Ex-Liverpool midfielder Momo Sissoko 'pleasantly surprised' by Indonesia

At a time when many European, African and South American players see the Chinese Super League as either a lucrative pay day or an ambitious career move, former Liverpool midfielder Momo Sissoko has taken the road less travelled to Indonesia, and has been making a positive impression in Southeast Asia.

After a spell with Levante in Spain ended in 2015, Sissoko began his Asian adventure at Shanghai Shenhua. Following a six-month stint in China, Sissoko headed for FC Pune City in the Indian Super League before joining Mitra Kukar of Indonesia's Liga 1 in April. He has settled well in a league which also features former Premier League stars Michael Essien and Peter Odemwingie, although Carlton Cole and Didier Zokora have departed in recent days.

The former Mali international admits that Indonesia's Liga 1 can't compete with the financial might of China, but he is optimistic about the future of football in ASEAN's most populous nation.

"In China, money talks, and they have enough financial power to attract world-class players to the league, with transfer fees that are simply out of the question in Indonesia," Sissoko told ESPN FC. "In Indonesia, there is a league that we want to develop in order to find ways of making it more competitive in Asia.

"There is no real comparison to be made between the two leagues because in China, it's all about the money, while in Indonesia, people are looking at long-term development."

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Indonesia's domestic league is getting back on its feet after a FIFA ban was imposed in 2015 for unacceptable government interference in the running of the game. But Sissoko was delighted to sign with Mitra Kukar in the closing stages of a career that has also seen him at Valencia, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.

"It wasn't a difficult decision to make," said Sissoko. "After playing in India, I wanted to try something different. In recent years, I have travelled a lot and when the opportunity to play in Indonesia came along, it didn't take long for me to make up my mind.

"It's fair to say it wasn't necessarily a move I was expecting, but I have been very pleasantly surprised. The people here have very warm and welcoming, and I'm very happy to be here."

While Sissoko won league and and UEFA Cup winners' medals at Valencia, and also lifted the FA Cup with Liverpool, he is excited about a different type of challenge in Indonesia, and insists that people in Europe would be surprised by the standard of football.

"You can't compare the level with Europe, but there is a real desire to learn and to develop the league," Sissoko said. "I think that, over time, we will see important steps taken to develop academies, for example, and eventually they will have a league in which the teams are strong enough to compete throughout Asia.

"There is a perception, especially in Europe, that if you go to places like India and Indonesia, it's easy. But they've got it wrong. For sure, it's different from Europe, but you have to be physically prepared to play here. If not, you could be found wanting."

His former Premier League rival Cole was sacked by his Indonesian club Persib Bandung last week, with the management claiming that he had played "very badly". The handling of Cole's departure has not enhanced the image of Indonesian football, but Sissoko insists he has had no problems settling in.

"I travel a lot and can adapt to any situation," said Sissoko. "Even though I have played for a lot of big clubs, I came with a competitive mentality and a positive attitude and that makes a difference.

"I don't know what happened with Carlton Cole and it's a pity, but personally, I have been warmly received by the Indonesian people and I'm really happy with that.

"I can't say for sure how long I will be here. I am committed to one year with Mitra Kukar. I'm very happy at the club and in the country, but we'll have to wait and see what the future holds."

Sissoko's past is a colourful one, from when he became a Spanish champion as a teenager under Rafa Benitez during Valencia's glory years at the beginning of the millennium.

"I have great memories of my time playing in Europe," Sissoko said. "Winning La Liga and the European Super Cup with Valencia at the age of 19 is one my fondest memories. I also have great memories of my time at Liverpool, and it was there that I really made my name.

"And then, of course, there was Juventus, which is as much an institution as a football club. As a player, to have played for clubs like Valencia, Liverpool, Juventus, and Paris Saint-Germain makes me extremely proud."

And playing for some of the biggest clubs in Europe inevitably means playing with some of the best in the business, but Sissoko was reluctant to single anyone out.

"There are too many to mention and I could not possibly limit myself to one player because I have played alongside some incredible players," he said.

"You have the likes of Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Alessandro Del Piero, Pavel Nedved, Mauro Camoranesi, David Trezeguet, Gianluigi Buffon and many more. I learned a lot playing at the same club as these players and it was a real honour to play alongside them."

As well as lining up alongside some of the legends of the modern game, Sissoko also played under some of the most celebrated coaches, including Benitez at Valencia, and then Liverpool.

"When I arrived at Valencia, Benitez took me under his wing, helped me develop as a player and gave the best advice to reach the highest level possible," Sissoko said.

"I learned so much from Benitez and he was the coach who game the opportunity to play at a high level."

At the age of 32, Sissoko is nearing the end of his playing career, but he insists he hasn't thought too much about what comes next.

"I'm still only 32 years old and I think I can continue playing for several more years," said Sissoko. "I do think a little about the future without really making any firm plans.

"But as I have always been immersed in football, I think I will stay in football in some capacity to bring my experience and maybe manage a club."

Fans in Indonesia will certainly hope he stays in the country a little longer. His leadership and uncharacteristic goal-scoring form have compared more than favourably with the impact of some of the other foreign imports.