Indonesia's national soccer team is touring Australia ahead of next month's major regional soccer event, the Tiger Cup, when Indonesia will co-host the tournament with Singapore. Now they are playing six games in Australia as part of an intense buildup to the event. Some of the players admit feeling nervous about these warm-up games in light of the anti-Muslim sentiment that has surged in Australia since the terrorist bomb attacks in Bali in October. The Indonesians are using their three-week tour of eastern Australia as a full-dress rehearsal for the Tiger Cup, Southeast Asia's most important soccer tournament, held in mid-December.
After the terrorist attack in Bali, Indonesia's resort island, many players say they felt nervous about coming. The Australian police have reported a rise in assaults on Muslims and security forces have raided the homes of Indonesians suspected of having links to Islamic extremists.
Striker Bambang Pam-unkas admits he was afraid before he arrived. "Firstly, yes," he said. "But when I stay here for two or three days and we stay at the training camp everything's fine, I think. There's nothing to worry about."
So far, the tour has gone well. The team has been warmly welcomed and has been given some tough games by opponents from Australia's National Soccer League. The game against NSL team Parramatta Power ended in a two-all draw.
Parramatta coach Nick Theodoracoplis believes the Indonesians are building bridges with Australians during their visit. Historically, the governments in Jakarta and Canberra have seldom seen eye to eye but some think sport will help sooth tensions. "Any relations between the two countries are important," he said. "If we can have reciprocal arrangements where maybe both governments get together and send sides like the Parramatta Power or any other side from the National Soccer League over to Indonesia not only for the goodwill but for the experience as well."
In international soccer rankings, Indonesia is listed at 108th, slightly ahead of Singapore and Vietnam while Tiger Cup favorite Thailand is 70th on the ladder. But the Indonesians believe their home advantage this year could prove crucial as they go after their first major regional trophy in a decade.
On the political front, the team's appearance in Australia has boosted the morale of an immigrant community that continues to feel the effects of the Bali bombing more than a month ago.