Bambang's return to Persija turns the clock back for Indonesian fans
Just when Indonesian football fans needed to take their minds off another failed Suzuki Cup campaign, it was exactly the kind of feel-good story they were looking for.
Much-loved striker Bambang Pamungkas announced last week that he was returning to Persija Jakarta, the famous club where he began his senior career more than 15 years ago.
For Southeast Asian football, this was the equivalent of Robbie Fowler going home to Anfield after five years or an ageing Didier Drogba heading back to Stamford Bridge for one last hurrah.
Bambang, or Bepe as he is fondly known, will turn 35 during the 2015 Indonesian Super League (ISL) season. He last played for the capital city giants in 2012, scoring more than 100 league goals over five seasons, before joining Pelita Bandung Raya in west Java.
Persija haven't won the Indonesian title since 2001 when Bambang was in the first of his four stints with Macan Kemayoran. He returns, along with his former coach Rahmad Darmawan, the ex-national team assistant who has boosted the squad with several other big-name signings.
Indonesia's embarrassing exit in the group stages of the 2014 Suzuki Cup had local supporters yearning for the old days when Bepe would dominate the Southeast Asian competition in which he played three times.
In the 2002 tournament, he was top scorer with eight goals, as Indonesia trounced Philippines 13-1 on the way to making it to the final. They lost a nerve-wracking penalty shootout to Thailand at Jakarta's Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, despite Bepe converting the first spot kick. But this year, the Indonesians were thrashed 4-0 by the Philippines who advanced to the semifinals at their expense.
If that game highlighted how each nation has gone in opposite directions in the last dozen years, it was equally indicative of the quality of the current strikers, compared to the diminutive player who scored 37 goals in 85 senior internationals.
Bambang retired from the international scene in 2012 as foreign-born frontmen like Cristian Gonzales (Uruguay) and Sergio van Dijk (Netherlands) were being fast tracked into the system. But one suspects that the Semarang-born forward could still probably do a better job.
Bambang did play overseas -- he had an unfulfilled season with Dutch third division club EHC Norad in 2000 as a 20-year-old and was a successful striker for Dollah Salleh's double Cup winning Selangor side in 2005. A 2010 trial with Wellington Phoenix in the A-League came to nothing.
But all roads keep leading him back to the big city lights of J-Town. And this time, the decision to leave behind the provincial centre of Bandung -- and his former club Pelita Bandung Raya -- isn't totally football-based. He believes that Jakarta will offer a better education for nine-year-old Salsa Alicia, the youngest of his three daughters.
With almost five million followers on Twitter, Bebe's passion for education through his own foundation -- providing money and resources for underfunded schools -- is widely celebrated. What's less known is that he sometimes digs into his own pocket to help out players and coaches who have not been paid by their clubs. Bambang, himself, the VP of the Indonesian Players Association, sat out of the game for several months in 2012 after a contract dispute with Persija.
So how will a forward in his mid-30s perform for a big club desperate to end years of underachievement?
"I think the period he took off has given Bepe a few extra years of playing time and he will be a leader on the pitch who will still score goals," Gaspar said. "He won't be able to play every game but [coach] Darmawan will still get the best out of him."
Next month's start of the 2015 ISL season will coincide with the AFC Asian Cup. In the 2007 tournament, Bepe scored a famous goal to drive the Merah Putih to a 2-1 victory over West Asian giants Bahrain. Sadly, the national team has gone a long way backwards since then.
There is something wrong when Asia's biggest football nation, with seven million active players, is ranked 157th in the world and can't get close to qualifying for major tournaments.
But as long as special players like Bepe continue to knock goals in, fans will keep watching Indonesian football and hope that better days are ahead.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.