A decade ago, Maldini Pali was just a boy who liked playing soccer in his front yard in a remote area of West Sulawesi.
Today, the 16-year-old is on his way to becoming one of the country’s next big soccer players.
Maldini was born on Jan. 27, 1995, in Pangkalanbun, eight hours drive from Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan. One of his parents is from Toraja, a secluded area in South Sulawesi. His family moved to Kalimantan when Maldini’s father was offered a job on the island.
Maldini is your typical kampong boy. He is quite slim, on the tall side –1.73 meters high.
There is almost nothing out of the ordinary about Maldini’s features, except maybe for a dimple on his left cheek.
The Jakarta Post met him at his lodging in Tebet, South Jakarta ,last week. He had just come back from school when the Post visited him.
Wearing a school uniform, Maldini approached the interview casually, even though he confessed he wasn’t used to talking with the media, despite his marvelous achievements in soccer.
Maldini started by recounting how he entered the world of soccer.
It was all a coincidence, he said.
Maldini explained he started playing soccer at the age of seven, just for fun. He used to play with other neighborhood kids in the afternoon. He never thought he would one day be a professional soccer player.
But, fate decided otherwise.
In 2005, he won a regional soccer competition in Central Kalimantan and was selected to represent the province in a youth national competition in Jakarta.
Even though he failed to bring home trophies, Maldini’s life changed. He couldn’t stop playing soccer.
Maldini said he was lucky his father, a soccer buff, trained with him intensively every afternoon on his front lawn.
His parents have been supportive from the start, even before he was born, by naming him after a famous soccer player from Italy.
When asked why his parent picked that name, Maldini said he didn’t know. But as Indonesians believe a name is also a prayer, one may conclude his parent wished for Maldini to become a successful soccer player.
And he did.
Right after the family moved back to Sulawesi, a local soccer academy offered to train Maldini.
“It was pure luck that my house was located near the field they used for practice. After training, they asked the kids in the area to play with them and from that, they knew I was good so they asked me to join them,” he said, explaining how he ended up joining the Manakarra soccer academy in Sulawesi.
After that, nothing could stop Maldini from becoming a rising soccer star.
His career took off after he participated in the Sport Minister Soccer Championship in Makassar, South Sulawesi, last year.
Whilst his team didn’t win, Maldini caught the eye of Kevin Kent, a coach from the Indonesia Football Academy (IFA), a training center affiliated with the Indonesian Soccer Association (PSSI).
As a result of his remarkable performance in Makassar, he was selected to play for the national team in the under 16 years old (U-16) category.
He then moved to Jakarta to train intensively for four months at Sawangan, Depok, before he was flown to Uzbekistan to represent Indonesia in the Asian Cup.
It was Maldini’s first time overseas.
“I like Uzbekistan very much. The country is very neat and the people are friendly. I was not homesick during my three-week stay in the country,” he said with a sparkle in his eyes.
Even though Indonesia failed in the qualification round, Maldini said he had learned a lot from the competition.
Maldini was given a second chance to play on an international field when IFA selected him for a one-month training program in Leicester City, the UK.
With his two friends and a coach from Indonesia, he was given the opportunity to learn from experts.
“It is so different from what we have in Indonesia, the pace, the discipline,” he said of the training.
After these overseas experiences, Maldini now dreams of becoming a successful international soccer player.
“I want to play in Barca [FC Barcelona],” he said, referring to a top soccer club from Spain, which also happens to be his favorite team.
To reach his goal, the fan of Lionel Messi realizes the cannot rely anymore on coincidences, like he has in the past.
“I have to practice harder, be more disciplined, pray diligently and not be arrogant,” he said.
Maldini’s next goal is to win the next Asian Cup in Australia in October and train in Netherlands and Belgium next year.
Given Maldini’s track record until now, it may not be hard for this village boy to become a top soccer player in the future, not only in Indonesia but also abroad.