From Michael Essien to Carl­ton Cole: the story of five former Premier League play­ers in In­done­sia

The Guardian Australia - - Sport - John Duer­den

Five former Premier League stars went to In­done­sia this sea­son and their ad­ven­tures have been as var­ied and colour­ful as the vast ar­chi­pel­ago it­self, with lash­ings of cash, re­crim­i­na­tions, cul­ture shock and end­ings as pre­dictable as most Enid Bly­ton Fa­mous Five tales. In the space of a few weeks in March and April, Michael Essien, Carl­ton Cole, Peter Odemwingie, Mo­hamed Sis­soko and Di­dier Zokora all ar­rived in south­east Asia. Two have al­ready gone, one is a hero, and the other two play­ers find them­selves some­where in be­tween.

For a coun­try with­out much his­tory of big-name signings, this was a change. Lee Hen­drie and Mar­cus Bent had pro­vided a lit­tle Premier League pedi­gree in the pre­vi­ous decade. Mario Kem­pes and Roger Milla were more fa­mous but their early to mid-90s spells were fad­ing in the mem­ory.

In truth, In­done­sian clubs have had plenty of other things to think about in re­cent times. In 2015, there was no league at all as Fifa banned the coun­try from the in­ter­na­tional game be­cause of gov­ern­ment in­ter­fer­ence in the sport, but that al­most came as a re­lief af­ter years of tur­moil. In 2003 the fed­er­a­tion chief, Nur­din Halid, was im­pris­oned for cor­rup­tion. There fol­lowed break­away fed­er­a­tions, leagues and na­tional teams. When for­eign play­ers made the head­lines, the sto­ries tended to be tragic such as the death in 2012 of the Paraguayan Diego Mendi­eta, who was un­able to af­ford med­i­cal bills af­ter his club failed to pay his wages.

In­done­sia’s pas­sion for the game is un­de­ni­able but can some­times go too far – Save our Soc­cer, a watch­dog group, es­ti­mates that a re­cent fan death was the 54th foot­ball-re­lated fa­tal­ity since the mid-90s and the 36th in the past five years – and the coun­try’s in­ter­est in the game is matched only by its im­pa­tience. Frank de Boer could spare a thought for the Aus­trian Hans-Peter Schaller, sacked by Bali United just two games into his new job. In In­done­sia, hon­ey­moons are for beaches, not pitches.

All im­ports, fa­mous or not, had bet­ter per­form from the start if they are to avoid an early exit and that is es­pe­cially true at Persib Ban­dung. The big­gest club in the coun­try signed Cole and Essien and ex­pec­ta­tions were in­tense. But with the sea­son less than a month old (and fans grum­bling about the style of play from a team that were then top of the ta­ble), it was clear that Cole was not go­ing to last long. The former West Ham for­ward ar­rived in Asia look­ing as fresh as a Fri­day af­ter­noon com­muter af­ter a week stuck in the traf­fic of In­done­sia’s third-big­gest city. The 33-year-old spent much of his time stand­ing in the penalty area wait­ing for crosses that never came. He failed to score a sin­gle goal.

Ru­mours soon abounded that Cole had not been wanted by the team man­ager, Umuh Muchtar, and that there was a bat­tle for con­trol be­ing waged be­hind the scenes at the club owned by the In­ter­nazionale chair­man, Erick Tho­hir. Umuh kept up his of­fen­sive, say­ing in May that play­ing with the No9 was akin to play­ing with 10 men and claim­ing that Cole had been se­lected for a third game – his first start for the club af­ter two sub­sti­tute ap­pear­ances – only to show cu­ri­ous fans why the striker was not be­ing se­lected.

Umuh was not the head coach, though, that was Djad­jang Nur­d­ja­man, a leg­end of the club who was also soon on his way out; team man­ager is of­ten the more pow­er­ful po­si­tion in south-east Asian clubs. Be­fore he left, Djad­jang put Cole’s and Essien’s lethar­gic starts down to a lack of pre-sea­son, ac­cli­ma­ti­sa­tion and sleep. Cole’s night­mare fi­nally ended in Au­gust af­ter just 268 min­utes of ac­tion. The former Eng­land for­ward, who had kept his cool when all about him were not find­ing his head, fi­nally found his tar­get on so­cial me­dia. “I haven’t been treated fairly but I kept my mouth shut and worked hard and kept ev­ery­thing pro­fes­sional,” he posted.

Essien is still there, bet­ter but hardly im­pe­ri­ous. There have been touches, through-balls and the oc­ca­sional as­sist and goal but the former Real Madrid and Chelsea mid­fielder has not shown the form that so en­deared him to the Stam­ford Bridge faith­ful. If Essien, re­port­edly re­ceiv­ing an an­nual salary of about $750,000 (£10,000 a week), has not ex­actly ex­celled in In­done­sia, then the same was true of Di­dier Zokora at Se­men Padang. The mid­fielder did not score in three sea­sons with Tot­ten­ham and was not go­ing to change that in just over three months in Su­ma­tra. The Ivo­rian was re­leased as the club strug­gled to pay his salary af­ter eight matches and no goals.

There has been bet­ter news else­where. The former Liver­pool mid­fielder Sis­soko has im­pressed at Mi­tra Kukar, chip­ping in with five goals for the Bor­neo club. But there is no doubt as to which of the five is the hap­pi­est: Odemwingie may have been ridiculed in Eng­land for driv­ing down to QPR on trans­fer dead­line day in a failed at­tempt to se­cure a move from West Brom but the 36year-old Nige­rian has been driv­ing Madura United up the ta­ble. In the first half of the sea­son at least, he could hardly stop scor­ing: long-range how­itzers, head­ers, tidy fin­ishes and the oc­ca­sional scuffed shot. He raced to 13 goals from the first 12 games.

A mixed, and ex­pen­sive, bag then. But the most suc­cess­ful im­port of all could end up be­ing Si­mon McMen­emy. The 39-year-old man­ager from Aberdeen has led un­fash­ion­able Bhayangkara, owned by the coun­try’s head po­lice­man, to the top of the league with a third of the sea­son re­main­ing. Some­times it is not all about the money and th­ese days in foot­ball, that re­ally would be a story.

Michael Essien is watched by thou­sands of fans dur­ing prac­tice for Persib Ban­dung, where he re­port­edly earns an an­nual salary of $750,000, around £10,000 a week. Pho­to­graph: An­tara Foto Agency/Reuters

Carl­ton Cole failed to score a sin­gle goal for Persib Ban­dung, whose man­ager said play­ing with the No9 was akin to play­ing with 10 men. Pho­to­graph: An­tara Foto Agency/Reuters

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