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.]

 

So We Begin Again

Got over the World Cup blues? Eiji Kawashima and Shinji Okazaki have to. Belgian Pro League has restarted (at the moment he’s at the rope, having conceded two goals). He also kept clean sheet in UEFA Champions League against Panathinaikos, and must face Athens’ hospitality in three days time. Meanwhile, Okazaki scored the only goal for Mainz 05 in Europa League against another Greek side, Asteras Tripoli.

So far so good – while Kagawa and Honda are in United States, trying to keep their jobs. So let’s see how things are going to be for the rest of 2014 for Asia’s best footballers.

Looking forward for this.

Looking forward for this.

1. Shinji Kagawa (Japan)

Current club: Manchester United

Positions: Attacking midfielder, left midfielder

Club record last season: 30 appearances, 0 goal.

Bad. He’s still on the clean-up list of Louis van Gaal. On the up side, he can be a substitute for Juan Mata.

In my life, however, fact often follows fiction, life often imitates arts. I played FIFA 14 with Kagawa in Atletico Madrid, and the Borussia Dortmund of Spain do have an interest for him. For 14 million pounds. I think he’d better to take the offer. Complication may arise when old love Dortmund calls again.

 

2. Keisuke Honda (Japan)

Current club: Milan

Positions: Attacking midfielder (country), right midfielder (club)

Club record last season: 16 appearances, 2 goals.

Plus, he scored in Brazil. It’s a wonder how come he keeps on ending behind Kagawa. Certainly he has worse time in Milan than Kagawa did in Manchester.

The news is he visited FC Dallas. And that’s about it. Dallas, of course, have their own Designated Players (United States and Australia try to limit the amount of expensive imports while at the same time ensure that some notables play for the club) – Argentina Mauro Diaz, the number 10, Uruguayan striker David Texeira, and Dynamo Kiev’s loan Andres Escobar (yes, he’s Colombian).

So it seems this season Honda will stay in Milan. Whether the number 10 will play enough in the field is another matter.

 

3. Yuto Nagatomo (Japan)

Current club: Internazionale

Positions: Left midfielder (club), left back (country)

Club record last season: 36 appearances, 5 goals.

Now we are talking. Too bad he was helpless in Brazil. Like Kagawa (maybe less with Honda), he’s pretty enjoying his working holiday in United States. Rotations may happen, but he will start the game more often than Honda and Kagawa.

 

4. Ali Al-Habsi (Oman)

Current club: Wigan Athletic

Position: Goalkeeper

Club record last season: 18 appearances

Mark Schwarzer is still Asia’s best goalkeeper, but at this rate he seems vouching to be Chelsea’s goalkeeper coach (Schwarzer may occasionally appear in League Cup – or for some reason Mourinho has some feeling that Courtouis and Cech may be injured at the same time).

Asia’s second best goalkeeper is Ali al-Habsi. Last season he played in the Championship and shared time with Scott Carson. Welcome back to the Premier League, Ali.

 

5. Hajime Hosogai (Japan)

Current club: Hertha Berlin

Positions: Defensive midfielder, central defender.

Club record last season: 33 appearances, 0 goal.

Tell me again, was he injured just before the World Cup? Otherwise it was a total foolishness to omit him from Japan 23. Now sporting the proud number 7, he’s expected to teach some naughty things related to Berlin nightlife (I hope he would) to junior Genki Haraguchi.

 

6. Koo Ja-cheol (Korea)

Current club: Mainz 05

Position: Attacking midfielder

Club record last season: 14 appearances, 1 goal.

Mainz 05 is the most Asian club in Bundesliga, with four players from three countries (added with Australia’s Nikita Rukavytsya). Koo is the club’s main attacking midfielder, and yesterday he played 75 minutes in Europa League before being substituted by Niki Zimling. He’ll do fine this season, as long he’ll score at least five goals (eight is preferable).

Seoul hates Uber

Seoul hates Uber

 

7. Shinji Okazaki (Japan)

Current club: Mainz 05

Positions: Striker, right midfielder

Club record last season: 35 appearances, 15 goals.

If Japan has the closest thing to a number nine, he is Okazaki. He did score in the World Cup, but not enough. As I argued, not only because he might have received better passes and crosses from Mainz team mates than from fellow Samurais, but also because he had much lighter burdens in Bundesliga than in the World Cup.

He’s off to the new season with good start after scoring against Tripoli, and that what made Mainz excited, Bundesliga delighted (you got an Asian fan here. Bye bye overrated Premier League. Bundesliga is the real deal), and Japan can rebound fast toward Australia 2015. What’s more, Okazaki relieved he could break through a Greek phalanx, so he could get over World Cup completely. I’m not sure if he can repeat his 15 goals record this season, but he can come close. It’d be nice if he can score in DFB Pokal – and more in Europe.

 

8. Son Heung-min (Korea)

Current club: Bayer Leverkusen

Position: Left winger

Club record last season: 43 appearances, 7 goals.

Here’s another star that needs to get over Brazil. Leverkusen go to Seoul and Son has the time to get himself a girlfriend, Girl’s Day’s (that’s plenty of apostrophe) Bang Minah. Her name is not flattering at all in Indonesian but I’m sure it sounds sweet in Korean. So, two things. First, it’d be all long distance since a Korean pop idol’s agenda is way busier than a CEO. Second, any show host will make a Son reference to Minah whenever possible. And Son will have much more air time (he’s got plenty) in Korean TVs. He’s also expected to join Korea U-23 in the Asian Games held in Incheon, as Korea want to win gold medal in men’s football so badly. Korea have 3 slots for players over 23, but luckily Son is 22.

We need for Asian WAGs news.

We need more Asian WAGs news.

 

9. Hiroshi Kiyotake (Japan)

Current club: Hannover 96

Position: Attacking midfielder

Club record last season (with Nurnberg): 34 appearances, 3 goals.

The forgotten attacking midfielder, perpetually behind Kagawa and Honda. Actually if Japan go for 4-2-3-1, he can be the right attacking midfielder along with Honda and Kagawa, behind Okazaki. Hannover is a mediocre club and Kiyotake will be a normal player in Bundesliga, which is just fine.

 

10. Mile Jedinak (Australia)

Current club: Crystal Palace

Positions: Defensive midfielder, central midfielder

Club record last season: 38 appearances, 1 goal.

It’s hard to choose the last player. Lee Chung-yong? Another season with Bolton in Championship. Ashkan Dejagah? I would have, if only Al-Arabi, his new club, had been in AFC Champions League. Vitaliy Denisov? I don’t want to know anything that has to do with Russia at the moment (there was a time where I followed Russian Premier League). Ki Sung-yong and Kawashima are also valid options, but I need to insert an Australian.

After all, Australia will host the Asian Cup, where I want the Socceroos to win (it’d be boring if Japan win again). Therefore, it’s important to see which player will lead them. Well, it’d be between Jedinak again, then Robbie Kruse trying to redeem himself in Leverkusen, Cahill, and Mat Ryan who has to stay in Belgium at the moment.

Jedinak was credited as the man who kept Crystal Palace doing well in the Premier League, and was close to achieve the impossibility of playing for 38×90 minutes (injury against Fulham prevented him from unlocking this gold trophy) in the Premier League.

Healed and rested, Jedinak spent late July touring United States with Crystal Palace and I look forward to see how he’s doing in the Premier League.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Not happy to be there

OK, let’s be silent for a moment, or minute.

OK.

In 2006, Nike’s tagline for Australia’s campaign in Germany 2006 (still representing OFC) was “More than Happy to be There”, and the ad campaign portrayed them as super underdogs who didn’t give a damn, even though they were rated below Japan. Both Nike and Socceroos had successful campaigns as they became the only OFC representatives to reach Top 16, probably ever (here’s challenging you, New Zealand).

Eight years later, the spirit of 2006 still rings true. Australia were the first Asian team to be ousted. But you know what’s everyone talking about. McGowan. Cahill. Bam. 1-1.

In few hours they will face Spain and it’s the Spanish who are worried – worried of conceding even a single goal. Worried of a draw. Worried of an ugly 1-0 win. In 2006 it was bit overblown to portray Australia as super (or it’s the other way around?) underdogs. Viduka, Kewell, and Bresciano were household names in Europe and Aloisi was tipped as the next big thing. Cahill had good reputation in Everton and Schwarzer was the steady choice, while Japan couldn’t pick between Kawaguchi or Narazaki.

But Australia 2014 were indeed underrated: Cahill had passed his prime, they did messy jobs in the qualification, they still have no trusty defenders and overall, have to rely on veterans of 2006. None of them plays in European big teams, with many veteran and rookie names are playing in Asian leagues.

I don’t know any Hollywood movie where the heroes die horribly one by one but we don’t grieve their eventual losses – they just dance their way to destruction and looking cool doing it. I’ve come to believe that had Australia traded place with Iran or Japan, they could do some serious damage – and goals.

Nothing to rave about from Japan, although you can praise the improved defense. But both Kagawa and Honda continue their personal and public disappointing acts (which means they often state they are disappointed with their performances, especially Kagawa). I don’t know if Japan looks at sports psychology as serious as United States does, but heavy works are needed for both of them.

And please, put Okazaki as the spear head. He scored 15 goals for Mainz because Mainz trusted him as number 9. Osako can cut his teeth in Bundesliga 2 and Asian Cup 2015, but Japan needs the best striker now (of course, it’s too late to expect so from him against Colombia).

So, why did Cahill score that volley and Kagawa didn’t? They are both under 180 cm tall, Kagawa is almost 10 years younger, and supposedly possesses better football skills (Cahill, of course, has better experiences). Again I wonder if it comes to culture – Australia loves Tim but it does not force him to star in every ad and the media don’t trail him everywhere both in Liverpool and New York City. Japan looked so hesitant because they feared failure, they worried about making mistakes, and so their did make a lot of mistakes. Including passing the chances of just giving it a go.
But the disaster case lies with Republic of Korea. I (and some other people, usually Westerners rather than Asians) love to think of Korea as the antithesis to Japan. Loud and brash. Expressive and Westernized. “The Irish/Italians of Asia”.

But if Japan vs Greece was a 0, then Korea vs Algeria was a -2 rather than +1. Guangzhou Evergrande’s tight defense can be attributed to the central role of Kim Young-kwon, but he can leave all hopes of playing in Europe this season after last night. Algeria celebrated its first World Cup victory since 1982 (when they were robbed by Austria and West Germany), and it’s VERY painful to see Algerian men (not women) honk their rusty rides on the streets of Algiers instead of cool Korean boys and girls raving before Admiral Yi’s and King Sejong’s statues with all of the lights.

What really ticks me off is that Korean media and people lament the loss but seriously don’t care about it. More Koreans are angrier that Sassy Girl Jeon Ji-hyun advertises a Chinese drinking water which is supposedly sourced from a Korean holy mountain (it lies on the border of China and North Korea). In Korea Times, the loss to Algiers is less important to “Bear likes oral sex too” (no link. Google it yourself) and the editorial that Japan risks severing political ties with Korea over World War II’s sex slavery (not gonna happen). The least they could do was celebrating the victory of Korean-American Michelle Wie at the US Open.

In 2006 I was quite crushed to realize that English-language Japanese news focuses too much on sex news (like that bear or starlets doing first pitch on local baseball league), precisely because that the popular news in Japanese are. Eight years later, it takes a heavy loss to Algeria to open my eyes that Korean news are just same.

I scoured again for news on the match from Korean perspective, and all I could find were dull reports on the goals without clear analysis on what went wrong for Korea: Formation? Chemistry? Strategy? Add that with lazy comments from anonymous supporters (on the street, since no one comments on the article) – at least Western anonymous supporters (on the comment section, and on other teams) can be sharp and unforgiving.
I found bits on what I saw last night: the cowardly play in first half (worse than Japan’s performance against Greece), the late introduction of Kim Shin-wook, and the descriptions of Korea’s goals from two familiar sources: blogs and news written by Westerners. It’s just frustrating.

This is from SYDNEY Morning Herald, for Tae-yang's sake.

This is from SYDNEY Morning Herald, for Tae-yang’s sake.

Japan – Ivory Coast was the most watched match worldwide outside the opening Brazil – Croatia match, and it’s understandable that more than 50% of Japanese households watched the morning match. On the other hand it seems that Koreans just don’t care about this World Cup. One can say that Korea is still in grieving mode after the Sewol tragedy, but it seems they are not grieving enough to make fuzz about Jeon Ji-hyun. And bear.

World Cup Debriefing: Match Day 1

This will be brief so we can get back to practice soon.

Australia

The perpetual optimists, blessed them, look forward to hurt Holland for their upcoming match. Naturally this means two things: a) they will do it and score a draw (any chance Ryan becomes tonight’s Ochoa?) or b) it will get worse. On record, Australia’s worst defeat in World Cup was 0-4 to Germany in 2010, and Australia looked tough for the first five minutes.

Certainly Chile were their best chance to score three points, but by all counts it was impossible (same result achieved by my high-tech analytical machine – EA’s World Cup 2014). The good news is, the perpetual optimists (TM) Australians can now look forward to surprise (or annoy) two teams with serious claims for the trophy (and one with serious need to rebound).

Certainly Australians take sports more seriously than Japanese and Koreans. This nation divided between sports buffs and obese, healthy eating and double crispy bacon, does not have to boringly claim “football is war” and yet they looked sober instead of crushed, considering they were the worst Asian team of the week.

Maybe it’s genetic. They knew they were slower and less skillful (this is relative) compared to European and South American contestants at the World Cup. But they are as big and aggressive as these football veterans. They are absolved from other baggage dragging town Japan and Korea – short, weak, non aggressive, boring, etc.

Maybe it’s also cultural. Australians are new to association football (still called soccer to avoid confusion with Australian Rules Football, makes me wondering why Japan calls it soccer although they don’t have to differentiate it to another code). On one side, Australian media and spectators do not put the hope and pressure as high as they might have on Australian swimmers and rugby players.

On another side, since Germany 2006 football, particularly the World Cup, has united Australian public even more than cricket or rugby international (i.e. Mediterranean and East Asian Australians also pay attention besides Anglo-Irish and South Asian/Pacific Australians). It took Japan’s disastrous meltdown after Tim Cahill’s equalized in June 2006 to put football into the main stream of Australian ads and pub conversation (although it might also started from John Aloisi’s penalty against Uruguay a year earlier).

The difference is, unlike Japanese and especially Koreans, Australians don’t put overtly burden toward its players. Chris Herd is a laugh in some forums, but there is no public condemnation against him, accusing him as selfish or whatever. And so Cahill and Mike “Mile” Jedinak left Arena Pantanal walking tall, felt less stung than Japan did in Recife.

Japan

Throughout Asia, everyone (except Koreans, maybe) equates “fighting spirit” with the Japanese. Numerous Second World War references ensue, and strangely in positive way. They were taken as the strongest Asian side, and certainly the sported names notable enough in both the West and East: Kagawa, Honda, Internazionale’s Nagatomo, and Mainz’ Okazaki.

Unlike Australia, Japan had the chance to defeat Ivory Coast. Yes, this is Drogba’s and now Yaya Toure’s Ivory Coast. Gervinho’s and Bony’s. But African teams have patchy records in 21st century’s World Cups thanks to terrible FAs mismanagement, overrated coaches, disparities between local and European based players, and clash of egos.

Yet it took aged Drogba to motivate the Elephants to spring to life, including changing the misfiring Bony. Sadly, Kagawa played like he did in Manchester United and overall Japan played, like, Japan.

Most news and reports on the match focus on Ivory Coast, because not only they won, but because the Toures and Gervinho have made more impact on the Premier League than Kagawa and Yoshida. Japanese fans naturally focus on criticizing the players and Al Z did the same – fuming why didn’t his players attack on the second half.

So, that 1-2 felt much more hurt than 1-3 (minus the foul plays experienced by Australia, and with several Ivory Coast players leaving the pitch limping). Maybe Japan really did not demonstrate the fighting spirit showed by Australia (Leckie’s rushes vs Yoshida’s dangerous tackles). Maybe Japanese fans worldwide set the standard too high – and the Japanese players set their standard too low. Japan’s fate still hangs on the balance – topping this manageable group or be at the bottom.

First half was fun.

First half was fun.

Iran

I want to care about them but I cannot. Maybe it’s the Eastern bias. Maybe because I can’t see anything interesting from modern Iran. Maybe because Carlos Queiroz had to bring Japan (which he referred as “Iran”) and Korea to angrily defend himself.

 

Korea

Heh, just like Japan in 2010 – terrible warm ups, surprising World Cup result. The difference is, this is the first time Korea failed to win its first World Cup match since 1998 (wow!). And they were close to win it. Can we have Kim Seung-gyu on goal for second match, please? He’s not much better, but still better than Jung.

Londoners, meanwhile, make another joke on Park Chu-young, who completed only 55% of his passes. Of course, the bigger jokes fell on Fabio Capello. Which is a good news – if Russia are England 2014, then the Koreans are USA 2014. 2-2 draw with Belgium and 1-0 victory against Algeria. Yippee.

Global media are obliged to show more pictures of Korean supporters. Don't everyone love Asian women?

Global media are obliged to show more pictures of Korean supporters. Don’t everyone love Asian women?

PS: Meanwhile, the Chinese do their own football in a series of friendlies: back to back against Macedonia and against Mali. Rich and strong China can’t pay Serbia or Tunisia to come, heh.

Er, shorts and cans of beer at midnight are bad for your health

Er, shorts and cans of beer at midnight are bad for your health

 

A History of Southeast Asia and the World Cup: 1993-2013

These stories happen most likely when you’re around.

1993: Hunger Games III

How the world had changed. West Germany, the champions of 1990 World Cup, were no longer there. Klinsmann, Matthaus, and Illgner were still around, added by some not so notable easterners like Thomas Doll and Andreas Kopke (who might be the only easterner in the German team for World Cup 94). Hipsters’ choices Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia did not exist anymore, while AFC experienced an explosion of new species.

In school I learned that Southeast Asia was essentially Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, and I only had to learn about these six countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Philippines, and Brunei) because the rest were dirty commies. But now Indonesia and Japan trumpeted their roles in building new Cambodia and United States welcomed the opening of Vietnam.

Sour Myanmar, however, still refused to join the pool party and withdrew from Group B of First Round AFC qualification, leaving Taiwan to be bullied around by Iran, Syria, and Oman. Congratulations to three unimportant Taiwanese who managed to score a single goal. You made life less painful for the goalkeeper(s).

Group C had three Southeast Asian teams including newcomers Vietnam. 1994 was a high time for Indonesian economy with buzzwords such as globalization, cyberspace, and Asian values. No such joys for the national team, who went down to group hosts Qatar 1-3 on first match. North Korea then did a one-two on Vietnam and Singapore before doing Indonesia 4-0, all just in five days. Sheez.

Singapore had their first win against Vietnam with legends Fandi Ahmad and V. Sundramoorthy, only to be smashed down again by Qatar in three days. Life got worse for Indonesia after losing 0-1 to Vietnam (Ha Vuong Ngau Nai scored). Do you want more, Indonesia? 0-2 to Singapore then, Mohammad Rafi Ali and Sundramoorthy. Trust me, Indonesia know better “Agony of Doha” than Japan. Yes, Qatar. 1-4. Both them and North Korea really had fun with the Southeast Asians, before Singapore registered 1-0 wins against Vietnam and Qatar (Ali and Ahmad). Indonesia had its only victory, a 2-1 to Vietnam, before lost by the same score to Singapore.

North Korea won this bloody group, with Singapore coming third with five wins. Singapore Lions attacking midfielder Varadaraju the Dazzler (kids, there was no S. League and Singapore played in Malaysian league) scored four goals, officially one of the best footballers in Southeast Asia this year. Indonesian press were so unhappy with the seven defeats.

In Group E, Malaysia were lucky enough to be put with Macau and to host the group. Azman Adnan equalized against Kuwait and Malaysia had their second draws to Saudi Arabia. Sexy time came against Macau with Adnan scored a hattrick while both Azizol Abu Haniffah and Abdul Mokhtar scored two goals. 9-0. Then the matches were moved to Riyadh and bad times came with both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia scored five on Malaysia between them. At least there were Macau. 5-0 this time with two more goals from Adnan and Paramasivan Ravindran. So we had Sundramoorthy from Singapore and now Adnan (who played in Selangor) from Malaysia. What about Thailand?

Too bad for Thailand, they were grouped with Japan and UAE. The 1992 champions of Asia, so eager to travel to United States, kicked off with 1-0 win to Thailand. Three days later in Tokyo, Thailand won 1-0 to Sri Lanka (Kiatisuk Senamuang) – and lost with the same score to UAE. Thailand then defeated its nemesis (this is a nerdy trivia question: “Who were Thailand’s World Cup qualification rivals in 1980s and early 1990s?”) Bangladesh again, 4-1, with a hattrick by Piyapong Pue-on.

In Dubai, Thailand lost to Japan and UAE before defeating the South Asians with five goals scored by Piyapong Pue-on, the Royal Thai Air Force striker. A bittersweet but promising year for Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, and a completely forgettable year for Indonesia.

"Why 1990's Singapore rocks". I agree.

“Why 1990’s Singapore rocks”. I agree.

1997: Football in the Time of Cholera

1997 ended the roaring 1990s for Asia abruptly – Thai Bath collapsed and with it Thai, Malaysian, Korean, and Indonesian economies (all built upon weak and corrupt foundations). Japan, who had struggled with recession since 1991, experienced mounting social problems evident in manga Great Teacher Onizuka.

Of course, no one knew what was coming in March, when Azman Adnan scored again against Bangladesh, held Saudi Arabia goalless, and took it easy against Taiwan. Things went sour as usual away from Kuala Lumpur – Taiwan held Malaysia 0-0 and Saudi scored three. Naturally Malaysia defeated Bangladesh again but that’s all about it.

In Jakarta, Indonesia had fun 8-0 against Cambodia before disappointingly held by Yemen – and by Cambodia in Phnom Penh. Bad memories of 1993 reappeared and came true. After two draws with Uzbekistan and Yemen, Uzbekistan killed off Indonesia 3-0 in Tashkent, two weeks before the deluge of 2 July.

Thailand braced themselves against South Korea and Hong Kong, appearing for the last time with its British colonial flag (before flying its Chinese colonial flag next semester). Piyapong Pue-on equalized early in second half before Ha Seok-ju and Choi Moon-sik put down Thai resistance. Thailand defeated Hong Kong 2-0 at home, before it was revealed in November that four Hong Kong players bet their losses for two goals. Such low lives. Hong Kong defeated Thailand 3-2 at home, and so their defensive play in the last match against South Korea were meaningless. Looking from their World Cup records, it’s astonishing that Thailand were seen as the big boys of Southeast Asia in the 20th century.

It was worse for Singapore…were the signs of the fall down actually visible early in the year? Asians intoxicated with Spice Girls, David Beckham, and Netscape Navigator certainly didn’t see it coming. Singapore simply had no chance against Kuwait and Lebanon, two easy opponents they should have overcome. Singapore would stand tall during the financial crisis thanks to steady influx of Indonesian, Malaysian, and Thai money.

Finally, the Philippines. After decades, they finally got their hands on football and lost to Qatar, Sri Lanka, and India. The end.

 

2001: Without Japan and South Korea

Japan and Republic of Korea hosted the 2002 World Cup, everyone had recovered from the financial crisis and enjoyed the new millennium. Laos and Philippines were grouped together so they could see which one were worse: the Philippines, who Laos defeated 2-0 and held 1-1. Other than that, they were both shooting practices for Oman and Syria.

Malaysia had the honor of playing football with Palestine, the rallying point of the Muslim world. But first they had to endure 5-1 beating by Qatar before Akmal Rakhli scored two past Hong Kong. Unfortunately, they lost both to Palestine and Hong Kong before defeating Palestine 4-3 in a battle royal before lucky 400 people in Doha on 25 March 2001. I need the footage of this match uploaded on YouTube, please. Rakhli from amateur French club FCSR Haguenau (a reject of Strasbourg) scored two goals again.

Singapore football was still in slump. Draws with Kuwait and Kyrgyzstan and losses against everyone else.

Thailand, meanwhile, became the first Southeast Asians since Indonesia in 1985 to pass the first stage. They got an easy group consisted of Lebanon, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan and they took the chance well with goals from Seksan Piturat (Sinthana), Kiatisuk Senamuang (Raj Pracha), and Sakesan Pituratna. Oh wait, this is actually Piturat. So did he change his name or different spelling or what?

There was this group where Brunei met India, Yemen, and UAE. Humiliation ensued.

Finally, Indonesia kicked off its campaign with five past Maldives. Then six past Cambodia. Two again to Cambodia. Two to Maldives. Wonderful. And theeeen…they met China. China won twice. Close but no cigars. But nothing to shame of. Except for the unrealistic Indonesian press.

Vietnam also did well against Bangladesh and Mongolia, but not against Saudi Arabia.

Because of Thailand, I have to continue my story instead of moving on. Without Japan and South Korea (sourpuss North Korea didn’t participate as they didn’t want to visit both nice places),¬† there were these seven Arab states, Iran, Uzbekistan, and Thailand. Thailand were slammed 0-4 on first day by Iraq before held Iran 0-0 in Bangkok. The pattern continued – drew and losses with five goals scored by Piturat, Senamuang, Sutee Suksomsit (Thai Farmers Bank. Remember them?), and Worrawoot Srimaka (BEC Tero Sasana). OK Thailand, you have done what Malaysia cannot.

Nobody dyed their hair blond. I'm disappointed.

Nobody dyed their hair blond. I’m disappointed.

2004: No Second Place

Either other nations got better in football or Southeast Asia got worse in football. Both then. Laos lost to Sri Lanka but something happened: Guam and Nepal both withdrew and FIFA picked a lucky loser – Laos whose loss less severe compared to Bangladesh, Macau, and such. Iran, Jordan, and Qatar thanked them.

Singapore’s woes continued by losing 0-1 to India, 1-2 to Japan, and then 0-7 to Oman. D’oh. 3600 people who kept their hope high watched Singapore defeated India 2-0 at Jalan Besar Stadium with goals from Indra Sahdan and Khairul Mohammad.

You should see Malaysia tho. After decades of coming close to the next round, this time they were utterly simply verily destroyed by Kuwait, China, and unbelievably, Hong Kong. Twice.

Things seemed predictable first for Thailand – lost to UAE, won against Yemen, lost to North Korea, lost to North Korea again. Whoops. They got their act together and superbly defeated UAE 3-0 (Anon Nanok, Thredsak Chaiman, and Jiensathawong Jakapong – now known as Nontapan Jeansatawong…I don’t create bad luck for him for writing his old name, do I?) before held 1-1 by Yemen.

Vietnam did well against Maldives, but not against Lebanon and South Korea.

Ditto for Indonesia. Losing to Turkmenistan (start of a rivalry forgotten by Indonesians) 1-3, they didn’t convince anyone with narrow win and a draw against Sri Lanka, lost again to Saudi Arabia, before Ilham Jaya Kesuma (Tangerang) scored three past Turkmenistan.

No second place, because all Southeast Asia were in third and fourth places.

 

2007-2008: Three-Stages Vetting

Let’s try something new – Asian countries except Japan, South Korea, and prodigal sons Australia must prove their worth first. So Thailand put 13 past Macau, Myanmar received 11 from China, Vietnam were destroyed by UAE, Malaysia lost to Bahrain, newcomers Timor Leste lost to Hong Kong (playing their home match in Indonesia), Singapore defeated Palestine 4-0 in Doha and were awarded 3-0 victory when Israel prevented Palestine players from leaving Gaza Strip and denied them the chance of admiring the Changi Airport. Indonesia got it easy against Guam.

Next, Thailand and Singapore defeated Yemen and Tajikistan respectively while Indonesia, after lost 1-4 to Syria at home, threw the game away by immersing themselves in a series of demotivational seminars and book discussion. The result? Syria 7 Indonesia 0. That’s the spirit.

So Thailand were grouped with Japan, Bahrain, and Oman while Singapore were with Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. By June 2008 Thailand had known where they were heading – losses to Japan and Bahrain and draw with Oman. No, they did not score any win.

Singapore, meanwhile, defeated Lebanon 2-0. After a decade of agony, Singapore decided to ask foreigners playing in the S. League who were charmed with the clean and safe streets, the lavish malls, the beautiful women and the impossibility to play for England, Nigeria, China, and Australia to play for the Lions instead. The results: Awesomeness and increased jealousy from neighbors. They heroically lost 3-7 to Uzbekistan, then got foolish and fielded Qiu Li, whose transfer of citizenship from China to Singapore had not cleared. Uzbekistan won 1-0 but FIFA awarded the 3-0 result. Qiu Li played again when Singapore lost to Saudi Arabia 0-2. In the end, Singapore defeated Lebanon 2-1 with Baihakki Khaizan and Ramez Dayoub scored own goals for both teams. Never mind the FIFA sanction – the naturalization model worked. How else you would defeat Lebanon?

 

2011-2012: Never mind the World Cup. Let’s try being good in football first.

So here we are. Oh okay, 2011 happened three years ago. Right. Mohammad Safiq Rahim (Selangor) and Aidil Zafuan Abdul Radzak (Negeri Sembilan/ATM FA) scored against Taiwan, with a twist. Taiwan heroically won their home match 3-2 and thus lost to Malaysia by away goal rule.

Philippines, playing the naturalization game by recruiting half-Filipinos boys in Europe and United States who played football (there were plenty of them!) defeated Sri Lanka. Without naturalization (well) Vietnam put 13 past Macau while Timor Leste, sporting Brazilian names and Australian grass root spirit, conceded seven Nepalese goals instead.

In the second round, Thailand defeated Palestine 1-0 and passed the round in dramatic fashion – Murad Alyan scored in the injury time only for Datsakorn Thonglao to equalize at the last chance. Laos managed to score three past China, which was good enough for a team receiving 13. Indonesia-Turkmenistan showdown happened again, and at least now Indonesia fighting properly – after a 1-1 draw in Asghabat, they gave all before 88 thousand crowds in Jakarta and Uruguay-born Cristian Gonzalez (who met his Indonesian wife in Uruguay instead of Indonesia) scored a brace. Actually Indonesia led 4-1 before the lapse defense gave supporters double heart attacks in the last 10 minutes.

No such luck for the German and English Filipinos as Kuwait put five against them and FIFA awarded Oman two 3-0 wins over Myanmar due to crowd trouble (they hurled objects to Oman’s goal while singing the national anthem) in Yangon. Qatar defeated Vietnam and here’s the real deal: Singapore v Malaysia.

Apparently only 6000 Singaporeans (maybe a good number of them were actually Malaysians) interested to see this “Causeway Derby” (come on, we need a scarier name. Singapore is the only nation in history to be expelled from a union. Imagine the Scots insisted to stay in union with the English, but the English could not take it anymore and declared instead of granted the independence of Scotland). In this battle royale, Safee Sali (Pelita Jaya) scored directly from kick off while Aleks Duric (Tampines) equalized in seven minutes. Singapore led 4-1 at half time, but on the second half Abdul Hadi (Terengganu) and Safee scored, before Duric sealed the victory for Singapore. Here are the highlights and all videos I found on YouTube on this match supported Malaysia.

90 thousand Malaysians crowded Bukit Jalil Stadium on 28 July 2011 and Safee scored to make the aggregate 5-4. Chinese born Shi Jiayi equalized and Singapore won the derby, kicking out Malaysia from the competition. Securities cordoned Singaporean supporters and they were permitted to leave only after the stadium was cleared from Malaysian supporters.

So once more, Singapore and Thailand represented Southeast Asia for the third round. Singapore lost all matches against China, Jordan, and Iraq while Thailand defeated Oman 3-0 (Sompong Soleb from Bangkok United, Teerasil Dangda from Muangthong United, and own goal from Rashid al Farsi) and held Saudi Arabia 0-0. Other than that, they lost to Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Australia.

One last thing: Indonesia.

 

Epilogue

There’s the cruel parody of Lightning Seeds’ “Three Lions” which I remember goes like “Three Lions on a shirt/Luiz Scolari still grinning/Thirty(forty? fifty?) years of horror/never stops me from screaming”. It’s the same way in Southeast Asia. We’ve recruited Europeans with blood relations, we’ve naturalized foreigners playing in our leagues, we’ve partnered with European clubs, we’ve hired big has-beens as coaches, and Southeast Asia still couldn’t defeat the Arabs who seemed didn’t have to try. At least now we’ve been good against South Asians although FIFA ranks them higher than us.

Both Southeast Asians and West Asians glue themselves to couch clad in Real Madrid jerseys, play wicked Winning Eleven, and making online comments about how crap Cristiano is. Then after despairing about the national team, both of us admire Japan, their bushido spirit and Captain Tsubasa and all, sparing no positive thought for South Korea and Australia.

We have our hometown heroes, our childhood memories, and it’s good that in this age of Twitter and Instagram, we feel we are too rich and royal to support the local club but we are so proud of our national players who are either half-white or coming from the same ethnicity with us. We buy their jerseys from the Nike store in our favorite malls.

But you know one thing we lack of? Unlike the Japanese, we don’t bust our asses playing football. We are nations of DIFM (Do It For Me), not DIY (Do It Yourself). I don’t know how the Saudis got their World Cups, but that’s how Japan, Australia, and Republic of Korea qualify again and again.

Great stuff. How's the football?

Great stuff. How’s the football?

A History of Southeast Asia & the World Cup: 1934-1989

These days with World Cup 2014 video game I’m playing around the Southeast Asian teams. Hm, Singapore do have some Singapore-born Chinese, like Joey Sim and Andrew Tan (actually there are only two of them). I wish I could enjoy Indonesia better but nah, although I’m happy that EA still rates them stronger than Malaysia and Vietnam (that’s weird.)

So, rather than previewing Australia, Japan, and Korea in the World Cup (ready for the mess?), I want to tell you stories on how did Southeast Asia keep failing in their World Cup campaigns.

1934-1954: One and Only Dutch East Indies

Asia, 1934. The whole continent was under European, American, and Japanese rules with the exception of fractured China. The Europeans and Americans had introduced football in Philippines, Southeast Asia, and Western Asia. Some ethnic-based clubs had been formed for identity bonding and nationalism, just like migrants in Canada, Australia, Brazil, and United States formed their sporting clubs. The Japanese, meanwhile, were more into baseball and lovingly taught that sport to the Taiwanese.

Since no one in East Asia wanted to sail all the way to Italy, no country or territory was interested with the 1934 World Cup. Three Middle Eastern (now only one of them is in AFC) countries were in Group 12 – Egypt, Palestine (consisted of nine British, six Jews, and an Arab), and Turkey who withdrew. So Palestine might be the first Asian team in the World Cup, and this Palestine was the precursor to modern Israeli and Palestine national teams.

Indonesian media love to point out that Indonesia were the first Asian team in the World Cup. With the caveat that it competed under the name Dutch East Indies back in 1938 and they lost to Hungary 0-6 in first round. That’s all. No more story.

Indeed there was no Indonesia back in 1938, there were Dutch East Indies. Only them and Japan were available in the Asian group – I wonder what had happened to French Indochina (while France hosted the World Cup) and the Philippines (United States were regulars at 1930s World Cup). The British Empire naturally were too arrogant to join the continental tournament. So Japan withdrew since they were too busy killing the Chinese and preparing for the invasion of Asia, leaving Dutch East Indies sailing across the Indian Ocean to France.

Here is the roster of the Dutch East Indies squad against Hungary and their supposed ethnicity:

Goalkeeper: Tan Mo Heng (Chinese, HTCNH)

Defenders: Frans Hu Kon (Chinese, Sparta), Jack Kolle (Dutch/Eurasian…maybe even Jew, Excelsior)

M: Sutan Anwar (Minang, VIOS), Frans Meeng (Chinese, probably, SVVB) (captain), Achmad Nawir (Javanese, probably, HBS)

F: Frans Taihuttu (Moluccan, Jong Ambon), Henk Zomers (Dutch/Eurasian, Hercules), Tan Hong Djien (Chinese, Tiong Hoa), Suvarte Soedarmadji (Javanese, HBS), Tjaak Pattiwael (Moluccan, Jong Ambon)

Coach: Johan Mastenbroek

And introducing the plushie.

And introducing the plushie.

Some 2-3-5 it was. You can see why modern Indonesia is not too proud of them – too many Dutch and Chinese for modern Indonesian liking (supposedly Muslim Indonesians have no problem with the Christian South Mollucans/Ambonese, which still contributed many players to the national team until 1980s). 9000 people watched the match in Reims on 5 June 1938 where Hungary took 4-0 lead by half time.

Fast forward to 1950 and Asia was wrecked by Second World War. The communists took power in China, independence wars raged over Vietnam and Indonesia, pro-American governments were busily snuffing communism out in Japan and South Korea, India still mourned the loss of Gandhi, and communist rebellion took place in Malaya. Philippines seemed to be the only orderly place in Asia.

Philippines, however, could not afford sailing to Brazil and so they withdrew, along with Indonesia and Burma. India withdrew for one of two reasons – either because they could not play barefoot, or because they also could not afford the trip. Maybe both of them. FIFA gave up looking for a replacement.

In 1954 only East Asians contested the qualification. Republic of China withdrew so the South Koreans began the long tradition of kicking Japanese asses with a satisfying 5-1 match in Tokyo.

 

1957-1969: Withdraw, Withdraw!

Indonesia were back as the muscle of Southeast Asia (pretty much because no one else competed). Anti-communist Republic of China withdrew, knowing that if they won, they must face something more repulsive than Indonesia – the People’s Republic. The 2-0 victory against China in Jakarta is still a legend of Indonesian football history, along with 0-0 draw against Soviet Union in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Gowan (in South Sulawesi) Ramang, who grew up playing foot volley and thus a master of volleys and scissor kicks, scored both goals. He would score two more goals in the away match in Beijing, in which Indonesia lost 3-4, and Indonesia passed by better goal average (after a pointless 0-0 third match in Burma).

In the Second Round, Indonesia and Egypt spectacularly withdrew because there were Israel. Sudan agreed to move on only to change their minds in the final round. FIFA, however, could not let Israel go to Sweden without winning any match, but even Belgium refused to play them (did Belgium have any interest in Muslim world at this time?) so Wales grabbed the ticket after defeating Israel 2-0 twice. Indonesia threw away its big chance because of religious and quasi-communist politics. Ramang himself would be disgraced in 1960 with accusation of bribery, which was more likely a slander related to political struggles between communists, Islamists, and the Army.

Indonesia blew another chance in 1961 as it withdrew from a three way competition against South Korea and Japan. Certainly Sukarno’s quixotic “revolution” has alienated Indonesia in the region and apparently Indonesia did not like South Korea enough, although Sukarno loved Japan – his new wife was a geisha provided by Toyota, Naoko Nemoto. Korea kicked out Japan again before going down to Yugoslavia in intercontinental playoff. By this time I believe it’s safe to say that Filipinos didn’t care about football.

1965 was an even weirder time. All African teams withdrew and only two Asian teams were available (keywords: Southeast Asia. Domino Theory). Both of them were from the Korean peninsula. Australia finally went into the picture while South Africa, grouped in the Oceania Confederation of Football, were banned. North Korea refused to play in the imperialist land of Japan (which had lost interest in football, thanks to South Korea) and South Korea refused to play in Cambodia, so South Korea said anyong. North Korea gleefully kicked out Australia 6-1 and 3-1, with German-Australian Les Scheinflug scored both goals (I don’t really care about North Korea).

Apparently 1969 was still not a good time for Southeast Asia to compete, although Indonesia had joined the anti-communist bandwagon, securing peace in the region south of South China Sea. South Korea met its foil Australia while still taking the pleasure of beating Japan. In the end, Israel qualified to Mexico.

Everybody hated us.

Everybody hated us.

 

1973-1989: I Couldn’t Believe Thailand were that Bad

In 1973, South Vietnam, which was on the verge of collapse, competed. Surprisingly, they defeated Thailand 1-0 in Seoul while Malaysia went down to Hong Kong 0-1. In the next round South Vietnam were eliminated by both Hong Kong and Japan. Israel and South Korea aced Group 2 while finally the first match between Southeast Asian teams took place: Malaysia defeated Thailand 2-0 on 23 May 1973 in Seoul thanks to Rahim Abdullah and Harun Jusoh. South Korea naturally topped the group.

Indonesia, meanwhile, were grouped together with Iraq, Australia, and New Zealand. A bit weird arrangement. Maybe AFC and FIFA wanted to prevent another walk out by separating Indonesia and Iraq as far as possible from Israel (curiously, Muslim Malaysia had no trouble playing Israel – they lost 0-3). In a tiring six matches marathon over twenty days in Melbourne and Sydney, Indonesia scored only a victory over New Zealand, thanks to Maurice Tillotson’s own goal. So Australia went on to defeat Iran and then South Korea.

AFC and FIFA played a little sadistic hunger game in 1977 – grouped all Southeast Asian teams in one block. Over 15 days in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore (first appearance), and Hong Kong were beating each other (Sri Lanka withdrew early). The hosts looked strong before being trumped 0-4 by Indonesia at the last day, and so Hong Kong walked away as the winners. From these four Southeast Asian countries, only Singapore, powered by Quah Kim Song, managed to score two wins in this group. In the final round, Hong Kong would lose all their matches against Iran, South Korea, Kuwait, and Australia.

In 1981, the Southeast Asians were spread into different groups and there was no assigned host for Group 1. So the Indonesians traveled to Suva, Auckland, Melbourne, and Taipei, to the joy of PSSI suits and their wives. Indonesia scored two home victories, 1-0s against Taiwan (officially called Chinese Taipei now) and Australia. New Zealand, instead of Australia, topped the group.

Malaysia and Thailand found themselves on the same group again over a week in Kuwait City. 2-2 and another shock – South Korea failed to top the group.

Finally, the Singaporeans spent a Christmas in Hong Kong, drew with Hong Kong and lost to North Korea (North Korea didn’t have problem playing in an imperialist British colony. That’s also new).

Malaysia tripped South Korean’s start on 10 March 1985 with a 1-0 victory in Kuala Lumpur (Dollah Saleh). The next week, they defeated Nepal 2-0 (Hassan Sani and James Wong) and looked like South Korea’s campaign would be killed off soon. Zainal Hassan scored a hattrick against Nepal in Kuala Lumpur (5-0) and the last match in Seoul was the decider. The Koreans scored early and Malaysia were kicked out despite three wins – Korea passed through goal average – 7 to Malaysia’s 6. That was really hurt.

Indonesia also rampaged early with victories against Thailand, India, and Bangladesh and Bambang Nurdiansyah and Dede Sulaiman became the stars. After first away victory to Thailand, Indonesia petered out and lost to Bangladesh and drew with India, but enough to top the group. Thailand were only able to defeat Bangladesh 3-0 at home.

Brunei, recently independent from United Kingdom, started off by receiving goals from Macau, Hong Kong, and China. End of story. Singapore were also unfortunate enough to be grouped with Japan and North Korea, although they managed to draw North Korea 1-1 at home.

In the next round, Indonesia lost to South Korea. Thus ended the legend of Sundanese Dede Sulaiman.

The hair. The shorts. The moustaches.

The hair. The shorts. The mustache.

The hunger games returned in 1989: South Korea were grouped together with Malaysia and Singapore. Korea won EVERY match without letting anyone scored against them, while Malaysia and Singapore scored victories against Nepal. Singapore and Malaysia drew 2-2, anyway.

Thailand, meanwhile, delighted with 1-0 victory against Bangladesh before going down repeatedly to China, Iran, and yes, Bangladesh. How humiliating it was.

Finally, Indonesia became the champions of draws by holding both North Korea and Japan 0-0 in Jakarta and Hong Kong 1-1. Their only victory was only 3-2 win against Hong Kong which supposedly was a good spectacle: trailing 0-1 for one hour, Mustaqim equalized only for Nang Yan Leung to score again at the 64th minute. Then Herry Kiswanto scored ten minutes later and one minute before full time to turn the table, denying Hong Kong its only victory in the group.

 

(*Look, I hope somebody has the television footage of this match and kindly uploads it to YouTube. 250 million Indonesians will thank you*)

Those are the stories of qualification for now. Since the Cold War was ending, over the next four years more countries would join in the Asian qualification. Part 2, 1993-2013, is coming up.

My picks, their picks

Managers of Australia, Japan, and Korea have picked their 30…23 actually in Japan’s and Korea’s cases…men bound to Brazil. Wow, 23…that’s bit of a rush, isn’t it? It’s good they want to finish a project a month before the deadline so they can concentrate on other things, but yeah, it feels more like being hasty than being so sure and efficient.

So, let’s compare my picks and theirs.

Australia

Goalkeepers

Ange (not Angie)’s picks: Ryan, Langerak, Galekovic (Adelaide), Birighitti (Newcastle Jets).

My picks: Ryan, Federici, Jones, Langerak

Naturally many coaches wanted to balance between players based in Europe and in domestic leagues (with the exception of Africa, in most cases). Ange did not trust English based goalkeepers at all, but among A-League keepers, he picked Galekovic rather than say, Theo from Brisbane or Ante Covic from Western Sydney, who was also a Socceroo regular. Can’t wait to see Ryan facing the world’s best attackers at the group stage.

Defenders

Ange’s picks: Good (Dundee), Davidson, Spiranovic, Wilkshire, Franjic, Wright (Preston), McGowan, Wilkinson

My picks: Wilkshire, Williams, Neill, Herd, McGowan, Smith, Spiranovic, Ognenovski, Wilkinson, Davidson

We agreed on some Asian based players. Herd apparently has “personal issues” while yeah, Smith should have been there.

Midfielders

Ange’s picks: Brillante (Newcastle Jets), Bozanic (Luzern), Bresciano (Al Gharafa), Holland, Jedinak, Milligan, Vidosic, Sarota, McKay, Troisi, Luongo (Swindon)

My picks: Cahill, Holman, Jedinak, Kruse, McKay, Oar, Milligan, Vidosic, Sarota, Holland.

Ange picked Cahill and Oar as forwards but left Kruse, while I picked Troisi as a forward (same with Franjic). I did the silly mistake of omitting Bresciano. He did have legal trouble regarding his transfer but early this year FIFA had permitted him to play for Australia again.

Forward

Ange’s picks: Cahill, Kennedy, Leckie, Oar, Rogic (Melbourne Victory), Halloran (Fortuna), Taggart (Newcastle Jets)

My picks: Leckie, McDonald, Taggart, Troisi, Franjic, Joel Griffiths, Williams

So he didn’t believe in McDonald, while I also regret I forgot Kennedy. Rogic is a fine choice, tho, although I’d have put him as a midfielder.

So, generally we agree that these men are the best out there for Australia. Less flashy than the Japanese, but flashy is never a word associated with Australia. Gutsy is.

 

Oh, Chris.

Oh, Chris.

Japan

Goalkeepers

Al Z’s picks: Kawashima, Nishikawa, Gonda

My picks: Kawashima, Nishikawa, Gonda

Who else? Poor Hayashi.

Defenders

Al Z’s picks: Inoha (Jubilo), Konno (Gamba), Nagatomo, Morishige (Tokyo), Uchida, Yoshida, the Sakais

My picks: Uchida, the Sakais, Yoshida, Masukawa, Shoji, Yasuda, Shiotani, Hashimoto

Besides the elite four, probably four best Asian defenders worldwide, Don Al picked the old names (stars in their own rights at J. League, but with mixed results internationally) for the three subs.

Midfielders

Al Z’s picks: Yasuhito Endo (Gamba), Hasebe, Aoyama (Hiroshima), Yamaguchi (Cerezo)

My picks: Kagawa, Honda, Nagatomo, Hosogai, Kiyotake, Hasebe, Inui, Ono, Tasaka, Doi, Yasushi Endo (Kashima), Ienaga, Kakitani

This means only one thing – he chose only four holding and central midfielders and pushed everyone else as attackers. Old Al counts on four great defenders (with mediocre/poor subs) and the rest to attack, leaving opponents to rule the midfield. We know what will happen. And yeah, we thought about the different Yasu Endo.

While many girls know this Yasu

While many girls know this Yasu

Forwards

Al Z’s picks: Honda, Okubo, Okazaki, Kagawa, Kiyotake, Kakitani, Saito (Marinos), Osako

My picks: Okazaki, Havenaar, Osako, Toyoda, Okubo, Kobayashi

The Senegal option. Even Senegal only chose 7 forwards for 2012 African Cup of Nations (and scored only three goals). Okay, so the difference is I designated Honda, Kagawa, Kiyotake and Kakitani as midfielders while he said they’re forwards. Essentially he picked four forwards. Both of us believe in Okubo and Osako, Okazaki is undisputed with his 15 goals in Bundesliga, but I still believe Havenaar, despite a mixed year (he still can’t become Vitesse’s main contributor after two seasons, keep losing behind a Brazilian), is a far better option than Saito. Still hoping to see Toyoda in Asian Cup 2015.

 

Korea

Goalkeepers

Hong’s picks: Jung Sung-ryong (Suwon), Kim Seung-gyu (Ulsan), Lee Bum-young (Busan)

My picks: Kim Yong-dae (Seoul), Kim Young-kwang (Gyeongnam), Kim Jin-hyeon (Cerezo)

Totally different. Okay, Jung has replaced Lee Woon-jae since 2010 to become Korea’s number one, and Kim Yong-dae (and the rest of FC Seoul) has been shabby this year. He certainly believes in Kim Seung-gyu better than I do, but I believe it’s unfair to overlook Jin-hyeon.

Defenders

Hong’s picks: Kim Jin-su (Albirex), Kim Young-gwon, Yoon Suk-young, Hwang Seok-ho (Hiroshima), Hong Jeong-ho, Kwak Tae-hwi, Lee Yong (Ulsan), Kim Chang-soo (Kashiwa)

My picks: Park Jo-hoo, Kwak Tae-hwi, Hong Jeong-ho, Kim Jin-kyu, Kim Young-gwon, Hong Chul, Yoon Suk-young

Err…so he went Japanese (I know, I know) with the defenders. It’s too bad Park Jo-hoo is left out (I know, his recovery is slow), we agree that Kim Young-gwon is the best Korean defender in Asia at the moment (with Kwak Tae-hwi the second), and at least there’s a defender with singular given name.

Midfielders

Hong’s picks: Ki Sung-yong, Ha Dae-sung, Han Kook-yong (Kashiwa), Park Jong-woo (R&F), Kim Bo-kyung, Lee Chung-yong, Ji Dong-won, Son Heung-min

My picks: Park Ji-sung, Koo Ja-cheol, Lee Chung-yong, Ki Sung-yong, Kim Do-heon, Kim Nam-il, Kim Bo-kyung, Ji Dong-won, Ha Dae-sung, Lee Seung-gi

We agree more than I expected. We traded roles for Koo Ja-cheol and Son Heung-min.

Forwards

Hong’s picks: Koo Ja-cheol, Lee Keun-ho, Park Chu-young, Kim Shin-wook

My picks: Lee Dong-gook, Son Heung-min, Kim Shin-wook, Kim Seung-dae, Lee Keun-ho, Park Chu-young.

LOL, he picked Chu-young and struck out Dong-gook. At least Shin-wook and Keun-ho are pretty dependable, but it’s a shame that Pohang and Jeonbuk players are again omitted. As usual.

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.