Jakarta: Where they go, he once went. Indonesia’s top talents are, in unprecedented numbers, spending their formative years in the professional game away from home, and one man understands their journey in a unique way.
Marc Klok, Persija Jakarta’s Dutch-Indonesian midfielder, has walked the same path, only in reverse, and is well-positioned to analyse the pressures and possibilities Indonesia’s youngsters will soon grow accustomed to.
In a wide-ranging interview, Klok reveals the benefits of breaking through one’s comfort zone, Bagus Kahfi’s chances of thriving in his former home of Utrecht and his own triumphs and struggles as a footballer navigating a lost year, but with an eye on a bright future
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Most youth team players don’t receive their own personalised social media post when they arrive at a new club. Even fewer have videos produced commemorating their first steps at their new home, and fewer still have the profile, nor the confidence, to command their own press conference upon arrival, but Bagus Kahfi is no ordinary signing.
The 19-year-old forward drew the attention he did because he is the latest young hopeful from Indonesia, a country of such exceptional footballing passion that they memorably drew 60,000 fans to an U-19 international in 2018, but one which is yet to produce a major global star. The latter may soon change.
Whether in Europe or in some of Asia’s top football destinations, Indonesian players are moving to unfamiliar cultural and sporting environments, often thousands of kilometres away from home in a bid to maximise their potential.
Featured prominently in the video which presented Bagus to the Utrecht fanbase was Klok, who began his own career in the club’s youth ranks; the first stop in a globe-trotting career which took him to Scotland, England and Bulgaria before his arrival in Southeast Asia in 2017.
The 27-year-old Persija Jakarta midfielder is enthusiastic about the cohort of Indonesian youngsters who are learning their trade in countries like England, Croatia and Poland, among others.
“I’m very excited, and I wish it will only be more in the time ahead,” Klok told the-AFC.com.
“As a young talent, you need to have games under your belt and to be able to have a chance in the European competitions, or even the better Asian countries – (which are) more organised, higher level – it’s such an advantage for them to have."
“The level of structure, the professionalism they’re going to see, the different ways of playing and professionalism, how to live as an athlete – They will not have that experience if they spend their whole career in Indonesia.
“I’m very glad for them that they experience this at the moment, because I think that will enhance their future and I hope more will follow because in the end that will benefit Indonesia."
“Can you cook for me?”
The late teens and early 20s are a crucial period in a player’s career, and Klok’s unique insight into what awaits the likes of Bagus and Brylian Aldama – and what has already been experienced for well over a year by Egy Maulana Vikri and Witan Sulaeman – tells him that they will only benefit from the type of baptism of fire top-level football can provide.
"Moving abroad at the age of 19 from Holland to Scotland was, for me, a major step," he recalled. “I left without my parents, without my girlfriend at the time, just alone."
"Coming into a society and men’s football, where you have to do everything on your own, will make you grow. There is no family member around where you can say “hey can you cook for me, today?" or your father who you can send to the coach to ask why you’re not playing. It’s you. You have to do it.
“That was personally for me, at such a young age, a major step in my development, because I had to grow up. I had to step up. That experience alone was huge."
Bagus, Garuda Select and FC Utrecht
Bagus Kahfi may have just signed with his European club, but he is not a total novice when it comes to the European game.
He, and recent FC Rijeka arrival Brylian Aldama, were among the 24 players to feature for the ‘Garuda Select’ - a squad of talented Indonesian youngsters led by former English pros Dennis Wise and Des Walker against a series of European opponents, with all the action captured in a highly popular documentary series.
Klok is a fan of series, believing that, beyond providing a fascinating look at the on and off-field development of the country’s players, it will have armed them with a unique array of tools.
“The thing they did with Dennis Wise and the Garuda Select, in my opinion, is such a valuable experience that these Indonesian kids had,” he declared.
“They move abroad, without parents, they go with a group of guys, totally new people, coaches, everything. They learn English at a very young age, which is a huge advantage they have over the kids from the same age in Indonesia."
“They learn to be mature; they learn the language, they learn to be more professional because the environment is more professional than here, they see different facilities, they see a different culture. It fascinated me. I said, 'wow this is big'.
“For Bagus… the education he’s going to have now is such a big thing, and I think that can only make him a better person, and also of course, a better player.
“Whether or not he succeeds, we don’t know yet, but will he become a better person and player? – 100%, because the education that he will have now, he will never get otherwise.”
Challenges and opportunities: Making use of a year without football
What does a footballer do when there is no football? For Marc Klok that question requires a detailed answer.
Last year was a near write-off. He moved to Jakarta giants Persija at the start of the season but played only a handful of games before COVID-19 ground the Indonesian season to a halt and hasn’t taken the field in a competitive fixture since last March.
He doesn’t shy away from the many challenges the situation has provided, but Klok has made the most of the extra time, furthering his business interests and improving on what he sees as his weaknesses in a bid to reach both short and long-term goals.
“I’m going to be very honest,” he said. “It has not been an easy situation as an athlete. It’s very difficult physically, and mentally as well, because you can’t plan your life anymore … being without clarity was a very difficult situation.
“I’ve been training extremely hard this past year, sometimes on my own or sometimes I hire personal coaches, trainers or mental coaches, just to make myself a better player in the aspects where I was lacking.
“I saw this as a little bit of a “year off”. Never since I was a kid have I had so long without football. I enjoyed it actually, because I have been being an entrepreneur and looking in different directions as well, but the main thing was always becoming a better player football will return.”
Klok is a man of many interests and talents. He has launched his own clothing label, has dipped his toes into the worlds of blogs, podcasts and YouTube content - the interview with Bagus was conducted in Bahasa Indonesia – and he sees bigger prospects ahead.
“It’s funny,” he said. “Over the last year or so I’ve had so much interest in being a bridge between Indonesia and Europe.
“I can speak both languages, I have both experiences. Also, I’m always looking for opportunities and being business minded off the pitch.
“I see it as a big opportunity – not only the YouTube and podcast, that comes along with it and can be a nice addition – but I think the bridge I am as a person, who knows both worlds, is something very unique,”
Marc Klok – Indonesian international?
That the pandemic interrupted his Persija Jakarta career is obvious, but Klok is adamant that we would also have seen him in the Indonesia national team shirt by now, had the last year on the footballing calendar run as anticipated.
“100 per cent, I got my citizenship on January 12, so I can officially play for the national team since last January,” he declared. “If football returns and international duty returns, I hope you will see me as soon as possible on the pitch for Indonesia.
“My goal, my dream was always to be a national player. Of course, when I was kid it was about Holland, because I grew up in that system. My life went differently, and I took a different route. I am very thankful for that journey and I want to play for the Indonesian national team.”
The 2022 FIFA World Cup is already mathematically out of reach but being among the 24 teams to claim a place in the AFC Asian Cup China 2023 remains a genuine possibility, and it is firmly in Klok’s sights.
“I am 27, I have big hopes and dreams for my career and being able to play in the highest possible tournament is one of them,” he revealed.
“On an individual note, I just want to become the best midfielder Indonesia has seen. I set high targets for myself and reaching China in 2023 is one them.”
Should that dream become a reality, Klok’s unique path from Europe to Asia may converge with the ones being taken by the players he now seeks to guide. Indonesia awaits.
Photos: PSSI, Persija Jakarta
*Poll ends at 16:00 (UTC+8) on February 23.
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