Six things we learnt from AFC Champions League Group Stage

1. Qatar – numbers mean nothing

Like many things in Qatar, the Stars League can offer more than its neighbors. The payroll might not be as interesting as in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but Doha seems to be a more interesting place to live and has better football atmosphere. We’re talking about the Asian Cup and the World Cup host here (which, well, who knows, might get the fourth ticket to Brazil). Many Bahrain players move there to escape the political prosecution and complications, and supposedly, with a Qatari club as the defending champions, a Qatar club can go further than UAE’s, while the living condition is more pleasant than in Saudi.

Not so. All Qatari club, four of them, crashed. First, unlike Liverpool 2005, the champions Al-Sadd was not competing. They could be the third best club in the world after Kashiwa Reysol (okay, that’s not true), but they finished sixth in the 2010-11 Stars League season. They won’t compete in ACL next year either, finished fourth (the fourth ticket was taken by Emir Cup’s winners Al Gharafa).

So, Al Rayyan (Afonso Alves, ex-Middlesbrough) and Lehkwiya (Nam Tae-Hee) scored only two wins. Al Gharafa (Ze Roberto & ex-Urawa Edmilson) got three times draw – although facing Persepolis and Al Hilal would leave you a little chance of qualifying.  Al Arabi….certainly the worst. Six losses, four goals for against sixteen against.

I’ve said that there’s a ray of light shining for UAE since the Olympics qualification. It is, with Al Jazira topping Group A and Bani Yas overcoming Pakhtakor. Al Nasr and Al Shabab certainly crashed and ranked below their Qatari rivals, but the Emirates are still having in the game.

2. Can Saudi football redeem itself?

Certainly Saudi Pro League still have the two most fearsome clubs in Asia – Al Ittihad and Al Hilal. In the past both clubs could draw more than 30 thousands to an ACL match, although that’s not the case now. They are, however, are still powered by local players. In fact each of them has only two non-Muslim players – Paulo Jorge and Fabrice Ondama in Ittihad and Christian Wilhelmsson and Yoo Byung-Soo in Hilal, which are flourishing far away from La Coruna and Incheon.

Of course, club success can be powered by good management and national failures can be influenced by terrible FA administration, negative state intervention (including choosing a crappy or inflexible manager), and lack of motivation. It’s hard to describe nationalism in an absolute monarchy – Hegel had found it in the 1800s. Al Hilal, Al Ahli, and Al Ittihad have the good chance to go to quarter finals (and eliminating UAE clubs if they do so), and certainly they aim to reclaim the champions title, last won by a Saudi side in 2005. If they can do it, then the FA have to follow up with the Asian Cup 2015 project.

 

3. Adelaide are still the only reliable Australian club in the ACL

In A-League, they can go from top 3 to bottom 3 in alternating seasons. Adelaide qualified to this year’s ACL through playoff. But their experience and flair against the northerners count year after year, while Brisbane and Central Coast prove that unlike the national team, Aussie clubs are not first rate (league and clubs managements included). Adelaide destroyed two former champions, Pohang and Gamba, and could become the favorites against Nagoya. Bruce Djite might fit as Australia’s Emile Heskey, but Dario Vidosic has my vote to be a Socceroo regular, and Sergio van Dijk is the best forward Indonesia has never had.

 

4. These are testing times for Korean teams.

Finally, the fallout of last year’s bribe scandals is here. Only Ulsan proved the quality of a Korean team, and Seongnam were lucky they were in an equally boring group with half of the group’s games ended in draws  (hey, draws without losses is something to be proud of. Just ask New Zealand fans). The supposedly exciting Pohang lost in competition to Bunyodkor (another sign of Uzbek resilience against the Japan-Korea block), while I’m bit ashamed of praising Lee Dong-Gook in my last post, seeing how Jeonbuk fell. It seems that the life and death of Jeonbuk are decided by how he’s doing on the match day instead of the teamwork Eninho, Kim Jung-Woo, and Kim Sang-Sik. Hugo Droguett is promising, but it seems like he needs more time to be a worthy partner to D.G.

This is the first time Korea fail to qualify at least three clubs since the current format introduced in 2009. And I take it as a failure. Jeonbuk’s failure certainly influenced by the rise of Guangzhou Evergrande, which deserves its own talking point, but even Seongnam were close to fail were it faced more aggressive opponents.

 

5. Guangzhou Evergrande continue its empire building

Manchester City teach that money can build your glory, earlier than what you expect. that’s what’s happened in Guangzhou, probably the best-run metropolis in China, which scouted and nurtured South Americans who really delivered. If Chelsea rely on Africans and Arsenal on continental Europeans (and Manchester United, at one point, on the Celts), then Guangzhou can be forgiven to rely on Muriqui, Cleo, and Conca for the attack and Paulao for the defence. Still, they needed six others Chinese to hold the line – and it’s good to see Cho Won-Hee redeemed after terrible times in Wigan and Suwon.

Sadly, pride rather than ambition might influence the replacement of Lee Jang-Soo with Marcello Lippi. Evergrande RE just wants to boast that it employs the Italian legend rather than trusting a coach that can ensure its domination in China and in Asia. Just like Roberto di Matteo’s employment in Chelsea is still not ensured even if he’ll win them the UEFA Champions League tonight. Owners, after all, care more about employing famous generals than having the most suited general for the club.

 

6. Gamba aside, J. League clubs are fine

Oh the irony. Newcomers FC Tokyo, previously the West Ham of Tokyo football, did really fine. Unstable Japanese champions Kashiwa passed the test with the last day’s coup against Jeonbuk (a plus point, if you consider Japanese stage fright against Korean teams). Nagoya followed Seongnam’s policy of two wins four draws, and yet they still prevailed against the supposedly threatening Brisbane and Tianjin.

So, why do we need to speak about Gamba? Perhaps because they are the former Asian champions. Perhaps they are used to be one the most strongest teams in Japan year in and year out. And now in the J. League, their mission for the season would be to escape relegation, just one month into the completion.

I’ll leave the deeper discussion about Gamba to my good friend Ben Mabley, who’s considering himself Osakan. I counted myself as a Gamba supporter, but then again, I don’t feel the passion I have when I’m supporting Manchester United (come on, I feel bad writing this). Maybe had I lived in Japan, I chose to live in Yokohama. Yay Marinos.

Advertisements

The ballad of a jersey hunter

My love, my darling, I want you, so much

In April 2006, I bought a replica of Japan home shirt for the 2006 World Cup. The Adidas shirt was available earlier in a sports chain, some kind of Foot Locker if you will, than in Adidas official outlet. Nike also stocked South Korean away and home shirts and even shorts, although I chose to save my money. As every Japanese fan knows, the 2006 kit was a big shame (get used to it, said Italian and French fans in 2010. Maybe that’s why England stick with Umbro, haw haw).

In 2010, I was expecting for both Adidas and Nike Indonesia to stock the merchandise of my favorite teams. I didn’t live in Jakarta so when I found that the outlets supplied only kits for Brazil, France, Spain and so on, and when a national sports chain sold Puma t-shirts featuring African teams, I asked friends in Jakarta to check out Nike there. My priority was for Korea since I had registered myself as a South Korean fan (not only heartbreak of 2006, but because five English blokes had registered themselves as Japanese fans). They said the result in Jakarta was zilch.

Google yielded result of random trade forums where some dudes claimed to have that royal/deep deep blue Japanese shirt, pictured in less royal fashion – hung with a plastic coat hanger on a housing door, rather than folded neatly on table’s top. I hesitated to call them so I let it go. At the end of the day, I bought a generic blue polo with knitted fake JFA logo. It wasn’t an official polo. It is a fan polo shirt. And I struck luck – I found an official 2010 World Cup t-shirt featuring South Korea.

Hmm…sometimes I’m wondering about Korean expats. How did they get their Reds stuff? Straight from Korea? Or something from Singapore? Didn’t know since every match they stayed inside Korean restaurants rather in public bars like Western expats do.

On Easter Holiday I went to Bali and hoped to find better luck in a place populated by Western and Asian consumers. First of all, what I found was that Nike and Adidas stores in Bali focus more on selling swimming and running gears rather than football stuff. I literally fumed when I found a sports warehouse and found ADIDAS’ MEXICO AND PARAGUAY HOME SHIRTS. WTF, I yelled. Anyway, since it’s the time for Euro 2012, so Adidas stocks kits for second rate European teams like um, Scotland (have to appreciate their sympathy for Japan), Denmark (Japan beat ’em 3-1. That’s second rate stuff), and hosts Ukraine. I did found a large mug with a picture of a football wearing hanbok, with texts “South Korea” under it and “Chukbae!” on the other side. A leftover of summer 2010.

Now I’m comfortable with online purchase of PC games, I thought it comes to this – look for online sellers of Japan and South Korea kits. And maybe Singapore and HK and everything. Even twice in Singapore I refrained from buying their merchandises – and when both teams’ shirts were not available, I thought it was because it was already out of stock (on second thought, I went to Singapore months BEFORE AND AFTER the Asian Cup 11. Shouldn’t they were still on stock along with Australian shirts I used to hate?)

And yes, I’m a little bit late. Most online stores, usually based in the UK, say that Japan 2010-11 home are out of stock, and only XL size is left for the nice white away shirt. Based on experience, you should wear only fitting clothes, not clothes that, in a word of a teenage girl, makes you look like a dumpling. Right, what about t-shirts? Many stores sell $20 shirts which is nothing more than plain white t-shirt printed with flag and name of a country. That’s why every imaginable nation, including East Timor and Afghanistan, are in stock. There are indeed not many alternative merchandises for Japan and South Korea – I was looking for more fashionable stuff like hoodie, cap, jacket etc. A sport jersey has many drags – you don’t wear it for first dates and in Western countries, it’s forbidden in many pubs. It’s a very expensive item which is less usable than a t-shirt. So I guess people wear it to stadium, in the mall, when playing football on the park…and what else?

I settled for an home t-shirt with “Okazaki 9” on the backside. Dude scored the goal against Denmark and hattrick against Saudi in the Asian Cup. I couldn’t make credit card purchase so I signed up with PayPal. And had to wait for a couple of days before they verified my credit card account. I ordered that Okazaki jersey, and then came the reply – turned out it was out of stock. My money was refunded and as sign of apology, I got free airmail coupon for my next purchase. So I bought that away white shirt, which was only available in XL. Maybe I could treat it like an ice hockey shirt or something. But then, same – it’s out of stock.

What now? Buying that ugly 12-13 pajama shirt (which I will if they do great in Road to Brazil 14 and the Olympics), or settling for t-shirts? Even on my further quest, I was almost scammed by a Chinese website claiming to have 2010-11 Japan home shirt for $60, which fortunately had a very questionable checkout page.  Finally I went to a United States shop and bought Adidas’ Korea t-shirt for $5 (I know, KFA uses Nike, but as the official kit supplier of FIFA World Cup, Adidas is entitled to produce other merchandises) and a plain blue t-shirt printed with text and image “Japan – 2011 Champions”. It’s a plain blue shirt, but since maybe Adidas and JFA don’t sell something outside Japan to celebrate the Asian Champions and the Women World Cup champions, I have to appreciate some guys in Alabama for doing so.

The shipping and duties etc. cost more than the goods, but it’s still under $100 for two items. After waiting for about ten days, I got the shirts yesterday. Which I could wear to many places in pride.

The importance of Lee Dong-Gook

내가 제일 잘 나가

I never like a bad boy. Just the nature of a geek who plays by the book. There is, however, a bad boy who I admire. Lee Dong-Gook. On Tuesday he scored twice in injury time to defeat the Manchester City of Asia, Guangzhou Evergrande (which just recruited Lucas Barrios, former team mate of Shinji Kagawa). Now Lee stands as the top scoring Asian in the ACL, along with Al-Hilal’s duo Naif Hazazi and Mohamed Abosaban (and Iranian Arash Borhani). In the K-League, he’s the only Korean and AFC player in the top five of goal scorers. He was the MVP and top scorer of 2011 ACL and the MVP of K-League 2011.

Yet, he does better service to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors than to the national team. Lee has played for Korea since World Cup 1998, and was the top scorer of 2000 Asian Cup (which was rough enough for Korea, finishing third in the group below China and Kuwait, before taking the third place of the tournament), scoring late goals against Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China, plus a hattrick against Indonesia. He failed to flourish in Werder Bremen, but scored the winning goal against Chile in the Sydney Olympics. A deep irony since Chile, Spain, and Korea all finished group stage with two wins and one defeat, and Korea had the worst goal difference (due to 0-3 damage done by Spain) while Chile had the best.

Enter Guus Hiddink for the 2002 project and he disliked D.G. He was powerful but was not fast or long-lasting – his assessment after the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Like his Japanese counterpart Takayuki Suzuki, he was seen as a “Lazy Genius” – he had the potential but didn’t work hard for it. So he was not in and Hiddink never regretted the decision, while Troussier was in despair after he omitted Shunsuke Nakamura and Naohiro Takahara was not available. In true bad boy fashion, Dong-Gook spent the glorious Korean summer drinking and tuning out of the tournament.

He got over the bitterness with the national service (Korean celebrities answer the draft when they think they’re over their prime) and returned to Pohang Steelers afterward. He scored goals in all but one Korea’s match in the 2004 Asian Cup, but unfortunately he was out-vicioused (this is not a word) by Ali Karimi who scored three against Korea. He led South Korea to qualify for Germany 2006, but World Cup rejected him again – injury failed him and Korea had to settle for Lee Chun-Soo, Ahn Jung-Hwan, Seol Ki-Hyeon (all veteran of 2002) and the young Christian hope Park Chu-Young.  After they went down to Switzerland, it was clear that Korea needed Lee Dong-Gook.

In his ninth year of service, Lee demonstrated why he was bad. The highlight of his contribution for 2007 Asian Cup was his carousing in Jakarta with unsung K-League hero Woo Sung-Yong and the darling of Muslim fans Lee Woon-Jae. He played for Middlesbrough so he escaped the club ban, but he was so disappointing in England and was remembered as a drunkard. The downfall seemed hard enough that he had to play for Moonie club Seongnam (which is a great club, but you have to pity any sane people who seeks employment there. As for the fans, I just assume that they love the city) and was still a flop.

And yet, Jeonbuk saved him. The credit might go to coach Choi Kang-Hee who wised him up. Right of the bat, he was not only becoming the top scorer of 2009 K-League, but also took Jeonbuk to win the K-League Championship for the first time. He never looked back again in the K-League and the ACL. It was a big disappointment that he failed to win the 2011 Champions League, but then he just recovered from injury.

The question is if Lee Dong-Gook is that good. He finally got his World Cup in 2010, as a sub, and he failed to impress. Added with his bad record in Germany and England, and the answer is he’s not good enough for global competition. But for Asian competition, the 33-year old can be said as the deadliest striker residing in Asia. His closest rival would be Ali Karimi. Joshua Kennedy is yet to shine in the ACL, and J. League clubs hardly have illustrious Japanese forwards in their Asian campaigns (Gamba’s Masato Yamazaki is unemployed – the closest thing to a good Japanese striker is Tokyo’s Kazuma Watanabe).

Lee Dong-Gook flourishes in a tournament where clubs in both West and East Asia are even more depended on South American and African forwards, while their best strikers are studying in Europe. Australia tried to buck this trend with no avail. Even so, he’s successful in both the Korean and the Asian fronts. He’s more than good for both. He’s the best for both leagues. He can’t deliver anymore to the Red Devils, but he deserves to be called a legend for the Mad Green Boys.