BANGKOK: Football club Leicester City winning the English Premier League. American baseball side Chicago Cubs claiming the World Series. Singapore swimmer Joseph Schooling seizing Olympic gold. Next up: Indonesia’s national football team winning the Suzuki Cup?
For nearly 2,000 die-hard fans who flew to Bangkok to support Indonesia in the second leg of their final against Thailand on Saturday (Dec 17), this is their best hope of winning a first-ever regional title and joining the ranks of surprise feats in 2016, already dubbed the year of the sporting underdog.
“The whole country is excited,” said Indonesian fan Herwin Sinaga, 35. “Everybody is trying to come to Bangkok to witness and be part of Indonesian football history.”
“Many people can’t believe what’s happening,” said fellow supporter Valentinus Fun, 27.
Indonesia coach Alfred Riedl has also embraced the underdog epithet, commenting earlier on Friday that “out of 100, maybe one thought we could make it this far”. And no one would call him out for exaggerating.
The national team - nicknamed Garuda - has often faltered at the last hurdle, coming up second-best in the finals of the biennial tournament in 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2010.
Expectation had been at an all-time low this year, with the side sitting out of international competition from June 2015 to May 2016 due to a FIFA suspension for government interference.
Heading into the 2016 Suzuki Cup, Riedl was informed he could only select two players from each Indonesian club, further curtailing predictions for Garuda’s ability to progress past a group stage against joint four-time champions Thailand and Singapore as well as the Philippines, the highest-ranked side (117th) in the region.
Putting aside a 2-4 opening loss to incumbent titleholders Thailand, the ragtag but adventurous Indonesian selection has gone on to score two goals in every match in an unbeaten streak that last saw them exact revenge on the Thais with a comeback 2-1 win in the first leg of the finals.
Riedl’s men remain the only team to score against - and defeat - the heavily-fancied War Elephants. They now stand 90 minutes from the glory of finally breaking a pattern of losing in the finals.
“Four-time runner-up is certainly not a thing to be proud of,” said Arista Budiyono, 34.
Herwin agreed. “In my opinion, Indonesia has more pressure to win because we have reached the final four times and never won it … we start to feel like we are losers. So this is like a now-or-never chance for Indonesia. This is the time for Indonesia to win it.”
“Now, it's different because Indonesia has a good chance after winning the home match,” said Valentinus. “Just draw in Thailand and Indonesia can party and celebrate being champions.”
Thailand must earn victory by at least a goal to secure the Suzuki Cup title on aggregate. History is also against them, with the past six editions all won by teams who triumphed in the first leg.
Arista, however, cautioned that playing at the Rajamangala Stadium, Thailand’s home, would be no stroll in the park. “They will dedicate the match to ... their late king,” he said. “It’s hard for Indonesia, but I believe Indonesia will be (the) champion.”
His optimism was shared by Herwin and Valentinus, but the latter added: “Win or lose, we keep loving Garuda Indonesia.”