Five Things about J. League 2014

You don’t need Nike or adidas to win the league.

J. League 2014 has wrapped up this month, with Gamba Osaka resurrected from death to ascend to the top. Just like the birthday boy (yea, actually He was born around May and 25th December is actually the birthday of Roman god Invictus Sol). I was going to call J. League the ________ League of Asia but that won’t work. Premier League? Not enough international stars (more on this later). Bundesliga? Might work ten years ago, plus now the best of J. League play in Bundesliga (ten years ago it would have been Serie A), but Bundesliga is now waaay better than Premier League.

Serie A then? Let’s see…famous names who are terrible in Champions League? Yes. A shadow of their 20th century selves? Yes. Corruption and match fixings? No, that would be China. Openly racist and sexist directors? Racist and sexist yes, but not openly. International fans who never abandon them? Yes. Fertile pool for future superstars? That works for Japan but not Italy.

So J. League is not even the Serie A of Asia. Because J. League it’s better, although it’s true that Honda looks more dashing wearing adidas’ Milan shirt than Umbro’s Gamba Osaka shirt (hey, you don’t see him playing for Urawa, do you?) Now he only needs to score several more goals for Milan and everything will be alright.

So, what’s 2014 about for Asia’s most popular league?

1. Like Japan, J. League is getting insular.

Japan’s response to the rise of China and Korea? Retreat to the mountain. The corporate owners of J. League teams don’t like how the world put their brands as an option besides (even behind) their Korean and Chinese competitors. Panasonic, owner of Gamba, experienced a resurgence in the 2000s from Lumix digital cameras, but now non-Japanese smartphones have put pocket cameras out of business, and professional photographers prefer Canon and Nikon (fellow Japanese, thankfully) for the big guns. Hitachi, owner of Kashiwa, has stopped making TV.

As J-pop refuses Western influences in contrast to K-pop and Japanese fanboys cling to the infantile AKB48 (mature-looking Korean girl bands are too scary for them), Japan is also cutting ties with its traditional Korean connection. Sagan Tosu were a serious contender for the championship thanks to coach Yoon Jung-hwan and playmaker Kim Min-woo. Could not bear the idea that a Korean could bring a traditionally minnow team to lift the trophy, the club fired Yoon on August. Tosu ended up not going to Champions League 2015, but the Japanese face of Sagantus is saved. I wonder if chairman Minoru Takehara or the governor of Saga was just aware of the Korean history epic Roaring Currents that summer.

So J. League clubs decreased the number of Koreans (on the other hand, many Koreans looking for international experience seem to prefer Arabian clubs. Plus, J. League teams still prefer Koreans over Australians for their Asian Foreign Player slot) but keep the Brazilians as acceptable foreigners. Sure, there are exceptions from Europe, but no African and Argentine played in 2014 J. League Division 1. Credit though, to Shimizu, who employed a Croatian-Canadian, a Slovenian, and a dark-skinned Chinese-Dutch.

 

2. Big Name Foreigners Cannot Flourish in J. League

J. League was the first Asian leagues to feature European legends – some continued to coaching like Zico, Dragan Stojkovic, and Guido Buchwald. But Japan was out of money by 1997 and never recovered its glamor, and now China and the Gulf have it.

Cerezo Osaka tried a play from Shanghai and Guangzhou clubs and recruited Diego Forlan – best Uruguayan footballer before World Cup 2010 – and Brazilian-German striker Cacau who was also in South Africa 2010. The result? Seventeen losses. Cacau played only eleven matches and scored five goals, while Forlan scored seven goals and a couple in Asia. Still, very disappointing for a man who played in 2014 World Cup. A Manchester United fan who scoffed at him in 2004, saying he’ll only good enough for an Asian league in ten years time, couldn’t get any more accurate than that.

So, why can’t big name foreigners flourish in J. League? First, only one club tried it. Cerezo’s town rivals Gamba won the league using two forwards who were benchwarmers back in Brazil.

Second, the money. If Patric and Lins would be good enough in 2015 AFC Champions League, they will be approached by richer Arabian or Chinese clubs (the Arabs from oil and sovereign funds, the Chinese from property and trade networks) . Thanks to their disastrous responses to the rise of Korea and China (instead of studying what works), Japanese conglomerates are struggling to keep their business afloat, and thus cannot be generous with their football clubs’ budgets. On the other hand, Australians and even English envy Japan’s talent development – at least the academies are working.

 

3. Will J. League Blow Again in 2015 AFC Champions League?

This is like the English and Italian problems. The world sings their clubs’ names. Children on the farthest corners of the world wear club jerseys bearing names like Oscar, Gerrard, Totti, and Vidal. But they have the slim chance of winning the 2015 UEFA Champions League (it’s zero for Liverpool). Worse than Japan, England and Italy have the slimmer chance to win the continental cup.

So why Japan keep on losing in the ACL? Let’s blame it first on distance. Do you know that compared to the distance of St. Petersburg and Madrid, the distance between Hiroshima and Dubai is…aw, forget it. They even could not hold a night in Seoul or Guangzhou, let alone Sydney.

Actually in 2014 Japanese clubs held themselves well in the group stage. Kawasaki were better than Ulsan. Hiroshima prevailed over Beijing. Cerezo defeated not only Buriram but also Shandong. Yokohama were unlucky enough to be grouped with both Jeonbuk and Evergrande. But if they could not handle flight fatigue to Guangzhou and Sydney, how could Korean clubs and Western Sydney prepared themselves for trips across India and the Arabian Sea?

So it went down to money and motivation. I don’t think club owners ordered their teams to throw away the match. But maybe the players and the managers themselves were not that interested with Asian tours. Since the double years of 2007 and 2008, it seems that Japan saw no point of Asian adventures – just like how they treated the competition in 2004. Ironically, once more Japan let the Koreans took the glory – and now even the Australians.

 

4. Do Japanese next best things need J. League?

There is Son Heung-min and there is Ryo Miyaichi. Both skipped local competitions and tried their luck in Europe. Miyaichi is lucky to be listed for the provisional Asian Cup squad, but I don’t blame him if he enjoys the abuses against Arsene Wenger. Son, on the other hand, gets all Cristiano Ronaldo’s perks at least in Korea.

Of course parents of non-European football prodigies worry if Europe will be the nightmare of their sons’ careers. It happened to Takayuki Morimoto and Hiroshi Ibusuki. Sota Hirayama made a career suicide when the sleepiness of Almelo killed him. Now he won’t wear the three-legged crow crest again, but at least he can see the lights of Tokyo every night.

So it’s better to see if you’re good for J. League first, then for the national team. Like Okazaki or Uchida. The miracles of Kagawa and Honda won’t happen to everyone (Honda was practically unheard of outside Japan when he was playing for Nagoya). Then again, we have enough Okubos and Usamis to show that J. League might be the final frontier for the rest. The twist is that the world’s best Asian footballers (or even athletes) play outside the system. That’s why they are specials.

 

5. What will Happen to J. League in 2015?

J. League 2015 will return to the two parts system, Latin American style, topped with Korean or Australian style championship play-offs, in an attempt to draw back spectators and sponsors. British commentators are skeptical and football hipsters mourn the loss of its volatile nature. Maybe that’s what actually the suits want to settle. Maybe they want two Kanto clubs to act like Chelsea and Arsenal and two Kansai clubs (hmm…bit difficult now, eh?) to act like Manchester United and Manchester City. Nagoya can play Liverpool.

How it will effect Japanese football quality remains to be seen. I mean, look at Australia. Where have they gone wrong? To market their clubs well, however, club owners have to market their corporate brands better. I love Panasonic earphones, but of course they are jokes for Beat and Audio Technica wearing students. Pajero drivers are increasingly seen as dicks (female drivers included) in Southeast Asia, and uh, Sumitomo, what are you selling again?

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Trying to Love Winning Eleven is a waste of time, really

You might not like the title

In high school, I was the only one who played FIFA (right from when Dad bought FIFA International Soccer for Super Nintendo in early 1994, and asking an Australian game store clerk if there’s FIFA 95 for Super Nintendo – it’s a Genesis/Mega Drive exclusive).

Other kids played World Soccer Winning Eleven (WE), then known in the West as Goal Storm. The classic argument was that FIFA had no elegance – pass-pass-shoot-shoot, while WE rewarded tactic, individual skill, and brainy build up – even shot strength and direction.

But the more important reason WE was and is more popular in Asia than FIFA is because it’s a Japanese brand. Back in 1990s I didn’t care about Japanese culture (including anime and manga) and was into American and British culture, that’s why playing Manchester United and England with FIFA was such joy. Re-enacting MU’s Treble season on FIFA 99, to the tune of “The Rockafeller Skank”, was magical.

Then in 2001-2002 I fell in love with Japan and Korea (because of Utada Hikaru and My Sassy Girl, really), coincidentally fell into place with FIFA 2002 and 2003. Big difference between two versions – FIFA 2002 had 2000 AFC Asian Cup and complete schedule of Japan and Korea’s 2001 friendly schedules (including Kirin Cup series and 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup), being a licensed JFA product. On the other hand, FIFA 2003 did not have Japan at all (amusingly, it rated Lee Young-pyo as a 87 central midfielder).

Inamoto (Arsenal) vs Nakata (Parma)?! Sweet! As if!

So I bought Pro Evolution Soccer 2, as Winning Eleven 6 International was known in Europe and Australia, and re-enacted the 2002 World Cup (in the official game I could only play one team and it relied heavily on volleys, a stupid concept). I switched allegiance so I can play Japan (even then and now I find little fun in getting into the K-League).

Pro Evolution Soccer 4 was the peak – I played Park Ji-Sung in PSV Eindhoven and Japan’s friendlies (including semi finals of 2004 AFC Asian Cup, although it’s safe to say that both FIFA and WE had ignored international football at this point).

I stuck with Pro Evolution Soccer (PES), as now WE is known internationally (including in Asia) but by PES 6 I’d seen the sign. The presentation got more drab, the gameplay did not evolve (as I was reading about what FIFA’s up to), and steadily more disappointments came in. No German league at all. No improvement in team licenses. The boring commentary.

PES 2008 (supposedly PES 7, but Konami was tired of Westerners thinking they were one year behind FIFA) was a mixed bag. I could play 2007 AFC Asian Cup, but I could not play every team besides Australia, Japan, and Korea (not that I wanted to play Saudi Arabia and Iran). The group stage was replaced with home and away qualifications. The songs (all produced in house) was horrible and so was the menu outline – compared to FIFA 08.

I made no choice in 2008 and when I bought PlayStation 3, I chose FIFA 10. I didn’t really care about Japan, as long I could play the A-League, Nakamura in Espanyol (he’s supposedly the team’s best player!), Morimoto in Catania, and that wonderful blondie Honda in VVV. I could play UEFA Champions League with all the pristine kits and club names.

Even sharing attention with PES only made it worse. Yes, I could play 2011 AFC Asian Cup in PES 12, but I could not play Kagawa in Dortmund. Unlike in previous versions, you could not register Japanese national players to clubs – they could only be transferred from other clubs. The UEFA Champions League license was bleh with the English teams (Man Blue, London FC, North London, Merseyside) had to be inserted manually (computer tends to skip them when picking teams), and looking back at the cover, I noticed how insidious Konami was – it depicts Honda vs Nagatomo in their club jerseys, but all images of Kagawa shows him in Japan jersey.

Conned. Even the Japanese.

 

And oh, of course. J. League.

EA had featured K-League since 2000 and claimed they wanted to put in J. League too, but Konami has the exclusive right with J. League (and JFA, in terms of Japan national team). J. League, however, was and is only featured in the Japanese edition, while you can play K-League with whatever region your copy of FIFA is. J. League and Konami always claim that they believe that J. League will not be interesting enough for international consumers.

By late 2000s I’d learned that Japanese gamers may have to buy two copies of Winning Eleven each year – one for J. League, the other for the European leagues. No one-stop- playing like in FIFA, where a Korean can play K-League and also Premier League.

This weekend I went retro and played Winning Eleven J. League games for PlayStation 2, utilizing basic knowledge of Japanese, familiarity with PES/WE architecture that hardly changes, and good knowledge of J. League teams’ emblems and key players. Finally I could play both the league and the Emperor Cup.

I thought I could go all way to Winning Eleven 14, but turned out the Japan version ceased to be published for PlayStation 2 in 2012. My PlayStation 3 is not modded and it’s impossible to find a Japanese copy of WE 13 & 14 here.

But what I found next was startling – it’s not good to be a Japanese WE player either.

J. League in Winning Eleven 13 is a Downloadable Content – DLC. Maybe it’s free, but a Japanese who bought it and went home would not find her/his hometown club. Now, for many reasons some people don’t have their PS3 connected to broadband internet. That’d be suck, isn’t? And say, a Japanese student in United States ordered the Japanese copy through Amazon or bought it in Japan. Can he or she download the J. League DLC if the PS3 machine is located outside Japan? How can Konami be this cruel to Japanese football? Of course, the decision was made with the consent of J. League, if only the main reason was to prevent non-Japanese gamers from buying the Japanese edition so they can play J. League.

What about Winning Eleven 14? A parent who bought WE14 for their kids needed to spend another thousands of yens if the kid loves J. League. WE 14 does not have it, World Soccer Winning Eleven 14: Aoki Samurai no Chousen has it. And not on PSP (no, no Vita version).

I felt conned with Winning Eleven 14. The international version cruelly does not license Japan, has their home jersey color red, and put everyone name to be fictional. I won 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup after painstakingly putting in Honda, Kagawa, and Kawashima and renamed other players (painfully many played in Bundesliga), but red Japan looked yucky. So I looked for a PSP image for Aoki Samurai 14 and played it.

Again, had I been a Japanese I would’ve flipped the bird to Konami. Same terrible menu, same terrible songs. Road to Rio? In 2014 FIFA World Cup I could start from friendlies in 2010 before the first match against North Korea in fall 2011. In Aoki Samurai 14 I jumped straight to the Fourth Round, played away match to Oman with no regard for Oman’s jersey, Ali Al Habsi’s distinctive look (PS3 version might draw him like a Metal Gear Solid character, but the ugly generic jersey stays), and no home crowd as everyone was chanting “Nippon!”.

 

The meaning of all these

It’s all clear now. EA and Konami run the global duopoly of football video games, but Konami enjoys its rule of Japan and Asia (and parts of Latin America, especially Brazil) too much. It gives the same terrible menus, music, and licensing to Japanese gamers, knowing that they won’t switch to FIFA anyway. For a decade or more they have managed to ask Peter Brackley and Jon Champion to sound robotic, laconic, and boring. Not only they had to follow typical Japanese commenting style (once you can go past Jon Kabira’s “Shutto!” and “Nippon!”, all his banters will end with “Desu ne” and “Ee.”), but they had to follow the Japanese impression/stereotype of calm and composed English commentators.

It might be puzzling, but I believe the best explanation on why Konami and J. League guard the league jealously is because it does not want non-Japanese to play it. Of course, the ability to play K-League or MLS do not make Europeans want to visit Jeonju World Cup Stadium or CenturyLink Field, and I’ve known dozens of Westerners who stand on Saitama Stadium 2002 and Osaka Expo 70 proudly week by week, but Konami has a vision and that is that J. League should not be a global obsession (it has). To the point of ripping Japanese consumers by separating J. League from the vanilla Winning Eleven.

The only proper way to enjoy playing J. League in video games is to play it on FIFA – not as a mod, but as a real licensed league with licensed kits and rosters that are updated weekly, just like Saudi Pro League and A-League’s teams are. EA likes the idea, but Konami and J. League (and JFA) will not see it happen. Maybe J. League is wholly overrated, but somehow we can’t replace it in our heart with K-League or A-League.

So, Winning Eleven 2015? From what I understood today from Konami’s ad when watching Kashima v Urawa, maybe J. League will available in the vanilla game – in Japanese market. If it’s so, good for Japanese players.

WE/PES 15? I’m skeptical that Japan national team will be licensed. If it does, it means Konami has learned a lesson. Its primary perk for me would be 2014 AFC Champions League – I can play Kawasaki or Jeonbuk, or even re-enacting the great path of Western Sydney. 2013 ACL was dreadful, but it’s not Konami’s fault. Hiroshima had no decent player besides Nishikawa, Aoyama, and Sato, Ulsan were absent, Australia only had Central Coast, and I couldn’t love Evergrande no matter how I saw it.

If American critics like PES 2015 enough, I might be a sucker for the game, even only to play the ACL. Man.

 

 

Four Great Asian Female Footballers

Anime/Manga perception of women soccer. Seriously.

Otaku perception of women soccer. Seriously. Yes, I’m aware of a Homare Sawa biography manga, but that’s one shot.

I wished I could write this post in happier circumstance. But Chelsea ladies lost their final match against 7th position Manchester City and so Liverpool won the 2014 English Women Super League by better goal difference.

I just noticed some weeks ago that Chelsea Ladies are the Dortmund of women football. Like Dortmund have Kagawa and Ji Dong-won, Chelsea have forward Yuki Ogimi (nee Nagasato) and midfielder Ji So-yun. Ogimi scored five goals this season (out of 14 matches) while Ji scored three, making them Chelsea’s top scorers along with English forward Eniola Aluko.

Few weeks ago several women internationals sued FIFA and Canadian Soccer Association for deciding to hold the 2015 Women World Cup on artificial turf. They argue that it’s essentially playing on concrete, and Kobe Bryant agrees (warning: bloody photo). I checked if any Asian player joining the lawsuit and I was happy to find that Ogimi and Ji did together with Australians Samantha Kerr and Caitlin Foord.

So, why them and not others? Why not Homare Sawa, the 2011 FIFA Footballer of the Year (her successors Abby Wambach and Nadine Angerer signed)? Ogimi and Ji, as I have said, played in Chelsea while Kerr and Foord plays in Perth Glory (it could be my favorite Asian club). Sawa plays in INAC Kobe in Japan. Maybe at 36, she feels less stronger than Ogimi about the issue. Maybe for her career in Japan, it’s wiser to take no position (as Ogimi shows, the issue won’t be with JFA but with the club and the league). Maybe she feels grateful with the FIFA award. In fact no Canadian player joined the lawsuit, and that tells a story.

Now I want to give you profiles of these great four Asian players – because women football is overlooked worldwide, especially in “football crazy” Asia.

1. Yuki Ogimi. Japan. Striker.

Yuki is used to win.

Yuki is used to win.

We start with her since Japan are now the third strongest team in the world after United States and Germany, and Japan are the reigning world champions. Born in Atsugi, a satellite town of Tokyo, she played professional football at the age of 14 with NTV Beleza, which is owned by Nippon TV. Scored her first professional goal for NTV at the age of 17 and scored 18 goals in the 2005 season, although it was still nothing to Shinobu Ono’s 25 goals (she also played for NTV). Those goals, however, put her into the L-League best eleven as the best forward together with Ono and Tasaki’s Mio Otani.

In 2006, she shined for club and country. She repeated her 18-goals feat in the L League and finally became the top scorer (Sawa, playing behind her, was the best player). They played for Japan in the 2006 Asian Cup and Ogimi, then known with her maiden surname Nagasato, scored one goal against Vietnam, five to Taiwan, but lost to Australia 0-2 in the semi finals (ah, 2006). Nagasato scored again the third place match against the super rude North Korea (who kicked the referee in the semi final loss to China) but still lost 2-3.

China, Australia, and North Korea qualified to 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup while Japan must face Mexico. Nagasato did not score but Japan prevailed by 3-2 aggregates and so went to China. Meanwhile, Nagasato scored 14 goals for NTV but she did not join L-League’s best eleven, losing to Ono (23 goals), Kozue Ando (Urawa), and Mizuho Sakaguchi (Tasaki).

In China, Japan did badly. They avoided 1-2 loss to England by last minute strike by Aya Miyama, and things looked well when Nagasato scored the last minute winning goal against Argentina. But they lost 0-2 to Germany while at the same time England rampaged 6-0 over Argentina. Other Asian teams made it past the group stage but not in the quarter finals.

Nagasato failed to repeat her double digit goal achievements in 2008 with NTV, but things were much better with Japan. She did not score in Japan’s lucky escape from the group stage (unnecessary draw with New Zealand, lost to USA, and 5-1 jackpot against Norway). The sweetest thing was they were the best third place team, above Canada and hah, North Korea.

In quarter finals Japan faced its nemesis China, who they beat 2-0 thanks to Sawa and Nagasato. It’s downhill from there – losses to USA and Germany. No medal but fourth place, still ok.

Nagasato left Japan in summer 2009 and played in Germany with Turbine Postdam. She scored six goals and lifted the Bundesliga Women trophy and the UEFA Champions League Women trophy – two goals against Norwegian champions Roa and a penalty goal in the 6-7 final shootouts with Lyon.

2011 could be her highest mark: 10 goals in Bundesliga (nothing to team mates Anja Mittag and Fatmire Bajramaj) and read this – 9 Champions League goals. While Postdam retain their Bundesliga trophy, they lost the Champions League cup to Lyon.

And of course, there’s the 2011 Women World Cup. Nagasato scored against New Zealand, but that’s about it and she missed the penalty kick against United States in the final. Because of that, she failed to make it into the tournament’s best players.

She married Kosuke Ogimi in 2012 (most of online items on him are on German) and changed her professional surname to Yuki Ogimi, the name she’s listed as in the 2012 Olympics. Japan did badly in London, drawing 0-0 with Sweden and South Africa after defeated Canada 2-1. Ogimi heated up at last and scored against Brazil (together with Ono) and scored again in the semis against France. She even scored in the final, but failed to follow up and United States won the gold medal.

Another year and another year of victory for Postdam. You have to say she has the habit of winning. She became one of the deadliest feet in Germany in 2012 with her team mate Genoveva Anonma – the Equator Guinean became the first non-German to become Bundesliga’s top scorer. In Europe, she and Anja Mittag scored 7 goals each but Postdam lost 1-5 to Lyon (again!) in the semi finals.

In 2013 Ogimi got bad and good news. Bad: Postdam lost the Bundesliga title to Wolfsburg. Good: she became the first Asian to win the golden boot with 18 goals. It was worse in Europe – Postdam failed to enter the top eight and she failed to score 5 goals.

So she moved to London for a new challenge (and better sight). She was off to terrible start, as Chelsea were at the bottom of the league, had not Doncaster Rovers Belles were relegated. And tonight, she was close to lift the trophy. But not yet.

 

2. Samantha Kerr. Australia. Right Winger.

Google often thinks the only Australian Kerr is Miranda.

Google often thinks the only Australian Kerr is Miranda.

Samantha was born in Fremantle, Western Australia’s second largest city. If Ogimi’s siblings play football, Kerr’s brother and father play Australian Football. She’s also Asian in another sense since she’s 1/4 Indian. She moved to Perth and played for Glory in 2008. Her goal against Sydney FC in 2009 won the W-League Goal of the Year Award. She entered the Matildas and scored against South and North Koreas to win the 2010 Asian Cup.

Unfortunately she scored no goal in the 2011 World Cup as Australia lost 1-3 to Sweden in the quarter (preventing an all-Asian semi against Japan). In 2012 Kerr moved to Sydney FC (Perth had been a lower end team), and although ironically lost to Perth in the regular season, Kerr went berserk in the playoffs, er, finals series and scored two goals against Brisbane and defeated Melbourne Victory in the Grand Final.

Kerr was loaned to Western New York Flash and so she moved from a metropolis to another. The competition was tight against world’s best players such as Abby Wambach and Carli Llyod (fortunately in the same team with her) and Alex Morgan (Portland. Come on. You know her by googling her bikini pics). The Flash almost won 2013 Women’s Soccer League (won the league, lost the final to Portland) but Kerr did not get any award.

In 2014 Kerr got bad news and good news: Flash kept on losing and ended up at the 7th place, but she became the club’s top scorer and won a player of the week award. Released by Sydney, she went home to Perth, which now dominate the W-League thanks to Kerr and Kate Gill. And of course, to Caitlin Foord.

 

3. Caitlin Foord. Australia. Right Winger/Right Wing Back.

It was such a hot day.

It was such a hot day. Foord wears purple, anyway, vs Leena Khamis.

She came from the other way around – Foord (not Ford) was raised in Shellharbour, about 100 km from Sydney. Readily joined the local big club Central Coast Mariners, the club folded and so Foord took the bus (or train? Or did her father drive her?) to Sydney. The 17 year old wore number 9 for the 2011 World Cup, and yeah, did not score.

Her big break came in 2013 as she scored six goals for Sydney and moved to USA to join New Jersey’s Sky Blue FC. Kerr’s Western New York defeated the Jersey girls in the semi finals. She took the flight back (figuratively, not necessarily actually) to Sydney together with Kerr and she scored 5 goals compared to Kerr’s three.

And this semester, they are playing together again in Perth.

4. Ji So-yun. Korea. Midfielder.

I always like it with Korea and Japan make up.

I always like it when Korea and Japan make up.

A native of Seoul, like many other Koreans Ji puts education before sport (at least her parents did). She graduated from Hanyang Women’s University in Seoul before moving to Japan to join INAC Kobe. She, however, had played for Korea U-17 and U-20 teams. In fact, she scored her first senior international goal – goals –  at the age of 15 against Taiwan. So Korea could hardly wait for Park Chu-young but they were extremely patient for Ji So-yun. Figures.

In 2010 Asian Games Ji went for a killing spree, scoring against Vietnam, a hattrick to Jordan, but lost the semi final to North Korea. Ji, however, scored Korea’s second goal against China and got the medal bronze – and the bragging right of being the games’ top scorer. With the absence of Yuki Nagasato, INAC became the new queens of L-League and Ji became probably the first Korean to be in L-League best eleven in 2012, supplying great passes to Megumi Takase and Shinobu Ono (yes, she has switched side). She re-entered the best eleven in 2013, together with American team mate Beverly Goebel-Yanez (who fits Japanese caricature of an American woman).

Sadly Korean women football progresses slower than Ji’s progress, and she remains one of a kind. Tonight, her magic partnership with Yuki Ogimi still has to wait for another year.

5 Things from Asian Football this week

It’s Euro qualifying week so it’s friendly week in Asia. By tradition, it never runs well for both Korea and Japan (Kirin [Challenge] Cup was hardly fun), and for a change of pace, Australia still had not won an international this year (to the joy of some Asian media). Basically, it’s about how Asia moves beyond Brazil 2014. Here are five things I took note.

Work sucks.

Work sucks.

1. Keeper

Eiji Kawashima. 2014 caps with Japan: 8. Goals conceded: 13. 2014-15 appearances in Belgian Pro League: 7. Goals conceded: 16. He’s terrible in club and country. Last semester he was close to win the trophy (Liege were the top of the regular league, but lost in the final group by two points) and was the second safest hands in Belgium, together with Australian Mat Ryan (Anderlecht’s Silvio Proto was the top goalkeeper).

Last night he conceded five, his second time this season – to round up a terrible week after he was blamed for Venezuela’s second goal in the 2-2 friendly. He passed August without a clean sheet, and Liege’s sub goalkeeper Yoann Thuram is itching to take over his place. He has a great chance to be a benchwarmer before Christmas. Lucky for him, in Japan no one is able yet to replace him. Shusaku Nishikawa let three goals past him the last time he guarded Japan’s goal for 90 minutes (against Zambia), but things may change if Liege’s coach Guy Luzon has enough with Kawashima and if Nishikawa brings Urawa to win the J. League title.

Australia experienced a serious bout of Europe-based keeper disappointments. Adam Federici. Brad Jones. Nathan Coe. Mitch Langerak. Mat Ryan seemed to be answer, but just like Kawashima, he had conceded 13 goals this year, out of 8 games. Ironically, Australia’s first victory came when Langerak was on duty – considering that Ryan let no goal past him against Ecuador in the first half while Langerak missed four in 45 minutes.

Club wise, the rivalry between Ryan and Kawashima was one thing that made me keeping track of Belgian Pro League (not much news is in English), and often Ryan seemed like winning. He’s not doing that bad, compared to Kawashima, conceded seven goals out of six matches, but his mates did not do very well in scoring. Maybe just like in Australia. Langerak, meanwhile, experiences the benefits of training with Dortmund without the perk of playing. No one is sure who will stand for Australia in the AFC Asian Cup.

Now to Korea, which never exports a goalkeeper to Europe. Lee Woon-jae was much better than Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, but he stayed in Suwon. Jung Sung-ryong, a rival of Kawashima, seems to be having the same path (lucky for him, things are looking up for Suwon). New coach Uli Stielike tries new options with Kim Jin-hyeon (who I picked into my Korea 23 to Brazil) and Busan’s Lee Beom-yeong. They did well in their matches – both conceded only one goal against Venezuela and Uruguay respectively. But I still don’t understand why does Korea never look at keepers from the two best clubs: Jeonbuk and Pohang. It’s been like this throughout this century. Do KFA and POSCO and Hyundai Motors have some sort of unresolved issues? I’m asking this because both Kim and Lee are playing for clubs who are in the relegation zone.

2. The world does not really care about Australian transitional period.

Australian bloggers and pundit remind fans and readers that the Socceroos are in a transitional period. Results should be seen in perspective. Cahill scored one of the best goals of Brazil 14. Ange believes in the quality of A-League. Western Sydney are on the verge of making a big bang in Asia. The “Dad’s Army” of Bresciano, Emerton, and Kennedy were changing into one of the youngest squad to appear in a World Cup, and they did fine.

Unfortunately, no one outside Oceania cares. England is just happy that Australia fails to catch up in football, unlike in uh, rugby or cricket or basketball. Asia loves seeing Australia’s gradual decline with different kind of degrees – even if their footballs are not better either.

For one thing, Australia still cannot live without Tim Cahill, who is very likely to be in for AFC Asian Cup. He is still Australia’s best striker, with Mat Leckie and Tommy Oar are now employed as wingers. It won’t be all good for Mark Bresciano, but it seems that Socceroos can go on without him (he played 13 minutes against Saudi Arabia). Tomi Juric is on the card, but again, Americans and British (English+Scottish by next week) are more likely to follow news on him than Asians do.

3. Japan: The parts are better than its sum

“Don’t blame me, I wasn’t playing with Manchester United.” That was last year. That was last month. “Don’t blame me, I wasn’t playing with Japan.” That was this month. So Shinji Kagawa left Manchester and returned to Dortmund, got number 7, and was put behind Adrian Ramos. It took him 40 minutes to score. 40 minutes. After 30 scoreless matches with Manchester United.

Meanwhile, Shinji Okazaki is now improbably Bundesliga’s top scorer, together with Julian Schieber. Above Son Heung-min. Above Thomas Muller. Above Ivica Olic. Above Pierre Aubameyang. It’s a big question that Javier Aguerre does not put him as the striker – insisting that he’s a right winger.

One of my joys of life is holding an affordable official Blue Samurai merchandise. The three legged crow, the JFA letters, the beautiful blue. Now it feels like it’s a brand of disappointment, of poor quality, of being clueless. But maybe it goes the same for England. Or Manchester United.

4. China tries. Not too hard.

One of the things you can say to make me laugh is saying that China can win the World Cup (so do Japan. Logically, any nation can win the World Cup). A proud Chinese and admirers of China say nothing is impossible – China had sent people to outer space, has won the Olympics (gathering the most gold medals, actually), made great laptops and mobile phones, and won tennis Grand Slams.

The World Cup, football, of course is different. It’s not related with economic progress or growing political power. It’s related with football culture. United States, the richest country in the world, was terrible with football in the second part of 20th century because it didn’t like soccer. Same went with Japan and Australia. Then in early 1990s, USA and Japan made professional leagues and invested in grass root football. Australia followed suit in early 2000s. Three of them had different catalysts. For USA, it was the successful World Cup. For Japan, it was winning AFC Asian Cup 1992 followed by the Agony of Doha (Iraq-Japan 2-2). For Australia, it was defeating American Samoa 31-0 followed by inter-ethnic riots that marred the semi-pro National Soccer League in early 2000s.

What’s supposed to be the catalyst for China? The Beijing Olympics failed to do so. Would it be Evergrande’s AFC Champions League title? Still not quite. China has to send players to Europe first, busting their arses and feet like Hide Nakata, Viduka, and Park Ji-sung did. Like Okazaki, Jedinak, and Son Heung-min do. Chinese Super League won’t be enough.

At least this month China did friendlies not for the show. They challenged Asian teams who are as strong as them – Kuwait and Jordan. China should push further. Arrange friendlies OUTSIDE China. Travel to the Middle East, to Europe, to North America, to Oceania. Export players to Asia like other Asians do – Japanese in India, Koreans in Qatar, Australians in Malaysia. Any self help guru says you have to break through your comfort zone. Japan, USA, and Australia have done it. Now it’s China’s turn.

#WeAreHK. Dozens of us.

#WeAreHK. Dozens of us.

5. Hong Kong national team is more important than ever

Asia used to sneer Hong Kong as a mercenary team. Some Chinese with a number of Westerners and Africans thrown in to increase the winning odd. Maybe in this modern Carthage, it’s hard to find local who’s willing to become professional athlete, although every boy wants to play football and their dads bet for Barcelona.

As Hong Kongers believe it is under heavy pressure from China to abandon its freedom and way of life, the national team becomes a symbol of hope and independence. It’s no wonder that the history of Hong Kong 2 China 1 of 1985 is revived (All Hong Kong players were Cantonese in that match, saved for sub Phillip Reis, who might be half or full blooded Portuguese). #WeAreHK appeared during the match against Singapore.

Hong Kong footballers who were lost to Vietnam (twice) and held Singapore (they would meet Singapore again next month) consisted of local Cantonese, Chinese who were born in China, naturalized Africans, and Westerners who were born in Hong Kong. Such is the multiculturalism that Hong Kong holds as its identity, and which China takes as a relic of British colonialism. On the other hand, I agree that Hong Kongers should start accepting Chinese citizens as humans, not “locusts”. The problem is the People’s Republic of China, not the Chinese people.

Better yet for Hong Kong, China is out of the AFC Champions League, but a Hong Kong club makes it into the semi finals of the AFC Cup. Worse for China, Kitchee’s opponents would be Erbil, the Kurdish club whose hometown is not only much older than Xian, but which autonomy has been impregnable by Saddam’s regime, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State.

AFC Champions League & AFC Cup 2014: Group Stage Review

Note to Nguyen Rodrigo: If you have to grab a man, make sure to see him eye to eye.

Note to Nguyen Rodrigo: If you have to grab a man, make sure to see him eye to eye.

There it is. Europe is yet to crown its best club while Asia has cut down its candidates to sixteen. Predictably, I care more about eight East Asian clubs. Maybe to West Asian clubs which have East Asian players – Koreans, Australians, and even an Indonesian.

But oh, there’s something closer to home – AFC Cup, where the action is for most of Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. There are also eight East Asian clubs surviving here…okay, so much to talk about. Start from the least interesting bits.

 

AFC Cup – Group E

Indonesian heavyweights Persipura, acronym of Jayapura United, ace the group. Papuans are indeed the workhorses of modern Indonesian football, and local boy Boas Solossa again proved himself as one of Indonesia’s best forwards with four goals. Behind Persipura are Churchill Brothers. Not named after the British Prime Minister, but after Goan big man Churchill Alemao who bought the Brothers Sporting Club. The Indians ended the group stage above Singapore’s police and customs team Home United by a single goal margin (head-to-head wise, Churchill also won their home match 3-1 compared to Home United’s 2-1).

Group F

I’m wondering what does “T&T” in Hanoi T&T stands for. Either telecommunication and telegraphs or tourism group T&T, which is based in Ho Chi Minh City (their website is inaccessible). The Vietnamese dominated the group thanks to 22 year old winger Nguyen Van Quyet, who had scored three times for the national team and wears number 10 for club and country. Indonesia does well this year by passing its second club to the Round of 16, Arema Cronus/Malang/Indonesia. So the team is based in the city of Malang, they were bought in 2012 from tobacco corporation Bentoel by conglomerate Bakrie Group, who put in the Cronus name (and which is never popular. I don’t know if Cronus here refers to the evil Greek god). Their star player is Uruguayan-Indonesian Cristian Gonzales.

This tournament, meanwhile, is forgettable for Malaysia. Selangor go out of the tournament with two draws and two losses, despite the seven goals of Brazilian Paulo Rangel. O yeah, Maladewan teams, despite their gallantries, were hopeless with five losses each for New Radiant and Maziya.

Group G

Just like FIFA suspended the transfer ban for Barcelona, AFC does not automatically ban Vissai Ninh Binh for match fixing – although it has suspended itself from the V-League. So nine Ninh Binh players bet $48 thousands on the outcome of their match against Kelantan  (four goals minimum) and threw away the first half 1-2, before scoring two in second half. What astonished me was their plan didn’t go wrong – what if they failed to score any goal in second half?

More astonishingly, no Malaysian media covered the scandal except for small piece in Malaysian Digest and a belated small question from New Straits Times. Predictably, nobody commented both articles. So uh, Malaysian football fans, are you OK with this? Are Kelantan that bad?

Of course, the ones who have some hope (or not at all) that they could go on if Ninh Binh are crossed from the competition are Hong Kong’s South China. At this point I’m beginning to wonder if anyone here cares about playing football and standing up for their club or not.

Group H

Moving away from that horror – Kitchee proudly represent Hong Kong with four wins, thanks to group stage’s top scorer Juan Belencoso (another nobody in Europe, somebody in Asia). Myanmar also qualifies its second club besides Yangon United, Nay Pyi Taw (based in that hideous new capital city). Less flashy than Yangon, but they got the job done.

Besides Malaysia, S-League also proves its overrated-ness as Tampines Rovers failed to qualify (hey look, there’s something Singapore’s bad at!) as they kept on losing. Their defense was really hideous with sixteen against goals. So much for two Japanese defenders. Counted by head to head, they were better than India’s Pune (beat them both home and away). By goal aggregates, though, Tampines were unbelievable*.

*Once I talked about the Rovers to a Tampines local and she replied “Dude, what are you talking about? What’s this Rovers thing?”

 

AFC Champions League – Group E

Pohang Steelers, owned by steel corporation POSCO, have the tradition of having non-fancy players (and kits) and stable performances both in Korea and Asia. They have done it again this year. Have you heard of Kim Seung-dae? Neither am I, but he had scored four goals and Pohang passed the group stage unbeatable. Sadly, very few of the steelers would make it into the Korean national team for Brazil 14, Seung-dae included.

It appears that you're searching for Kim Dae-seung.

It appears that you’re searching for Kim Dae-seung.

Cerezo Osaka’s investment with Diego Forlan paid off although the team experienced heavy damage on their effort to pass. The star of the group stage, however, was Yoichiro Kakitani, tipped as Japan’s next big thing.

Buriram United, Southeast Asia’s single representative, had the fond memory of beating Shandong Luneng 1-0 at home, but that’s about it. Vagner Love, former team mate of Keisuke Honda and once one of the best strikers in Russia, could not help Shandong despite five goals.

Group F

FC Seoul, owned by LG Corporation (more successful with TV, AC, and washing machine than mobile phone), did not emerge unscathed, but they scored more win than others. They certainly missed striker Dejan Damjanovic who moved to China (and Spanish-Japanese Sergio Escudero is a poor substitute), and it’s doubtful they could go very far with their current domestic form.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima, which did very terribly last year, tried again with very much the same composition (minus goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa who moved to Urawa). They also had the terrible luck of being subjected to two penalties in the last minutes of away match against Seoul. Still less than four penalties imposed at Kashiwa Reysol in 2013 when facing Suwon. Yes, the popular conspiracy theory in 2002 World Cup (on Korea vs Italy and Spain) might be true, and West Asian referees could feel intimated by the home crowd had the 90 minutes ended and Korea lost to Japan. Although I’m not sure how scary it was to persuade a man to award four penalties.

Group G

You know Guangzhou Evergrande will make it. You know they are still the favorites. Dario Conca has been replaced by Alessandro Diamanti and the Brazilians are still there – Muriqui, Elkeson, plus Rene Junior. But this year’s Evergrande is less scary. They are beatable. They scored only ten goals and conceded eight, much worse than Western Asian heavyweights. They are still the champions and they are still the only good Chinese team. But others are catching up fast.

Their big rival, Jeonbuk, also made it past this group of hell – due to narrow goal difference over Melbourne Victory. Of course, Victory’s coach Kevin Muscat also cried for penalty in the dying moments of the final match against Jeonbuk. Victory supporters shrugged that the referee was too scare to award it. One thing for sure – Korean stadiums are more fearsome for regional referees than Japanese, Australian, and even Chinese.

Group H

Well the Australian team I shouldn’t have supported topped the group. Western Sydney quickly eclipse its older and more beautiful sister Sydney FC and did very well for their first season in Asia. Kawasaki, arguably Japan’s best for this season, couldn’t even match their tally of eleven goals. Ulsan are the only failed Korean team, a letdown for the team with the supposedly best attacking formation in Korea. Another bottom of the barrel Chinese team, Guizhou, prove that Guangzhou Evergrande are on the different league with other CSL teams. Others have the money but not the results.

 

Stay tuned for the Round of 16 playoffs in early May. At least this time AFC makes it home and away.

 

 

5 Things About AFC Champions League Match Day 1

Are they Japanese? Are they Koreans? No, they are Chinese!

Are they Japanese? Are they Koreans? No, they are Chinese!

1. So much for Japan’s determination

“Japan looks to wrest Asian club crown from China”. For China, read Guangzhou Evergrande. Sure, Evergrande are not the only strong team in China – there’s also Guizhou Renhe, who defeated Guangzhou both in the 2013 Chinese FA Cup, and then the Community Shield, er, Super Cup.

Japanese clubs’ terrible records in the continent baffle even the Japanese. Then again, you can say the same thing for the English clubs. Well-funded teams? Check, although no flamboyant foreign billionaire owns a J. League club. Well known teams? Check. Yokohama F Marinos. Urawa Red Diamonds. Gamba Osaka. Just checking. Guess you might have heard of them compared to say oh, er, Pohang Steelers or Central Coast Mariners. Strong national sides? Check. Although continental wise, this applies better to Japan than to England. An island(s) nation who seems, at times, detached with the rest of the continental family and others love to make fun of its occasional troubles although secretly deep inside they love it and want to have its babies? Check. Ah.

Cerezo can try to Evergrande and bought Diego Forlan. But Diamanti he was not. Not when he played only for 27 minutes to replace Takumi Minamino (yes, I haven’t heard of him either). Yoichiro Kakitani, Japan’s next best thing, does not move to Bundesliga for a reason – he could not unlock a Korean defense twice. Besides those two, Aria Hasegawa, and Kim Jin-hyeon, I didn’t register any other cherry boy.

Sanfrecce look set to repeat 2013 – wonderful in Japan, terrible in Asia. Heck, they played the same team like in 2013 – minus Nishikawa, who moved to Urawa. Yokohama, oh, just marvelous.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the only Japanese team to win match day 1, Kawasaki Frontale, featured three foreign players. AFC and perhaps, perhaps fans, worry that an Asian club would field 10 Brazilians, Argentinians, Serbs, and Nigerians (and Koreans, perhaps) just like they do in Europe had there was no cap on foreign players. Of course all of us are for the development of home growth talents, but Japan is in the danger of not pairing its homegrowns with foreigners who come from different backgrounds, football culture, and mindset. A Diego Forlan is not enough. Sato and Saito had weak wingmen. Kawasaki delivered because Okubo, Renatinho, Kobayashi, and Paulinho could work together.

Lately Japan has reacted to its decline in business, entertainment, and international influences by resorting to isolationism. I don’t want Japanese football to follow the same path.

 

2. A-League is a different world to Australian national team

The Socceroos still can take on any team in Asia and CONCACAF, and maybe half of Europe, any given day. But A-League teams are still the jokes of the East side. By this time I believe it’s completely unfair that most of Asians, by different degrees of honesty, dislike Australian football simply because it’s…white. I was also guilty of this false mindset. Hopefully, most supporters of Ulsan, Guangzhou, and Seoul satisfied because their teams won and not because their teams won against ‘Westerners’ (although they would feel similarly if their teams defeat a Japanese team later on).

A-League teams, of course, have to step up their game and represent Australian football, made of the mixture of Irish, British, Italian, Greek, Balkan, Turkish, Latin American, and indigenous Australian sporting cultures. And they have to demonstrate it for the full 90 minutes, not just for the first minute or the first half.

 

3. It’s another season for the Koreans

The victory of Guangzhou Evergrande last season caused worse shock for Korean teams than the Japanese (who hardly reached the final anymore). Worse, more Chinese teams were attracting Korean and Korea-based foreigners to move into the Chinese Super League. Match day 1, however, showed the Koreans that they are still the heavyweights. Japanese Sergio Escudero might not able to replace Dejan Damjanovic, but Osmar can be greater than Adilson. Yun Il-lok looks bound to Brazil 14. It’s astonishing that Jeonbuk owned Marinos without Lee Dong-gook and Eninho at all, and Ulsan maintain the most exciting attacking duo in Korea – Rafinha and Kim Shin-wook. At the end, no Korean team lost match day 1. Expect one to make it to the final.

 

4. Guangzhou Evergrande is not a super team yet, but they are becoming an East Asian team.

Now for a something different – an East Asian team plays to a sold out crowd in the AFC Champions League. Almost 40 thousands, mostly youth, many were women, came to Tianhe Stadium with all sorts of big banners, compared to 11 thousands who went to Parramatta Stadium and 6000 to Seoul World Cup Stadium. The Chinese are used to make fun of their own football but it’s a great time to be a Guangzhou resident and a football fan. It’s good thing that the stadium and the environment are safe and attractive enough for women to come, despite the terrible pitch.

Guangzhou Evergrande set themselves on a different level with other Chinese teams and so do their fans. They look like, even better than, a hyper reality version of, a Korean team.

 

5. Buriram United may be the best team in Southeast Asia

AFC was kind enough to give a chance (“a fair go”, as Australians say) to assorted East Asian champions to qualify for the group stage. So we had chances to see how did champions of Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Vietnam held up against runner ups of China, Thailand, and Australia.

So by default, Thai Premier League is the best league in Southeast Asia, then? Maybe. Obviously other leagues are worse. Even you’d think a country as good as Singapore would have made a decent football league, seeing how they’ve made excellent universities, airport, and public transport system. So Thailand is, er, the best of the worst.

In the end, Thailand had to fight for extra spots against Australian and Chinese clubs, and unlike last year, they lost. But Buriram, sporting more multinational side than Japanese and Korean teams (two Spanish, an English, a Japanese, and a Thai-Norwegian), held themselves well against Vagner Love’s Shandong. If I’ve been searching for a Southeast Asian team to support besides my hometown teams, I think my search is over. Vote Buriram.

I’m not worried about Southeast Asian Football

1200 people actually watched this! I must have missed them on TV!

1200 people actually watched this! I must have missed them on TV!

Two years ago I boycotted coverage and opinion (well I did opinions) on Singapore League as long as Dan Tan was at large. He was arrested (what’s the situation now? I’m too afraid to check. Don’t want to read another Kong Hee), and so the boycott was lifted. The next time I visit Singapore, I intend to watch an S. League match. Should be simple…go to Jalan Besar or any other stadium and pay at the box office, since the stadium must be deserted.

But that plan has been crossed. I watched two international football matches broadcasted live from Jalan Besar stadium and they were terrible. First match was AFC Champions League qualification where Tampines Rovers hosted South China. The shoves were deliberate, unsporting behaviors, tempers, overaged and overweight white players. And no spectator.

The next match was Singapore against Jordan, AFC Asian Cup qualification. Again, the match, like the previous, saw at least two red cards.

I come from a country famous for mismanagement, corruption, unpaid wages, and football as political vehicles. I idolized Singapore for several reasons – it’s the only functional state in Southeast Asia, and by no coincidence it’s the only Chinese-majority state in the region. It’s the closest and easiest place to experience the First World in transportation, security, and trade. It’s the closest and easiest place to experience East Asia in culture, entertainment, food, and fashion.

For years I’ve refused to accept the reality that football in 21st century Singapore is a Malay scene. It was a Singaporean scene, but now it’s really rare to find Chinese and Indian players on the pitch – strangely, even it’s rarer to find Singapore-born Westerners playing professional football. It’s easier to find Chinese and Indians in Malaysian teams and the half-(or more) Western locals are quite easy to find among Filipino, Hong Kong, and even Japanese teams.

Seeing how Tampines and the Lions performed, it was understandable that “footbrawl” was a quite common word in Singapore, although thankfully the worst had came past us. I only can speculate wildly on the underlying causes. The pressure of living in unhappy, perfectionist Singapore (although you don’t see the same thing in J. League and K-League)? Disparity between living in a high income country and playing in an underfunded league? The weird situation of being a league where foreign teams have to keep on participating for financial and political reasons? Proximity with the mother of match fixing cartel?

Certainly, now I think it’s better to spend two-three hours exploring parts of Singapore (besides Orchard Road) rather than watching low quality football where I won’t get what I want to see – Chinese men doing athletics and Chinese women cheering for them.

The following week watching Muang Thong and Chonburi was easier. More spectators, although yeah, Muang Thong vs Hanoi was also a rough match. Unfortunately, the next week I had to support the non Southeast Asian teams – Melbourne Victory and Beijing Guoan. Maybe at the end, Australia and China deserve more Champions League spot than Thailand.

I believe at this time I’ve given up big expectations on Southeast Asian football and be happy with it. No point in hoping they can match East Asia if they cannot match West Asia. No point in hoping for more Chinese-Singaporean footballers if there are not many Chinese-Australian, Chinese-American, and heck, capable Chinese footballers around.

These days I happily watch the Indonesian Super League from television and be thankful that my town hosts the only Chinese-Indonesian footballer, Kim Kurniawan (besides Espanyol B’s Arthur Irawan). These days I follow the A-League highlights on Australia Network and be happy that Guangzhou Evergrande has returned to Earth. These days I keep on thinking “Well it’s not Kagawa fault” when he’s not on the Manchester United lineup, expecting Honda and Nagatomo’s goals or assists, and hoping that the Bundesliga match will be something else besides Munich or Dortmund. And keeping track of Eiji Kawashima’s clean sheet (5 matches so far).

If the 2015 Asian Cup has no Southeast Asian representative (Malaysia by long shot), then be it. One day they will be able to defeat Lebanon, Oman, and China. But I won’t wait for that day.

A Southeast Asian explains the Cardiff situation

See all the ads behind? Except for Puma, all of these in Malaysia are His.

See all the ads behind? Except for Puma, all of these brands in Malaysia are His. Except the Visit Malaysia bit.

It’s 2014 and F Marinos win the Emperor’s Cup. Woohoo.

Well, 2013 ended in some sobering, bit pessimistic note for Asian football. Kagawa didn’t do well in Manchester United (he has not scored any goal in the league this season). Korea qualified – barely. Australia have no one to take over Cahill and Bresciano. And Southeast Asian football is sleeping. Yet, by the end of the year Japan defeated Belgium – both teams are now popular with hipsters, Son Heung-min is promising and Kim Bo-kyung and Ki Sung-yong had their 15 minutes of fame (they did cancel each other when Sunderland met Cardiff), and Australia…is optimistic as ever. Americans groaned at the World Cup draw. Australians grinned.

I regretted saying that Malky Mackay would be fired due to erratic judgment (i.e. perceived insubordination) instead of bad results. Last season, when Cardiff was still in the Championship, I made the analogy based on the case of Steve Kean (who resigned on September 2012). Turned out the same thing happened with Mackay, even when Cardiff was not on the serious danger of relegation (consider what happened to QPR last season. Harry Redknapp is still coaching them).

So, Cardiff and QPR are both owned by Malaysian tycoons. One Chinese, the other Indian. Football fans outside Asia talk about Vincent Tan on weekly basis, while Southeast Asians are more familiar with Tony Fernandes and his delightful airline deals. The way Tan and Fernandes manage their image in UK are same with the way they manage their business in Malaysia.

Like in any other Southeast Asian country, the economy in Malaysia is run by the patronage system. The Malay elites, many of them aristocrats, look after Chinese and Indian businessmen. After a big anti-Chinese riot in 1969, a half-Indian half-Malaysian MP called Mahatir Mohammed argued for affirmative action for Malays, who he saw as victims to British classical colonialism and Chinese economical colonialism. A non aristocrat, he was seen as an outsider. But he became the Prime Minister a decade later and like other governments in Southeast Asia, pushed for privatization and entrance of American and Japanese franchises.

“Vincent” Tan Chee Yioun was a young businessman with right friends – Mahatir’s nephew and brother in law. Starting from car trade deals and access to company boards, his big break came in 1985 when the government permitted sports lottery (betting) for non-Muslims.Tan got Sports Toto without any tender (auction and proposal from competing bidders) process. This video is a portfolio of Tan’s holdings in Malaysia, which includes Wendy’s and 7-Eleven. As an Asian, I’m horrified with this North Korean style Glee. But it’s normal in parts of Asia.

Tony Fernandes, on the other hand, presented a more British image. A protege of Richard Branson, he worked in the music industry in Britain and Malaysia (including Virgin and Warner) before buying AirAsia and turned it into Asia’s first successful budget airline in the image of Virgin airways (attractive and casual stewardess, hip and youthful ads, ala carte flight amenities). Fernandes is not a taipan in the fashion of Tan, but like every other rich guy in Malaysia, he has to have good relationship with the government – the Barisan National coalition and its core, the UMNO Malay supremacist party.

John Duerden went to Malaysia to talk with football people about Tan. He found English coaches who said Malaysian football bosses are all like Tan, Malay ministers who said he’s alright, and Malay journalists who said they just relayed stories from UK instead of writing their own.

So where’s the Chinese Malaysian voice in this story? First, Malaysian football is like that – the clubs are owned by state governments or government bodies. Most of the domestic players are Malays, with some Indians and very few Chinese thrown in (Arabs by default are seen as Malays or Muslim Indians). Urban Malaysians have little interest in domestic football and Chinese Malaysians certainly watch Barcelona and Manchester…City..United? instead of Selangor. The best teams in Malaysia are from eastern and northeastern states with big Malay population, anyway.

In short, Tan’s cake in Malaysia is Wendys – his football business has to be outside Malaysia. His ambition in owning Cardiff is to make profit, while hoping that some Malaysians and Singaporeans would support it like some Asians support Tottenham, Manchester City, or Everton. More importantly, the Malaysian government needs him to fund the BIG ad which you can find on a red Cardiff shirt. So Tan gets the money and the Malaysian government gets the pride. Nevermind the boos from Bluebirds fans, as they don’t get reported in Malaysia. First the newspapers still need 7-11 ads. Second, Malaysians really cannot care about Cardiff the way they cannot care about QPR.

Along the way, of course, Tan’s big ego causes him greater exposure than he wants in Britain (Cardiff, of course, is a Welsh team). He could just let Mackay got the applause. But that’s the way he (and other tycoons) lives in Malaysia – he has to become God just like Kim Jong-un and the other dead Kims. If you could stomach the video above, you could see that he’s so used to hear other people saying they cannot live without him. I really cannot believe he expected the Cardiff supporters to cheer him – did Mancunians ever cheer for the emirs or the Glazers? Did Chelsea supporters ever say thank you to Abramovich? No, and the owner needs no thank – it’s the players, the manager, and the staff who need to be thanked.

So I guess what’s wrong with Vincent Tan is that he has this dream that Cardiff has to be like Kuala Lumpur. His part of Kuala Lumpur (not UMNO’s) where staff bow down to him. There have been comparisons between him and Carson Yeung, and as a Chinese I wonder if they are both awful like that because they are both Chinese tycoons. Little emperors of China who think they own the world. While in Hong Kong and Malaysia there are a dozen more like them. Again, I believe the decision to buy Cardiff City does not come only from Tan who wants profit, but also from the Malaysian government who wants advertisement and prestige (just like Qatar with Barcelona and Azerbaijan with Atletico Madrid). Asian. Football. Bloody hell.

There you have it folks. I believe some Malaysians take Vincent Tan as a shame of the nation, but most Malaysians, or any other Asians, don’t care. There are dozens like him in the region, Cardiff is not a big team, and no matter how much Malay elites privately despise Chinese – let alone a tycoon – they do not say anything bad about him. After all, he’s doing his job for the country (not).

Phew, all this writing saved me the pain of watching Kagawa playing terribly. He really has lost it.

UPDATE: Turns out Tan owns Kedah FA and also changes its color to red. If blue was the color chosen by Cardiff City more than a century ago, then green and yellow reflects Kedah’s strongly Islamic heritage. And mind bogglingly, it can be changed into the very Chinese red. More interestingly, the chairman of Kedah FA (playing in second tier Malaysian Premier League) is the son of Mahatir.

Christmas Confessions

I have man-envy…envy? The opposite of man-crush at John Duerden. He’s the one to write Asian football in Korea, or Japan, or Southeast Asia, or Australia. And he’s living the life.

In fact, I have man-envy…ok, envy, at all Westerner living in East Asia or making regular trips around the region to cover Asian football. Not because I cannot be like them, but because there’s lack of role models – a Chinese, Korean, or Japanese man of any nationality covering football for mainstream international media. It’s back to John, or Patrick Johnston, or well, the only Asian around is Sudipto Ganguly. Like I said, no Chinese, Korean, or Japanese. Fox Sports Asia (and its predecessor ESPN) even has no Asian male pundit or newscaster (Steve Lai has moved to Channel News Asia).

And as always, my education on what’s going on in Asia comes from a Westerner. Like John Duerden. He told us that A-League players and fans found it’s uncomfortable to sit an away match in Asia. And not only because Australians are not Asian and that stuff, but because Asian clubs dislike the AFC Champions League. J-League’s terrible performance in the ACL is blamed on lack of their enthusiasm for continental competition, but I was surprised to read that it also happens to K-League teams.

Suits in Japan and Korea say that the Champions League is not profitable. I don’t buy it. It’s expensive but they have the money. The real reason is because they loath making overseas trips, leaving the boxes of their Korean and Japanese worlds (and ditto to several other nations). Australians love to travel but they know that Asia is an acquired taste, unlike Europe or South America. But while the ACL can be a sobering and painful experience for A-League teams and supporters (with the final score), the bigger faults lie in the insular football culture in Asia.

Insular is a funny word. From Japan to Indonesia, people wear MU and Barcelona colors with pride. Children can recite the whole Liverpool formation by heart. They also talk with pride (before match) and despair (after match) about their national teams. But they give no damn about what’s going on next door.  The usual excuse is that European football is good while Asian football is boring. But the real issue is that they don’t have enough positive feeling for fellow Asian nations. Of course, this is not only in football but also in several other respects – pop culture, social, and language. That’s another thing I envy – Europeans can breezily interact with each other in several language, talking about their food, holiday spots, and X-Factor stars. Asians can, but they don’t want too.

Take the mid-week UEFA Champions League schedule. Europeans are eager to see their city team beating those pesky foreigners (or just owning some cute Czech or Norwegian team) on a Wednesday night, with the fanfare of glorious orchestral anthem. For all their venom for their neighbors over things that happened 100 or 200 years ago, Japanese and Koreans could not bring the whole family to see their club kick butt. Daddy still has to work (but it’s 8 pm!), Mommy prefers to see soap opera at home or Thor in cinema, and the kids are still in cram schools (but it’s 8 pm!). Plus, those Aussie or Japanese foreigners are not interesting – and it’s nauseating to see their supporters. It’s a different story with those hicks from neighboring province/prefecture that we will face on Saturday. We will come in full force and chanting without cease for 90 minutes. And cleaning up our trashes afterward.

More proof of this insularity? I got Winning Eleven/Pro Evo Soccer 14 for Christmas. Yay, Asian Champions League. Shall I play Guangzhou or Sanfrecce (I have enough K-League and A-League from FIFA, thank you). But first, let’s play FIFA Confederations Cup 2013!

Eh? What the hell? I scoured Internet and found it – the international version of PES 14 is not an official product of the Japan Football Association. But there’s no official press release. Just posts in fora (that’s forums). O God, I don’t believe this. Konami wants to become the official video game maker for UEFA Champions League, Copa Libertadores, and AFC Champions League. But the JFA doesn’t want foreigners to support Japan. I guess that’s the reason. I realize that now many football hipsters support Japan and discuss Kagawa, Yoshida, Honda, and Kakitani as if they are African players, but JFA does not want this.

I had two options: assembling a Japanese team composed of Hiroshima, Kashiwa, Urawa, and Sendai players plus the Europeans, or renamed the fictional players according to the Confed Cup lineups. I chose the latter and recalled my basic katakana reading skill to locate all the commentary sound files (I have the Asian version with Japanese audio option). Got them all – Kawashima, the Sakais, and Maeda. I just let the jersey to be red. Dear God, this is terrible, JFA. It’s not enough that you always refuse to provide J-League and refuse FIFA to obtain the J-League or Japan license. Now you have to discourage foreigners from playing Japan.

Then just now I caught up with an old friend and talking about Yakuza 5, which had been released in Japan last year. And Sega representatives were not happy when Westerners were asking them. Sega made limited comments that the localization (i.e. text translation) cost is too high and the fan base is too small. Konami can make the same excuse for J-League and JFA licensing. I think the real excuse is similar – Sega does not want foreigners to enjoy the virtual Kabukicho and other red light districts in Japan (in my Yakuza 4 guide I explain aspects of Japanese culture surrounding the game. Sega might have read it and unhappy that this Chinese Indonesian tells all. Who knows). Many Japanophiles enjoy Yakuza as they can become virtual tourists – and who knows, this is what actually irks Sega or some other parties in Japan.

So, ACL 14? More preliminaries? Good. Guangzhou as the big red tiger? Good. Western Sydney looks forward for the Asian away trip with caution? Fine. But I have also to brace for the possibility that both J. League and K-League teams might put on worse half-ass effort for the competition.

And what I’m sure is, I won’t buy another PES. Unless Japan win AFC Asian Cup 2015, in which I have to play PES 16. Better bet on the Socceroos then.

Asian+Football

I DID look for stock image of Asian Australians playing football but found none. She might be Turk, or Arab, or Iran, or Italian or Irish or Croat.

I DID look for stock image of Asian Australians playing football but found none. She might be Turk, or Arab, or Iran, or Italian or Irish or Croat.

There will be several Asian-Australian figures acting as Community Ambassadors for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia. Because apparently some Australians see Asians as strangers, and many Asians see Australia as a white country. Well, if you see the Socceroos…

I’ve come to accept that there is no Chinese or Korean or Japanese Australians playing in the A-League (they are more likely to be found in diving, badminton, taekwondo, and golf). But come to think of it, I also fail to remember any Iranian or Arab Australian footballer – who was born in Australia and grew up in Australia. Some Turkish and African Australians yes, but not Iranian. Or Arab. So we have Iranian and Chinese Australians who say that they are excited for 2015, but well, if China do not qualify, then the AFC Cup will be West Asians plus Australia, Japan, and the Koreas.

I don’t look at Arab football in general, and yet I still want to know why Arab Australians do not make it into professional football, while it is common to see them playing on parks on weekend and under the floodlights on Tuesday night. And uh, I did try to search on “Arab Australian soccer” and I found three things – Arab football federations and Olympic committees said that Australia’s entry into AFC a decade ago “will kill Asian sports” (might explain a new information – Arab teams might play the ‘roos with worse hatred than China or Japan);  Robbie Slater slammed Aussies who play in Arab leagues, and an Israeli newspaper lulzed Arab teams in 2011 Asian Cup. On second thought, many Arab European footballers I can think of have their heritage from North Africa rather than Lebanon, Syria (Sanharib Malki chooses to play for Syria than Belgium or Netherlands), or even Iran.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, that’s the difficult thing about watching Socceroos. As much as I love Australia (job related), it’s hard to really support an Asian team composed of Italians, Anglo-Irish, Croats and Serbs, native Australians and Africans. In which most of the supporters are also of the same stock with the players. I did see once an East Asian guy brought a board written “Australia: Asia Ichiban” in Japanese, but whether he is Chinese or Japanese, it seemed that he tried too hard to be an Australian. Having said that, then it’s the responsibility of Asian Australians themselves, be their Iranian or Japanese, to break the ceiling collectively and match the footballing quality of the European Australians.

With the Brazil 14 group drawing coming this week, Japan and Korea can be assured that they are prepared with Honda, Kagawa, and Son proving their worth for clubs and countries. Sadly, I got a reminder today that South Korean and Japanese fans are much less cute today. Two years after Tadanari Lee won the Asian Cup for Japan. I just wish that several Korean players will still continue playing in J. League and Japanese players (Takahara then, Escudero recently) will hold on in K-League longer than one season.

Certainly I’d also support Guangzhou Evergrande in the FIFA Club World Cup – first time ever for a Chinese club. The bragging rights that Asian football is actually better than African football (ever since Japan defeated Cameroon in 2001 Confederations Cup) is on the line here. And I want to see how good the Three Amigos of Muriqui, Elkeson, and Conca are beyond Asia.

O yeah, there’s a new Vincent Tan in the English Premier League. His name is Assem Allam. He’s Egyptian, although yeah, the Hull Tigers thing might be also a plan to make his club more popular in Asia (or Far East, as the British say).