Aussie striker Ndumba Makeche leaves Malaysia for dream move to Bali United
A professional contract at Bali United. For a young striker from Western Australia like Ndumba Makeche, it sounds like a dream scenario to end up earning a living at your favourite holiday destination.
Before arriving in Denpasar two weeks ago, the former A-League junior had already visited the Indonesian island three times on personal vacations. It is only a three hour and 50 minute flight from Perth, and the abundant expat bars, offering Aussie beers on tap and big-screen international cricket, give the tourist strip of Kuta an unmistakable Waltzing Matilda flavour.
Makeche has been staying in one of Kuta's hotels, in view of the backpacking tourists walking along Jalan Legian, but says that recreation is the furthest thing from his mind. Turning 25 next month, the Zambian-born flyer admits that now is the time to establish himself as a front-line striker in Southeast Asia, after promising, yet sometimes inconsistent, spells in the Malaysia Super League.
"I feel comfortable because I've been here as a tourist before, but it's a totally different ball game because I'm here for work," Makeche told ESPN FC.
"It's a beautiful city so it's a good place to play football, and that plays a part because you want to be happy and enjoy it. But I know that I've got to perform on the pitch and score goals for Bali United."
Any thoughts of a smooth ride were dispelled earlier this week when he took part in bruising preseason friendly in sodden conditions against Pusamania Borneo. The match ended in a 0-0 draw, with Makeche still getting used to the different style of Indonesian football.
"Indonesian football is faster than Malaysian football, so it will be a good test for me," he said.
"Malaysia was important because it helped me gain experience as a professional over three years. I have good memories of the country."
After impressing in the Perth Glory youth system, Makeche was thrown in the deep end just after his 20th birthday by then-coach Alistair Edwards, making his A-League debut as a substitute for Travis Dodd in a game against Gold Coast United in March 2012.
But after failing to establish himself in the first team with only six appearances and no goals, he moved to Felda United in 2014 after scoring a hat trick in Glory's friendly game against the Malaysia Super League club.
At Felda under wily coach Irfan Bakti, Makeche was a key member of a dangerous attack, alongside fellow imports Thiago Fernandes (Brazil) and Zah Rahan Krangar (Liberia), and national striker Indra Putra Mahayuddin. The Fighters finished fifth on the 2015 MSL table, just three points behind second spot and a place in the AFC Cup. And they made the final of the 2014 FA Cup and semifinals of the 2014 and 2015 Malaysia Cup.
"Scoring the last-minute winner against [league champions] Johor Darul Ta'zim in the first leg of the 2015 Malaysia Cup semi was an amazing feeling," he said.
"Unfortunately, I fell out with coach Irfan in the end, but I still respected him a lot for giving me the chance to play in Malaysia, even though I wasn't so experienced."
He scored 15 league goals in 35 matches for Felda, and continued to find the back of the net for Sarawak in 2016, recruited by former national boss, K. Rajagobal. In a struggling team who only narrowly avoided relegation, he netted 11 times in 27 matches, providing almost one third of his team's league goals
Makeche, who can play out wide, or as a central striker, has explosive speed, and the ability to shake off defenders. Only last season, after getting help from Malaysian squash legend Nicol David to overcome chronic leg injuries, did he start to show the sang froid needed to be a primary striker.
Indonesian club football is hoping to ride on the back of the national team's unexpected success at last December's AFF Suzuki Cup. Despite not having played a competitive match since 2014 due to a year-long FIFA ban, the Merah Putih defeated Singapore and Vietnam on the way to giving ultimate champions Thailand a scare in the two-legged final.
After last year's edition was cancelled, the Indonesia Super League is scheduled to resume on March 26 as the renamed Liga 1. But, in true Indonesian style, the fixtures have yet to be released, and March 26 falls during an international break, which means an early April start is more likely.
At Bali United, Makeche will get support from a one-time rival in the A-League. Ex-Adelaide United and Melbourne Victory playmaker Marco Flores, who was A-League Player of the Year in 2011, has joined from Indonesian rivals, Persib Bandung.
Bali United struggled in a 12th-placed finish in last year's unofficial Indonesia Soccer Championship, but have recruited coach Hans-Peter Schaller for the 2017 season. The 54-year-old was an assistant to fellow Austrian Alfred Riedl in Indonesia's surprising Suzuki Cup run.
"He seems like a very good coach," Makeche said. "He's making sure that everyone knows how he wants to play."
Makeche's fond memories of his Legian beach getaways will soon fade as Schaller takes him under his wing for those long away games in Papua, Borneo and West Sumatra. If the Malaysia Super League was challenging, the 2017 Liga Satu will be an even greater test of character for natty Ndumba.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.