My office at Brawijaya Stadium was a comfortable and refurbished room, with wide, tall windows overlooking the training pitch and letting in a lot of sunlight inside. It had been part of my contract renegotiation, with Mr Susilo Tri Indrajaya making a much more concerted effort in my interests now that he was looking into a long term client.
So it was to Rachel’s shock that I decided to spend most of my time in an enclosed room, hidden deep along the corridors of the building, and with nothing but a few tiny roof windows to let sunlight in. Furthermore, it had the most unique stench of used sportswear equipment, which rendered it an inhospitable wasteland in her opinion. Regardless of how often José (who was now managing the Under 18s) and I sought to explain the concept of the Boot Room, it remained unattainable and illogical for her.
It quickly developed into our main business days and after-office meeting place, with Johan, other staffers and even a few players joining in the debates and jokes. When I requested that wire connecting the room to my landline phone from the office (since there was no cell phone reception in the room), she simply sighed and shook her head, in the dignified resignation of those who know they’ve lost the battle. It was in that room that I received the call that would change our season.
The Three Amigos
“What is all this nonsense that I hear about you running a football club and why am I forced to call a landline in Indonesia to hear from you?”, asked a familiar voice.
“Diego”, I replied, “Always a pleasure”
Diego Candy and I went a long way back. He was in my journalism class back in the days; we worked together for a few years before he decided the real money was in player representation. With the few contacts he had made, he moved to Bolivia and started his agency. I might’ve called him a mercenary before he left…
“You’re a terrible liar. But I take it it’s true then? By virtue of you picking up this phone… or did someone just send me the phone for the kitchen of an Indonesian restaurant to prank me?”
“No, it’s true. I’m managing this club”, I replied.
“Hello? You still there?”
He burst out laughing so loud I had to pull the speaker away from me
“I appreciate your honesty”, I replied, “If that’s all then I’ll talk to you later Diego…”
“No, no, no, wait”, he said, barely holding the laugh, “I actually called with an offer”
“Yeah, and you know the guy”
“If I know him he must be fucking ancient”
“Well…”, he replied.
A few moments later I was knocking on Rachel’s door.
“I got us a signing”, I announced.
“Really? You got us a signing? How?”
“A friend of mine called. He’s an agent in Bolivia. He had an Argentine player there who’s looking to move on as he winds down his career”.
“Ok, what’s his name? I’ll prepare the paperwork”.
I could hear her furiously quick typing. “Any moment now”, I said to myself.
“Ok, there seems to be an issue… the only player I can find with that name is a 41-year-old guy. He’s even got more coaching licences than matches played in the last couple of years…”
“Yeah, that’s the one”
“You have to be kidding me!”
“He’s a tad on the aged side, but I think he’ll add quality here”, I explained.
“A tad on the aged side? He must’ve been best pals with Di Stefano!”
“Good one”, I laughed.
“You seriously think this guy can offer something to us?”
“Trust me, he will. I’ll have to use him sparingly, but he’ll come through”.
“I’m not sure that coaching course did you any good”, she replied.
Pablo wouldn’t be the only Argentine to join Persik. Through my contacts with Vélez Sarsfield I got a batch of youngsters who had run out of contract with the club to come over for a trial, all expenses paid. League regulations meant we could only keep one, with the other two foreign spots occupied by Dionatan Restinga and newly arrived Pablo. The “winner” ended up being Agustín Rojas, a left-back; however, at 188 cm he towered over any of my players, so I convinced him to start training as a centreback.
The curiosity of it all was quickly picked up upon. The local media interviewed us all, and it would later get picked up by Argentinian TV, which sent a colleague of mine to do a variety segment with the players (and myself) showing different parts of the city and Indonesian culture.
My Bahasa Indonesia was decent enough to show off a bit, which I felt like I earned considering that in several years of trying to become a professional journalist, it was actually the first-ever time I featured on Argentine television. The novelty eventually wore off, but those were some fun days.
Stench Room Signings
Slowly but surely, we started putting a squad together. José and I spent long hours in the Stench Room looking at footage and players’ stats with Johan and our scouts. We quickly identified Satria needed a stronger partner off whom he could play, so we lined up experienced striker (and perhaps heavy metal lead singer) Dave Mustaine from local rival Arema FC. Recognizing we needed more from our wide players, particularly as Pablo wouldn’t be able to help lots along the inside channel, we signed pacey wing-backs Sandy Ferizal (also from Arema) to play on the right and Didi Tre Maulana (form Persis Solo) to run down the left.
As the pre-season progressed, something became increasingly clear: we had a great team. I had planned the preseason at length, with several steps and levels of intensity for different styles of training. I was near completion of my first coaching badge, so I was in many ways a new convert, preaching stuff I had only recently learned to people with far more real-life experience. Still, I was the boss and they were kind enough not to point out I was “teaching” them stuff they were already doing when I first arrived.
After a run of seven pre-season friendlies won, I was looking forward to the season opener, at home in Brawijaya against arguably Indonesia’s biggest club ever, Persija Jakarta. Being our second season in the top tier, we were starting to attract some bigger crowds. This time, there were almost 11,000 people roaring for us to start.
Still playing our 4-1-2-1-2, we were imperious throughout the match. I deployed Pablo in a deep-lying creative role, making sure he didn’t have to do much running, and just pinged balls for our overlapping wing-backs and strikers. It was simple, almost too simple, but it worked like a charm. When Satria bagged the second to secure our first win of the season, it felt like the start of something. A week later we were absolutely thrashing Persebaya 3-0 in their own ground. Despite a fourteen-day break in between, on April 27th we held away at Persib Bandung to win 3-2 with a Satria hat trick. On the bus home, I got a call from Rachael; Liga 1 had just awarded me the Manager of the Month award for April 2022.
“Let’s hope it’s not the only one”, she said in a way I could almost hear the smirk on her face.
“I have a funny feeling it won’t”, I replied.
It wouldn’t be. By the end of August, I was picking up my 3rd in a row. I even should’ve won the May award, I’ll never be quite sure why I didn’t. Persik were sitting on top of the league, with 53 points from 55 available. No one could quite understand how, not even myself. Teams simply stood in front of our overly simplistic game plan and, like a pretentious art gallery visitor standing in front of an abstract painting, they failed to understand it.
At that point, we were on pace for a historic season in Indonesian football; it looked like it would take a disaster to put us off track for the title. Little did I know it was almost I who put us off from contention.
It was around mid-July. José, Johan and I were looking at footage from the last match to work out the mistakes and put out the edit for the match review later that day. As Satria scored his third goal in four matches that month, a thought escaped Johan.
“He’s been so good for us since you came here. Too bad we can’t have him for the Asiad”, he said.
“Asiad? What’s that? I asked.
“The Asiad? It’s like the Olympic Games but only Asian countries participate. Football is played but it’s only Under-23s, so Satria can’t go”, he explained. ““They’re still without a manager though…”
“Maybe you should apply”, José pointed out. “It could be fun”.
“Yeah… it could”, I replied.
Later that day I went around Rachel’s office.
“So… Johan said there’s this thing called the Asiad”
“Yes”, she replied.
“And he said they play Under-23s football in it but they’ve got no manager”
“Yes”, she replied again. Her eyebrow was starting to lift off…
“Aaaand I thought maybe it could be f… interesting if I applied for the job. I promise it won’t interfere with the running of the club”.
She remained silent for just a moment.
“Okay”, she finally replied.
“Okay? Just like that?”
“It could be good publicity. Persik’s manager taking over the youth national side. Gives us some more agency in the game. You’ll have to travel a lot but if you’re up to it I can greenlight it, sure”.
“Sounds good”, I replied. That was too easy.
On Rachel’s recommendation, and on the basis that I was the manager of the best side in the country by a landslide, I got the job pretty much instantly. The budget was basically non-existent so I was only allowed to hire a few staffers, with a former player called Sandy Firmansyah becoming my Assistant on Johan’s recommendation. There was no presentation, so I spent a lot of the following weeks buried in the Stench Room with Sandy and José looking at basically every Indonesia Under-23 player to put a squad together.
On August 24th, a few days after a league match with Persik, I was asked to send my 23-player list for the upcoming Asiad. Like Johan had said, Satria was unable to join since he was already 24 years old and there were no “Over 23” spots, but I was able to include players like our new wingbacks Ferizal and Maulana, one of our top centrebacks in Kakang Rudianto and our young target man Muhammad Ridwan. I was replying to emails on my office PC (as a connection on the Stench Room was deemed “too much”) when I saw Rachel furiously pacing towards the stairs.
“Is everything ok?”, I asked.
“Oh, the one time you’re at your actual office”, she exclaimed.
“Er… yeah, I had to reply to an email from the association about the Under 23 list and…”
“Oh, yeah, about that… Are you stupid?”, she barked.
“W…what?”, I replied, taken aback by her unusual hostility.
“Are. You. Stupid? We’re on the verge of a historic season and you take four key players to a tournament I’m only letting you part take on for the publicity?”
“I’m… not following”
“The list. The list you named for the Under 23 team. Ferizal, Maulana, Rudianto and Ridwan. Those are two starters and two key squad players. Good look keeping the run going without them!”
Only at that moment did I fully understand what I had done.
“You’re telling me the Asiad does not take place after the season ends?”, I asked, half knowing the answer.
“Are you telling me you didn’t know that?”
“Oh, that’s much better. Here I was thinking you were an idiot cause you were too good a guy and chose to bring your best players to the tournament. Turns out you’re simply an idiot who didn’t know the rules”.
“…relax. We’ll come on the other side no problem”, was all I could reply.
Rachel stared at me, then turned around and left, murmuring something along the lines of “you better hope so.”
Don’t you hate it when they get it right?
September 2022 was one of the busiest months of my life. The Asiad was played in Hangzhou, China, and followed a format like that of the World Cup, with 32 nations distributed into 8 groups, of which the best 2 qualified into a Round of 16, then quarters, semis and a final. I set up the team in the same shape as Persik, to which Sandy agreed. Our first match was actually on August 29th, a solid 4-1 win vs Bahrain.
After that, I had to fly back to Indonesia for the first leg of our Cup tie vs Persib, a 4-2 win away. Another flight and I was ready for our second group match, a 3-0 win vs Singapore. I was lucky enough to stay in China for our third group match, another 3-0, this time against Iraq, which secured the top spot in our group.
No time to celebrate, I had to manage the return leg against Persib in Kediri. A 1-1 at home got us through (yay, more matches). Emergency flight back to China for our Round of 16 match against Kuwait, a narrow 1-0. Took a day off and flew right back to Indonesia, as we hosted Persebaya. A 1-0 defeat ruined our invincible season and I could feel Rachel’s eyes staring at me from the directors’ box.
However, there’s no time to lose cause we’re facing one of the top candidates, Iran, in the quarters; far more comfortable than I thought it would be, a 2-0 win sees us through to the semis. The players are going mad but I can’t celebrate all that much, as I have to explain to Rachel that I won’t be coming back for our league match away at Madura United cause the Under 23s are playing the semis on the same day. She wasn’t amused.
An iconic win vs Kazakhstan 3-2 put us in the final. As my players go nuts in the dressing room, my phone rings. It was Rachel.
“Hello?”, I answered, barely hearing myself.
“Do you know what you’ve just done?”, she asked. Her voice was cracking just a bit.
“Don’t tell me there’s another fixture clash. I’ll take whatever planes are necessary, just tell me we have 7 hours between matches”.
“Shut up. This is Indonesia’s best-ever performance in football in an Asiad since we got bronze in 1958”, she said. “Congratulations, you’ve just made history”.
And she hung up.
The final was on September 17th, at the Xianyang City Stadium. We faced Thailand; after beating Iran and Kazakhstan, we were the overwhelming favourites. We won 3-1, all three goals being scored by a young striker called Hanis Saghara. After the celebrations, I waited for a call but there was nothing. Our little fun adventure had turned into a historic run. A few hours later I got a text. The plane was arranged, I had to be back at Kediri the next day, as we hosted PSMS.
After that, we had to make a push until the finish line. We had lost most of the steam we had at the start of the season, as the fatigue of a demanding season set in. Around that point, Pablo announced he wasn’t coming back, having done enough to call it a career.
We had 9 matches in October, as we somehow carried on being competitive in both the league and the cup. Scraping by on away goals vs Madura FC, we got into the cup semifinals, but we also lost our second match of the season, this time against Persib at home.
The cup semis were a gruelling affair against Persija Jakarta, the team that we had so soundly beaten at the start of it all. After a 2-1 defeat at home, things were looking bleak.
“Tell them something”, said Johan during our Stench Room meeting before the away leg.
“I don’t think I should”.
“Tell them something, he insisted.
“That’s not the way to fix it”, I replied. “They know this is an important fixture. What’s that going to do for them? We’re going to treat it like any other fixture. We’re going out like any other fixture. No special team meetings, not grandiose speeches. Just football”.
We ran them off the pitch. 1-0 up by the second minute, we had the thing in the bag after just 45 minutes. They got but a consolation goal in the dying embers of the game for a 3-1 win for Persik and a ticket to the final, right at Persija’s home, the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, where the National team plays.
With that end of the deal done, all we had was to push ourselves to a league title. We were 11 points clear at the top, with 6 matches remaining. The guys were running on fumes. A loss vs PSM, gave challengers Persib some hopes, as they cut the deficit to 8 points with 15 still available. We returned courtesies with a 3-2 by-the-skin-of-the-teeth win vs bottom half Bhayangkara; as they lost against Arema FC, it was 11 points with 12 remaining. We lost 1-0 against Persela, which gave them hopes once again as a win by the same result vs Bali United got them to an 8 points gap with 3 matches to be played.
Going into the next matchday, anything but a loss would give us the title. All the fixtures started at the same time, so I made sure our players weren’t thinking of the Persib match. In the end, it was a rather mediocre draw that made it for us. A 1-1 draw with a late first-half goal by Dave Mustaine clinched us the title. Not that it was necessary, as Persib dropped their advantage once again, losing to Persis Solo.
Persik were Indonesian Liga 1 champions! And in time to arrive at the Cup final with clear heads.
That was to be another arduous matter. Unable to break the deadlock in 210 minutes, we finished tied after two identical 1-1 draws vs PSS. As it went into penalties, I did my best to watch along, knowing the players probably would prefer it that way, but secretly wanting to go away and just have someone tell me when it was all done. Somehow, my exhausted players kept the nerves in check, converting four out of five penalties to win the damn thing.
Once again, there was no phone call. Not during the celebrations, not during the trip back home. Only when I got to Brawijaya the following day did I get a text. “I’m waiting for you in your office”, it read. As I entered the Stench Room, Rachel was waiting there, a smirk on her face.
“Did you even check if I was in your actual office?”, she asked.
“Not for a second”, I replied as I sat next to her.
“So what is it about this place? Is it the perfume of old shoes and used practice shirts? The claustrophobic atmosphere? The terrible cell reception?”
“Maybe. Maybe it’s the fact you’re so close to one another you can’t possibly do anything but talk to one another, debate, understand each other. It’s a comradery thing”.
“Comradery by voluntary imprisonment, I guess it makes sense”, she laughed.
“It’s important to work with people you trust”
“I know”, she said, then instantly looked with curiosity under the desk, “What’s that?”
“That is… a shovel. I think the groundsman uses it for… groundwork”
“You know what we could do with that?”
“We could probably dig a hole…”, I replied.
“Well, yes, if you’re a boring person. I’ll tell you something, back in college I had this ritual. What you do is…”
Well, that’s a story for another time.