The Indonesian League kicked off over the weekend, and it was another important step for the country after the year-long FIFA ban that ended last May. Fans are tired of talking about football politics, and with Persib Bandung signing Michael Essien and Carlton Cole, there was significant attention where there should be -- on the pitch.
And that was surrounded by almost 35,000 fans at the Gelora Bandung Lautan Api Stadium as Persib welcomed Arema on Saturday night. It would not be fair to claim that these supporters had come to see the two new big names, as they have long been some of the most passionate in Asia. But there was plenty of interest in how the former Premier League stars would perform on their debuts, wearing the sponsor-heavy blue shirt of Persib.
Cole started on the bench. But Essien, wearing number five, was firmly in the middle of the pitch and in the thick of the action.
In the first few minutes, he gave the home fans a glimpse of his all-round abilities. He used his tackling skills on the touchline to dispossess Arema's Esteban Vizcarro, used his strength to hold off the Argentine attacker and then his skill to skip past Hanif Sjahbani and break free. The fans were soon shouting his name.
There he was spraying passes from deep to the wings, taking set pieces and also helping to clear them from his own area. A clattering from Sjahbani had the African clutching his shoulder, but he was soon winning tackles and headers once again.
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Perhaps it was his vision and passing that really impressed. Late in the first half, he received a high ball deep inside his own area and, in one motion, chested it down and volleyed and a stunning pass that released an encouraging attack for the hosts that fizzled out.
With 15 minutes remaining, the Ghanaian just about jogged off, obviously drained in the humid West Javan evening, but surely satisfied after a decent debut. The midfielder had been quietly classy rather than devastating.
His reading of the game and his tackling abilities suggest that Persib will win more of the ball, and his abilities suggest that the team will use it better. Essien is not a player likely to grab too many headlines with hat tricks or spectacular goals, but he can become influential.
It was a debut that demonstrated he is still a force to be reckoned with at 34, but also that he is going to take time to get used to his new club. The two-time Premier League winner still has an eye for a pass, but the African and his teammates are not quite on the same wavelength. Being signed, like Cole, quite late in preseason means that there should be more to come in the future.
"I am happy with his performance," said Persib coach Djadang Nurdjaman after the game. "He is now playing in a subtropical climate and still needs time to adapt. His touch is still special and he entertained the fans."
The supporters applauded him off the pitch. If he continues to settle, it could be a very good season for everyone connected to the club, on a reported salary of €800,000 per year.
Carlton Cole came off the bench for the second half and his physical presence in the middle of attack caused obvious worry for the Arema defenders. But the former West Ham favourite was unable to break the deadlock.
This was partly due to a lack of service. His best chance to make an impact came with 12 minutes left on the clock. Perhaps Cole should have gotten on the end of a late cross from Atep Rizal, but he seemed to misjudge his jump.
There was still time for a spectacular finish. With seconds remaining, he chested the ball down smoothly at the edge of the area and shot in the turn but surrounded by three defenders, the goal was never seriously in danger.
The striker looked a little off the pace and short of sharpness, but there is time and games to come. Cole also received compliments from the boss.
Arema, champions in 2010 and runners up twice since, were never going to play the role of lambs to the opening-day slaughter, and had a goal ruled out eight minutes before the break. Cristian Gonzales was judged to be offside as he rolled the ball into an open goal.
It was a game that could have gone either way, was open and entertaining for a goalless draw. It boded well for both teams, with Essien suggesting that there is plenty more to come.
All in all, it was a solid, rather than spectacular competitive debut. In the, historically frantic, stop-start world of Indonesian football, that is no bad thing.