Why Indonesia uses so many naturalized football players

By Hieu Luong   March 9, 2024 | 02:31 am PT
Indonesia views naturalized players as a short-term, but important, plan to improve the strength of the national football team as fast as possible.

Indonesian football’s naturalization policy emerged in 2010 when Nurdin Halid was still the president of the Football Association of Indonesia (PSSI).

In the 2014 AFF Cup, Indonesia fielded four naturalized players in a lineup at an official tournament for the first time: Victor Ignonefo, Raphael Maitimo, Cristian Gonzales and Serginho van Dijk, with only the latter having Indonesian descent.

The crisis in Indonesian football, the reckoning of which was an international football ban from FIFA in 2015, caused the naturalization policy to fade into the background.

However, things started to change in 2019 under PSSI president Mochamad Iriawan, along with the appointment of head coach Shin Tae-yong, who is considered the architect behind the national teams in Indonesian football at the moment.

At the 2022 AFF Cup, Indonesia put three naturalized players on their national team. Except for striker Ilija Spasojevic, both Jordi Amat and Marc Klok had Indonesian grandparents. In the 2023 Asian Cup, where they beat Vietnam to enter the knockout round for the first time, Indonesia set a record with seven naturalized players.

This record was broken when they called up 10 naturalized players for the upcoming two matches against Vietnam in the 2026 World Cup qualifiers at the end of this month.

Asian Cup 2023 group stage: Vietnam 0-1 Indonesia

This rapid development of naturalized players occurred under billionaire Erick Thohir, former president of Italian club Inter, who took the helm of PSSI in 2023.

In Thohir’s plan submitted to FIFA, he emphasized two international goals: to break into the top 100 of world ranking and to have at least 154 players capable of playing for the national team. Using naturalized players with Indonesian origin became a key strategy to realize Thohir’s ambitions in a short period of time.

The vision of PSSI also relates to historical factors, as Indonesia was a Dutch colony from 1800 until its independence in 1945. The connection between the two countries has continued to this day, including in football, where many players of Indonesian descent have grown up in the developed football environment of the Netherlands. In addition, through the Netherlands, Indonesians have also migrated to other European countries.

Modern football is full of famous Dutch players of Indonesian descent such as Robin Van Persie, Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, Roy Makaay and Nigel de Jong, as well as the Belgian star of Indonesian descent Radja Nainggolan. However, PSSI targets players of a lower tier, as this group are not only in greater numbers but also more willing to accept Indonesia's single nationality policy.

Most of the recently naturalized Indonesian players were born in the Netherlands, including goalkeeper Maarten Praes, defenders Jay Idzes, Justin Hubner, Nathan Tjoe Aon, Shayne Pattynama, midfielders Marc Klok, Thom Haye, Ivar Jenner, forwards Rafael Struick and Ragnar Oratmangoen. Jordi Amat was born in Spain and Sandy Walsh in Belgium.

Đội hình xuất phát của Indonesia trước Australia ở vòng 1/8 Asian Cup 2023, với sáu cầu thủ nhập tịch gồm Ivar Jenner (số 11), Jordi Amat (số 4), Ivar Jenner (số 24), Justin Hubner (hàng trên phải), Sandy Walsh (số 6) và Shayne Pattynama (số 20). Ảnh: AFC

Indonesia's lineup against Australia in the 2023 Asian Cup, with six naturalized players - Ivar Jenner (number 11), Jordi Amat (number 4), Ivar Jenner (number 24), Justin Hubner (second row, right), Sandy Walsh (number 6) and Shayne Pattynama (number 20). Photo by AFC

The surge in the number of naturalized players has raised concerns about discrimination against native players and the "Europeanization" of the national team. In response, PSSI vice president Zainudin Amali emphasized that the goal of naturalization is not to exclude native players but to improve the national team's quality and motivate these players to improve their abilities to compete for the main squad.

"A larger pool of good players is better for the national team," Amali said. He also stressed that while the inclusion of naturalized players is growing, it still falls short of the target of 154 qualified players set by Thohir for the national team.

One year into Thohir's leadership, Indonesia climbed from 157th to 142nd in the world ranking, a success attributed to naturalized players. However, PSSI asserts that naturalization is a short-term policy, with long-term success relying on the development of domestic football.

"We hope that one day we will succeed without naturalized players," Amali added.

Among PSSI's long-term plans is the development of youth football, including expanding the Soeratin Cup competition system that was established in 1965 for U13, U15, and U17 teams at the local districts and cities. Domestic clubs are also required to have U16, U18, and U20 teams.

With this fast and short-term policy, Indonesia are gradually achieving success, such as winning gold at SEA Games 32 for the first time in 32 years and getting past the group stage of the Asian Cup for the first time. Following this momentum, Indonesia aim to surpass Vietnam in the upcoming 2026 World Cup second qualifying round, survive the group stage of the 2024 U23 Asian Cup 2024 and win their first national team title in the AFF Cup at the end of the year.

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