Hendrie happy plying his trade at the bottom of Indonesia's illegal league
Former England player admits it's taken time to get used to life with Bandung
Lee Hendrie could have been looking forward to playing at Wembley this season, a last hurrah in the sun for a player whose potential was never quite fulfilled. Instead the former Aston Villa midfielder is playing for the bottom-placed club in an illegal league thousands of miles away, in Indonesia.
Few well-known Englishmen play abroad, and those that do, like David Beckham and Robbie Fowler, tend to go to places they would be happy to visit on holiday. Hendrie, however, has boldly gone where no English player has gone before.
Hendrie, now 33, looked set for a long international future when he made his England debut late in 1998 but he lacked the dedication to go with his talent and his career declined rapidly after he ceased to be a Villa regular six seasons ago. Having been released by Bradford City this January, after unsuccessful spells at several clubs, the non-League game appeared the only option with Mansfield, who will be at Wembley in May for the FA Trophy final, offering a contract.
Then came a call from Indonesia. Hendrie played only 13 minutes for England but it was enough to ensure his name will always carry the cachet of being an England international. That and his Premier League pedigree attracted the owners of Bandung FC, a new team operating in an unsanctioned league in need of a star.
Hendrie is at the unwitting forefront of an attempted football revolution. Indonesia is a football minnow. The national team is 129th in the Fifa rankings and lost their only World Cup finals match – when they appeared as the Dutch East Indies in 1938 – 6-0. However, the country is football-daft. On any given weekend fans can catch live games from England, Germany, Italy and Spain as well as local matches. During the week a number of dedicated magazines and tabloids sate fans' desire for information while TV shows repeat the latest gossip from Europe.
With such enthusiasm amid a population of 238 million, the fourth most populous country in the world, the potential is obvious, but internal mismanagement has hindered development. Match-fixing, corruption and contractual disputes are suspected to be rife in the domestic game. The current Football Association (PSSI) chairman, Nurdin Halid, has even run the organisation from jail – another former Villa player, Peter Withe, who managed the national team from 2004-07, recalls having to visit the prison to hold meetings with him.
This situation has given rise to the Liga Primer Indonesia, the breakaway league created by an oil tycoon in which Hendrie plays. The PSSI has threatened punishments including the deportation of foreign players. But with the government giving tacit encouragement deportations are unlikely, although there is a risk that Hendrie, the league's most high-profile recruit to date, and everyone else involved, will be banned by Fifa.
Not that any of this appeared to concern Hendrie when The Independent caught up with him after a recent match. In fine footballer tradition he doesn't know too much of what goes on behind the scenes. "I have spoken to the main people at the league and they have told me their plans, but I don't know too much about it," he said.
Hendrie seemed more worried about the playing conditions. "The pitches have been hardest to adapt to," he said after the defeat to Batavia Union. "The surface isn't great, I've blisters all over my feet. The ball bounces everywhere. Around the box I'm going to be shooting because it can bobble over the 'keeper. It's hot but I don't mind that."
Indonesia is, though, a very different place to the English Midlands, where Hendrie spent the bulk of his career. A sprawling archipelago of more than 17,000 islands and three time zones, it is best-known in England for the island of Bali, whose Devata team play Hendrie's tomorrow.
Bandung is a long way, literally and culturally from the idyllic tourist destination. Established by the Dutch to serve tea plantations it has become a major city of two million. It is, though, passionate about football with the city's established "official" team, Persib, regarded as representing the region – which has its own language and was once independent.
"It's a little bit different," admitted Hendrie. "I didn't know anything about it and was shocked when I first came here, but the people have been really good to me. I think if that hadn't been the case I might have gone home, but people around the place have been first-class to me."
It helped that he has been handed a gentle introduction to Indonesian football beginning with a series of home games plus a local derby. He will soon understand what he has let himself in for with away games on far-flung islands that will introduce him to the joys of long-distance travel in Indonesia. Next week's match in Papua, for example, is over 2,000 miles away and the journey will involve a gruelling three-hour ride to Jakarta's airport along one of West Java's most scenic, and notorious, roads, then a seven-hour flight with a couple of stops along the way.
Then there are the volatile crowds. His debut was nearly made behind closed doors following a riot at a previous game in Bandung. Eventually permission was granted to admit spectators but the crowd was limited to 6,000. In another match, on Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo), a player was dismissed for punching and kicking the referee.
There is also the problem of the team. Bandung won their last match but that was their first victory of a nine-game campaign and they remain bottom of the 19-team league with four points.
Hendrie though, appears to be in for the long haul. He has signed a two-year deal, reportedly as the best-paid player in the league at US$550,000 (£340,000) per year, and has brought his children out. The club have appointed him "football ambassador for coaching grassroot and youth development" and, said Bandung chief executive, Mohamad Kusnaeni, Hendrie will be "a role model for other players given his experience playing in the best league in the world".
That this reputation precedes him is evident as he heads for the team bus. Fans and media jockey to have their picture taken with him and supporters sing his name. It is not the Holte End, but after several seasons drifting from club to club Hendrie is pleased to be wanted again.
Antony Sutton writes the blog Jakartacasual jakartacasual.blogspot.com
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