Sandy Pramuji, Wimbo Satwiko & Dominic Menor
Not even playing in front of the home crowd could stop Indonesia from falling to another defeat in the Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup final.
The Merah Putih lost 4-2 on aggregate to Malaysia in Jakarta on Wednesday, as its pursuit of a first-ever Cup title was again in vain.
Indonesia needed to overcome a three-goal deficit that it suffered during the first-leg final in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday, with its 2-1 victory at an overflowing Bung Karno Stadium not enough to arrest a string of Cup setbacks dating back to the tournament’s inception in 1996.
Malaysia striker Mohd Safee’s 54th-minute goal put the Indonesians’ backs against the wall, all but assuring the visitors victory in a tie featuring two sides that had never won the title.
With the win, coach K. Rajagobal’s side now owns the region’s top football prizes, after having clinched the Southeast Asian Games title last year.
“The players have been working hard throughout the tournament so we truly deserve to win,” the Malaysia coach said.
Indonesia lost to Thailand in the 2000 and 2002 finals, and was defeated twice by Singapore in the two-legged final in 2004.
A torrid start to the tournament had national team supporters seriously dreaming of finally winning the AFF Cup.
Indonesia netted 13 goals and conceded only two in three group stage matches, including a 5-1 rout of Malaysia in their opener.
Coach Alfred Riedl’s squad blanked the Philippines in the semifinals, but having scored only two goals on aggregate there was concern that Indonesia’s free-flowing attack had been deciphered by the opposition.
Malaysia seemed to lend some credence to the notion, forcing Indonesia to take ill-advised shots during the first leg of the final.
Then again, it was Indonesia’s first away match of the tournament and some argued that the hostile environment was a factor in the visitors’ out-of-sync play.
The home side saw a number of scoring chances on Wednesday, although a resolute showing by Malaysia keeper Khairul Fahmi and some bad bounces kept the host out of the net.
“We missed a lot of chances. We should’ve scored five or six goals in the match,” Riedl said. “But I think we lost the Cup in Kuala Lumpur because of that horrible 15 minutes when we conceded three goals.”
A great opportunity came in the 17th minute when Mohd Sabre was called for handball as the Malaysia defender tried to deflect Arif Suyono’s header. Firman Utina took the spotkick, but Khairul made an excellent save.
When asked about Firman’s miss, Riedl said “I don’t want to talk about the ‘what ifs.’ ”
Indonesia finally leveled in the 71st with a strike from Mohammed Nashuha, and Muhammad Ridwan providing the go-ahead goal late in the game.
The nation threw its all-out support behind the national footballers, as more than 100,000 fans reportedly attended the game at the 85,000-capacity Bung Karno Stadium. The arena was packed before lunch, causing heavy traffic around Senayan.
The fans’ reaction after the loss was mixed. Tio, who traveled from his hometown in Yogyakarta, said all his efforts to find a ticket for the match went for naught.
“I’m very disappointed that we didn’t win the title,” he said. “We spent four nights at the ticket booths hoping to buy tickets. Lucky for us, we still made our way inside the stadium.”
Herman, a Jakarta resident, said the loss was “painful” but still gave credit to the national team. “I’m proud of what our players have done. They never stopped fighting until the end.”
Despite fears that clashes among fans would occur, no incidents of violence were reported.