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Indonesia's foreign-born players: Improvement at a cost?

John Duerden
January 14, 2024

Indonesia enters the Asian Cup with a number of players born outside the country. While local fans welcome the improvement, there are concerns that naturalizing foreign-born players is a shortcut to success.

Indonesian players celebrate a goal against Thailand
Indonesia have looked abroad to boost their chances at the Asian CupImage: Ridwan Siregar/Xinhua/picture alliance

Indonesia's national football team played their first Asian Cup game in 17 years on Monday, losing 3-1 to Iraq in Qatar's Ahmed bin Ali Stadium. But regardless of the result and the two following Group D fixtures, the debate back home about the team's makeup is set to continue.

Iraq has talented attackers, but the Indonesian defense has Elkan Baggott, born in England and playing for club Ipswich Town, currently on course to be promoted to the English Premier League and Jordi Amat, born in Spain with experience at Espanyol. Then there could be Dutch-born duo Rafael Struick and Marc Klok further up the pitch. All have become naturalized internationals in recent years, eligible to represent the Southeast Asian nation.

In all, the national team's South Korean coach, Shin Tae-yong, has called up seven players born outside the world's fourth most populous country as he seeks to take the team, ranked 146 in the world and regarded as one of Asia's sleeping giants, past the group stage for a first time in its fifth appearance. Shin said that when evaluating players born overseas, he looked for Indonesian heritage, the ability to add to the team, and the right attitude.

Simon McMenemy was the head coach of Indonesia from 2018-19 and understands why his successor has embraced naturalized stars.

New arrivals bring a fresh perspective

"Foreign players can help raise standards," McMenemy told DW. "The Indonesian domestic league is not yet strong enough to go up against the best in Asia, but there is a chance when using players from bigger and better leagues."

It helps the coach in other ways, too. "If, as a national team coach, you rely only on the local league, then it is hard to change anything as the players are at their clubs. But players from outside can help a coach bring change, and locals can learn from them, so it benefits everyone."

Elkan Baggott and Carlos Alberto Martinez De Murga challenge for a ball
Elkan Baggott (right) plays his football in England but represents IndonesiaImage: Jam Sta Rosa/AFP/Getty Images

Other Asian countries have gone down the same route with mixed results. For every team, like the Philippines and Malaysia, that has clearly benefited from outside help, there have been those such as China, which naturalized Brazilians playing for Chinese clubs but saw little, if any, return. South Korea's association tried to naturalize a first foreign-born player, Brazilian playmaker Eninho, in 2012, but the attempt failed in the face of widespread opposition.

Opinion in Indonesia is split.

"It's a 50:50 situation here," Jakarta-based fan Putera Kusumatoro told DW. "Some fans think that it's good because the naturalized players have the right to represent Indonesia as they have Indonesian blood, but some of them think it's just a process to achieve instant success, especially because Indonesia's grassroots system is not prioritized."

Prominent pundits in Indonesia, such as Tommy Welly and Akmal Marhali, have questioned the process and whether the federation, known locally as PSSI, sees naturalizing foreign-born players solely as a shortcut to short-term success.

Risks for homegrown talent

"From a purely football perspective, I see this as a problem requiring PSSI's attention, especially regarding grassroots programs and youth development," Adhika Wicaksana, former commercial officer at PSSI, told DW. "Excessive focus on foreign-born players risks neglecting the vital need for improved infrastructure and training to develop local talent as a long-term investment."

There are also broader issues outside football. "It raises questions about the definition of 'Indonesian,'" added Wicaksana. "If language is the primary determinant, can someone like a UK-based content creator fluent in Indonesian and Javanese be considered Indonesian?"

McMenemy believes, however, that, if handled and planned correctly, looking abroad for eligible talent is the right policy for Indonesia as long as the country integrates the process into its long-term strategy for development.

"When bringing in naturalized players from outside, you have to plan one or two years before, and knowing the kind of coach Shin is, I am sure he has a strong plan," said the British tactician. "You have to bring them over every chance you get to play friendlies and training camps. If you just bring a guy over who just got a passport, then he doesn't know anyone, is playing in a foreign team, then it can be really tough."

A good showing at the Asian Cup helped by the foreign players can lead to something bigger and better as McMenemy experienced when he was head coach of the Philippines in 2010 and had unprecedented results with players born overseas..

Starved of success

"Indonesia is crying out for success," said McMenemy. "For all their passion for the game, they don't win anything despite being four times the size of others in Southeast Asia. Everyone who goes there talks about the massive potential there is, which is true. But if it takes foreign players to come in and force success, this can kickstart something else and lead to something bigger.

"Then you get the whole country behind you, and in Indonesia, that can be a powerful thing."

Even with the new additions, opinion is also divided on whether the Red and Whites can make it to the Round of 16. Group opponents Iraq was the Asian champion in 2007, Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia's top nations, while four-time champion Japan is currently one of the best teams in the world.

"Head coach Shin has targeted a draw against Iraq, a win against Vietnam, and a loss against Japan," said Putera. "The key match is the first one against Iraq. If a draw is achieved, the confidence will be high against Vietnam."

With Indonesia having just won two games in the past four appearances, it will not be easy, and Wicaksana is less optimistic.  

"Recent defeats have exposed the lack of quality and depth within the team," Wicaksana said. "Given the team's youthfulness, securing at least one point and scoring two goals would represent a respectable performance."

Edited by: Matt Pearson.