Can Bali United Finally Conquer Asia In 2022?
In 2022 Bali United, the new dominant force in Indonesia, will embark on their third AFC Cup campaign, and will attempt to make it out of the group stage and into the knockout rounds for the first time.
While Bali United has established itself as the premier team in Indonesia, winning back-to-back titles in the 2019 and 2021/22 seasons (the 2020 season was abandoned after just six games due to Covid) they are yet to convert that local dominance into continental success.
In their maiden participation in the 2018 AFC Cup, Asia’s second-tier competition akin to the Europa League, a Bali United side that had lost their talismanic striker Sylvano Comvalius to an off-season transfer found themselves overmatched, winning just one game and drawing two in the group stage as they finished bottom of Group G.
Bali United were back in the competition in 2020, where they got their campaign off to a fast start with a home win over Vietnamese side Than Quang Ninh FC, but the wheels quickly fell off after back to back defeats against Svay Rieng and United City away from their fortress of Kapten I Wayan Dipta Stadium.
The 2020 AFC Cup was curtailed after just three of six matchdays due to the pandemic, and was later abandoned by the AFC to minimise travel.
Now, Bali United find themselves ready to take on the group stage this June, and have arguably their best ever chance of progressing from their group.
To help slow the spread of Covid, the AFC has set up ‘hubs’ for each group, and Bali United will have the advantage of hosting their three group rivals, Kedah Darul Aman FC (Malaysia), Visakha FC (Cambodia) and Kaya FC Iloilo (Philippines) in Bali.
This isn’t the first time Bali has been a hub for football, as the second half of the 2020/21 Indonesian Liga 1 season was played exclusively in Bali. While Bali United had struggled in the first half of the season in the Jogjakarta hub, they hit their straps in the second half of the season and went on to lift the trophy, winning the title by six points.
Many teams, such as Persib Bandung who finished second and were still in the hunt until they drew their final three games, believed playing all matches in Bali gave the home team an unfair advantage, despite all matches being played behind closed doors.
When Bali United take to the field on June 24 for Matchday One of this edition of the AFC Cup, it will be a vastly different side that has taken on continental football before it.
Management-wise the team is guided by the deft hand of Brazilian manager Stefano ‘Teco’ Cugurra who did the league and cup double with Persija Jakarta in 2018, before moving to Bali United in 2019 where he delivered their first-ever league title at the first time of asking, before repeating the achievement in 2021/22.
While Teco is looking forward to leading his team into Asia, there is some concern that the domestic President’s Cup could be scheduled for the same time as the AFC Cup, which occurred in 2018 and saw Bali United forced to play two games in two days.
At the time, the club prioritised domestic success over continental football, and played a much-weakened team in their AFC Cup match, losing 1-3 at home, before winning their President’s Cup semi-final the following day.
“What is certain is that we want to focus on the matches in the AFC Cup, and the fans are also longing to support the team in the stadium!”
“We are still waiting for the schedule of the President’s Cup. On the other hand, I didn’t coach Bali United in 2018, so I can’t comment on that (being knocked out of the AFC Cup 2018). However, of course, our main focus this year is the AFC Cup,” explained Coach Teco to BaliUtd.com.
On the field, the team have a much more settled lineup than in the past, where the top scorer in Indonesia in 2021/22, Ilija Spasojevic, will once again lead the line.
During the 2022 transfer window the club bolstered their attacking options with one eye on this AFC Cup campaign, with the marquee signings of Brazilian playmaker Eber Bessa and pacey Cameroonian midfielder Privat Mbarga.
In fact, Bali United fans first introduction to Mbarga came during the AFC Cup campaign of 2020 when he provided an assist and scored a goal in the opening 19 minutes as his side Svay Rieng cruised to an easy win.
These two international signings, combined with the signing of influential Indonesian midfielder Irfan Jaya saw the Tridatu Warriors take control of the league last season, and gives the team both the quality and continuity needed to take the next step in Asia.
For key defensive midfielder Brwa Nouri, who joined the club during the tumultuous 2018 campaign, there is belief in the squad that this is the year the team can go toe-to-toe with Asia’s best.
“It’s good, every day it gets better and better. After the competition break, it’s definitely very difficult to get back into shape, but slowly, step by step trying to restore physical condition to be ready to welcome the competition,” explained the Iraqi international.
“We are all looking forward to the AFC Cup and Liga 1 competitions this season. We want to do our best and do better in the AFC Cup and Liga 1 this season. If we are able and successful, we want to get back to in number 1 standings.”
“I don’t know the strength of our three opponents. For sure they are the best team from each country and have the quality to qualify for this competition. We have to work hard in training and focus on playing our best football if we want to qualify from the group stage this time,” concluded Nouri.
While it seems on Bali can stop Bali in domestic competitions in Indonesia, all eyes will be on the reigning Liga 1 champions to see if they can take the next step in Asia…