Indonesia hope Asian Games can help re-boot national soccer team

FILE PHOTO: Indonesia U-23 national team coach Luis Milla (C) gives instruction during daily exercise at Senayan stadium in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 22, 2018. Antara Foto/Akbar Nugroho Gumay/via REUTERS

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia hopes hosting the upcoming Asian Games will help revive the fortunes of its troubled national soccer team and act as a springboard for their qualification for the 2024 Paris Olympics, the nation's soccer association said.

Indonesia were barred from international soccer in 2015 due to government meddling in their domestic league, shutting them out of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup.

Soccer's world governing body FIFA lifted the ban in 2016, but the men's team is currently languishing at 164th in the world, slotted between Belize and Fiji, despite the game's huge popularity in a country of more than 250 million people.

"Asian Games is a starting point and PSSI (Football Association of Indonesia) wants to achieve more than that. If we have to set a short-term plan that would be the Olympics in 2024," Joko Driyono, deputy chairman of the PSSI, told Reuters.

Driyono said the PSSI and the government were committed over the next three to five years to improving infrastructure for soccer at all levels to support the target.

Spain's former under-21 coach Luis Milla was appointed manager of Indonesia at the start of 2017 in order to overhaul the national squad.

The Asian Games, which are set to run from Aug. 18 to Sept. 2, are expected to draw nearly 17,000 athletes and officials, and more than 100,000 spectators.

The 24-team men's soccer tournament, which has an under-23 age limit but permits up to three over-age players, will be played in four stadiums in West Java province, while the women's event will be held in Palembang in Sumatra.

"Of course, we always try to win and become a champion but our primary target is to win the heart of Indonesian people with our performance," Indonesia's Montenegrin-born forward Ilija Spasojevic told reporters.

Despite the optimism, some fans remain sceptical.

"The development of soccer in Indonesia is very poor," said Muhammad Ali, 49, after playing a game on the rooftop of an abandoned building in capital Jakarta.

"As a national team we are still underperforming, we can't even be the regional champion, how can we top Asia's ranking?"  

(Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Ian Ransom)

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