Jakarta. Lechia Gdańsk's recent signing of Indonesian football prodigy Egy Maulana Vikri has made him the first Southeast Asian player ever to be hired by the top-tier Polish club.
Amid all the hype surrounding the signing, both in Poland and Indonesia, the Jakarta Globe managed to track down some interesting information on the promising 17-year-old player.
Egy was born in Medan, North Sumatra, in July 2000 – the second child of Syarifudin and Aspiyah, who run a small grocery store in his hometown, Asam Kumbang in Medan Selayang district.
The young footballer said in an interview with Bolasport.com in October last year that he has some European ancestry, with his paternal great-grandfather having been of Dutch origin.
But Egy is not the only footballer in the family. His father Syarifudin was a professional player for Riau club Persibri Batang Hari, which used to play in Indonesia's second-tier league at the time.
Egy's older brother Yusrizal Muzzaki (23) is also a professional footballer, currently playing for second-tier Indonesian club PS Timah Babel in Bangka Belitung.
Since retiring from playing in 2003, the 49-year-old Syarifudin has been coaching at Tasbi Football School, a small community club in Medan, where his two sons also received instruction.
Prior to Egy joining Tasbi in 2006, Syarifudin coached Yusrizal at another small club, Asam Kumbang Football School.
"I like coaching kids and the fact that I could also teach my son, Egy. When he was at Tasbi, I often gave him additional coaching to support his development, apart from normal sessions," Syarifudin told Goal.com recently.
"I had never dreamt of Egy playing in Europe, and even him being called up to the [Indonesian] national team came as a shock to me," Syarifudin said.
The three-year contract Egy signed with Lechia in Poland on March 11 will only come into effect in July, when he turns 18.
"I had a lot of inquiries and offers from Asian and European clubs, including Benfica, Italian clubs and French club Saint-Etienne," Egy told Polish publication Super Express a few days after joining Lechia.
"I was at Saint-Etienne for seven days and they wanted me to play there, but something was missing. I did not feel at home there.
"They talked to me in the locker room and I did not understand anything. I can get along in English, but not in French. Maybe this barrier meant that I was not convinced that this was a good place for me. That's why I told my manager that we should consider other offers.
"I have great ambition, but I'm also very young. I want to go to a bigger club someday, but not from its academy track. Instead, I want to be transferred from team to team, and it could start from Lechia."
Egy is currently in Indonesia and will return to Poland once his contract commences.
"They are professional. They treated me like an important person since I arrived there and the way they assisted me in Poland showed me that it is the right club for me," Egy told CNN Indonesia upon his return from Poland on Friday (16/03).
Before signing for Lechia, Egy attracted public attention when he represented grassroots club Asiop Apacinti, which won the under-15 Gothia Cup in Sweden in July 2016. He scored 28 goals in 10 matches, which earned him the tournament's most valuable player award.
Five months later, Egy helped another local club, Persab Brebes of Central Java, to win the under-16 Soeratin Cup, organized by the Indonesian Football Association (PSSI). The national competition, staged in a tiered series, involved hundreds of teams from all 34 provinces in the country.
Egy's 22 goals during the tournament earned him both the most valuable player and top scorer awards.
Indra Sjafri, Indonesia's under-19 national team coach, called Egy up in June last year to play in the prestigious Toulon Tournament, which traditionally invites strong national under-21 teams from Brazil, Portugal, England and host nation France.
Although the Indonesian side failed to get any points in the group stage, which saw them going home early, one of the players shined. It was Egy, who after only playing in three matches, received the prestigious Jouer Revelation Trophy, which previously also went to superstars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane.
Then, in September last year, Egy again caught the public attention when he helped Indonesia finish third in the Asean Football Federation Under-18 Championship, which earned him the player of the tournament and top scorer awards. He scored eight goals, including two that saw Indonesia outclass host Myanmar 7-1 in the third-place match.
The matches in Myanmar, which were televised back home, saw Indonesian commentators frequently refer to Egy as "Egy Messi," comparing him to Argentine football great Lionel Messi.
His popularity has been booming since then and Egy is always on top of people's minds when they talk about the country's best young footballers.
This is supported by British newspaper The Guardian, which shortly after the Myanmar tournament named Egy one of the 60 best young talents in world football.
"I prefer for him to play abroad [rather than at a local club]. He will be an inspiration for other young footballers," Indra told the Jakarta Globe in October last year.
It turns out that Egy, a left-footed footballer who usually plays as an attacking midfielder, had never been nurtured by any Indonesian professional clubs, contrary to the more mature industry in Europe, where super-talented young footballers are retained by professional clubs from an early age.
Until his first call-up to the national youth team last year, Egy had only represented small, amateur and youth-oriented development clubs such as Tasbi Football School, Asiop Apacinti, Persab Brebes and Annisa Pratama Football School.
If it was not for Subagja Suihan, an ordinary employee at state-owned contractor Adhi Karya, Egy would not be destined for Poland today.
Subagja first spotted Egy's talent when he trained with Tasbi during 2011.
Three years after meeting with Egy's father, Subagja was allowed to take the young footballer to Jakarta for a trial at the state-run Ragunan Elite Sports School, which prepares Indonesia's future top athletes.
Egy had been at the Ragunan Elite Sports School for three-and-a-half years before he was called up to the under-19 national team last year.
According to Teguh Raharjo of the Ministry of Youth and Sports, the Ragunan Elite Sports School is the best center for elite young athletes in Indonesia, but it does not only develop footballers. It currently trains 210 athletes between the ages of 12 and 17 in 16 sports disciplines.
"With an annual budget of Rp 20 billion [$1.4 million], the Ragunan Elite Sports School educates future top athletes and provides them with everything, including clothes, meals, facilities and allowances," Teguh told the Jakarta Globe last week.
In terms of football, the Ragunan Elite Sports School only admits eight new players annually from across Indonesia and they can be expelled if they fail to live up to expectations.
The school is currently the best football academy in the country, because most professional clubs do not have development programs and facilities.
The school's concept is similar to La Masia, the well-known football academy belonging to top Spanish club FC Barcelona, where Messi was groomed for stardom.
The Ragunan Elite Sports School has produced many of the country's top footballers, such as goalkeeper Andritany Ardhiyasa, right-back Putu Gede Juni Antara, midfielders Muhammad Hargianto and Ian Louis Kabes, defender Abduh Lestaluhu and Ilham Udin Armaiyn, forward for Malaysian club Selangor.
Bambang Warsito, the school's head football coach, was immediately impressed by Egy's natural talent when he saw him for the first time.
"Egy is different; his talent is different. His skills are gifted," Bambang said during an exclusive interview with the Jakarta Globe last week.
Bambang and the school's two other football coaches are tasked with developing 24 young elite footballers who have been handpicked from various parts of the archipelago.
"Actually, he was a bit late in coming to our annual admission at the time [in 2014], but because his talent was exceptional, we still admitted him to the school," the head coach said, adding that Egy joined the school in third grade.
Beside his phenomenal talent, Bambang said Egy is also a diligent, disciplined and humble person who always listens to advice from coaches and seniors.
"There was a moment in a game when I saw Egy could not control his emotions. I went up to him after the game and told him: 'Egy, if you want to be successful, you must learn to control yourself; control your anger.' He has listened to me since then," Bambang said.
"Gold will still be gold, even if it's put in a sewer," Bambang said, referring to an Indonesian idiom he uses to motivate his young players.
"I'm so proud of him; for sure, the coaches are proud. I agree [with the opinion] that he can be Indonesia's best footballer ever, just like Messi," he added.
The "Egy Messi" moniker, which has since stuck, was no coincidence.
"I remember when during his early years at Ragunan, I told my assistants that this left-footed kid seemed like Messi; we could have a Messi," Bambang recalled.
"With his strong left foot, I often put him on the right and the left flanks to confuse opponents. But I prefer to play him as second striker," he said.
It was in this position, also known as attacking midfielder, that Egy helped Persab Brebes triumph in the 2016 Under-16 Soeratin Cup. The amateur football club contracted Bambang as caretaker coach during the tournament.
Indonesia has had several other footballers who were signed by professional clubs in Europe.
Among them are striker Kurniawan Dwi Yulianto and goalie Kurnia Sandy, who were selected for an elite under-19 team formed by the PSSI in 1993 to train and live with Genovese club UC Sampdoria's youth team in Italy.
According to sports tabloid BOLA, the project, often called "the Primavera," was initially backed by an Indonesian businessman who contributed Rp 12 billion ($840,000) at the time to sponsor 20 players at the Italian club for three years.
Kurniawan joined FC Luzern in Switzerland for the 1994/95 season, playing 10 games on loan from Sampdoria. There he achieved a historic milestone by becoming the first Indonesian to score a goal in a senior competitive game in Europe.
Kurniawan contributed to Luzern's 2-1 won over FC Basel in a league game in 1995 with a goal from a header.
A year later, he returned to train with Sampdoria's youth team but never had any further chances to play with the seniors.
When the Primavera project ended in 1996 without any significant outcome, Kurniawan returned to Indonesia, along with fellow countryman Bima Sakti, who played for Sweden's Helsinborgs IF in the 1995/96 season.
The PSSI adopted a similar strategy in 2008 by sending a squad of 25 under-19 players to play in the Uruguayan youth league, known as the Quinta Division.
The project, which cost around Rp 12.5 billion per season, was discontinued in 2012 due to poor results.
Another Indonesian player, Arthur Irawan, was signed by top Spanish club Espanyol in 2011, but he only made 28 appearances in the youth league during his four-year tenure.
Between 2014 and 2016, Arthur played for top-tier Belgian club Waasland-Beveren where he only made a single appearance in a competitive match. He finally returned home last year to join Persija Jakarta.