When an Indonesian lit up Malaysian football - Bambang guides Selangor's return to triumph

Goal.com

At the international stage, neighbouring countries Southeast Asian countries Indonesia and Malaysia's rivalry runs deep. Although their footprints at the continental level are minimal (they have only one senior regional title between them, Malaysia's 2010 AFF Championship win), any encounters between the two national teams are sure to produce fireworks on and off the pitch. Case in point? Their most recent two clashes, back in 2019, in the World Cup Asian qualification.

However, there have been instances whereby figures from one of the two countries were able to transcend nationalistic boundaries, by making the successful leap into the other country's domestic league. One shining example of this is none other than Indonesia and Jakarta side Persija legend, Bambang Pamungkas, who in 2005 and 2006 joined traditional Malaysian powerhouse Selangor, alongside compatriot Elie Aiboy, and went on to help the Red Giants return to dominance.

The Selangor of the 2004 season were fallen giants, having been relegated from the first tier, then known as Premier 1, at the end of 2003, missing out on the first ever season of the rebranded first division; the Super League. Narrowly missing out on a quick promotion, the club dreamt big, under team manager and state politician Satim Diman.

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Ahead of the 2005 season, they appointed former player Dollah Salleh as head coach, who had won the 2004 second tier championship with MPPJ FC, while also retaining the service of that season's Premier League top-scorer Brian Fuentes.

But the most sensational signing was surely of the Indonesian, who by then was already a star in his native country, as well as a familiar name to Malaysian fans. In 2002, he had broken their hearts in the AFF Championship, scoring the solitary goal in the semi-final encounter between the two nations, knocking the Harimau Malaya out of the competition, en route to winning the golden boot. He reportedly had been the Red Giants' transfer target since then, but the opportunity for something more concrete to happen only came up later. 

Bambang Pamungkas - Indonesia
Bambang Pamungkas - Indonesia

Bambang playing for Indonesia. BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images

Surprisingly, he was not called up for the next edition in 2004, and this allowed him to complete signing for Selangor, with the requirement that his Persija clubmate Elie be brought to Shah Alam as well.

During the early days of the Super League era, the Premier League was divided into two groups of eight clubs each, with each team taking on each of their group opponents three times. Only the two group winners would receive promotion, with the league title decided between the two in a final match. Selangor were drawn in Group A, alongside state side Kedah as well as regional rivals Kuala Lumpur.

The arrival of Bambang and Elie would provide Selangor with another incentive, in the form of increased matchday attendance. While their promising performance in the first few league matches brought the local Selangor fans back to the Shah Alam Stadium, Bambang and Elie's star power back home saw them luring the Indonesian migrant worker and overseas-based student communities in the Klang Valley region to attend the Red Giants' matches too.

A Selangor fan who goes by Adel Kamal on Twitter recalled his experience attending matches that season as a 17-year old:

"That season, Selangor would attract at least 30 or 40,000 fans everytime they played at home, with 30 per cent of them Indonesians who came to watch their compatriots play." 

And the duo would live up to the hype.

It did not take long for the Indonesian to prove his mettle. Bambang scored a goal on his competitive debut, a 4-1 away win over Melaka, needing only eight minutes to find the back of the net for his new club in the clash.

Throughout the league campaign, Bambang would go on to score 22 more goals, which when combined with Fuentes' 17, helped the Red Giants top Group A, to finally earn promotion to the top tier following season. 

"Bambang was not the strongest or the tallest player on the pitch, but he made up for it with one thing: his ability to be in the right spot at the right time in the box.

"But the role of Elie in helping him can never be overstated. The pair had a very good understanding, with Elie's pinpoint deliveries and assists to Bambang ensuring that half the job of scoring is already done before Bambang even touched the ball," explained Adel.

AFF 2012 Elie Aiboy - Indonesia & Azammuddin Akil - Malaysia
AFF 2012 Elie Aiboy - Indonesia & Azammuddin Akil - Malaysia

Elie (left) playing for Indonesia against Malaysia. Photo from Getty

And topping the group was only half of their job done in the league. On July 23, the Premier League grand final match was held between Selangor and Group B winners Negeri Sembilan, in Seremban, to determine the league champions. The visitors needed a last-minute equaliser to overturn a 2-0 deficit and drag the match into extra time, but back-to-back goals by D. Surendran and Bambang near the end helped them win the match 4-2, and their first silverware since 2002. Bambang also picked up the league's golden boot award.

But Bambang and Selangor were not done yet.

Dollah's charges would perform equally splendidly in the two cup competitions. In September, they booked a spot in the FA Cup final, squaring off against third-place Super League finisher Perak. Again Bambang rose to the occassion, opening the scoring in the eighth minute, before completing his brace near the end of the match that would end in a 4-2 win for Selangor at their homeground, the Shah Alam Stadium. It was trophy number two for Selangor, as well as Bambang's second competition top-scorer award that season.

Their confidence soaring, they would complete the domestic treble just one week later, this time in the Malaysia Cup final against Perlis at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium, with Bambang sealing his reputation in spectacular fashion. Against the Super League champions, the Indonesian combined with his compatriot on two separate occassions, to head home from a corner kick situation in the 17th and 51st minutes. He sealed the win three minutes from time, poking in a stray ball from the right to complete his hattrick, and the 3-0 win. Naturally, he was also the competition top-scorer with his seven goals, a distinction he shared with Fuentes. He was also one of only six players who have scored three or more goals in a Malaysia Cup final, since the tournament was first contested in 1921.

β€œThe 2005/06 season was my best season. I scored 41 goals in 43 matches in all competitions and won three trophies. The most important thing was to play in every match without receiving any yellow or red cards and without suffering any injuries. It was a fantastic year,” he said in an interview published by the FIFA website.

But all good things must come to an end, and in Selangor's case, their dominance ended rather abruptly. Despite retaining almost all of the same players that led them to dominance, the Red Giants would struggle in their first season back in the top tier, needing to beat relegation from the elimination play-offs. They would be knocked out early in the FA Cup as well as the Malaysia Cup, but surprisingly, they would reach the quarter-final stage of the AFC Cup, their best finish in the competition to this day. It was rumoured that one reason for their post-glory difficulties was that the club's spending in search of success could no longer be sustained.

At the end of the season, Bambang and Elie would both depart Selangor after their contracts ended, with the former returning to Persija despite rumours of Kedah's interest in him, and the latter to Arema. Altoghether, Bambang netted 58 competitive goals with the Red Giants.

This was not only the departure of one of the best Selangor foreign players, but also marked the end of one of the best modern era Red Giants sides.

"Bambang is a rare foreign player, the likes of which Selangor have yet to land again to this day. Not only was he a great player on the pitch, but he was also great off it. He was a humble footballer who respected the fans because he understood what they mean to players.

"And the team too was something else. The hype surrounding them was immense, I haven't seen anything like it, even with the 2009-2010 squad that won an FA Cup and two Super League titles," noted Adel. 

To this day, Bambang's name is remembered fondly by Selangor fans, an incredible achievement in a country where the name Indonesia is usually uttered in disdain in the context of football. When he announced his retirement from playing in 2019 at the age of 38, his former Malaysian club also paid tribute to his feats with them over a decade earlier, while Malaysian football fans too recalled his prowess.

Although they weren't the first Indonesians to ply their trade in Malaysia or with Selangor (Ristomoyo Kassim had won the 1986 Malaysia Cup with the Red Giants), Bambang and Elie's stint in Malaysia paved the way for more of their compatriots to try their luck there.

The past decade alone has seen Selangor signing Andik Vermansah, Evan Dimas and Ilham Udin, while Achmad Jufriyanto had a stint with Kuala Lumpur, Hamka Hamzah with PKNS FC, and Saddil Ramdani with Pahang, among many others. 

But one thing is for sure; not one of them came close to reaching the heights that were attained by Bambang Pamungkas and Elie Aiboy.

Other source: The Rec.Sport.Soccer Statistics Foundation

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