Raphael Maitimo: Finding Home Amid His Roots

Dutch-Indonesian football player Raphael Maitimo, center, has been embraced by fans in Indonesia and has high hopes for the nation. (Photo credit: Nick Hanoat)

Dutch-Indonesian football player Raphael Maitimo, center, has been embraced by fans in Indonesia and has high hopes for the nation. (Photo credit: Nick Hanoat)

Dutch-Indonesian football player Raphael Maitimo first fell in love with the game in a village near the Dutch city of Rotterdam where he grew up as a child. At the age of 6, he began playing for VV Nieuwerkerk, but it didn’t take long until scouts realized that this boy was destined for greater things.

“After one year I was scouted by several professional clubs in Holland — the youth system for professional football there, like in most West European countries, is very good — and then I made the decision, together with my parents, to move to Feyenoord Rotterdam,” the 29-year-old recalled, adding that the Feyenoord academy was not only one of the biggest in the country, but also the one closest to his home.

These days, Maitimo is a long way from home. Currently playing for Mitra Kukar in the Indonesian Super League, his career as a professional athlete has seen him move to new cities and countries on a regular basis. It is something that he found quite challenging at first.

“It was especially hard when I left Holland the first time, at the end of 2008, to play in China,” he said, referring to the beginning of his two-year-stint at BIT FC. “I was pretty lucky that I played in the capital city. It’s a modern city so it was a bit easier for me to adjust. The first three, four months were quite tough, but it became easier, and you are also happy that you didn’t give up.”

Once he reached that point, he said, he was able to really enjoy his time.

But soon, his Indonesian roots were calling.

“When I was still playing in China, I was invited by the Indonesian Football Association [PSSI]; they asked me if I was interested to play for the national team of Indonesia, because they were looking for better-quality players with Indonesian blood,” Maitimo said.

It was the first time for him to set foot on Indonesian soil in 2010 — and it turned out to be a very special moment in his life.

“My grandfather was born in Padang, Sumatra, and then came with the family to Holland, but my actual roots are from the Eastern part of Indonesia, Maluku,” Maitimo explained. “Of course, my dad told me stories about his father and the Indonesian culture. He also had three half-brothers who grew up in Indonesia and came to Holland later. But my dad grew up in Holland — so we were already very European. But since there are a lot of Indonesian people living in Holland, I was already familiar with the culture, the food, their manners.”

While Maitimo quickly warmed to the country and its people, the professional side wasn’t exactly a smooth transition.

“I came only for a short stint and then had to go back to my club in China,” he said. “I was then offered a contract by an Indonesian club that didn’t work out because the football situation in Indonesia before was very messy, so I decided not to do it. Then I had a problem because I already said no to my former club in China, and all of a sudden, I didn’t have a club, and you also have to deal with transfer windows. So that was a very unlucky moment for me.”

In 2011, with the start of a new league in Indonesia, Maitimo was signed by Bali Devata. However, the new league only survived for one year before it collapsed again, and the midfielder then went back to the Netherlands.

“Shortly after, I received again a very good offer from Indonesia and I took it, and so far, everything is going very well,” he said about his current club, Mitra Kukar. “Last year, I had a very good season with my club, and also with the national team of Indonesia, my personal performance was pretty good, so I’m trying to continue that for the new year.”

The highlight of his professional senior career came in 2012, when Maitimo played for the Indonesian national team for the first time.

“It was during the AFF Suzuki Cup in Malaysia, a big tournament,” he said. “I made my debut against Laos, and I also directly scored a goal — that was very special. I was so proud to play for Indonesia. My family was very happy too because it is the biggest dream of every football player to play for the national team; I had to be realistic, I had already left Holland and wasn’t going to play for the Dutch national team. So it was a perfect opportunity for me to accomplish that dream.”

Perhaps it was exactly this moment in which Maitimo, who had played for the Dutch under-15, -16 and -17 national teams in his youth alongside Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, had finally, completely arrived in Indonesia.

“At the beginning it was a little tough [to fit into the national team],” he acknowledged. “Whenever you play for a new club or with a new team, the first two, three months are difficult because you have to get to know each other. You play for a country with over 250 million people, so you have to be tough and give your best.”

Under Jacksen Tiago, who coached the Indonesian side last year, Maitimo was an integral part of the national team. He is optimistic that he will be called up again under Alfred Riedl, who returned to Indonesia as national team coach in December.

“I know Alfred Riedl from the first time I came to Indonesia, when he was already national coach, but I only worked with him for a very short time,” Maitimo said. “All I can do is try to work hard, and hope he thinks I’m good enough for the national team. Of course I’m very positive, I know my value. You have to be confident in this business because you are playing in front of 80, 000 people in the stadium. If you are not confident, they will kill you.”

Indonesian football fans have welcomed Maitimo with open arms, and he said that he was amazed at how passionate they are about the game.

The attention can be overwhelming at times, but Maitimo regards it as part of the job — photo shoots, interviews, TV commercials and the occasional photos and autographs with and for the fans.

“I’ll never forget that when I was young, I was also a fan of big football players, and when I’d ask them for their autographs or to take a picture with them and they said No, I was really disappointed,” said Maitimo, who cites Diego Maradona as his favorite football player of all times.

Despite improved performances in recent years, Maitimo knows that Indonesia still has a long way to go in order to become a football force to be reckoned with.

“If Indonesia really wants to be a serious competitor in Asia, the whole system needs to be changed,” he said. “We need more foreign coaches on senior and junior level, especially in the youth, to build up a new system. They should come up with a 10-year plan and work on that.”

While Maitimo wants to play professional football for at least another decade, he already has a back up plan for later in life — something he owes to his parents.

“When I grew up, my parents always told me that the most important thing is to have an education,” he said. That’s why Maitimo joined a special course for professional athletes at the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences and was able to complete a bachelor’s degree in economics.

“It was very tough because a normal student has to go to university every day, and I had to follow the same curriculum by only going twice a week,” Maitimo said. “But in the end, I made it. I am really, really proud of that. It’s good because later, when I finish my football career, it gives me more opportunities to do what I like.”

At the moment, however, he is fully focused on the game he loves. Following a tight schedule, he doesn’t have a lot of free time; when he does, he usually takes a good rest, gets on Skype to chat with his family, improves his Indonesian language skills or reads a book.

Although he misses his family and friends back home, Maitimo says that his connection to Indonesia has already grown strong, and he is grateful for the many experiences his career has given him.

“It’s wonderful to be able to meet so many different people from all over the world and learn about other cultures,” he said. “It’s really something you can’t learn at school.”

This article was first published on February 4, 2014 in the Jakarta Globe newspaper.