quite as exotic as West Java but it should be more to Cole’s liking. John Duerden

This article first appeared in WSC 368, October 2017. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more details here