JAKARTA (Reuters) - A handful of marquee names and a heavy dose of optimism greet the return of professional soccer in Indonesia this weekend as the domestic league restarts after a two-year hiatus.
English Premier League veterans Michael Essien, Carlton Cole and Peter Odemwingie will add a little international stardust to Liga 1, having been lured to Southeast Asia for the new season, which runs until November.
Eighteen teams from across the world’s fourth most populous nation will kick off on Saturday and Bhayangkara coach Simon McMenemy is confident many of the issues that held the country back in recent years have been dispelled.
“There’s a renewed excitement about the start of the league,” said the Briton, who took over as head coach of Bhayangkara ahead of the new season.
”Even at the training sessions you are getting huge amounts of fans coming to watch off the back of Indonesia’s success in the Suzuki Cup and it proves what everybody knows, that there’s a huge amount of talent here.
“It’s just the structure and the organisation can flip-flop between doing the right thing and making crazy decisions. It’s difficult, but on the whole there is a lot of excitement and everyone’s hoping that the stadiums will be full.”
Indonesia lost the final of the Suzuki Cup, the Southeast Asian championship, to Thailand in December but just getting that far was an achievement for Alfred Riedl’s side given the mess the sport had been in over the previous two years.
The 2015 league season was abandoned halfway through after a row between the government and the Football Association of Indonesia led to world governing body FIFA banning the national federation.
The issue remained unresolved in 2016, so the league was temporarily replaced by an unofficial Indonesia Soccer Championship.
With FIFA having finally lifted sanctions last year, April 15 marks the return of the national competition for the first time since the completion of the 2014 campaign.
Persib Bandung, who finished fifth in last season’s unofficial championship and claim more than five million fans, go into the campaign as favourites after luring both Essien and former West Ham United striker Cole to the club.
Former Chelsea and Ghana midfielder Essien showed he had lost none of his competitive drive when he chased a Bali United player around the pitch in a friendly last week after his opponent had clattered the ball against the 34-year-old’s legs.
Former Nigeria and West Bromwich Albion forward Odemwingie has signed for Madura United, another side likely to be battling for the title along with PSM Makassar, the country’s oldest team.
“It would be lovely to have a resurgence in interest in football and having full stadiums because the one thing I love about being in this country is the passion they have for the game,” McMenemy said.
“They just love the game inside out. The fans know all the statistics, they follow the players closely and working in front of that kind of audience is a real pleasure and a real honour, and I hope that we get to feel that throughout the season.”
Writing by Michael Church in Hong Kong, editing by Nick Mulvenney