And they scored!

The sad thing was Manchester United lost. Because they were lost, nobody really remembered Park Ji-Sung equalizer. In the same night, my wish from the previous post came true – Shinji Kagawa scored two goals against Hoffenheim, and Mike Havenaar scored for Vitesse before PSV put an end to their hope of a comeback. Hajime Hosogai also helped Ausburg scoring equalizer against Kaiserslautern. The only dent was Koo and Hasebe’s inability to fight Bayern Munich.

Kagawa and Havenaar’s performance both grabbed modest attention in Japanese media on Sunday, as well as assorted sports site. Unfortunately, they play in Germany instead of England. In the rest of Southeast Asia there are raging debates every day on EPL clubs, while in Indonesia people abuse each other over Madrid v Barcelona, but no one watches Bundesliga, let alone Eredivisie.

On Sunday, however, the fortunes of the Koreans and the Japanese turned over. Nagatomo played full time in Inter’s suprise defeat to Lecce, Okazaki came in at the start of the second half but Stuttgart were badly damaged in the last ten minutes, Uchida played only for the first half and got a yellow card to boot (and Schalke was able to turn the table once he was gone), and Yoshida was helpless as RKC  mistreated VVV. Ji and Chu-Young spent the whole match again on the bench. Still, credit to Kawashima for clean sheet in away victory against Westerlo.

What’s the lesson? First, at least watching Japanese and Korean attackers are much less depressing than five years ago, when you got Takahara and Ahn and Seol and Lee Dong-Gook attempting to make a break in England and Germany. No, please don’t remind me on the last day of the Japanese in Serie A (I’m not talking about Yuto. I’m talking about Ogasawara, Yanagisawa, Oguro. And Morimoto). But as expected, their defensive sides, while have secured their names in starting XI, are still shaky. Even my favorite Lee Jung-Soo lapsed in the second half and almost letting go a three goals advantage as Al Sadd registered narrow 3-2 against Al Ahli in Qatar.

 

I think that’s all about Japan and Korea. Anyway, yesterday I found two names – first is Hiroshi Ibusuki, the current top scorer of Spain’s Segunda B Group 4. He plays for Sevilla B. A former youth player for Kashiwa, he has lived in Spain for three years and scored 35 goals. How about that, scoring 35 goals in Spain before you are 21 year old. In Japan U-23, however, he is still ranked behind Yamazaki, Nagai, Osako and Usami, just to name a few.

The second name is Xavier Chen, playing for Mechelen. I was wondering how could a Taiwanese playing in the Belgian Premier League, seeing that no Taiwanese plays even in Hong Kong First Division or J.League Division 2. Turned out he’s half-Belgian, the Taiwanese football federation claimed to know him when playing FIFA 12 (talking about scouting), and said that they had to race China which was also approaching Chen. I don’t think China is one of federations which are keen to naturalize foreign-born players, but let’s just leave the story like that.

On the other hand, Indonesians are in love with Radja Nainggolan, half-Indonesian Belgian midfielder playing for Cagliari, who was linked with Juventus, which is still a popular club in Indonesia. I’m glad that he has played twice for Belgium so Indonesian football federation cannot approach him for *sigh* naturalization. FYI, in FIFA 12 Chen is rated 67 while Nainggolan’s rating is 76, making him one of the top Asian players in the game, ethnically.

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Comparing Asian and African progresses: Now and next

Waiting for moments like this.

The African Cup of Nations is rolling in in Gabon and Equator Guinea. Last week British journalist Jonathan Wilson argued that the absence of Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, and Cameroon in the tournament does not mean that the continental balance of power is reached. Rather, it signals that things have gone wrong with African football. With respects to Niger and Guinea, Egyptian, South African and Cameroon federations, managements, and players had made life more difficult for them than it supposed to be.

Put it this way – an Asian Cup without Australia, China, and Saudi Arabia. I should have put in Japan or South Korea in the example, but comparing continental ranking of September 2010, when the qualification phase started, I just noticed that Nigeria’s and Cameroon’s ranks did not match their reputation, partly caused by poor performance in the World Cup. South Africa, a successful host and an admired team, ranked 10th in Africa, the position occupied by Syria at that time in Asia. It’s true that the revolution unbalanced the Pharaohs, but even with civil war Libya went on with their campaign and qualified for the first time since 1982.

Wilson outlined three stereotypes beloved by Western (and indeed, global) media regarding African football. “Painted faces, drummers and horns, and muscular forward play”. Asian football have the first two, at least in the World Cup. Of course, in Australia 2015 I expect that Japanese, South Korean, and Australian supporters will crowd the stadiums with painted faces as well. Yes, there will be drums as well. There will be Vietnamese conical hat worn by Australians instead of Vietnamese (how come Vietnamese supporters never dress up as Vietcongs?). But muscular forward play? Hmm, that’s something else. Twenty years ago “Australian soccer” was an oxymoron. Ten years ago it was still a joke even in Japan, despite 2001 Confeds Cup.  Even now the lingering stereotype is that the Socceroos are rough and persistent big men (plus Tiny Tim), but their strengths lie in midfield and goalkeeping, not forward. There is still no replacement yet for Viduka and Kewell.

It is true that one glaring difference between Asian and African football is that European scouts don’t go deep to Asian villages and streets to pouch young Japanese or Korean talents. Now and then there’s stories about Manchester United or Milan signing up an Australian toddler, but the result is yet to be seen on the next decade. The only exception that I can think of are Son Heung-Min and Ryo Miyaichi. Wilson mentioned the “Pape Bouba Diop template”, the preference for big enforcer instead of speedy winger and creative attacking midfielder. Certainly big enforcers could come from Australia and probably Iran. East Asian players have still to struggle with the annoying stereotype that they are small, something that is never brought up when discussing Argentinians or Italians.

Quick test on the small stereotype. If the category of ‘small’ meaning shorter than 180 cm, then yeah, only a handful of European-based Japanese players fulfill this category. Among them are Maya Yoshida, Mike Havenaar, Tadanari Lee (6 feet and yet is still called ‘pint-sized’), Honda, and Takayuki Morimoto. Kawashima, standing at 185 cm, is said to be “short for goalkeeper standard”, although he is taller than both Iker Casillas and Victor Valdes.

What about South Koreans? There are plenty of 6 feet tall players trading in Europe, such as Ki Sung-Yeung, Koo Ja-Cheol, Park Chu-Young, Ji Dong-Won, Son Heung-Min, and Jung Jo-Gook. So in average, Japanese and Korean players stand around 175 cm, but they are anything but little. And expect the assumption to be uttered again by both media and fans in 2014.

Both football federations in Asia and Africa have plenty of troubles. The A-League constantly struggles with attendance, interest from sponsors and prime talents, consistency (I’m thinking of Adelaide United and Sydney FC), and of course the Champions League. I’m still wondering about JFA’s seriousness in handling the Champions League. KFA is waiting nervously for February to see if they can continue the road to Brazil, and there was the muted and swept-under-the carpet scandal of match fixing in the K-League, as well as the attendance problem. And those are the best.

Nobody in Singapore concerns loudly that naturalization doesn’t work, sponsors don’t come up, and the Chinese-Singaporean youth are not into footballing (similar statement can be said on white Frenchmen). The Chinese say that it’s easier for property price to go down (already happened) than for the national team to win any cup (excluding East Asian Football Championship). Bahrain gets away with torturing and imprisoning Shiite players. Indian football disrespects itself with the creation of the Silly League, despite the I-League. Indonesia has a rogue league which is more popular, and Thai national team and league are going in circles.

I have pointed out in previous post that Asia always, always defeats Africa in World Cup encounters, and Africa is also yet to defeat Asia in Confederations Cup. Same thing happens in Club World Cup – Asia is yet to reach the final round, but consistently wins the third place. Yet African teams are always favored even by Asian punters and pundits for a simple reason – they are Africans. They are black footballers. People all over the world are thrilled to see Ivory Coast because they have Drogba and Kalou. Ghana because they have Muntari and Essien. Cameroon because they have…uh, Eto’o. Nigeria because uh…they have…Nigerians. But except for East Asian fanboys such as me, nobody is thrilled to watch Shinji Okazaki or Ji Dong-Won. At least Australians love their Holman and Kennedy.

The expectation is both unfair and fair. It’s unfair because it relies on the generalization that Africans are fun and lively while Asians are clumsy and boring. It’s also fair because in Europe, Africans are consistently scoring goals while Asians don’t. There are dozens of African players in Europe playing as both substitutes and starters, as stars and flops. There are only about a dozen of Asian players in Europe, some of them are lucky to become regular starters (Honda, Nagatomo, Kagawa), or at least regular subs such as Park Ji-Sung and Ki. Many others are rarely played and are pressured when they are lucky enough to be selected, especially if they are forwards like Okazaki and Morimoto. Park Chu-Young was bit lucky that it was Arshavin instead of him who was chosen to replace Oxlade-Chamberlain, otherwise all the blame for Arsenal’s loss to Manchester United would have fallen on him.

I feel that in this transfer window, Japanese and Korean players are very prudent and conservative with offers. It’s unclear if Tadanari and Maeda will eventually play for the English Championship of if they will stick to J. League. Kagawa wants to stay in Dortmund, and we have to wait until June if Honda is moving away from CSKA. Maybe they are worried that they are not good enough for Europe. Kagawa still deliver assists, but he does not score as much as he likes. Havenaar finds that Eredivisie is not easy, a fact that Robert Cullen has to contend with week in week out. Usami is pessimistic on his future with Bayern, and so should Miyaichi feel in Arsenal. Many African players are also warming up the bench or taunted online for their mishaps, but Demba Ba (Newcastle), Papa Diawara (Maritimo), and Emmanuel Emenike (Spartak Moscow) know that they are good. The only Asian player in Europe who knows that he is winning is Iranian Reza Ghoochannejhad (St. Truiden).

Comparing Asian and African progresses: History

Meet you at Moscow

Ah, Asia-Africa. In Japanese geek parlance, it is a bad pairing. It’s bad fan fiction. But Asia-Africa Road (always, always a road) are there in major Indonesian cities. It is the official Indonesian name to what Cold War historians call Bandung Conference. Back in 1955 some Asian states had gained independence while most of sub-Saharan Africa had not. The conference drew on the idea that both continents were victims of colonization and had things in common – dashing nationalist figures and interest for Socialism. The biggest African star at that conference was Egypt.

Enough history, move on to football. The African Cup of Nations. People in Asia don’t really watch it. But people in Asia also do not watch AFC Asian Cup unless their national team is playing. Worse, although people admire and fear Drogba and Kalou, and people did admire Eto’o, it’s hard to find someone in Asia, Australia, and Europe (white people. And not a football geek. And offline) that can name Ghana or Ivory Coast XI. Still, African football attracts positive images of colorful fans, comical goal celebrations, and loud percussion. If television won’t capture the moment, newspapers and their websites will.  Asian football, on the other hand, attracts negative images of clumsy players, weird surnames, boring 1-1 matches, and…wait a minute, why do people tend to forget about Korean hot chicks who wear only red bra and flag sarong? Japanese and Korean supporters also play loud percussion, although the tone is more martial than ….euh….tribal.

Jonathan Wilson’s article on the false sense of African Progress since 1994 inspires me to track Asian performance in World Cup. After North Korea’s legendary 1966 campaign, AFC representatives for the next 15 years would come from the West. First stop, Israel. Yes, Israel is a West Asian country. It qualified after defeating New Zealand (North Korea walked out since it refused to play in Israel) and Australia. In the past AFC and OFC competed for the same ticket, and OFC encompassed some countries with political complications like Taiwan, Rhodesia, and eventually Israel. In Mexico 70, after down to Uruguay, they retained their dignities by holding  Sweden and Italy. Yet Italy survived Group 2, although the draw cost Sweden’s chance.

In 1974, OFC’s Australia defeated South Korea, so no AFC story. 1978, the Kingdom of Iran qualified after topping a mini league where Australia languished and again South Korea failed at the last step. At this time Japan had no interest in football, was crap at football, and even were weaker than Hong Kong. In Argentina, Andranik Eskandarian’s own goal prevented them from scoring a legendary victory against Scotland. They went down to Netherlands (Iran conceded two penalties) and Peru (which also scored twice from penalties. Iran did have terrible defenders, didn’t they?)

1982, Kuwait topped the final round group, while New Zealand represented OFC after won a tie-breaking playoff against China. After holding Czechoslovakia, Kuwait languished against France (1-4) and lost narrowly to England. And what does historians remember? France had one goal disallowed after Sheik Fahid al-Sabah stormed the pitch to protest  after Kuwaiti players said they mistook a whistle from the crowd with the ref’s. Al-Sabah was just fined, but Soviet referee Miroslav Stupar was demoted. Even when I was a baby, West Asian football had become some sore loser.

1986, finally the East Asian moment arrived. East Asia and West Asia were divided into two conferences with a guaranteed ticket for each of conference winner. Iraq survived thrilling semi-finals against UAE before defeated Syria to qualify, while Iran were disqualified after refusing to play Bahrain. In the East, Japan finally took football seriously and defeated Hong Kong. In final round, South Korea awaited. Oh, what a joy for the Koreans.

In Mexico, South Korea would be acquainted with the “oh-so-near” tragedies that will haunt it for many, many World Cups. After went down to Argentina and held Bulgaria, it would have held Italy had not for Cho Kwang-Rae’s own goal. After restart, Huh Jung-Moo immediately scored to undo the damage, but the 2-3 scoreline remained, although those 7 minutes would have been heart stopping for so many Italians. Huh would become a successful national coach in 2010 while Cho became his disgraced successor, fired after South Korea lost to Lebanon. Iraq, on the other hand, became the first Asian team to lose all group matches since South Korea in 1954.

In 1990, South Korea and UAE topped the final round and both of them were so terrible it was embarrassing. Especially for UAE which conceded 11 goals. In 1994, Korean-Americans flocked to watch South Korea while Saudi Arabia became a moderate source of pride for Arab-Americans and were dubbed as “the Asian Brazil”. After a great 2-2 comeback against Spain (Hong Myung-Bo and Seo Jung-Won scored in the last five minutes), Korea took one draw too many after failed to score against Bolivia. They scored twice after trailing 0-3 to Germany in the first half…and it was not enough since Spain defeated Bolivia soundly. Saudi Arabia lived up to its bill, leading 1-0 against Netherlands in the first half before lost 1-2, defeated Morocco (first Asian victory since 66, and the beginning of Asian winning records against Africa in World Cup – take that!) and the legendary 1-0 victory over Belgium (sorry, no video link. I don’t like Saudi Arabia enough). Sweden stopped them in the second round. O yeah, that was also the day when World Cup started to be cruel at Belgium. Washington, 29 June 1994.

Japan finally qualified to the World Cup through  the hard way – extra time goal in a playoff against Iran, after a very unconvincing campaign (four draws out of eight matches). Even until today some South Koreans say that Japan defeated South Korea in Seoul because South Korea gave the game away for the sake of diplomacy and to save the 2002 co-host’s face. South Korea and Saudi Arabia aced their respective groups, while Iran qualified after giving Australia its Agony of Doha (nobody ever says Agony of Melbourne, anyway).

In France 98, again Asia demonstrated that it was the weakest region (people for some reason have better respect to Australia and NZ). Saudi Arabia did hold South Africa, which post-apartheid team was supposedly a growing power in the mid 1990s,  illustrious Korean coach Cha Bum-Kun was fired after 0-5 defeat to Holland, and ironically Korea held Belgium 1-1 under interim coach, Iran got its coveted victory against Evil Empire, uh, Great Satan United States, so defeats to Germany and Yugoslavia did not matter, and Japan were always lost narrowly. Lost narrowly to Argentina under Batistuta and to Croatia under Suker. And lost narrowly even to Jamaica.

Which such results, how could Asia hope to hold the World Cup? By giving East Asia a big pride. 2002 was a year of dyeing your hair brown and watching Taiwanese and Korean soap operas (Meteor Garden and Winter Sonata) while listening to Japanese pop (Utada Hikaru and Ayumi Hamasaki were big stars with unfortunately no rivalry between them, BoA and Mika Nakashima were debuting). All of the sudden, South Korea won its first World Cup, defeating Poland 2-0, while Japan failed to defeat Belgium. No such joy for Saudi Arabia and China – which scored no goal and received average of 10 goals between them. Japan finally scored its first win against its favorite white victim, Russia; while Korea thought that draw with United States was enough to payback its speed skating grudge against Japanese-American skater Apollo Ohno. Japan defeated Tunisia while Korea blew the predictions by defeating favorite Portugal. Going to the playoff rounds, it became nasty and controversial for Korea – extra time victory to Italy and penalty shootout win against Spain, all against accusations of foul plays. South Koreans, however, have learned to love the marriage of pop culture with nationalism and just said that the outside world were just jealous. Germany stopped their path to the final before Korean defense became the recipient of the fastest goal ever. Still, no grudge for the Turks and even it was the beginning of a partnership – South Korea sent its B-Team players (from Lee Eul-Yong to Shin Young-Rok) to the Turkish League, while Turkish coach Senol Gunes helped the development of Korean football. O yeah, Turkey also defeated a plucky Japanese side, a sour ending note for Philippe Troussier.

2006 World Cup was really bad for Asians excluding South Korea. Iran couldn’t make a suprise, Japan was so shameful (nevermind Australia’s triple goals – how could Yanagisawa missed Croatia’s open goal? How could Oguro be that impotent?), Saudi Arabia realized that its 2002 disaster was there to stick. South Korea prolonged Asia > Africa record against Togo, and held France with one good break despite being overpowered. Again, they blew it at the last moment  – lost to Switzerland. That’s why in 2010 Asians bar North Korea were so surprising. Although South Korea came close to blow it out again had Nigeria used their chances well – there was a good chance that Nigeria could win 3-2 to score the first ever African victory over Asia. Japan were ready to accept its fate as losers, but Keisuke Honda beat the expectations, humiliated Eto’o, and later the Danes. Both Honda and Endo were also among the first players to be able to score from free kick in the tournament. Australia were surprising in term that they failed to pass the group and lost badly to Germany, despite came close to take the lead very early.

My, while Jonathan Wilson could summarize Africa’s glory and fall in seven paragraphs, I charted everything that happened since 1970. Alright, we stop it right there for today with this lesson – just like Asia is yet to defeat South America in World Cup, the same thing happens for the Africans – Asians are their nemesis.

Homare Sawa: Still Unsung

The Number 10 wears kimono

It’s the picture that should have made headlines across the world: Lionel Messi next to a Japanese woman in kimono. He is the best footballer in the world. Actually, he’s the best man in the world in playing football. She is the best woman in the world to play football.

The news that Homare Sawa wins the award, the first Asian to do so, still does not ring outside the following circles in English-language media: international Japanese media, mainstream American sports media, and official sites of football authorities. For the rest, there’s only Barcelona with Neymar’s goooooollllllllll on the side.

In many macho part of the world, report on Sawa’s victory follows to only what Reuters and AP have provided. Here in Indonesia, some ever omitted the news, as a headline on Messi and Barcelona is really what the readers are after. I guess maybe for Westerners the image of a champion footballer is a roaring amazon in her black sports bra, while for the rest of the world (China included), it is Ronaldinha. Not a Japanese in kimono.

On second thought, let alone Sawa, Neymar also had his fame put very, very, sidelined. Before showing his rampage with Portuguese commentary, ESPN Asia had to maintain its English-centric view and ran Rooney’s scissor against City (not there was anything wrong with it).

The problem, of course, lies with the appeal of women football.  In the Promised Land of women football, Women’s Professional Soccer only has five active teams, with the team with most catchy name magicJack (in an Asian mall it’s a good name for a frozen yogurt outlet) is already defunct. That is why the world champions stick to semi-professional L. League (well done Japan, now Latvia and Lebanon can’t rebrand their leagues). Well, that the Proper Ladies of Japan had their time in America were handy, so that American media could say “she played for Washington Freedom”. United States’ best player, Abby Wambach, is currently without club, and even last season in magicJack she was the player-manager. So even despite Americans’ high interest for the last World Cup, and the inclusion of women football in American nationalism, Americans still don’t see the appeal of watching a week in week out of women football. Maybe after all, Americans still see that their national teams serve only one function: to pummel out the world during random summer. Maybe that what is what “USA! USA! USA!” is about.

On the other hand, I can only *imagine* that the Homare Sawa craze in Japan is less subdued than the past exposes…like for Miwa Asao or volleyball stars like Saori Kimura and Megumi Kurihara (let’s not go into Megumi Kawamura). Certainly it’s less like Korean craze for Kim Yuna. Sawa’s a national hero alright, but facially she’s less attractive* than the mentioned stars (hey, even America has soft spot for Hope Solo). But considering the hype Japanese media can build for the flavor of the week, maybe the normal level of exposition of Sawa is alright. But already there’s a scam (here’s another Japanese tradition) for ‘photo opportunity with Sawa/Nadeshiko’. And yes, this year is Olympics’ year. duh.

*Well, I found it’s hard to advertise other players like Ayumi Kaihori or Aya Miyama to people who would assume that they look like Ayumi Hamasaki and Aya Ueto. Personally my favorite is Karina Maruyama. Since she was sporting cornrow.

I think the most well-developed female league in business is Frauen Bundesliga. Already three Nadeshiko playing there – Saki Kumagai (Frankfurt), Kosue Ando (Duisburg), and Yuki Nagasato (Turbine Postdam). Aya Sameshima and Rumi Utsugi, meanwhile, play for Montpellier in French D1 Feminine. Still, knowing how much sexism still rules Japanese and Korean business and societies, I’m still astonished which how much women football a) raises little objection from males compared to the general attitude in the West and b) how good are Korean and Japanese women at it, something that still evades the Europeans and Spanish-speaking Americans.

My Asian Footballer of the Year 2001-11

This one supposed to be a holiday article published last Christmas week. Ack :p. Thank you for people who visited my blog during the break. So, with so many 2011 list and awards compiled, I was thinking about the thing that irks me heavily: The Asian Footballer of the Year award. Still can’t help but thinking the reason that “winning player must attend a weekday night award in Kuala Lumpur” stuff is so that more non-Japanese, South Korean, and later on Australian playing in top tier European football would not claim the prize. Or in another way, more Western Asian players would become “footballer of the year”.

So I made a quick assessment of who were actually the best players in Asia for the last decade. I am satisfied with the verdicts during the 1990s, when Sanyo sponsored the award. The silly rule began in 2002 but even in 2001 it had focused solely on Chinese performance for the World Cup qualifications, omitting a great Confederations Cup performance by Japan and Korea.

So, in this new year I’ll just throw away the grudges from past year and be happy with who I consider as the best players in the region. Yeah, the way I make my top three is so simplistic – I focus on results from international tournaments. Maybe because it’s simpler to observe, and I’m always about national teams than club. Then again, focusing on clubs’ results could be complicated for several reasons – first because there are periods when Asian champions rely too much on Brazilian goalscorers, and although players like Tim Cahill scored handful of goals in the EPL, sadly he couldn’t convert the achievement into a Champions League campaign for Everton.

Some goalkeepers might also deserve the award, like Mark Schwarzer or Noor Sabri from Iraq. But well, even not since Oliver Kahn and Fabio Cannavaro have the defense line gets the respect they deserve.

Alright, here’s the actual award and my picks. Remember, how crap my picks are, it’s still more justified than AFC’s official versions.

2001

Official: Fan Zhiyi (China/Dundee), Abdullah Al-Sheehan (Saudi/Al-Shabab), Li Tie (China/Liaoning)

My picks: Hidetoshi Nakata (Japan/Roma-Parma), Hwang Sun-Hong (Korea/Kashiwa Reysol), Talal Al-Meshal (Saudi/Al-Ahli)

See how cool is this? This is the only time Nakata would be on the list. He played for Serie A champions before got transferred in the next season to Parma. It was the beginning of his gradual and managed decline: Parma > Fiorentina > Bolton that kind of thing. Hwang flourished in Kashiwa Reysol, the team which would gone into Asia much earlier had not for the J. League’s apertura-clausura system. For Saudi representative, I picked someone which played for Al-Ahli. If I would pick a Chinese player I would go for Xie Hui, who played for Aachen and should have been in Korea/Japan.

2002

Official: Shinji Ono (Japan/Feyenoord), Junichi Inamoto (Japan/Fulham), Ahn Jung-Hwan (Korea/Perugia)

My picks: Ahn Jung-Hwan (Korea/Perugia-Shimizu), Junichi Inamoto, Hong Myung-Bo (Korea/Pohang)

Actually this is a fair verdict from AFC and Ono had a good season with Feyenoord. I picked on the Lord of the Ring because of his Asian-wide fame and his ability to make Perugia fumed. Yeah, discussing South Korea in 2002 Playoff Rounds is never delightful, but its defense was tight (except for Hakan Sukur) thanks to Hong’s resilience.

2003

Official: Mehdi Mahdavikia (Iran/Hamburg), Therdsak Chaiman (Thailand/BEC), Maxim Shatsikh (Uzbekistan/Dynamo Kiev)

My picks: Hao Haidong (China/Dalian), Shunsuke Nakamura (Japan/Reggina), Therdsak Chaiman

Perhaps AFC’s pick is better than mine. Pick a starter for a Bundesliga top four club and a Europe regular. But I prefer to appreciate Hao’s performance in the ACL, and I remember 2003 as a year where people began asking if Nakamura was actually better than Nakata in many ways. Chaiman himself made a great achievement. Never again that Thailand or any Southeast Asian club becoming a serious contender for Korean, Japanese, and Saudi teams.

2004

Official: Ali Karimi (Iran/Al-Ahli Dubai), A’ala Hubail (Bahrain/Al-Ahli Bahrain), Shunsuke Nakamura (Japan/Reggina)

My picks: Shunsuke Nakamura, A’ala Hubail, Ali Karimi

Same picks, just different order. Nakamura was instrumental for Japanese defense of the Asian Cup. This is the year when Park Ji-Sung began his European rise.

2005

Official: Hamad al-Montashari (Saudi/Al-Ittihad), Sami al-Jaber (Saudi/Al-Hilal), Maxim Shatsikikh (Uzbekistan/Kiev)

My picks: Masashi Oguro (Japan/Gamba Osaka), Ali Daei (Iran/Saba Battery), A’ala Hubail (Al-Gharaffa)

Should Montashari be on my picks? He was superb for the ACL and Al-Ittihad is indeed a giant of the decade. But the year belongs to Oguro, both in J. League, Asia, and the Confederations Cup. At that year there was great expectations for him. Daei ruled the Road to Germany, and well, I was interested in the tragic story of Bahrain’s near qualification to Germany (perhaps influenced by yesterday South Africa 2010 game, where Bahrain lost playoff round to Vietnam 3-2; 0-1 despite dozens of shots on goal).

2006

Official: Khalfan Ibrahim (Qatar/Al-Sadd), Bader Al-Mutwa (Kuwait/Al-Qadisiya), Mohammad Al-Shalhoub (Saudi/Al-Hilal)

My picks: Tim Cahill (Australia/Everton), Shunsuke Nakamura (Japan/Celtic), Park Ji-Sung (Korea/Manchester United)

The year of the invaders. Oh my God, I can’t believe how crappy is AFC selection for this year. This is the year where Australia had entered AFC although they competed as OFC representative in Germany. God, that was one of the saddest day in my life, 11 June 2006. Under Cahill was either Nakamura or Mark Schwarzer. And yes, Nakamura was equal to Park Ji-Sung, who was settling in in Manchester United at this time.

2007

Official: Yasser Al-Qahtani (Saudi/Al-Hilal), Younis Mahmoud (Iraq/Al-Gharafa), Nashrat Akram (Iraq/Al-Ain)

My picks: Younis Mahmoud, Naohiro Takahara (Japan/Urawa), Yasser Al-Qahtani

Should Al-Qahtani be in number one? No. He failed to grasp victory for Saudi Arabia and living to regret it. Takahara, a shame of Japan since 2003, suddenly redeemed himself for that year.

2008

Official: Server Djeparov (Uzbekistan/Bunyodkor), Ismael Matar (UAE/Al-Wahda), Sebastian Soria (Qatar/Qatar SC)

My picks: Park Ji-Sung (Korea/Manchester United), Ahmad Ajab (UAE/Al-Qadisiya), Server Djeparov
This is the hardest year to pick. I picked on Ji-Sung because 2008 was a great year for MU and he was a part of them. Cahill was still doing great in the EPL but again, Everton were not in Europe. So yeah, for number two, both Matar and Ajab were fair choices, seeing how did UAE national team and clubs went for that year.

2009

Official: Yasuhito Endo (Japan/Gamba Osaka), Sayed Adnan (Bahrain/Al-Khor), Kengo Nakamura (Japan/Kawasaki)

My picks: Tim Cahill (Australia/Everton), Park Ji-Sung (Korea/Manchester United), Javad Nekounam (Iran/Osasuna)

This is actually the year where AFC respected Japan and Gamba ruled Asia. So sorry, I still didn’t pick any Japanese player for this year. Cahill went great both in England and Asia in a year where Australia prevailed once more over Japan. Park did the same, while I appreciated Iranians’ attempt to call for better freedom in their country.

2010

Official: Sasa Ognenovski (Australia/Seongnam), Farhad Majidi (Iran/Esteghlal), Bader Al-Mutwa (Kuwait/Qadsia)

My picks: Keisuke Honda (Japan/CSKA), Lee Chung-Yong (Korea/Bolton), Lee Jung-Soo (Korea/Kashima-Al-Sadd)

Tsk, AFC’s attempt to appreciate Australian (with all respect to Sasa). With Japan and South Korea’s great achievements in South Africa, I don’t understand why AFC relied only on ACL results. Jung-Soo brought in great defensive performance for any team he was playing for.

2011

Official: Server Djeparov (Uzbekistan/Al-Shabab), Hadi Aghily (Iran/Al-Arabi), Keisuke Honda (Japan/CSKA)

My picks: Keisuke Honda (Japan/CSKA), Koo Ja-Cheol (Korea/Wolfsburg), Ji Dong Won (Korea/Chunnam-Sunderland)

Should Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki be on this list? Yeah, had Kagawa scored more in Europe and for Japan, and had Okazaki scored more for Stuttgart. Honda passed the second semester of the year injured, but his presence has always been assuring both for Japan and for his club. I maintain that Ja-Cheol is better than Makoto Hasebe, and yeah, Ji scored that goal in 2012, but well, it proved that he is a worthy successor to Park Chu-Young (I can’t help thinking that he’d be loaned out very soon). Of course, the irony is that South Korea are yet to secure its path to Brazil 14.

Alright, the stupid AFC ghost has been banished from my mind, now 2012 is ready to beckon! First I have to get rid of that “Just another WordPress blog” thing!