Super Striker Sylvano Comvalius Talks Life In Liga 1
Dutch striker Sylvano Comvalius grew up in the fabled Ajax youth system, and has gone on to have a career most people could only dream of. He’s played professionally in Holland, Malta, Scotland, Kuwait, Kazakhstan, China, Germany, Ukraine, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Although he wears the 99 on his back, Comvalius is a proper number nine; a focal point, a leader, a proven goal scorer.
In 2017, Comvalius joined the unheralded Indonesian Liga 1 team Bali United, and went on to score 37 goals in 34 games to set the all-time scoring record for the league on the way to what became a controversial runners-up finish for the Tridatu Warriors.
Coming In From The Cold
Having signed a three-year contract with Stal Kamianske in the Ukrainian Premier League, pre-season was well underway, however, the club failed to pay wages for three months, leaving many in the squad to look for a new home.
With the transfer window closed in Europe, the options were limited, but Comvalius was able to take advantage of his desire to return to Asia to make contact with the right people to secure a move.
‘I had a time in Asia already, before I moved to Bali. It was in 2012, I played in China and I played in Kuwait as well. And then when I went back to Europe, I always had the idea to one day move back to play in Asia. I got in touch with an Indonesian agent, Gabriel Budi. He has done many transfers in Indonesia.
‘I had already signed a deal in the Ukraine for three years. And after about three months, the club stopped paying. We were out of the transfer window. It was already February, and there were not many markets open anymore.
‘Obviously I didn’t want to stay in a situation where I didn’t get paid. I had contact with Budi, and he said I have a club in Indonesia. They have a German coach, and he knows you from when you were in Germany and would you like to come? And then I said yes, because why not?’ said Comvalius.
When any player transfers to a new club there are a lot of changes to go through, but you would be struggling to think of a bigger difference than going from Ukraine to Bali; cultural differences, food, and of course, the weather!
‘Well, it was definitely a big transition for me because by that time it was February and it was already minus 15 degrees. It was the coldest time of the year in Ukraine, so we were not able to train in normal conditions.
‘We had just been to Turkey for a training camp for 45 days, and then I had to switch to Bali where it was 30 degrees and happy summer days. So that was, first of all, a big transition.
‘And then the other transition was also playing on such a high level. I had just come out of my pre-season where I became really, really fit to play in the Ukraine Premier League, which is a very good standard.
‘Then all of a sudden I end up in Indonesia where football, of course it’s professional, but sometimes training is more like coming together as friends, like enjoying time together. So that was a big transition for me, because in Ukraine or in Germany, when you train, the players are willing to kill you in training for their spot. In Asia, everything is more relaxed.’
2017: A Season Beyond Expectations
Coming into the 2017 Liga 1 season, the expectations at Bali United were low. In 2015, their first season, they finished 17th, and followed it up with a 12th place finish in 2016.
In 2017, Hans-Peter Schaller, who had enjoyed previous stints managing in Indonesia with Persiba Balikpapan and PSM Makassar took charge, and got off to a terrible start.
Back to back defeats cost the coach his job, and saw former national team boss Widodo Putra take over. The team then went on a charge, moving up to second on the table at the halfway point of the season.
‘Bali hadn’t been doing well before, in previous years they finished in the bottom half. When I arrived, there was no ambition to be champions or anything like that. There was no ambition. Of course there was a new owner and they were trying to build something, but there was no target.
‘We had a group of really good players and good individuals that managed to somehow work together on the field very well. There was a lot of chemistry between the players.
‘The foreigners, we had some connection from Holland already, so it was easier to adapt to each other.
‘If we just looked to the first four or five games of the season, we were nothing, no position. But the thing is that we saw that we had a lot of qualities.
‘We could also see that as foreigners if we took the lead of the team, then things could develop. That’s a thing which is really hard in Indonesia, which I experienced after. Normally local players, the bigger players, they want to be the leaders, they want to be the boss, they want to control the teams.
‘In Bali, it was so positive that we could all do it together. There was no clear leader, we just wanted to play, enjoy, and try to win every game.
And win a lot of games they did – 21 out of 34 in total.
However, it wasn’t enough to win the title as Bhayangkara, whose Bhara Mania supporters are mainly made up of Indonesian National Police finished level on points with Bali United (68) and had an inferior goal difference (+21 compared to Bali United’s +38) yet were awarded the championship based on the two teams head to head results in the season – both matches were won by Bhayangkara.
Indonesian football was still reeling from the cancellation of the 2015 season by Imam Nahrawi, Minister of Youth and Sports Affairs, and the subsequent sanctions handed down by FIFA due to match-fixing allegations across the league.
However, in 2017 it still wasn’t unusual to attend a football match where the result had been decided prior to kick off.
While Bayangkara were the recipients of much good fortune throughout the campaign, they received no greater benefit than the comical situation after their draw with Mitra Kukar.
With just three rounds remaining and the season balancing on a knife-edge, Bhayangkara drew 1-1 with Mitra Kukar, a result that initially cost them top spot on the table.
However, the result was later overturned, and Bhayangkara were handed a 3-0 win as Mitra Kukar was deemed to have fielded an ineligible player – Mohamed Sissoko. Yes, the Mohamed Sissoko who had previously played for Liverpool, Juventus, and PSG.
One week earlier Sissoko had been sent off for an innocuous challenge, however, he wasn’t listed as an ineligible player by FIFA, so he played against Bhayangkara.
PSSI, the governing body in Indonesia, decided Sissoko should have been ineligible, and awarded Bhayangkara the victory and the additional two points needed to seal the championship.
For Bali United, finishing runners up after a fairy tale season was a bitter pill to swallow, but everyone involved was proud of the run that put Bali on the footballing map.
‘The facts are that obviously it was clear that we’re not supposed to be champion, and that’s why we didn’t make it in the end. That was pretty clear.
‘So, yeah, that was hard to accept because it was not only that game where they did something with the point allocation.
‘We already had things in the season going on, where the national team were taking all of our players, selecting players who were never previously selected, for example. From our starting 11 players, suddenly five of them go to the national team while we’re still playing.
‘That happens only in Indonesia. Normally, if national football is playing, then the league should stop, that’s the rules.
‘Looking through all those difficulties, we were even more proud of what we did. It didn’t matter who replaced who, we just had a great team.’
Moving To Thailand
At the conclusion of the 2017 season, heartbroken Bali United fans were still processing losing the championship when they awoke to the news that their hero and talisman would be moving to Thailand to play with Suphanburi.
The news did not go down well as the fans now had a taste of success and wanted more, and had counted on the leagues best striker to take them to the promised land.
‘Well, of course I didn’t open that book before, because for me, there had been a lot of things said about me, things that are not right.
‘To be honest, my first intention always was for me to stay in Bali. That was always my first intention because I felt good there.
‘During the 2017 season when things were developing, the club started to believe in everything, so we got the support of them as well.
‘Things that were not possible before, they became more possible, I could see.
‘Then, in the end, a lot of things happened behind the scenes. People wanted me out.
‘People said a lot of bad things about me behind my back, then Bali United made some decisions on other people’s words and that was not how I wished it would continue, but that’s how it ended up.
‘At a certain point, there was a moment where the national team wanted me to play for them, to play in the Asian Games.
‘So we spoke about naturalization. I had a meeting with the national team coach, then the Bali United person called me and said ‘you have to extend your contract for four years, and then we can get the naturalization done because the Federation they want you to be playing for them’. And I said, ‘yes, definitely, it will be an honour’.
‘But then there were many things happening behind the scenes. Some people didn’t want me to be there, to stay there in Bali. It’s sad. It’s just sad.’
When Comvalius moved to Suphanburi, the weight of expectation on the prolific scorer was huge, and life in Thailand got off to a rocky start.
Meanwhile, Bali United’s campaign was heading for disaster.
Fan-favourite Nick van der Velden was told he would not be re-signed as the club chased bigger names such as Raphael van der Vaart and Wesley Schneider.
Then after a supporter-led backlash, van der Velden was handed another one year contract, and was joined by international signings Demerson of Brazil, a defender, and Dutch midfielder Kevin Brands.
Brands was never used properly, and despite having the highest passing completion percentage in the AFC Cup group stage, he was released prior to the Liga 1 season start.
Amidst the turmoil Bali United made the final of the cup competition Piala Indonesia, losing the final to Persija Jakarta, as fans settled in for what they hoped would be a successful season.
It wasn’t to be, as four losses and three draws in their opening ten matches left Bali mid-table, and had fans calling for the return of their hero Comvalius.
However, the dream return was not to be, and after losing their final five league matches, Bali United finished a disappointing 11th.
‘My return was discussed and I know the players wanted me to come back as well. The supporters wanted me to come back. But there were certain individuals inside the team who said that if I was to come back, they would leave the club.
‘I don’t know why, but that’s how much other people wish me ‘death’. All of a sudden I had become some kind of a hero for the club or a star, and there was also some jealousy in that.
‘I was just a bit disappointed that the management didn’t make their own decision, and they left it up to other players, other people.
‘So they had a very tough time. I had a tough time as well in Thailand, because obviously the expectation was super high, me going over there. And then things didn’t go as planned from the start.
‘After the first two months that I was there, we were already started to talk about a return. Maybe I could go back on loan. Because, of course, I would have loved to go back to Bali. I wouldn’t even have left in the first place.
‘So all of a sudden it didn’t happen. I was very disappointed by that. And then I had to move on. But yeah, a lot of things have been said about me that are false, negative.
‘In the end people turn from loving you to almost hating you.’
The return of the King?
After a brief spell with Kuala Lumpur FC in 2019, it was time for the King to return home to reclaim his throne.
Only, it wasn’t to Bali.
Comvalius signed with Indonesian powerhouse Arema to much fanfare, and was ready to make another assault on the championship.
In the meantime, Bali United had invested heavily in their squad and brought in title-winning manager Stefano Cugurra in what was shaping up as a title showdown between Bali United and Arema – Comvalius’ past and present.
‘Arema is one of the traditional clubs in Indonesia, they were established over 30 years ago and have grown. I definitely think with all that Bali are doing on and off the pitch that they will soon have the same tradition and big crowds as well.
‘Arema have 40-50,000 people in the stadium at home games, and I definitely felt that when I signed there. So much press, so much media, so many supporters.
‘At Arema in 2019, we had a lot of good quality players as well. But by that time, I think Bali had already started to invest so much money in winning the league. They were uncatchable for the rest of the league.’
Arema is one of the most storied teams in South East Asia and their fans, Aremania, bring a cacophony of noise, colour, and passion to home games that are regularly played in front of 45,000 people.
‘For me, it’s fantastic because I played for a couple of clubs in Europe as well, like Dynamo Dresden, where I was used to having full stadiums.
‘You know how lucky you are when you play for a club like that.
‘In Bali, in the beginning it was a bit different because there were empty holes in the stadium, it wasn’t full at all. But it developed and became full. But when you play for Arema against Jakarta or Bandung, it’s a full house. It’s something magical, definitely.
‘As a player it always gave me a boost. I enjoyed it a lot. And I think also that’s why I had quite a tough time in Malaysia and also Thailand because I was always playing in empty stadiums and it didn’t bring the best out of me.
When coronavirus hit at the beginning of 2020, it threw the world into chaos, and football was no exception.
Indonesia has a population of 273 million people, and with densely populated cities and many families living together in large groups, containing the spread proved challenging.
Comvalius had joined Persipura Jayapura for the 2020 campaign, but as the league was first paused, then postponed, then cancelled amidst ongoing uncertainty, it was time to head home to Europe.
‘Well, as many know me, I always try to move ahead of time, a little bit, to see if there’s a response. And in this situation, I was obviously under contract with Persipura, and we had just started the league.
‘Then when I saw the whole corona and COVID situation developing, especially in Holland, I knew that Indonesia was going to be hit as well.
‘So I didn’t want to wait until things happened, I tried to be one step ahead. First I moved back to Holland, because they announced that the Indonesian league wouldn’t start again before August. Then I said I wanted to stay in Holland until things are more clear.
‘Then the government said only foreigners with visas are allowed to stay in Indonesia, and my family, they don’t have visas, they didn’t have a Kitas.
‘So then at that point, it was pretty clear for me that I didn’t want to move back to Indonesia without my family.
‘I discussed that with the club. They totally understood because also in Indonesia the situation with the league was not really clear.
‘In the meantime, I tried to contact other clubs or other agents to see if I can just play somewhere in Europe, close to home for the time being.
‘Then I found Sliema Wanderers in Malta, which has a very ambitious project going on with a new investor and a new sponsor. So if I can still play at least for this year until the situation passes and I can be with my family and I can be close to home, then I think it’s a win-win.
‘I’m coming to an age now, 33, where I don’t want to miss one year of football, I want to continue playing. So yeah, that’s a big reason also why I decided to come here.’
Sliema Wanderers are the most successful team in the Maltese Premier League, having won the title 26 times.
However, they’re currently in a title drought, having not won the league since the 2005 season, something Comvalius believes will end this year…
‘Well, we’re on top of the league and we’re doing well. But still, of course, it’s a long way to go. But I think for the club, if not this year, I don’t know when!
‘We have a really good group of players with a lot of quality, a lot of experience, and it would be great if we can qualify for Europe. I think knowing where we are on the table now, we are definitely going to fight for the championship,’ concluded the striker.
After a tumultuous yet goal-laden three years in the region, South East Asia’s loss is Malta’s gain, as Comvalius and his goal-scoring prowess are now firmly focused on winning in Sliema.