From Minnows To World Champions; The Importance Of Strategic Long Term Planning

I’ll be brutally honest here, I am generally not one for story-telling. I suck at it. I generally linger too long with the write-ups, which takes away the fun of playing or I play so fast that I have to grind through an impossible amount of updates before I am up-to-date again. In both cases, I end up with no motivation what-so-ever to continue the story. In this particular case, I might make a slight exception because I can tie the story in with some actual gameplay strategies and because the story spans nearly two decades. I can summarise the entire story in one tweet to start us off and captivate the masses.

My semi-meteoric rise to fame with the Indonesian national team shows you the importance of stratgetic long term planning. In this article, I will focus on strategy, planning and devious tactics to reach your goal and not on telling the story of how I pulled off that amazing World Cup win. You see, as a manager, your ability to set long-term goals and constantly be thinking about the future of your squad has an inordinate impact on the success of said squad.  Most top managers tend to be long-term thinkers.  They project forward at least five years and they think about where they want to be and what they will have to be doing at that time in order to achieve their long-term goals.

Now that sounds dreadfully boring and in a way, it is a tedious affair. If you want to achieve success though, meticulous planning is the way forward. The setting of goals isn’t that difficult, the sky is basically the limit. In my case, I wanted to turn Indonesia into a powerhouse, initially within Asia and if possible on a global scale. Success would be measured in terms of performances on major tournaments. Winning the Asia Cup, winning the South East Asia games and actually qualifying for the World Cup, before progressing past round 1 and such would qualify as successes. What is difficult is actually realising said goals, that takes time and assessing the situation, the threats and opportunities, you are facing.

Threat #1; The domestic league is goddamn awful

The Indonesian I-League has a pretty dire level. That means you are inevitably faced with a Catch-22 scenario. Now for those who haven’t read the novel by Joseph Heller, Catch-22 is a law defined in various ways throughout the novel Catch-22. First, the main protagonist Yossarian discovers that it is possible to be discharged from military service because of insanity. Always looking for a way out, he claims that he is insane, only to find out that by claiming that he is insane he has proved that he is obviously sane — since any sane person would claim that he or she is insane in order to avoid flying bombing missions.

For the I-League, it basically means that the level of the clubs is awful, because the players are awful. On the other hand, the players remain awful, because the facilities they train at are awful. Surely you can appreciate the wonderful circular logic behind this… A player needs decent facilities, a competent coaching staff and playing time to develop at a decent pace, yet the clubs do not possess the facilities and coaching staff to make that happen. The clubs cannot afford these facilities and coaches because they cannot make a profit from selling players and attracting sponsorship deals. Players cannot be sold because they are shit and the poor standard of players means a lack of success for the clubs, which in turn does not attract sponsorship deals.

Threat #2; The home-grown players are shit

We have already briefly touched upon this subject, but the home-grown talent is barely worthy of the name talent. That makes sense too. As I mentioned before, the standard of the league is awful, which means the players are awful, which by default means the national team is awful. The youth ratings for the nation can therefore not improve, which in turn leads to the various youth academies churning out the same shower of shitty newgens year after year, without any noticeable improvement, barring the odd exceptional talent breaking through due to FM’s randomisation of talent.

Threat #3; Naturalisation is not possible

In some countries, you can bolster the local talent pool by looking at foreign players who have played in the domestic league long enough to take up a dual nationality. Even when we look beyond the awful standard and reputation of the I-League, which generally scares off most foreign players, the entire naturalisation process is not an option for the national team, because it is impossible for foreign players to take up an Indonesian passport in FM16.

Threat #4; Foreign-born Indonesians are reluctant to choose for us

There is a bit of an Indonesian diaspora in FM16. Every year, around 20 or so Dutch-Indonesian newgens are spawned in the Dutch leagues. With the Dutch league having a decent reputation and Dutch clubs often possessing grade-A facilities, there is a decent talent pool to recruit from present in the Dutch leagues. Unfortunately, anyone half-decent will hold out to see if they can play for the Dutch national team before opting for Indonesia. The reputation of the Indonesian national team is just too low, which leads us into another Catch-22. In order to raise the profile of the national team, you will need better players. The better players are reluctant to choose for the Indonesian team though, because their reputation is too low.

Opportunity #1; Being aware of the diaspora

As I mentioned before, there is quite a talent pool abroad for me to use. The players are not willing yet, but some of the older foreign lads have opted for a career with the Indonesian national team when they reach a stage in their career where it becomes evident the Dutch national team will not be requiring their services. If I manage to raise the profile of the national team, I might be able to persuade these foreign players to choose for a career with Indonesia at ever younger ages, thus exponentially increasing both the quality and reputation of the team.

Opportunity #2; Tactical superiority

I might as well sound brash and arrogant here… My tactics are pretty good and since they are built around the concept of cohesive units, I manage to do well with smaller nations, provided I can mould the teams into those cohesive units. A well-balanced team with average to crap players can beat an unorganised team with better players. It’s my way of levelling the playing field. I can compete with stronger teams because my tactics allow me to do so.

Opportunity #3; Having the cash to make a difference

My club-team at the time was Temperley and they had money, good facilities and the best coaching staff money could buy. I can buy up Indonesian talents from the I-League and develop them in Argentina, thus increasing the quality of the national team. Since money is no object, I can also afford to pay way over the odds, paying millions for players worth a few hundred thousand. The Indonesian clubs could use that money to improve the standard of the league or improve their facilities. Everybody involved in Indonesian football wins when I splash around some extra cash.

Opportunity #4; The expectations are low

I wouldn’t call Indonesia a sleeping giant in terms of football, so expectations are low. There is no real way to underperform initially. Even losses are expected, as long as we don’t get completely mauled. Naturally, I don’t want to get completely mauled, but it’s a comforting thought that I can build with a long term strategy in mind, safe in the knowledge that I will not be sacked because of one or two poor performances.

So to summarise all of that…

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A shaky start to the whole adventure

Strategic planning is an organizational management activity that is used to set priorities, focus energy and resources, strengthen operations, ensure that players and staff are working toward common goals, establish agreement around intended results, and assess and adjust the organization’s direction in response to a changing environment. It is a disciplined effort that produces fundamental decisions and actions that shape and guide what an organization is, who it serves, what it does, and why it does it, with a focus on the future. Effective strategic planning articulates not only where an organization is going and the actions needed to make progress, but also how it will know if it is successful.

Whilst that sounds nice and dandy, the start was definitely shaky. The threats I acknowledged were definitely in full effect working against us. I took over midway into a World Cup qualifying campaign and the team was pretty much useless and had no chance to qualify. Instead, I focussed on the South East Asia games later that season. I set up a strikerless tactic and called up the best players I could muster. I bought the strikers with Temperley and re-trained them into shadow strikers to prepare the squad for the tournament, but it was a rough tournament. Opposition like Thailand, Singapore and Myanmar proved sturdy, whilst in the next round Vietnam forced us to a penalty shoot-out, before we won the entire tournament beating Malaysia.

This reputation boost was just what the doctor ordered though. Despite a few scares and narrow wins, we had managed to boost the overall reputation of the national team, which in turn persuaded a few of the Dutch-born Indonesian players to play for the Indonesian national team. This started a whole chain reaction, as better players meant an increased chance of success, which in turn meant a higher reputation and even better players opting for a career in the red and white of Indonesia instead of the orange of the Netherlands.

If at first you don’t succeed…

When I took on this opportunity, I knew full well I’d be in it for the long run. Even with the influx of Dutch players, we’d have a pretty thinly stretched squad. A few injuries or suspensions to key players could ruin a qualifying run, which is what happened twice. It took me three attempts to even qualify for the World Cup. In the meantime though, I had been buying domestic Indonesian talents, which infused the Indonesian league with some much-needed financial power to upgrade its facilities, as well as giving the youth squads (and in the long run the national team) better players to work with.

My first qualifying run ended disastrous. I took over half-way and won just one of the remaining three games with a demoralised squad, which was already eliminated anyway. The second run was marred by injuries and trying to get a very young team to gel and get accustomed to my tactics. Injuries right before crucial qualifiers cost me dearly, as losses against Japan and Australia knocked us out of the running.

That could’ve been the end of it. I mean, we had a good chance to qualify and we blew it due to two losses in the last two games. Rage-quitting would’ve been understandable. The FA were still happy with my performance though and since the average age of that squad was a little over 20 years old, I decided to stick with it and I doubled my efforts to bring even more Dutch talents on board.

In order to bring in more Dutch players, I needed to increase our reputation. By winning tournaments, the Indonesian national team would become a more appealing career option for Dutch-born footballers with Indonesian roots, which in turn would increase the strength of the national side. This would start a cycle of events, where we could progessively increase our strength by trying to drawn from the reservoir of our Dutch diaspora, but we had to start somewhere. We had to start winning games to kick-start the cycle.

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The third time’s a charm

The pivotal point was the moment where I persuaded two Dutch youngsters to join my ranks. This wasn’t anything out of the ordinary initially, as it had happened before. The main difference was the overall potential ability of these lads. Their predecessors were generally players from Jupiler League clubs or mid-table Eredivisie sides. We called up players from clubs such as NEC, Achilles, NAC, MVV, Sparta and Heracles. The lads I called up, Fery Haris and Ketut Sudakana, where active at a much higher level. Sudakana was a 23 year old winger who had been capped for the Dutch U21 side and had just moved from Utrecht to my former club Fortuna, which meant he was an elite talent in Europe. Despite this status, he opted to play for humble Indonesia. Haris was a 17 year old talent, who had just left the Feyenoord academy to try his luck abroad at Man Utd. Both felt they couldn’t break into the national team, yet felt like giving Indonesia a go because of the successes in the South East Asia competition and the Asia Cup. Both players changed the face of Indonesian football forever.

Inspired by their relative brilliance, we breezed through qualifying and made it to the World Cup. Our debut World Cup was a decent one. The group stage favored us for qualification for round 2, as it lacked any of the truly world class sides of the world. That is not disrespectful to Turkey, Switzerland or Chile, but neither one of these three is a team that will generally win a major tournament under AI control. In the opening-game against the Chileans, we escaped with a 3-3 draw, playing far too naive against a strong opponent and giving up a 2 goal lead in the last few minutes because we kept trying to go forward.

This mistake was rectified in the following two group games, where we displayed more caution and adapted our offensive tactics, well-suited for action in South-East Asia and the Asian qualifying campaign, to a more conservative and counter-attacking style, trying to absorb the pressure from the physically and technically superior opposition with strength in numbers before attempting quick and often lethal break-away counter-attacks. Our performances versus Turkey, winning 4-1, and Switzerland. winning 2-1, warranted a spot in the second round. Indonesia had not only arrived on the World Cup stage, we had made sure no-one underestimated us.

In our second round performance, we were up against a truly class side. I admit, we were lucky to beat the French. Our defence, which comprised mostly of Indonesian-born players, looked shaky at best. A Dutch goalkeeper and a midfield-line reinforced by Dutch players, most notably Sudakana and a now 18 year old Haris, kept us in the game, forming a first line of defence, relieving pressure off the aching back-line and taking the scarce chances we were granted when French legs tired after their attempts to breach our walls faltered.

The quarter-finals showed me we lacked depth in our squad. With our star players exhausted after the battle of attrition versus the French, Croatia proved much too strong, the final 2-1 score-line was kind to us in that regard. All in all, we had a promising World Cup debut and I had learned some valuable lessons for the future. We needed better defenders and we desperately needed more squad depth. Fortunately, I knew just where to get both better defenders and better players overall.

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So close, yet so far

Our debut World Cup was a relative success, but it did not permit me to rest on my laurels. With Indonesia’s reputation sufficiently boosted, I stepped up recruitment efforts. I decided on a two-pronged approach, like the two tines of a pitchfork. The first prong was solely focussed on the domestic league. Allow me to elaborate this train on thought. Despite the quality of the Dutch players, you cannot build a national team to last when your players do not hail from your own country. These foreign players can suplement the local ones, they can even be your stars, but you cannot build a squad exclusively consisting of foreign-born players.

As I said, home-grown talent was needed. The performances of the national team had raised Indonesia’s in-game profile, which also meant the quality of the annual intake was slowly improving each year. My South American clubside at the time was Argentine Temperley FC, which had the financial power to sign the most promising youngsters by the bulk, as well as being able to overspend tremendously to get these youngsters. Both strategies warrant explaining, as they are not common sense approaches for a club manager. The Indonesian kids were, without even a trace of doubt, not good enough to ever break into first team at Temperley and overspending is always a bad idea.

In this particular scenario however, the needs of my national team outweighed those of the club team. The Indonesian talents were given a chance to train in Argentina, at a renowned club with excellent facilities and one of the best coaching staffs in the world. Add the presence of some veteran Argentine internationals to do the tutoring and you can see how this strategy will help improve the overall quality of entire generations of newgens.

The overspending aspect of the equation was aimed at improving the standard of the Indonesian domestic league. With better facilities and sometimes even better foreign players, Indonesian clubs would be able to train their own players better and raise their profile in the Asian international club competitions, which in turn would lead to higher quality newgens coming through the ranks, which in the long run would benefit the national team. It was definitely a long term strategy, but one we actively started between our first and second World Cup appearance. The fruits of this strategy, the players it yielded, were generally on the fringes of the squad or too young to contend, but this campaign was a marathon, not a sprint.

The second tine of our two-pronged recruitment effort consisted of scowering the Dutch leagues, scrutinising every player there in the hopes of discovering players with Indonesian roots and swaying them towards the red-and-white of Indonesia instead of the orange of their birth-country. Having qualified for a World Cup and being somewhat of a rising Asian powerhouse definitely made that part of my job easier as more and more Eredivisie- and Jupiler League players were swayed to opt for a career with Indonesia. I even tempted one or two potential Dutch internationals to pick Indonesia over Holland.

twoprongs

The tournament itsself proved a lot harder compared to our debut World Cup. The group stage was a tough one. We narrowly scraped a draw against an Argentine team consisting of mostly my own Temperley lads. The strength of our bench proved crucial here, as one of the substitutes got on the end of a Sudakana cross to score an equaliser in injury-time. A 1-1 result did not do the game justice, the Argentine team constantly pressured us and put us on the backfoot for most of the game. Our defence held firm though, only conceding from a direct free kick. The second game, against Russia, should’ve been won, but we started too cautious, allowing Russia to come and their tall forwards punished our small defenders in the air. I got the tactics wrong and used the second half to right my wrongs, but it was too late to claim the three points, though we managed to pull the game back to 2-2. The last game ended in an easy 3-0 win versus DR Congo, where the strength of our squad allowed us to rest several first teamers on the verge of a suspension or tired from the tough games against Russia and Argentina.

In the second round, we got our revenge on Croatia. The Croatians, who had won the previous World Cup after eliminating my Indonesian side, took us to extra time, where the strength of the bench again proved decisive. In the previous World Cup, I had lacked impact players on the reserves bench, but the extra recruitment efforts were paying off. The quarter finals yielded an easy draw. Morocco had somehow blundered into the quarter finals of the World Cup and proved no match for the Indonesian machine. The 1-0 score-line suggests the North Africans managed to keep pace, but it was more a matter of our own forwards not taking their chances. The semi-finals saw us face off against a fiery England team. Physically, the English had us beat on most fronts but pace, yet our counter-attacking tactic saw us take a 3-0 lead before the English literally battered their way back into the game, flinging long balls forward into the box, putting their physical advantage to good use. A new midfield configuration with more defensive minded players managed to shut down the supply towards the towering forwards and saw us reach a historic World Cup final, roughly a decade into my tenure at Indonesia.

Sadly, the team I had sculpted for Temperley had also been called up by the Argentine manager and the Argentine squad proved too good for us to beat. We took an early 1-0 lead through a Sudakana goal, but even our counter-attacking setup was not cohesive enough defensively to keep the technically superior Argentinians at bay. Two late goals clinched the game in Argentine favour, but I was proud of our progress. With a new generation of Indonesian starlets emerging from the Temperley academy, the future looked bright!

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Finally!

With a solid setup in place and more and more talents flowing into our talent pool, we looked ready to start pick the fruits of our labour. We had a nice and mixed squad. Some young talents, some players in their prime and a few experienced hands in Sudakana and Haris. About half the squad consisted of Dutch-born players, some of which had grafted nice careers for themselves at Serie A, Primera Division and Eredivisie-sides. Most of the domestic talents had gone through a spell of three to five seasons at Temperley before moving on to careers elsewhere, or they were still under contract at Temperley and had been loaned to other clubs.

The draw for the group stage certainly favored us. Turkey, South Africa and Spain saw one decent side in our group and two opponents we could beat. We hit the ground running, hammering the Turks 4-0 in our opening game. That was just one of those games where everything worked out and just clicked. The game against South Africa yielded a meager win, yet a thoroughly deserved one. The score-line should’ve been higher to put some distance between ourselves and the Spaniards, though it proved unnecessary in the end. Despite our 1-1 draw with the Iberians, our goal-difference saw us win the group.

In the knock-out stages of the tournament, our new-found strength became apparent as we had no fluke wins or weakened opposition on our route to the final. No, we managed to beat European Champions France 2-1, with the French consolation goal coming in injury time of the game. Our best game came in the quarter finals where we completely obliterated England. The English still held a physical advantage over us, but no longer as severe as before, as the influx of Dutch-born defenders had given us more power at the back. Our counter-attacking style demolished the hapless Anglo team. In the semi’s, we beat South American champions Brazil 3-1, another convincing victory with only a late consolation goal for the Brazilians. The Brazilians had eliminated the reigning world champions Argentina, so this was no small feat by any means.

The final saw us face off against Mexico, another surprising name this tournament. In a nervous affair, we took an early lead through a goal by 36 year old Sudakana, who curled a 20 metre direct free kick past the stunned Mexican goalkeeper. The Mexicans charged and we countered, but neither team was able to add any goals to their tally. The final phase of the match was a bit of a nail-biter, given our tendency to concede goals late in the match, but we held on to secure a glorious 1-0 win.

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So what happened next?

After winning the World Cup, I resigned from the Indonesian job to pursue challenges elsewhere. Following my departure from Indonesia, the red-whites have qualified for every successive World Cup so far, reaching at least the second round on every World Cup as well. The setup I have put in place has proven most reliable and effective and only now, over a decade later, is the effect beginning to ware off. With no benevolent Temperley to hover up and develop the domestic talent, the AI manager being blind to the Dutch diaspora somehow and the fruits of my laborious efforts beginning to retire, the Indonesian national team is slowly regressing. They are still one of the top Asian sides, but I fear their days as World Cup dark horses are over.

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