Even in defeat, Indonesia -- and Marselino Ferdinan -- prove they belong at the AFC Asian Cup - ESPN

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Even in defeat, Indonesia -- and Marselino Ferdinan -- prove they belong at the AFC Asian Cup - ESPN

Indonesia's Asian Cup return after a 17-year wait may have ended in defeat, but they still showed the continent's biggest stage is where they belong.

Indonesia's Asian Cup return after a 17-year wait may have ended in defeat, but they still showed the continent's biggest stage is where they belong.

Once a regular feature at the AFC Asian Cup -- having made four consecutive appearances between 1996 to 2007 -- Indonesia have had to wait 17 years to return to Asia's premier international competition.

Any hope of a dream homecoming was quashed on Monday as their Group D opener at the 2023 edition ended in a 3-1 loss to Iraq.

But even in defeat, Indonesia -- and some of their bright, young talent -- proved they belong on the continent's biggest stage.

And, at present, there is no brigher talent in the Merah Putih ranks than Marselino Ferdinan.

They were always going to be underdogs coming up against former champions of the tournament, who currently sit a staggering 83 places above them in the FIFA world rankings.

For a while, it looked like the tie would pan out exactly as the form book suggested, especially given a recent meeting between the two sides in the Asian qualifiers for the 2026 FIFA World Cup ended in a hefty 5-1 loss for the Indonesians.

Iraq settled quickly into Monday's encounter and it was no real surprise when they took the lead after 17 minutes through an emphatic Mohanad Ali finish.

Yet, rather than be demoralised by falling behind as expected, the early deficit only served to galvanise Indonesia.

They still lost out in the possession stakes but, whenever they turned the ball over, they broke with speed and threatened to offer a real threat on the counterattack.

They duly delivered on that threat in the 37th minute when Marselino popped up at the far post to apply the finishing touches to an scintillating forward foray, although equally deserving of credit was Yakob Sayuri -- who absolutely torched down the right to set up the equaliser and was a constant thorn in the flesh of the Iraq defence throughout the contest.

Just when it looked as though Indonesia might head into the break level, Iraq reclaimed the lead deep into first-half stoppage time with a goal that was steeped in controversy.

There was nothing wrong with Osama Rashid pouncing on a loose ball and stabbing home from close range while teammate Mohanad was lying on the turf in an offside position from a previous incident, as the latter was not interfering with play.

Instead, the contention stemmed from the play which initially saw Mohanad go to ground while attempting a shot in an offside position.

The match officials are indeed encouraged to let the play unfold for marginal calls before any potential error is corrected by VAR but, in this instance, it did look like Mohanad had clearly been offside.

Whether or not that was deemed as the previous phase of play and no longer significant to Iraq then scoring moments later will be a matter of debate in days to come, but Indonesia coach Shin Tae-yong was not afraid to let his views be known to the fourth official before the start of the second half.

It would prove to be a huge blow for Indonesia, both in terms of the scoreboard and their mindset.

Despite coming out after the break showing an equal amount of endeavour, it was apparent that some of the shoulders had dropped and Iraq's experience would prove telling as substitute Aymen Hussein would go on to smash home a match-sealing third with 15 minutes remaining.

In what already promises to be a keenly-contested group which also contains Japan and Vietnam, the result would not have been ideal for Indonesia but the display would have pleased Shin.

It was fitting that it was Marselino who bagged his country's first Asian Cup goal since the iconic Elie Aiboy against Saudi Arabia in 2007.

Still only 19, Marselino has been regarded as Indonesia's biggest talent in recent years since he broke onto the scene two years ago.

In that time, he has earned a move to Europe after joining Belgian second-tier outfit KMSK Deinze and was part of the U-23 side that won a first Southeast Asian Games gold medal in 32 years last May.

He was not the only talented prospect to impress with 20-year-olds Ivar Jenner and Justin Hubner offering a real presence in midfield, while Pratama Arhan played with plenty of adventure from left-back.

While they were initially regarded by many as the weakest side in Group D, they should now go into their next encounter against familiar foes Vietnam confident that they can get a result against their regional rivals.

Their final game against four-time champions Japan is a different story but, in a tournament where the third-placed teams also stand a chance of advancing to the knockout round, three points might even be enough.

Now that they have proven to many -- and themselves -- that they do belong at the Asian Cup, Indonesia might as well give themselves a real chance of staying longer by beating Vietnam on Friday.

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