Meet the Aussie thriving in the world's most dangerous league
Having based himself in Indonesia for five years, Australian centre-back Aaron Evans has been thriving in the country's top tier. He has set his eyes on playing in the A-League Men one day.
Evans has become a cult figure in the BRI Liga 1 competition and has had the most appearances and minutes by any footballer since its rebrand in 2017.
FPF caught up with the 27-year-old Persis Solo defender to discuss his career spanning various Asian countries such as Hong Kong, Thailand, and Laos.
Evans grew up in the Australian capital and started his career with the Capital Football Academy before joining the ACT Academy of Sport in 2009.
"It's a cliche among professional footballers, but I lived and breathed football ever since I can remember," Evans said.
"It's always been a part of me, and I've always dreamed of playing, and I'm grateful for the career I have now."
Evans represented Canberra Deakin (now known as Canberra FC) during his youth career. Being of Croatian descent, Evans was honoured to represent the Capital Football club with proud Croatian roots.
"It was a simple decision to join Canberra FC," Evans said.
"I had family members as teammates, so looking back, it was a no-brainer to play for a proud club like Canberra FC early in my career. I enjoyed my time there."
In 2014, Evans received an offer from Hong Kong side Tai Po. It was a surprise as the move happened during the season while he was still playing for Canberra FC.
"We just won a semi-final game, and I got a call from Kaz Patafta, who wanted to get a coffee with me after the game," Evans said.
"I was shocked as I just finished the game. I sat with Kaz at around 9:30pm, and as I sat down, I saw a bunch of papers face down on the table.
"He said he has a professional contract for me in Hong Kong and asked if I was interested and if I wanted to accept the offer. Before he finished his sentence, I said, 'absolutely, let's go'.
"But he told me there was a catch. That catch was I had to be in Hong Kong in three days because the league starts in five days, and the club wants me to start in the first game of the season against Kitchee.
"Five days later, I made my debut in Hong Kong in front of 22,000 fans and got a surprise. Kaz and my mum and dad were there to witness my professional debut, so it was a moment I will never forget."
Despite Evans enjoying life in Hong Kong, he did not feel satisfied from a football perspective, and a year later, he moved to the Thai side Kamphaeng Phet.
"From a football perspective, Hong Kong wasn't the place for me," Evans said.
"I found Hong Kong football very slow with older players on the verge of retiring. In Thailand, I found that the football played there was faster and more physical, which suited me."
In 2016, Evans moved to Laos to play for Lanexang United in a club cup competition. Similarly to the Hong Kong transfer, it was a massive surprise for Evans.
"Kaz Patafta, the same person who organised my move to Hong Kong, contacted me to play in Laos for the Mekong Cup," Evans said.
"Kaz gave me a call, and [at] that exact moment of the phone call, I was in Bangkok with my mum. I was meant to return to Australia to catch up with family and friends; however, I moved to Laos to participate in the cup.
"Laos football isn't renowned for its footballing quality or talents, so we weren't expected to do well in a home and away club cup competition.
"However, we ended up going to the final. We played against clubs from Cambodia, Vietnam, [and] Myanmar. In the final, we played against Buriram United, which for me, is the biggest club in Thailand.
"We won the first leg of the final 1-0, but then we lost 2-0 in the return leg. After the tournament, I got selected [for] the Laos Premier League All-Stars squad, which was funny considering I never made an appearance in the Laos Premier League.
"In the All-Stars game, we played against Muangthong United, another big club from Thailand, and it was a beautiful feeling to be a part of."
In 2017, Evans signed for Indonesian Liga 1 side Barito Putera. It was the first time Evans had touched down in the fourth-most populated country in the world.
"Indonesia was by far the biggest cultural shock compared to the other countries I had been to," Evans said.
"It's predominantly a Muslim country, so things are done differently on and off the field, such as cultural prayers and specific dress codes. I wasn't aware of that when I first arrived.
"I am a person that loves new challenges, and I embraced new surroundings. I learned over time how life works here, and I adapted to that."
Two years later, in 2019, Evans remained in Indonesia and switched to fellow Liga 1 side PSM Makassar.
It was arguably the best season of his career. Evans not only played many minutes in the domestic league but also featured in the AFC Cup. PSM Makassar also won the Indonesian Cup against giants Persija Jakarta.
For Evans, the success of lifting the Indonesian Cup will remain a lifelong memory, and he vividly recalls the first leg of the final being played in the Indonesian capital.
"The first leg of the cup final was played at the GBK Stadium (Jakarta), and it was an incredible atmosphere," Evans said.
"We lost the first leg 1-0 in front of 70,000 fans, but having the first leg away motivated myself and the team to come back to Makassar and get the result we needed in front of our fans.
"After seeing the pregame atmosphere in Makassar, as soon as I got onto the bus on the return leg, I knew we could do it. I just had this gut feeling we would win the cup.
"In the second leg, I scored in the first half and also gave an assist in the second half - we won 2-0, and to celebrate that cup success in front of our fans was unbelievable.
"After the final, I [got] a tattoo of the cup on the back of my right leg because not many people get to play in a final, no matter what level they play. And not many get to win it, so I've got a tattoo for life on my body to remind me of this success."
A Foreign Correspondent documentary by ABC News Australia highlighted the issue of football fan culture in Indonesia, describing it as the world's most dangerous league.
Evans experienced firsthand the tension of fan culture in Indonesia when he was transported in a police van to a match.
"We beat Persija Jakarta in the cup, but then three days later, we had to play them again in the league," Evans said.
"For safety and security reasons, a decision was made to transport players and staff to the ground in police tanks. That was incredible and got the blood pumping for me.
"It was a proper tank; the policemen were all in suits, with weapons and shields, all black head to toe; you couldn't see their faces.
"Overall, Indonesia is a violent place for football.
"The fans are incredibly passionate here, but they can go too far. There's a lot of off-field hate through social media or verbal abuse on the streets, [which] can be very hard for foreigners to adapt to.
"If you're losing, the fans can throw things like flares at players as they're walking off the pitch. Police will use their shields to escort players out as well. There are a lot of planned extra safety precautions.
"The fans like to riot, they like to light flares, and unfortunately, throughout the years, there have been quite a lot of deaths. Indonesia is a violent place not only for the players but for the fans."
Not much is known outside of Asia about Indonesian football. However, Evans says that football is the number one sport in the country, and Indonesians share an immense passion for the sport.
"Football is the number one sport in Indonesia," Evans said.
"From broadcasting to social media, it is incredible. When players go to restaurants or cafés, the fans go out of their way to ask for autographs and photos.
"There is a star status on footballers here, predominantly towards foreigners like myself, because I guess we are the 'unique' ones. It is an amazing feeling.
"Seeing young kids wearing jerseys with my name on the back, older people knowing who you are, is insane. Off the field, Indonesia can provide so many benefits in terms of your playing and business careers."
The Indonesian league does not rank as highly as other Asian leagues, such as the Saudi Pro League or J. League. However, in recent years the Liga 1 competition has seen rapid growth and development.
Evans hopes to see more Australians ply their trade in Indonesia.
"It is an extremely physical league," Evans said.
"The league is known for its physicality [and] fast-paced game. There's a lot of 'go-go-go', [which] is just counter-attacking football going from one side of the field to the other.
"I also urge Australian players to come to Indonesia.
"A few Aussie players have messaged me and asked about football in Indonesia, and I am brutally honest with them.
"There's a lot of positives about playing here. However, there are also quite a few 'uncomfortable' things here.
"But I urge any young or old player to come here because you can truly benefit on and off the field in this environment."
Evans has also witnessed football's development within Indonesia, saying the gap between the country and the rest of Asia is getting smaller. But it remains well behind the likes of Japan and South Korea.
"Five years ago, I would have said Indonesia has no chance of competing against Asia's best," Evans said.
"But I've seen the progression of Indonesian football and what they're trying to do. Through firsthand experience, I can immediately see that since COVID-19, there [have] been strong investments toward Liga 1 teams.
"This includes the right funds towards getting better foreign players, [and] better facilities which help the local game in Indonesia.
"But if Indonesia wants to keep growing in Asia, they need to invest and focus on the youth. I don't see a youth pathway for talented Indonesians. To be a powerhouse in Asia, they need to focus on youth development and successful pathways."
Despite never playing in the A-League Men, it is a competition that Evans actively aims to play in one day.
"I want to play in the A-League," Evans stated.
"Growing [up] back in the ACT, it wasn't realistic, and it was a shame I never had the opportunity. But looking back on my career, it's been an amazing ride and journey.
"Australia is my home and where my heart is, so I would love to play in the A-League. It is 100% on my 'where I would like to play before I retire' list."
The 2022/23 BRI Liga 1 season resumes on the 27th of July 2022.
To read more of FPF's Aussies Abroad coverage, click here.