Two years ago I ventured on a three week journey around South East Asia, watching and chatting to a range of Australian footballers and coaches. A number of stories followed from these meetings. Here is a retrospective look at the three days I spent with Andrew Barisic in Malang, Indonesia. Andrew is a well-travelled attacker, and is currently playing his football with Kerala Blasters in the much-publicised Indian Premier League. Since leaving Arema Malang, Andrew’s played in India (twice), Australia, and Hong Kong. Andrew is pictured with Kerala Blasters co-owner Sachin Tendulker above.
Andrew Barisic is a name most ardent Hyundai A-League fans would be familiar with. The 26-year-old striker spent two seasons with Gold Coast United in Australia’s top flight, scoring a handful of goals during a stop-start spell with the now defunct club.
Stuck behind the likes of acclaimed marksman Shane Smeltz and Joel Porter during his days on the glitter strip, it was in 2011 that Barisic swapped Skilled Park, Robina for the Gelora 10 November Stadium, Surabaya, embarking on a fruitful spell in Indonesian football.
Barisic’s move to East Java and one of Indonesia’s biggest clubs, Persebaya Surabaya, not only rekindled his passion for the game, it also sparked a flurry of goals during his time with ‘the green crocodiles’. It was this form, combined with a change in coach at Persebaya that led him to southern rivals Arema Malang.
Now united with Australian fitness coach Nathan Hall at Arema, Barisic will tonight aim to help his side overturn a two-goal deficit against Saudi Arabian outfit Al Ettifaq at the Prince Mohammed Bin Fahad Stadium in Dammam.
“It’s been really good, to be honest,” Barisic said of his time in Indonesia. “When I first came to Arema we had a whole change in team management and coaches, so at the start we only got one or two good results.”
“But slowly the team gathered some experience together, and playing as a group we slowly gelled. 13 games we went without a loss which got us through to the second round of the AFC Cup where we beat Kitchee from Hong Kong.”
Indeed, Barisic and Hall’s experience in Asia’s second tier club tournament has taken them to a variety of unique destinations around East Asia thus far. From Myanmar to Malaysia, Vietnam to Hong Kong, the pair are working towards advancing to the final four of the AFC Cup should they manage to fight their way back into the contest tonight.
Last Tuesday, Al Ettifaq won an eventful first leg in Malang 2-0. With the floodlights at the Gajayana Stadium failing in the 51st minute, the home team struggled to find their rhythm after the unplanned 20-minute break.
The return match against the Saudi’s marks the duo’s first foray into West Asia, and along with Slovakian attacker Roman Chmelo, Barisic will be tasked with netting the goals to take the Lions a step closer to AFC Cup glory.
“It was very hard to fight with the likes of Shane Smeltz who has gone to the World Cup,” Barisic said. “I didn’t get much of a chance [at Gold Coast]. But I scored eight goals in 11 games when I first got to Persebaya.”
Barisic would end the controversial Indonesian Premier League season with a total of eight strikes in 15 appearances for Arema, level with Chmelo with whom he has developed an acute understanding. But it has been working with experienced Serbian coach Dejan Antonic, and his assistant Darko Vargec, which has provided further reward. Vargec is a former captain of Red Star Belgrade, and represented the club in the UEFA Champions League.
“Dejan has quite a good name in South East Asian football and is very experienced,” he said. “But Darko and I have private sessions all the time and it’s really helped my game. He [Darko] has certainly helped me on a personal level.”
While Barisic gets by in Indonesia with an ever improving and expanding knowledge of Bahasa, one colleague he has no trouble communicating with is his compatriot Hall. Hall’s journey to Malang can be traced to his time in Sutherland where he worked in the New South Wales Premier League.
After “sacrificing probably four or five years of weekends” studying the philosophies of top teams in Spain, Germany and Italy, Hall earned his break in South East Asian professional football with Thai Premier League club Thai Port. Stints with Thai Tobacco and MuangThong United followed, before Hall was tempted to Malang to try something new.
“For me Bangkok is my second home,” Hall said. “[But] I was working in Thailand for three years and I was umming and ahhing about the possibility of exploring another South East Asian country.
“I went on a short holiday to Vietnam and I received a phone call from my manager. He said Arema had made an offer and that I had 24 hours to accept. At the time I had no job and obviously as a coach you want to keep coaching. For me it was a no-brainer. I made the decision like that to come to Indonesia.”
With the Indonesian league system currently in a state of debate, Arema Malang had not played a competitive match for over two months before last Tuesday’s tie with Al Ettifaq. Limited to a string of friendly fixtures, Hall, along with Antonic and the rest of the Arema coaching staff have had only four weeks to prepare their players for what is arguably one of the biggest tie’s in the clubs history.
Describing the challenge as “unique”, Hall has also had to contend with Ramadan during the preparation phase. 90 per cent of the Arema squad are Muslim, which has made training during the sacred annual period practically impossible.
Still, Hall refuses to throw in the towel.
“They [Al Ettifaq] are a top team,” he said. “They have a smorgasbord of under 23 Saudi national team players, and probably on the whole they are stronger than what we are. But in a knockout match, anything’s possible.”
With a cloud over when the new Indonesian league season will start, neither Barisic nor Hall can confirm where their personal futures exist following the knockout duel with the ’Commandos’ from Dammam.
Nevertheless, both are excited by the chance to carve their names into Indonesian club football history at a time when Indonesian club football is at one of its most historically significant junctures.