AFC Asian Cup 2015. Heh.

The magic of AFC Asian Cup.

Okay, I should be cheered up better. It’s an all East final. Featuring both of my favorites.

It’s all your fault, Japan.

But, had Japan was in the final, the mood be sourer than on Sunday. Korea v Japan would have been a nasty stuff. Japan v Australia in the semis, as interesting and ideal it was, would have been too much for many people on both sides of the Pacific.

Instead, in peaceful Australia it was an all-peaceful tournament. No Korea v Iran. Thank you Iraq. No Japan v China. On second thought, that would have been impossible.

The causes of Japanese terrible performance are clear. Stupid Aguirre put the same 11 throughout group stage – I won’t even do that on World Cup 2014 (yes, we couldn’t reenact the tournament on Pro Evolution Soccer 2015). Okazaki and Honda were too exhausted, too nice (the former), too nervous (the latter). Korea were lucky Lee Jung-hyup and Cho Young-choul were able forwards (and unlike Javier Aguirre, Uli Stielike was wise enough to deploy them), and the ranked-100th Australia employed their full potential at the right time, just like in movies.

UAE have the chance to be a hipster’s team now. Maybe less in Australia, after it’s revealed that Gulf nations want to expel Australia from the AFC since uh, it’s the new guys who went to the World Cups instead of them. I thought the biggest Australian haters in AFC would be something like China or Malaysia. Australia might secretly want a nasty rivalry, but it won’t be with Japan – it’d be with Saudi Arabia (the spitting incident), Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, and Kuwait.

Having said that, be assured that Asian football hipsters will look for UAE merchandises, and also free stuff related to Omar Abdulrahman. Wonderful, JFA, now UAE Pro League has better chance to be featured on FIFA than J. League Division 1 (not that you care).

What’s now? Massimo Luongo, Mat Ryan, and Trent Sainsbury will stay with Swindon, Club Brugge, and Zwolle. But they’d certainly play in a better club next season, just as Kawashima and Kagawa’s positions in Standard Liege and Borussia Dortmund are questionable. It’s a trickier prospect for the Emirates: clubs would have less confidence on them than on new names from Korea and Japan, but the bigger question is, would Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout like to start on mid table clubs in non-English speaking countries? Or in the Championship, like Ali al Habsi?

Finally, with Jason Davidson (quarter-Japanese) and Massimo Luongo (half-Indonesian), let it be said that Australia is an Asian nation in football, and Asian-Australians can make it in Australian sports.

Have a cheerful Valentine’s Day (I’m invited into a wedding. Yippie) and Lunar New Year. On March we’ll have brand new Asian football spectacles, such as India facing Pakistan and Taiwan taking Macau on the first step to Russia 2018.

Heck, even this week we are already in Champions League mood.

AFC Asian Cup 2015 Team of the Tournament

Goalkeeper: Mat Ryan (Australia, Club Brugge)

Defenders: Dhurgam Ismail (Iraq, Al Shorta), Kwak Tae-hwi (Korea, Al Hilal), Trent Sainsbury (Australia, FC Zwolle), Cha Du-ri (Korea, Seoul)

Midfielders: Massimo Luongo (Australia, Swindon Town), Omar Abdulrahman (UAE, Al Ain), Ki Seung-yung (Korea, Swansea)

Forwards: Ali Mabkhout (UAE, Al Jazira), Tim Cahill (Australia, New York Red Bulls), Son Heung-min (Korea, Bayer Leverkusen)

 

What’s on this February

AFC Champions League

4 February: Yadanarbon (Myanmar) v Warriors (Singapore), Johor Darul Tazim (Malaysia) v Bengaluru (India)

10 February: Ha Noi T&T (Vietnam) v Persib Bandung (Indonesia), Chonburi (Thailand) v Kitchee (Hong Kong), Guangzhou R&F (China) v Yadanarbon/Warriors, Bangkok Glass (Thailand) v JDT/Bengaluru

17 February: FC Seoul (Korea) v Ha Noi/Persib, Kashiwa (Japan) v Chonburi/Kitchee, Central Coast Mariners (Australia) v Guangzhou (surely), Beijing Gouan (China) v Bangkok Glass (likely)

24-25 February: Group stage already! Hectic, isn’t it

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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?

I’m Excited about AFF 2014. Really.

Gee, I wonder where I can get all these Indonesian stuff on any Nike store in Indonesia…because I have checked stores in Jakarta and all they have are Barcelona and Manchester United.

Tonight, Southeast Asian football will look at itself. For the next one month.

The ASEAN Football Federation (ASEAN is Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Championship begins tonight with Philippines vs Laos. Of course, nobody will actually see that, so we move on to the proper opening match featuring co-host Vietnam taking on my country Indonesia. Tomorrow Malaysia will face Myanmar while the real match of the day would be between Singapore and Thailand. All the way to the second leg final on 20 December 2014, five day before Christmas and at the same day with the 2014 FIFA Club World Cup Championship final. So it’s a double treat for the winning nation (I really can’t think of anyone, really). Philippines and then Real Madrid.

That one-month long tournament idea it’s just stupid. I blame Nike. And Suzuki. And Fox Sports Asia. We can have the whole championship wrapped up just in two weeks but this is as long as the World Cup. In 2010, the prolonged tournament was a recipe for disaster for Indonesia. Indonesia did well, then president Susilo B. Yudhoyono watched Invictus and thought of himself as Nelson Mandela (Irfan Bachdim became Matt Damon) and showed up to the playoffs, effectively ruining Indonesia’s morale and integrity.

I apologize, though, for blaming Nike. Even Nike Indonesia does not take this tournament seriously. Yesterday I went to the mall and saw a display of #RiskEverything with Irfan Bachdim and his tattoos (2014 appearance for Ventforet Kofu: 0) but the Nike store had only few away shirts, probably leftover from last season. No polo or jacket or cap. In contrast, from the same mall’s Adidas outlet I have collected Japan’s jersey, t-shirt, jacket, cap, and backpack. All I have to do is wear them all and be like Joey Tribbiani.

This picture has nothing to do with Asian football.

How could the “football crazy” Indonesia cares little about the Red and White? That’s because Nike Indonesia cares little about it. That’s because the football crazy Indonesians care more about Germany, Manchester United, Barcelona, and Juventus (and Japan, in my case). That’s because we don’t think we’d win the championship, even as we are crying war. Then again, maybe so our neighbors.

So I assure you, not just Nike Indonesia (and their customers) cares about the lack of availability of Indonesia merchandises, we also don’t care about the other teams. Enemies. Opponents. Foreigners. Sports tabloids and newspapers can write a little about “players to watch” and predicted lineups, but don’t expect too much from television.

So, I take the responsibility to educate my fellow Indonesians a little about teams that Indonesia will defeat and that will defeat Indonesia, and to give an introduction to the world on Indonesia and other Southeast Asian teams.

Vietnam

Surprisingly, the ones with Japanese touch. Maybe Vietnam have taken its rivalry with China to a new level. Coach Toshiya Miura had experiences with Omiya, Sapporo, and Kobe in the 2000s. Their female supporters can be the most visible and enthusiastic ones, and the host advantage can be with them.

Foreign-based player? No.

The Ace: Le Chong Vinh, number nine. Experienced unsuccessful stints with Leixoes in 2009-10 Primeira Liga (they were the worst team) and Consadole Sapporo in 2013. Did not score in 2012 championship, though.

The Foreigner: Mac Hong Quan. Born in Czech, he was with Sparta Prague B before moving to Vietnam in 2013. Still an underachiever.

Problem Child: Dinh Thanh Trung. Left Hanoi over dispute, he played in Division 2 last season.

Philippines

The perpetual dark horses, Philippines grew from one of the worst teams in the region (and Asia) into a feared one, thanks to half-Filipino players recruited from Europe and United States. They became fine footballers and decided to play in the United Football League and dating models rather than busting their asses in European lower leagues (they still can date models there, right?). If they still can’t reach the final, blame UFL.

O yeah, their coach is Tom Dooley, one of my heroes when I supported United States in early 1990s.

Foreign-based players? Several. Goalkeeper Ronald Muller in Servette, captain Rob Gier in Ascot United, Jerry Lucena in Esbjerg, and Martin Steuble in Sporting Kansas City. Until they will play in UFL and get cozy.

The Ace: Mark Hartmann, who scored 27 goals this season with Global. Might overshadow old favorites like the Younghusband brothers.

The Foreigner: Most of the team, but the peculiar ones would be defender Daisuke Sato and midfielder Misagh Bahadoran.

The Problem Child: Surprisingly nothing, but expect them to argue with the referees and challenge other players with combative gestures.

Indonesia

Indonesia can’t let go of the big country syndrome – since we have so many people and have the biggest area, we have to be the biggest bully of the block, right? I hope new president Joko Widodo can help the team concentrate now and let publicity takes the back seat. Austrian coach Alfred Riedl worked for Vietnam again and again from late 1990s to mid 2000s.

If Indonesia makes a rip-off of Cantabile, he’s very suitable to play Franz Stresemann.

Foreign based player? Sergio van Dijk, once an attraction of A-League, plays for Suphanburi in Thailand.

The Ace: Uruguay-born Cristian Gonzales, consistently one of top scorers in Indonesian Premier League and has good record with Indonesia. At 38, however, he’s getting fatter and fatter.

The Foreigner: Besides those two, there’s the Nigeria-born defender Victor Igbonefo.

Problem Child: Being a stereotypical stern Austrian, Riedl omits Irfan Bachdim and night club regular Diego Michiels from this team. Unfortunately, he also omits IPL 2014 MVP Ferdinand Sinaga, who I believe deserves a forward spot better over van Dijk.

Laos

The Poland/Greece of Southeast Asia – you’ll need to copy and paste their names rather than typing. The lovable losers who survived the qualification run. Coached by English Dave Booth, a veteran of Indian football (and Grimsby Town’s 1973 Player of the Year).

Foreign-based player: Soukaphone Vongchiengkham (pasted) plays for Thai Division 1 club Saraburi.

The Ace: Him, maybe.

The Foreigner: None.

The Problem Child: None as far I know.

Singapore

The defending champions and eternally an annoying shrimp for its larger neighbors, at least in football. They are expected to reach semi finals, at the expense of neighbors and rivals Malaysia. They are now the only team to have an ethnic Chinese footballer.

Foreign-based players: LionsXII, where most of the players work for, compete in Malaysia Super League. Other than that, Hariss Harun plays for Johor and captain Shahril Ishak, 2012 Championship MVP, is in Johor II. Baffling, no?

The Ace: Khairul Amri, on his tenth year with the Lions and scored four goals in the 2012 Championship. This year he’s the top scorer in the Malaysia Super League who is not a Brazilian or Argentine.

The Foreigner: For the last ten years, Singapore had been powered by naturalized players from England, Nigeria, China, and former Yugoslavia. Not anymore. Gabriel Quak, on the other hand, becomes the first Singapore-born ethnic Chinese who’s good enough for the national team since Goh Tat Chuan played in early 2000s. Ironically, in Chinese-majority Singapore, his name and feature are unique for Singaporean football. Maybe just like Hugo Lloris in France.

The Problem Child: Khairul Nizam, brother to Khairul Amri, served eight matches ban in 2010 for brawl against Beijing Guoan Talent players.

Malaysia

Another favorite for the championship and have to decide who they hate most – Singapore, Thailand, or Indonesia. Coached by Dollah Salleh, the legend of late 20th century’s Asian football. If Singapore are the team to feature a Chinese player, this is the one to support if you’re into Indian footballers.

Foreign-based players: None.

The Ace: Indra Putra Mahayuddin. A favorite of 2000s, he disappeared from international football scene and stages a comeback this month.

The Foreigner: Malaysia has never naturalized any foreign star or a foreigner with Malaysian background, although they had accepted few Muslim Burmese in the past. The Indian Malaysians I talked about are Gary Steven Robbat and Kunanlan.

The Problem Child: Safee Sali. He’s a nice guy who’s got into some troubles several times. The first Malaysian who played in Indonesian Super League, he was promised number 10 shirt at Persija Jakarta but got number 55 instead. A somewhat working analogy of his time in Indonesia is like a Japanese star who plays in K-League – both Indonesians and Malaysians are okay with it and he was not heckled, but both parties saw him as tainted. In 2014 Johor almost handed him over to Selangor, but eventually he stayed with Johor.

Thailand

Difficult spellings too, but hey, it’s essential to remember their names. Traditionally seen as the big boss of Southeast Asia, they are in crazy and unstable forms in this century. This week they defeated New Zealand 2-0 but lost all their qualifications matches for Australia 2015. Like Malaysia, they entrust the national team to a national hero, Kiatisuk Senamuang – who scored 70 goals for Thailand from 1993 to 2006.

Foreign-based player: None.

The Ace: Kawin Thammasatchanan, best goalkeeper of the 2012 edition and one of the most formidable goalkeepers in Southeast Asia, standing at 185 meters (6 feet 1 inch).

The Foreigner: Charyl Chappuis, formerly a reserve player in Grasshopper Zurich and a member of Switzerland winning team at the 2009 U-17 World Cup. He graduated from Thailand U-23 last year and scored his first senior goal this year against Kuwait.

The Problem Child: Thai generals. I really want to support Thailand but if they do good, the generals will take credit for the “happiness”.

Myanmar

Who cares.

So, that’s the preview of eight teams competing in AFF Suzuki Cup 2014. As I’m writing this conclusion, Philippines have overturned a 0-1 shock from Laos into a 2-1 lead. Please enjoy this feat of Southeast Asian football since there won’t be any at the Asian Cup.

 

Evil Asian Football Clubs

Man, last night was intense, wasn’t it? I was really sure Western Sydney Wanderers would have blown it at the last minute, it’d had been 1-1 at full time, and Al Hilal would have steamrolled either in extra times (two goals) or penalty shootouts. But not. They were holding on, with Ante Covic blocked all possible shots or Al Hilal just flunked their great chances.

I was still thinking of writing from another angle, but Al Hilal’s reaction to the full time whistle confirmed my thought – instead of attacking bumbling referee Yuichi Nishimura, Nasser Al Shamrani and other Al Hilal players were attacking Western Sydney players instead.

The reason was same with the vitriolic hatred shown by Guangzhou Evergrande supporters toward Western Sydney, hatred for the ‘white men’ Australians. There was a big difference though. Al Hilal supporters showed themselves to be a good sport, in contrast to the club. At least after the end of the match, when they asked the wandering Australians to take group pictures of the men in blue jerseys. So, at the risk of walking through a painful memory lane (full of muggers and rats), I present several evil football clubs who were in the AFC Champions League final.

1. Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia)

Laurentiu from Arabia. Would Mourinho wear a bowler hat before the Champions League final? Or Pep wearing Lederhosen?

The Boss is indeed a titan of Asian football. Since Saudi players cannot play overseas, of course the best talents play in Saudi Professional League. Their Champions League matches feature full houses, which is a rarity – even their crowd counts often trump other Saudi competitors. Saudi oil, which is used for buying Ferraris instead of building better schools and creating employment for locals, was of course also used to buy football superstars (money from the oil, not the petrol itself) like Brazilians Mario Zagallo and Rivellino. And so Saudi’s orientation on Brazilian football was born, and in early 1990s they earned the “Brazil of Asia” moniker, due to their Brazilian links, individualized playing style, and since most of their footballers are African Arabs (gettit?). Not even Zico could turn Japan into  “Brazil of Asia”, after all.

Al Hilal won the 1991 and 2000 Asian Club Championship but surprisingly they never won the ‘new’ Champions League (wow. I thought they did. Apparently I confused them with their Jeddah rivals Al Ittihad).

My problem with Al Hilal began after I learned that the club complained about the absence of luxury in Sydney while Prince Al Waleed bin Talal promised big bonus for the club. In 2013 he made big fuss with Forbes since the magazine’s estimation of his wealth is below his (while many ethnic Chinese moguls said the magazine always overestimate their fortunes). To the point of threatening to sue Forbes, weeping on the phone, and hiring some white men to publish scathing papers against the magazine.

The club, meanwhile, complained about the hick town that was Sydney, saying that the stadium was shabby (unlike the wonderful King Fahd Stadium) and that the hotel they were staying (I assume Pullman Quay Grand Sydney Harbour) was too small (because unlike Saudi Arabia, Australia has this strange concept of wealth redistribution).

Back in Saudi Arabia, coach Laurentiu Reghecampf donned his Laurentiu of Arabia look, saying no way in hell Wanderers could defeat hims the second time, while Vice President Prince Abdulrahman bin Musaad asked Saudis to pray and do charity works, so that the pleased Allah will help Al Hilal with victory. Theeen…another VP, Mohamad al Hmaidani, called Al Hilal supporters to beat up other clubs’ supporters claiming bin Talal’s free ticket offers, added with obligatory “Yo’ Mama” expression.

At the first half, Al Hilal supporters used laser beams to intimidate the Wanderers (I expect it on the upcoming AFF Suzuki Cup. Idiots), unaware that the radiation gave Ante Covic superpower. Nassir Al Shamrani, one of Saudi’s finest strikers, became the villain of the final after repeatedly attacking substitute Matthew Spiranovic (Nishimura ignored, funny guy), then spat on him, and his club went on to win the Fair Play Award (previous winners were always Japanese and Korean clubs).

2. Guangzhou Evergrande (China)

What’s this, early football video game where the players use the same animation?

I tried to look the silver lining of Chinese football. When China were in the 2002 World Cup, I felt the great moment of Pan-Asian pride (of course, I relished the Germany 8 Saudi Arabia 0 match). But Chinese attitude in politics, environment, human rights, and its clubs attitude, made it harder for me to appreciate any bit of my ancestors’ homeland.

Again, Western Sydney Wanderers. Again, Juric scored the single goal in a night in Parramatta. Again, the richer club made several threats against the Australians. We are giants with wealth and power you can’t imagine. Evergrande even could take the brag to another notch – our coach had won the World Cup and the UEFA Champions League and our playmaker was good enough to play in the World Cup (I always insert Diamanti into my Italy 23). We are unbeatable. Our fanatical supporters will surround you in a massive dome you never seen before (again, Evergrande relied on female supporters, unlike Al Hilal who shunned them). We will show you the power of Asian football that will make you speechless. Prepare to suffer.

Essentially, both the royal Saudi and Chinese (for a communist state, they take their royalty seriously, don’t they?) can’t forgive the Australians for so many things. For setting up shop nearby. For being one of the best countries in the world without producing anything luxurious. For not being a part of thousand years imperial history. For being white and speaking English. For being a democracy.

The supporters, the Italians, and the football domination were not enough, anyway, that Evergrande supporters had to ram Western Sydney’s bus, had to terrorize their night, and yes, had to attack Covic’s eyes again with lasers. So much for their trust for Lippi, Diamanti, and the domestic players.

Tonight Evergrande has clinched another Chinese Super League title, and the league’s final top scorers tell the story – out of the top ten goal scorers, only one is Chinese. Wu Lei from Shanghai SIPG. The others might follow Evergrande’s strategy – defend and let the foreigners score.

3. Al Sadd (Qatar)

Play to win

 

When a Qatari talks about “The Boss” in football, he (hardly a she) talks about Al Sadd, winners of 2011 AFC Champions League. I saw on TV the terrible semi final match against Suwon, when Mamadou Niang (formerly a striker for Marseille and Fenerbahce) scored when Suwon thought Al Sadd would’ve waited for the on pitch treatment for Cho Sung-hwan. Well, if Jose Mourinho has not aware of the seriousness of head injury in 2014, so would Niang back in 2011. After the brawl (involving a pitch invader), Al Sadd’s Korean defender Lee Jung-soo walked out of the scene from frustration, asking to be subbed. It’s said he was censured by the management for not standing up for the club. But when he had to choose in 2012 between Al Sadd and Evergrande, he sticks with the lesser evil until today.

To my pain, Al Sadd defeated Jeonbuk to win the Champions League and defeated hosts Kashiwa Reysol in the Club World Cup.

4. Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma (Korea, 1989-2013)

A bad Korean club? Not that they did brawl in Champions League finals, but because they were owned by an evil organization – the Moonies. Or officially, the Church of Unification, who’s fond of marrying strangers based on the founder’s hunch (he’s literally the brother of Jesus, you know). After being a feeble team in the 1990s, in 1999 the club relocated from Cheonan to Seongnam, a satellite city of Seoul, and had more capital to attract top Korean players and decent foreigners. They dominated K-League in early 2000s but lost the 2004 Champions League final to Al Ittihad. In 2010 they finally won the Champions League and Sasa Ognenovski became a famous Socceroo.

Praise Jesus, in 2013 Sun Myung-moon after committing decades of crimes including asking Americans to forgive Richard Nixon, financing a terrible movie on the Battle of Inchon, creating The Washington Times, and evading tax. And oh, brainwashing people, intimidating those who want to leave his sect, and being cozy with Christian and Islamic religious nuts in United States (while waging war against Christian churches in Korea, interesting).

So with Sun bit the dust, the Moonies had little interest in running the club and sold it to the city of Ansan. After protests from club supporters, it was purchased by the government of Seongnam and now it’s a nice club. It’s unknown if Seongnam players were forced or persuaded to join Unification Church activities, but certainly many notable players from Korea and overseas used it as a stepping stone before moving to relatively saner clubs in Asia.

The four clubs I described were not necessarily evil in the sense of Dr. Evil from Evil University. Their players were professional footballers, not criminals. But they grow up in countries and societies that value wealth, ego, showmanship, and think little about social justice, communities, and ethics. In the case of Ilhwa Chunma, it grew up in the curious phenomenon that in Korea, that is industrious and impressible toward charismatic cults at the same time. I’m just glad that Sun’s death brought the end to the cult’s grip on the football club – a dark chapter in Korean history is behind us.

The same cannot be said for Saudi Arabia, China, and Qatar and many other Asian countries. I was one of Asians who deplored Australian entry into AFC, but well, the high hope that Australia can cure some diseases of Asian football is taking place, one step at a time. I’ve heard that some Australians demand AFC to drop sanction on Nasser Al Shamrani, while knowing it won’t happen. I still don’t know how did Koreans react to Niang’s unsportsmanlike behavior, besides calling Al Sadd as “Al Badd”.

But if Japanese media won’t talk (today Japanese supporters marched against racism – couldn’t find the news, sadly), then I applaud Australia’s loud call. Western Sydney Wanderers have proven that money and power cannot buy love. Let Asians take heed.

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.

Their love is for Manchester United, really

James come from Manchester. "Just Like Fred Astaire" was a soundtrack of my high school romance.

James come from Manchester. “Just Like Fred Astaire” was a soundtrack of my high school romance.

Few days ago I was surprised to know that Quinton Fortune is now an assistant coach to Cardiff City U-21. Hmm…Ole Gunnar Solksjaer…Quinton Fortune…Cardiff City.

Then, Salford City, which plays in…um…Northern Premier League Division One North is half-bought (50% shares, you see) by Singaporean Peter Lim. So that’s why the other owners – Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, and the Neville brothers (and yeah, Nicky Butt, he played for MU didn’t he?) were often spotted in Singapore in recent years. I thought they were just paying a visit to Paul Parker, who is now a Singaporean pundit.

I fell in love with Manchester United after borrowed Manchester United: The Double (often mistranslated by Asian pirates as Manchester United 2) in 1994. A serious bug (or deliberate design?) made Andy Cole always, always injured for 99 days even when benched. It is hectic as Sensible World of Soccer, but at least I could win the FA Cup and the EPL, unlike in Sensi.

Anyway, then Britpop came and I followed the EPL when everyone else in Indonesia was following Serie A (we always prefer Continental Europe than UK, unlike Malaysia-Singapore and Thailand). So there you go, from Giggs, the left midfielder in The Double, to Fortune, the sub midfielder in FIFA 2003 (I played Pro Evo Soccer/Winning Eleven since then, until returned to FIFA in 2009). Now they are working or partnering with a Southeast Asian Chinese.

Was Rio Ferdinand in MU back in FIFA 2003? Because he’s in Queens Park Rangers now. Well, he’s the only link between QPR and MU now. O yeah, there was Park Ji-sung.

Like Cardiff and Salford (and Valencia, probably), QPR is owned by a Southeast Asian. Not Chinese, but Indian. Tony Fernandes, perfectly the Southeast Asian version of Richard Branson (he was indeed a protege) operates Air Asia, Southeast Asia’s hippest airline (when my plane to Singapore was airborne, Girls’ Generation was played over the PA. I screamed in orgasm although sitting next to a Malay old man). He was also the Southeast Asian Donald Trump, being the boss of the regional version of The Apprentice. Actually there are more qualified of candidates here (being a nutty conservative/conspiracy theorist) but they are too camera shy.

You might remember that QPR sported the Malaysian Airlines logo in 2011-12 season. One year later, it changed to Fernandes’ own Air Asia. Coincidentally, in 2012 Cardiff City stole the headlines with the red dragon makeover. And theeen, Cardiff players were the one who wore the “Malaysia” word on their red shirts. Fernandes moved to Jakarta, to the heckles of who he described as “right wing bloggers”.

My Australian professors offered a wisdom – never, never believe rich Asians who said they were born poor. They were always born rich. Fernandes at least acknowledged his childhood of learning business from her mother’s Tupperware tea parties and his love for piano, while Tan’s family background is mysterious. All stories about him begins in 1985, when the 33-year old acquired the Sports Toto lottery from his good friend, then Prime Minister Mahatir Mohammed.

Peter Lim followed my professors’ rule by declaring that he is the son of a fishmonger…before saying that he’s an alumni of the Raffles Institution – Singapore’s most elite secondary school. In Australia, as an accounting student, he worked as a waiter, cook, and cab driver, although I’m not sure international students are permitted to become a taxi driver there. He built his fortune back in Singapore by becoming a real estate broker for Indonesian clients.

The second rule to be a Southeast Asian tycoon is to be close with the center of power, i.e. the ruling party. Australian and American tycoons can donate billions to the opposition party and criticize the government, but Malaysia and Singapore have not seen any change of government since their foundations. So Malaysian tycoons are friendly with the National Front coalition (the Chinese through Malaysian Chinese Association, the Indians through Malaysian Indian Congress), while Singaporean tycoons keep good relations with the People’s Action Party.

Make the movie. Make the movie. Make the movie.

Make the movie. Make the movie. Make the movie.

Peter Lim was known outside Singapore when he courted every club in Europe – Liverpool. Rangers. Valencia. Milan. Finally this year he settled with Valencia. Has he? Valencia did receive considerable coverage this year in Singapore, which is bit weird for a region that cares only about La Liga because of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

The third rule applies to Singapore – no one is permitted to be a famous tycoon in Singapore. No one is permitted to be more famed than the Lee family who runs the government. Peter Lim is probably the first tycoon of the 21st century that many people outside Singapore have heard of, and it’s precisely because of the Liverpool proposal and the Valencia purchase.

So we have the abrupt switch from “Malaysia’ sponsorship from Fernandes’ QPR to Tan’s Cardiff, Manchester United Class of 92’s visits to Singapore, and the excitement of Valencia purchase. My guess is that Tan and Lim work for the government.

The real owners of Cardiff City and of Valencia (and Salford) are the Malaysian and Singaporean governments, respectively. Just like Manchester City is owned by the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and Paris St. Germain is owned by Qatar. They are not Glazer brothers or John Henry, who can contribute billions to American political parties but do not work on behalf of Washington.

Still, they are unhappy with what they have. Because their (the billionaires and the governments) main prize is Manchester United. So far they have to be content with faux-MU – Salford, red Cardiff City, Rio Ferdinand, and Valencia. Valencia? Yes, when they have got Mata back. Too bad about Solskjaer.

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.

All Right in the East…and West

Who said Twitter campaign doesn't work?

Who said Twitter campaign doesn’t work?

Last week I thought things were fine in Asia. This was when the scoreboards were Mouscron-Peruwelz (gah) 5 Standard Liege 2 and MK Dons 4 Manchester United 0 (plus a concussion). But suddenly things look up.

Start with the East, like the movement of sun is. K-League (Classic) continues its tradition of making into the semi finals of AFC Champions League, and the fancier Seoul defeat the unfancied (less fancied?) Pohang. Pohang’s indie rustic charm is something to admire – like Borussia Dortmund or Udinese. But somehow I just prefer Seoul’s cosmopolitanism. They have the only professional Spanish-Japanese footballer on Earth, after all (who is not that good). Homegrown players and local flavor must be something to be desired in modern club football everywhere (especially in Europe), but I’m bit worried that the “all-local” trend growing in Japan and Korea is more about racial purity than about pure football.

A Korean will be surely playing in the Champions League final, provided he is not injured – Kwak Tae-hwi from Al Hilal or Lee Myeong-ju (who was in Pohang last semester) from Al Ain. A defender and an aggressive midfielder – the proverbial Chinese duel of shield against sword.

And I’ve surprised myself by coming long way – cheering for an Australian team that has no player from East Asian heritage. Western Sydney’s starting eleven consisted of three Australians from ex-Yugoslavian background (Serbs, Croatians, Slovenians etc.), an Italian, a Croat, an Albanian, a half Mauritian-half German Australian, three Anglo-Irish Australians, and an African-Australian. Versus eight Chinese, a Brazilian, and two Italians.

So why didn’t I support the Chinese? Because I dislike their football – the Chinese defend and pass, the foreigners score. Evergrande go a long way in China and Asia (and even the world) with this tactic, but it does not any good for the Chinese national team. Because I dislike the bad sport of Chinese footballers. Because I dislike how working in CSL corrupts foreign players and managers. Because I dislike Evergrande’s supporters heavy handed tactics to intimidate Western Sydney. It’s more than anger against Vitor Saba’s acting. It’s pure racist hatred against the white Australians who dared to defeat Evergrande. I’m not sure about how they will treat Korean visitors, but Japanese visitors might be subjected to same, or even worse bullying. We don’t need that kind of trouble on the next stage (Evergrande will return next year).

An Italian approaches an Arab. A Croat and Chinese stay away.

An Italian approaches an Arab. A Croat and Chinese stay away.

I think I’d be neutral on the semi finals between Seoul and Western Sydney. It’s easy to go for Seoul, but I also fancy the fairy tale story of Western Sydney becoming the first A-League team to become the Champions of Asia. Just as I want Australia to win the AFC Asian Cup, despite Japan and Korea.

Now, to Europe. I’m planning to visit the nearest Puma shop to buy a Borussia Dortmund merchandise, because they’ve become my dream team – a team containing an Australian, a Korean, and a Japanese. Well, Mitch Langerak is on the bench again, Ji Dong-won does not sit there at all, and Kagawa has to prove himself against Milo Jojic and Sven Bender (it’s almost impossible to challenge Marco Reus). And euh, that Armenian guy.

I had the feeling Keisuke Honda would score the first Serie A goal for Milan and he did. Thank you Pippo for believing in him. Too bad Inter abandon the left midfield position so Nagatomo is a sub (unless he can overthrow Dodo, but it seems he’s better to be a left midfielder than a left defender).

Son sadly played only a half as Leverkusen continued its winning run, recently against Hosogai’s Berlin, the 2 against 1 fight between Koo and Okazaki versus Kiyotake ended 0-0, while Osako scored against Stuttgart.

In England, Ki earned a yellow card while Swansea are at number two, above Aston Villa (really), Manchester City, and Liverpool. Yoshida is hitori janai as Schneiderlin and Rodriguez stay in Southampton and his central back position is secured. And I can worry less about Manchester United. I think.

[Update: Southampton just welcomed Belgian central back Toby Alderweireld. Oh Maya.]

 

2015, then

And so they went home. You have heard that Shinji Kagawa wrote a formal apology to his fans, which according to my friend Sean Carroll is “as uninspired and predictable as his football in Brazil”. But that what in his (and his agent’s) mind is the right way to do, the right thing to say, to his fans. His Japanese fans. And even Japanese who are not his fans. But Japanese. And then his non-Japanese fans.

For most of us non-Japanese, his apology is optional. What matters is he gets his act together. Maybe even for Japanese culture, his apology is optional. He is not the first terrible number 10 to lead Japan in a failed World Cup campaign. I forget if Shunsuke Nakamura or Hiroshi Nanami did the same, although I guess they might have, at least in Japan.

But Kagawa is in bigger spotlight than Shunsuke. Back in Hide Nakata days there was no Twitter, YouTube, 24/7 updated football networks, and although it had started, European elite clubs did not receive as much as Asian sponsors as today. Kagawa truly believes he has failed his fans worldwide, both Japanese supporters and Manchester United fans. And sponsors. He should have done better, but the Ivory Coasters (what’s the proper noun for citizens of Cote d’Ivoire? I’m sorry) were so scary. Scarier than the walking Barbie doll in Beyond: Two Souls. He should have be able to do one-two with Honda, slashing through gasping Zuniga, and lobbed an overhead pass to Kakitani which the forward would have headed home.

Why can't Japan play football like this? Because life is not a manga.

Why can’t Japan play football like this? Because life is not a manga.

But he didn’t, did he? Nor did others. Or the whole English and Spanish defenses, in fact. But let others write about the Europeans. We’ve seen how scared little boys were the Japanese defense against Colombia, how nervous the forwards were against Greece.

In Jakarta Post, I argue that Asians in general don’t pay attention to the failures of Asia in 2014. They accept that Asians are terrible in sports as a matter of fact (never mind Michelle Wie, Jeremy Lin, Kei Nishikori, and yes, Shinji Okazaki) and naturally they omit Australia. On the other hand, there’s a persisting myth in Asia outside Korea and China that Japanese team possess the Bushido spirit.

Asians actually glared at me for saying “if you want to see Bushido in football, see Australia.” Now that’s brave football. Who cares if we get three goals past us? We’ll just attack and tackle. Part of it is the genetic of having European parents. And yes, one Mike Havenaar is not enough (I maintain that he deserved number 20 over Manabu Saito).

But essentially, Japan’s and Korea’s hesitation and lack of bravery during the matches were caused by fear of failure. When you are worried of making mistakes, you’ll make mistakes. Cliche but true.

Then, as John Duerden and other Western (but not Asian) journalists have said, Japan and Korea have no number nine – the goalscoring hero, the van Persie, the Suarez. So do Australia and Brazil, actually. So Brazil has to make sure somebody will be better than Luis Fabiano and Fred (and not having his European manager puts him as a winger) and Australia will also help Adam Taggart being better than Josh Kennedy and Scott McDonald.

But the lack of number nine in Japan and Korea also have to do with culture, I guess. Japanese boys want to become Captain Tsubasa, number 10, the creative playmaker. Number nine in Tsubasa’s saga is the brash, rude, and antagonistic Hyuga – who didn’t make it into Juventus starting 11. On the other hand, Korean boys want to become the speedy number 7, like Son Heung-min, Lee Chung-yong, or Lee Chun-soo in the past. Graceful and popular with girls. Koreans perpetually describe their football as “fast”.

Why? Because number 9 has to hog the ball and makes the final decision. He has to be under the spotlight. Of course many boys like that idea, many men eventually become them, the JFA and J. League continuously make such campaigns to encourage more attacking play and more goal scoring opportunities.

But how on Earth it could be a Japanese habit, Japanese psyche, if the Japanese keep on with group mentality and shunning of individuality in life beyond football? Even the closest thing to Hyuga, Keisuke Honda, showed himself as a 15 minutes attacking midfielder.

What Javier Aguerre, the new coach of Japan, can do is to develop Shinji Okazaki to become a full time number 9, with Yohei Toyoda, Yu Kobayashi, Junya Tanaka, and Mike Havenaar as next in the pool. Okazaki could scored 15 goals for Mainz last season because he had no such fear of failure in Germany. And because he was the number 9 for the club.

Thrown by toffees...of love.

Thrown with toffees…of love.

As for Korea. At least Kawashima and co., in their wonderful suits, were welcomed by squealing (always squealing) Japanese girls in that blue Adidas shirt. On the other hand, the Koreans were pelted with yeot, translated as toffees. Interestingly, among Chinese-Indonesians “toffee” is also an insulting word. So I guess the origin of the insult came from China.

Death of Korean football? Hardly. They didn’t call it death of Korean football back in 1998. Again, because back in 1998 they had no Twitter, Cyworld (or did Korea already have Cyworld back in 1998?), and Nike banners of Ki Sung-yong everywhere. And a dozen of European based players. Cha Bum-kun was more even disgraced back then. The pain was supposedly more…painful…with the economic crisis (called “IMF Crisis” by Koreans until today, blamed on IMF rather than their own fat cats) gripping, but maybe back then, Koreans thought everything sucked, so it’s appropriate for football to suck too.

In 2014, however, Koreans strongly believe they are the darlings of Asia. Japan’s sun has set and China is vilified, but everyone loves Lotte, K-pop, Korean drama, and Samsung. So everything nice and football has to be nice too. Why can’t football be nice?

After seeing Germany versus Algeria, I’ve come to admit the quality of Algerian football. Korea should have defeated Russia, but their only mistake against Algeria was they got panicked and scared, just like Japan in second half against Ivory Coast. Algeria could beat them in any day, even with better composure.

But now I’m finishing Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World. In Busan, she followed an American who dropped out of his exchange program out of frustration, and a Korean who was relieved to move to New Jersey. Nobody, even the Koreans, is happy with the way Korean education is run.

So in school and office, Koreans are pressured by themselves to be perfect. They berate themselves and are berated if they don’t do things perfectly. So that what happened with the toffees. The supporters, pressured to be perfect in college and office (or even in playing Starcraft), were angry that the Warriors were not perfect. Just like Xavi and Hart.