Indonesian veteran returns to his roots

Indonesian veteran returns to his roots
Indonesian footballer Bambang Pamungkas.

SINGAPORE - Much-loved striker Bambang Pamungkas announced last week that he was returning to Persija Jakarta, the club where he began his career more than 15 years ago.

This was the equivalent of Robbie Fowler going home to Anfield after five years, or an ageing Didier Drogba heading back to Stamford Bridge for one last hurrah.

Bambang, or Bepe as he is fondly known, will turn 35 during the 2015 Indonesian Super League (ISL) season. He last played for the capital city giants in 2012, scoring more than 100 league goals over five seasons, before joining Pelita Bandung Raya in West Java.

Persija haven't won the Indonesian title since 2001 when Bambang was in the first of his four stints with Macan Kemayoran. He returns, along with his former coach Rahmad Darmawan, who has boosted the squad with several other big-name signings.

Indonesia's embarrassing exit in the group stages of the Suzuki Cup had local fans yearning for the old days when Bepe would dominate the South-east Asian competition in which he played three times.

In the 2002 tournament, he was top scorer with eight goals, as Indonesia trounced the Philippines 13-1 en route to the final, which they lost in a penalty shootout against Thailand.

This year, the tables have turned as the Indonesians were thrashed 0-4 by the Philippines, who advanced to the semi-finals at their expense.

Indonesian football has been in turmoil for the best part of the past decade - there was a rebel league for two seasons, plus the threat of expulsion from Fifa amid administrative bungling - but Bepe's remarkable skills remain a reassuring constant.

"He is so dangerous in the box, can finish with both feet and has an unbelievable hang time for a small man," said former ISL import Robbie Gaspar, who now works for FIFPro Asia.

"When I played against him, we had two men marking him, one in front and one behind, and he would still win the ball. He should have made it in Europe."

Bambang did play overseas - he had an unfulfilled season with Dutch third-division club EHC Norad in 2000 as a 20-year-old, and was a successful striker for Dollah Salleh's double Cup-winning Selangor side in 2005. But a 2010 trial with Wellington Phoenix in the A- League came to nothing.

So how will a forward in his mid-30s perform for a big club desperate to end years of under-achievement?

"I think the period he took off has given Bepe a few extra years of playing time and he will be a leader on the pitch who will still score goals," Gaspar said.

Next month's start of the ISL season will coincide with the Asian Cup. In 2007, Bepe scored a famous goal to drive Indonesia to a 2-1 victory over Bahrain.

Sadly, there is something wrong when Asia's biggest football nation - with seven million active players - are ranked 157th in the world and can't get close to qualifying for major tournaments.

But as long as special players like Bepe continue to knock goals in, fans will keep watching Indonesian football and hope that better days are ahead.

This article was first published on December 12, 2014.
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