In less than 12 weeks, the biggest competition in the world, for the biggest sport in the world, will commence. And yet, of the 32 countries who will vie for World Cup glory this summer, none of the four most populous countries in the world (China, India, United States, and Indonesia), which in total, compose 43.2 per cent of the world’s population, will be present at the tournament.
If this statistic shocks you, it shouldn’t. China have only been to one World Cup (2002), in which they failed to score a single goal. India have never made it to the competition. The United States’ failure to make it to their first World Cup since 1986 is somewhat of a surprise, but considering their lack of footballing icons and triumphs, their failure to qualify isn’t as jarring as say, Netherlands, Italy, or Chile.
Indonesia, though, never had a shot of making it to Russia. In June 2015, FIFA banned Indonesia from playing in qualifiers for both the 2018 World Cup and the 2019 Asian Cup, citing the Indonesian government’s takeover of the football association as a violation of FIFA policy, which prohibits “influence from third parties.” The ruling didn’t change much, though: Indonesia has not been to the World Cup since 1938, back when it was still a Dutch colony. Even the best players in the domestic league, like Andritany Ardhiyasa or Samsul Arif, have never played in Europe, and out of 206 countries, Indonesia rank 162nd on FIFA’s rankings.
Still, if the footballing achievements are underwhelming for a country of 261.1 million people, the footballing passion is anything but. Indonesia is crazy for football: according to Nielsen Sports, 77 per cent of Indonesians are interested in football. Only Nigeria has a higher percentage of football fans. Weekend games garner 52 million viewers, and the rousing supporters galvanise the atmosphere with a passion that often goes overboard.
So, what happens when you have a country of 261.1 million people, who, despite an incompetent football federation, a lack of footballing icons, and a constant failure to qualify for the World Cup, goes crazy for football? You create an avenue for an exciting boy wonder to rise up as the potential saviour of the nation. Enter: Egy Maulana Vikri.
From a slight glance at his background, it becomes apparent that Egy has the perfect recipe to be the hero Indonesian football is calling out for. His father was a professional footballer in the Indonesian second division, while his older brother is still playing in the second division as well. If neither of the elder Maulana Vikris accomplished their dream of making it big as a footballer, perhaps the 17-year-old could be the first of the clan to do it. After all, he’s had a pretty good start so far.
Egy first rose to fame in the Under-15 Gothia Cup, the same tournament which saw the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Alan Shearer gain scouts’ attention. With 28 goals in 10 games, he was named most valuable player for the July 2016 tournament.
Five months later, he netted 22 goals in the Soeratin Cup, carrying his team to the trophy. One thing was clear: the kid who commentators began dubbing him ‘Egy Messi,’ was on an entirely different level to every other kid in the tournament. This wasn’t your average, run-of-the-mill talent. This was someone special. Egy knew it, his parents knew it, hell, everyone in the nation knew it.
In 2011, a government contractor named Subagja Suihan spotted his talent at a game, and three years after meeting with his father, took Egy for a trial 2,000 miles away from home, to the best academy in the nation: Ragunan Elite Sports School. While he was never played in a professional club – most Indonesian pro teams do not offer academies –he has been groomed for stardom in a high-pressure, yet high-reward environment. Ragunan Elite only admits eight footballers per year, and expels players if they fail to live up to expectations. Some would’ve crumbled, but for the budding young star, the state-run academy was the perfect haven to nurture and expand his talent. Soon, his talent would become too ostentatious to ignore.
Last summer, Egy was called up to Indonesia’s squad for the 2017 Toulon Tournament, an annual under-21 competition held in France. Out of the 240 players in the competition, Egy was the second youngest in the entire tournament, Only his midfield partner Witan Sulaeman was born after him.
Going up against Brazil, Scotland, and Czech Republic, Indonesia failed to come away with a come away a single point, scoring just one goal in the group stage. But while Indonesia were out of their depth, Egy wasn’t.
While Indonesia as a whole failed to leave their mark in Toulon, Egy dazzled and wooed every scout in attendance. He was so good that he won the Revelation Player Award, previously given to Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo, among others.
On paper, he lined up as a right winger in a 4-3-3, but as each game progressed, he found himself occupying central positions in both quick transitions and in deliberative possessions. Egy is, as his shirt suggests, a No.10. He jives his way through opponents, eluding the opposition with body feints. He keeps his balance, holding off players twice his size, before spoon-feeding an inch-perfect through ball into the striker’s path.
He drops deep and recedes into the centre, like the legendary No.10s who earned their stripes in the same tournaments Egy himself played in, and circulates possession. Enlivened by a telepathic sense of where all of his teammates are, he advances possession, or keeps things ticking, with deft one-touch flicks. All this, carried out by his quick feet and quick legs, has commentators and fans alike singing the praises of ‘Egy Messi.’
A few months later, it was once again men against boys. In the Asian Football Federation Under-18 Championship, Egy led Indonesia to third, earning both the player of the tournament award and top scorer, with 8 goals. It had become apparent that he was too good for this level, and with offers from Benfica and Saint-Étienne, it was unlikely he would stay any longer. And so, on March 15, he finally made the long-awaited move to Europe to Lechia Gdańsk.
It’s a move that perplexed both Indonesian and Polish followers of the game. Ekstraklasa,the Polish first division, isn’t famed for bringing in Asian prospects and transitioning them to the European game.
Furthermore, Lechia are 14th in the league (out of 16 teams), so when Egy does make his Lechia debut next season, he may very well be doing it in the Polish second division.
Nonetheless, his move to Poland hasn’t exactly fallen on deaf ears. In Lechia’s first game after Egy’s transfer was announced, the rival ultras held up a banner taunting Lechia with an Indonesian swear word (and a crude Indonesian caricature).
Not many 17-year-olds could claim to have triggered a derogatory banner from rival fans, much less doing so without even stepping onto the pitch. But Egy, is not your average 17-year-old, and Indonesians know it. So much so, that the young starlet has an astonishing 766,000 Instagram followers, despite only having three caps for the national team. When Lechia signed him, they gained 173,000 new followers on Instagram. When Lech Poznan supporters unfurled the derogatory banner, Indonesians rushed to his support on all social media platforms. It doesn’t matter that he won’t start playing for Lechia until next season, it doesn’t matter that there’s a five hour difference between Jakarta and Gdańsk – his supporters will watch from afar as he attempts to make a name for himself in European football.
With so many people counting on him to blaze a trail for future Indonesian footballers, there’s bound to be a ton of pressure on his shoulders, but the Lechia move will allow him to adapt in a relatively low-pressure environment, one that he desperately needs as half the nation attempts to deify him. National team manager Luis Milla warned against prematurely coronating Egy in a January interview.
“He is a diamond in the rough that must be polished, nurtured, and put on the right path, especially considering that in Indonesia, young footballers are immediately seen as Gods, and this can be dangerous,” said Milla.
The football-crazed nation, without a trophy-laden talisman to quench their desire for a World Cup berth, will look on as the boy wonder attempts to conquer the obstacle course where so many others have failed, in Europe. And the teenage social media influencer will aim to shake off the pressure and Messi comparisons once more, as he attempts to further enchant and become the saviour Indonesian football so desperately needs.