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 By John Duerden

Indonesia need more superstars like Michael Essien for 2018 season

PJ Roberts assesses if Rafael van der Vaart is suited for a move to Indonesian club Bali United.

After making the 2016 final, Indonesia will fancy their chances at November's AFF Suzuki Cup, which will introduce a new home-and-away format for the group stage.

But ASEAN success is just one of the hopes for Southeast Asia's most populous nation.

Here are five 2018 football wishes for Indonesia.

1. More big names

The build-up to the 2017 Indonesia Liga One season was sent into the stratosphere by the arrival of five world stars. Michael Essien, Didier Zokora, Mohamed Sissoko, Peter Odemwingie, and Carlton Cole may all have been in their 30s when they arrived in the country. But they sprinkled plenty of star power over the league as anticipation was lifted to the next level.

That they had a very mixed time in Liga One was not a surprise. However, their arrival made sure that Indonesian football was making international headlines for positive reasons for the first time in years. Some of the headlines that followed over the season were not always glowing, but there was a real buzz for the start that generated plenty of momentum.

Michael Essien and Carlton Cole at Persib in Indonesia
Michael Essien was a moderate success as Carlton Cole, right, flopped at Persib Bandung in 2017.

With most of the famous five moving on, a few more arrivals for 2018 -- ex-Real Madrid attacker Rafael van der Vaart has been linked to Bali United -- will help to continue to a build a a wave of momentum. It is true that big names alone do not a successful league make, but they ensure that it gets talked about.

2. No violence or scandal

There is a downside of the passion that permeates all levels of the game in Indonesia. According to Save Our Soccer, an independent watchdog that monitors violence in the country, over 50 people have died in football-related incidents since 1994.

Most fatalities have come in the last five years. A young Persib fan was killed in July. Despite being the latest in a depressingly long list of deaths, it seemed to really shock. It looked as if there may be a silver lining to this darkest of clouds as rival factions started to come together and talk, but many think it will turn out to be a temporary truce.

It goes without saying that an absence of violence in 2018 is the target. The same has to be said of other off-the-field issues. As well as hooliganism, a season with no reports of corruption or political interference will make 2018 a successful one indeed.

Terens Puhiri turned on the jets as he outran nearly everyone on the opposing team in the Indonesian first division.

3. AFC Cup success

One of the most painful aspects of the FIFA ban that ran from May 2015 to May 2016 was that Indonesian clubs were unable to participate in the AFC Cup. For the 2018 edition, they are back and raring to go.

Bali United and Persija Jakarta are preparing for Asia's second-tier club competition. Persija, and their passionate fans, find themselves in a tough group with Tampines Rovers of Singapore, Malaysian powerhouses Johor Darul Ta'zim and Song Lam Nghe An, of Vietnam.

Bali are in a more passable pool with teams from Vietnam and Myanmar as well as the Philippines, but the country will be looking to send representatives into the knockout stages. There is no reason why a club from Indonesia can not go all the way to the final.

4. A good AFF Suzuki Cup

The fact that Indonesia have never won the AFF Suzuki Cup is seared on the minds of all fans as is the fact that the Merah Putih have reached the final five times. That statistic bears repeating, as there have been only 11 finals in the tournament's history and Indonesia have been involved in five of them. They've had to watch as Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia lifted the trophy.

Abduh Lestaluhu of Indonesia v Thailand
Indonesia defied expectations to make the final of the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup, narrowly losing to Thailand.

In November, the 12th edition of the Southeast Asian championship will kick off. There have been some promising signs in the national team since the end of the international ban. While Thailand will be favourites, Indonesia showed in 2016 when reaching the final after they had been written off, that they will always be a force to be reckoned with on the ASEAN stage.

5. More corporate interest

Another consequence of the FIFA ban after past scandals and corruption was that many sponsors were put off. It is always encouraging to see them return, not just for the money they bring in, but the image of the league they help to improve.

The league was sponsored by ride-hailing app Go-Jek in 2017, and it should do the same in 2018. Uber has become involved too. It is these kind of young companies that make the game more in-tune with the younger audience, and, hopefully, their presence ensures that standards are high, on and off the pitch.

Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.

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