Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Bambang And Bintang In Jakarta

Ready for a quick exit from Gelora Bung Karno
The problem with the Asian Cup being held in four countries is that it is hard to shake the feeling that you made the wrong choice and that people are having a better time elsewhere. Imagine being invited to four different parties on New Year’s Eve – all great, potentially but all but one practically impossible to attend.

Was Jakarta the right choice? Having the underside of your taxi at the airport checked for bombs when arriving at the hotel is better than stretching for banishing any travel-induced weariness but then again, after a day involving three airports; it wasn’t really a big deal to put bags through an X-ray machine one last time before receiving a room key.

The next day, the one before the opening game in Jakarta, there seemed to be a distinct lack of Asian Cup atmosphere around the sprawling city. Indonesians will tell you that no other Asian country loves football like they do but actions would speak louder than words when they faced Bahrain in the opening game of Group D.

Around 90,000 seats were waiting to be filled in Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, one of the world’s largest arenas. Built by the Soviets in 1962, it has lasted longer than the communists and is still in good nick. Truly cavernous, only a running-track prevents it from being a perfect arena.

Best fans in Asia?

The local FA’s (named PSSI) office is inside the stadium -an easy target for the fans and media who don’t have a good word to say about them. One journalist I enjoyed a few ‘bintangs’ with even spat on the floor when mentioning their name. I didn’t follow suit but agreed that not opening the ticket booths around the stadium in the two days prior to the game was a little strange.

On game day itself, fans complained about waiting for three hours to buy tickets. Perhaps around 60,000 of them were inside when the game started. Some who didn’t want to wait broke down the barriers and raced in the wrong way through a large emergency exit. They were blocked by a phalanx of policemen, a not-so-thin blue line soon reinforced by riot police. There they stayed the whole game.

fans without tickets attempt access

It was hard to know how much of the action they saw but at least they experienced the atmosphere.

“We have the most passionate fans in Asia,” I had been told the previous night. Hearing the wild cheers for every throw-in, corner, decision and tackle against Bahrain, it was difficult to disagree. The smoky, sweet south-east Asian evening air added to the feeling of excitement and exoticism.

There was nothing exotic about the guy sat to my right in the press box. He was from Swindon.

“I’m still a fan,” said the AP man. “I took my Indonesian wife to watch Swindon – Mansfield a while ago.” After the inevitable question as to her feelings about her County Ground day out came the reply. “Well, she liked the chips.”

Chips! No such luck at the Bung Karno, not even a goreng, mie or otherwise. Plastic bags full of water were de rigueur and most of them were thrown in to the air in the 12th minute as Budi Sudarsono rounded the ‘keeper to put the hosts ahead. Fans, press box and AFC Liaison Officers went crazy.

“In-do-ne-sia” came the cry from all parts of the stadium. 14 minutes later however, it was the proverbial pin-dropping time as Sayed Mahmood Jalala equalized for the visitors.

Home fans

It was an entertaining game and at times, genuine end-to-end stuff as play moved forward from defence to attack quickly on both sides. Bahrain had more chances but with rusty-looking strikers, they were destined to fail.

Indonesia may have created few clear-cut openings in the second-half but it was no surprise when star striker Bambang Pamungkas, a headline writer’s dream, got what proved to be the winner in the second half to send the Soviet-designed roof the way of Sputnik.

For Indonesian and English alike, it was a tense last few minutes and Bahrain didn’t help by hitting the bar but it was Indonesia’s night and a thoroughly enjoyable one.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile

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