With the new Liga One season due to kick off in the second half of February most of the 18 clubs that make up the top flight of Indonesian football have been busy wheeling and dealing in the transfer market to ensure they hit the ground running come the big day. The arrival of three newly promoted sides with long, proud histories and large fan bases should guarantee the turnstiles are kept ticking over at the most popular league in Southeast Asia.
Champions Bhayangkara have been kept busier than most. Denied the opportunity of competing with Asia’s elite in the AFC Champions League, coach Simon McMenemy has seen a number of key players move on including talismanic striker Ilija Spasojevic to Bai United and exciting youngsters Evan Dimas and Ilham Uddin to Malaysia in a controversial move that saw a PSSI official question their patriotism.
As well as looking to bring in new players to replace key departures, McMenemy has signed experienced dup Zah Rahan and Vladimir Vujovic. Bhayangkara, owned by the Indonesian police, have been forced to find a new home ground with Bekasi’s Patriot Stadium being prepared for Asian Games usage. The club is looking at a couple of options for the new season with PTIK Stadium in Blok M. It is familiar to players in the Jakarta International Football League, and it is actively being considered.
Bali United narrowly missed out on the title last season and took a major hit preseason when their leading scorer Sylvano Comvalius signed for Thai side Suphanburi. However, the arrival of the prolific Spasojevic will go some way to ease the loss while Bali Coach Widodo Cahyono Putro has also strengthened his midfield options by signing Dutch attacking midfielder Kevin Brands to play alongside naturalised Stefano Lilipaly.
Another team with a strong Dutch connection is PSM Makassar. Coach Robert Alberts is now entering his third campaign with the team while the talented Wiljan Pluim, Marc Klok and Steven Paulle have all been tempted to extend their stay in South Sulawesi as Indonesia’s oldest football club seeks to improve on last season’s third place finish.
After a slow start to the 2017 season Persija persevered with their Brazilian coach Teco and were rewarded with a fourth-place finish and a place in the AFC Cup with some exciting away games in Southeast Asia in the future.
The Kemayoran Tigers will start the campaign playing their home games at the Singaperbangsa Stadium in Karawang, West Java, and have signed Jaimerson and Ivan Carlos to add to the samba contingent with Teco on the bench.
Unusual for Persija, which is traditionally a club notorious for getting things done at the last minute, they did most of their transfer business early on in the window while tying down important players like Andritany Ardiyasa (arguably the best goalkeeper in the country) and the iconic Bambang Pamungkas to new contracts. Whether their squad will be deep enough for the twin demands of Liga 1 and AFC Cup remains to be seen.
Two big clubs looking for a reversal in fortunes are Persib Bandung and Persipura Jayapura. Persib continue to draw large crowds wherever they play but the 2017 campaign was marred by off field infighting and the lack of a coach with enough personality to impose himself on the expensive squad. The high-profile arrivals of former West Ham United and Chelsea striker Carlton Cole and ex-Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien had mixed results with Cole injured for much of his time and the club manager telling the world he didn’t rate the former England international.
New coach Mario Gomez had great success with Malaysian side Johor Darul Ta’zim and Persib will be hoping he can bring some of that stardust to West Java. With Essien being linked to a move to South Korea and Raphael Maitimo following Vujovic out of the club a lot of experience needs to be replaced and Gomez will be hoping to add some quality, especially up front where nine goals Maitimo – a cultured midfielder – was top scorer last season.
Meanwhile Persipura, for so long a by-word for consistency, have been shipping players at an alarming rate preseason with very few signings being made and they withdrew from the preseason President Cup late. The five times champions finished a disappointing sixth last season, their lowest position since 2006, and have appointed former West Ham United midfielder Peter Butler to bring back the glory days. He faces a tough challenge building a team in the weeks ahead.
And finally we have the three newly promoted sides. Persebaya Surabaya boasted the largest crowds not just in Indonesia but across Southeast Asia as they won the Liga 2 title and they will be joined in the top flight by PSIS Semarang, who will play their home games in Magelang while the Jatidiri Stadium is being renovated; and PSMS Medan is back in the top division for the first time since 2009.
No one could foresee Bhayangkara lifting the Liga 1 last season and we can be sure the 2018 season will be another campaign of twists and turns, of surprises and of even more head scratching moments.