Liga 1 Indonesia’s very own Persipura Jayapura were given a free pass to the 2021 AFC Cup group stages following the withdrawals of Myanmar representatives Shan United and Hantharwady United from the competition. The Mutiara Hitam, who have been preparing intensively for their return to continental action after six years away, will travel to Singapore to take on hosts Lion City Sailors, Malaysia’s very own Kedah Darul Aman, and Vietnam’s Sai Gon FC in Group H this June.
Myanmar has been rocked by political turmoil after the military had completed a coup of the Aung San Suu Kyi-led civilian government on February 1st, with protests and fighting erupting almost everyday on the country’s cities. Around 7000 civilians, protesters and bystanders alike, have been killed by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military forces), with the official figures provided by the junta being significantly smaller than what’s actually occurring on the field. With the international community heavily condemning the coup and subsequent conflicts, demanding that the people of Myanmar are to be given their democracy, the Tatmadaw continuously denied that they had used excessive force when handling citizen protesters.
Amidst this chaotic backdrop, Myanmar champions Shan United and last season’s shock runners-up Hantharwady United were set to embark on their continental adventure, with the latter making their debut in Asian competitions. Shan United were scheduled to take on current A-League leaders Melbourne City in the preliminary round of the 2021 AFC Champions League East Zone qualifying play-offs on June, while Hantharwady United were set to take on either FC Chantabouly (formerly Lao Toyota) of Laos or Kasuka FC of Brunei Darussalam in the ASEAN Zone play-off of this year’s AFC Cup qualifiers. However, as situation in Myanmar became more and more unstable, it soon became clear that the duo are unable to embark on their Asian adventures this season.
As a result of Shan United and Hantharwady United’s withdrawal, Melbourne City were given a bye into the East Zone qualifying play-off round where the City Football Group-backed club will take on J.League 1’s Cerezo Osaka in late June. Shan United’s AFC Cup spot, on the other hand were given to the qualifying round winner between Cambodia’s Visakha FC and Timor-Leste’s Lalenok United, with the winner of that match joining Singapore’s Geylang International, Malaysia’s Terengganu FC, and Kaya FC-Iloilo of the Philippines in Group I.
The winner of the Chantabouly-Kasuka match will enter Group G, joining Vietnam giants Hanoi FC, Indonesia’s very own Bali United, and Cambodia’s Boeung Ket FC.
As for Persipura, the Mutiara Hitam were given a bye from the play-offs and qualify straight to Group H, completing the quartet there. Out of the three teams within the group, Persipura only had prior history with Lion City Sailors, having faced-off against them in the 2014 AFC Cup group stages when the Sailors were still known as Home United. Persipura managed to hold Home United to a 1-1 draw in Singapore, before allowing the Protectors to plunder a 2-0 win at the Mandala Stadium in a dead-rubber encounter as Persipura had already qualified to the knockouts prior to the game.
With Sai Gon making their continental debut this year, they have obviously never met Persipura in any competition so far, although the Mutiara Hitam had played against Vietnamese opposition once, a 3-1 away win over Song Lam Nghe An in the 2011 AFC Cup knockouts. Persipura have also never met Kedah in any competition so far and indeed this will be their first encounter against Malaysian opposition, having forced to forfeit a tie against Sri Pahang FC in the 2015 AFC Cup round of 16 due to their inability to host the Tok Gajah at the Mandala, which was fueled by the conflict between the Football Federation of Indonesia (PSSI) and the Indonesian Ministry of Youth and Sports at that time.
Having sat out of the recently-concluded Menpora Cup to prepare for the AFC Cup, things have been going smoothly at the Persipura camp ever since PT Freeport Indonesia declared their willingness to sponsor the previously cash-strapped team in early March. Head coach Jacksen F. Tiago, who had previously left Persipura due to the expiry of his contract, was roped back into the Mutiara Hitam with a brand new contract. With the Brazilian back at the helm, Persipura oversaw the return of a good bulk of their players from last season. Both Todd Rivaldo Ferre and Takuya Matsunaga were also returning after some time abroad, with Todd being loaned out to Thai League 2 side Lampang FC and Takuya awaiting certainties surrounding his club at his native Japan.
Persipura also managed to draft in a number of new faces as well such as Ricky Kayame and Nelson Alom, and while their attempt in recruiting former Arema FC defender Caio Ruan ended in failure, Persipura are targeting former player Andre Ribeiro and former Barito Putera and Khonkaen FC defender Artur Vieira as their foreign imports for 2021.
Persipura chairman Benhur Tomi Mano expressed his gratitude at Persipura’s return to the AFC Cup group stages being finally made official by the AFC on Friday, having heard rumors about it in recent times.
“I’ve received a report from club assistant manager Ridwan Bento Madubun, that yesterday evening the PSSI sent us a message from the AFC confirming our place in the 2021 AFC Cup group stages,” said Benhur, as quoted from Goal Indonesia, “Our Gracious God has answered the prayers of Persipura and the people of Papua in the right time. We won’t have to hold a play-off match here at the Mandala on the 19th of May, we will fly straight to Singapore for the group stage matches in June.”
Prior to the announcement from the AFC, Persipura were at odds with the local sports council over permission to use the Mandala Stadium for the AFC Cup play-offs. The 20th National Sports Week, which was delayed thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, is set to be held within the province of Papua in October of this year, which means that the Mandala must be prepared in advance as the stadium will act as one of the venues for the event. This, in turn, meant that Persipura were unable to use the Mandala for their AFC Cup campaign, having been forced to use Sulut United’s Klabat Stadium all the way in Manado for their cancelled 2020 Liga 1 Indonesia season.
The confirmation that Persipura will be going straight to the group stages, with their group being played at a centralized venue in Singapore, meant that they will no longer have to worry about using the Mandala for the time being.
“Actually we’ve been waiting anxiously for this news and we even peeked at the AFC’s official site for a couple of times. But we will be certain once both the PSSI and the AFC confirm the news to us themselves, that’s the Persipura way. And thank God, that letter came. Praise the Lord, this is the reward to those who faithfully believed in Him,” said Benhur.