A Parochial Guide to 2015 AFC Champions League and AFC Cup

A good example of how parochial the English media can be is by referencing the Prime Minister of Denmark as “The wife of Labour candidate for Aberavon” or “Wife of (Neil) Kinnock’s son“. This blog will also get parochial and view the Asian version of UEFA Champions League and Europa League (hmm…there’s simply no classical Asian word for “Asia”, is it?) from Japanese, Korean, and Australian perspectives. Specifically if those West Asian teams have Korean players in them, otherwise I will just ignore them. Begin with the Champions League.

Ask me about Riga’s best lounges.

Group A

Hot hot hot. Al Nassr, Lekwhiya, Persepolis, Bunyodkor. Only Al Nassr, however, have won a continental cup in 1998 (Cup Winners’ Cup) and played in FIFA Club World Cup. It has no one interesting, unlike Lekhwiya, whose no 10 is Nam Tae-hee and whose coach, Michael Laudrup, is browsing London and Tokyo city guides (great life, Mike). Persepolis predictably have only Latinos, but what about Bunyodkor? Their number 9 is Minori Sato, a journeyman who had lived in United States, Mexico, Latvia, and Belarus! And Keisuke Honda complained about how pampered Japanese footballers are.

Group B

Hmm…Pakhtakor, Al Shabab, Al Ain, and Naft Tehran. Just Al Ain with Lee Myung-joo, then (those clever Korean attacking midfielders! Choose to play in the Gulf when you want to get out of Korea, paid well, and not benched!)

Group C

Foolad, Lokomotiv, Al Hilal, and Al Sadd. Al Hilal have Kwak Tae-hwi while Al Sadd have Lee Jung-soo. Interesting though, that Al Hilal’s new forward is Georgios Samaras, on loan from West Brom.

Group D

Al Ahli Dubai, Tractor, Nasaf, Al Ahli Jeddah. Nice, two clubs with the same name will face each other. Dubai’s winger is Luis Jimenez, who played for Internazionale and West Ham and is listed as a Palestinian (since Dubai want to show that they are Asian-friendly and therefore can buy another Latino, and yay, Jimenez has Palestinian background). Meanwhile, their attacking midfielder is Oussama Assaidi, who played four matches with Liverpool. If AFC rejects Jimenez’ Asian status, then there’s ex-Jeonbuk midfielder Kwon Kyung-won.

Group E

East side – home to deserted stadiums, mediocre Japanese performance, interesting Chinese and Thai performances, and Australian away supporters who are proved to be more interested in local culture than other Asians are. Jeonbuk have familiar faces like Eninho, Alex Wilkinson, and Lee Dong-gook. Shandong have Diego Tardelli, who believed he should have been called for Brazil in World Cup 2014 (aren’t you glad now, Diego?). Vietnam again proves it’s the second best footballing nation in Southeast Asia with Becamex Binh Duo. Finally, there’s Kashiwa who wasted 2 hours last week to dispatch Chonburi. They are, though, still the best J. League team in the ACL for the past two years.

Group F

Gamba’s back, now with forward Shingo Akamine. They are with Seongnam FC (now Moonies-free), Buriram United, and Guangzhou R&F. Buriram’s New Zealander’s forward, Kayne Vincent, is half-Japanese. They also have Go Seul-ki, who lifted the 2012 ACL cup with Ulsan. Guangzhou R&F sport Park “Dokdo is Ours” Jong-woo and Jang Hyun-soo, who ironically played with FC Tokyo during the London Olympics.

Group G

Brisbane Roar have the usual names of Michael Theo, Henrique, Matt McKay, and Thomas Broich. Urawa maintain their all-Japanese look, with the exception of Slovenian forward Zlatan Ljubijankic. Same goes with Suwon Bluewings with Jung Sung-ryong, Oh Jang-eun, Jong Tae-se, and a trio of Brazilians. Beijing have no selling names but have a Swede with interesting name: Erton Fejzullahu (he’s Albanian Kosovar, like Adnan Januzaj).

Group H

G.E.T. Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, presented by Evergrande Real Estate Group and Alibaba Group. Kim Young-gwon is still there, and so are Elkeson and Rene Junior. Their new Brazilian is Ricardo Goulart, bought for 15 million euros from Cruzeiro. Western Sydney can expect another sleepless night in Guangzhou, and extra love for their two Japanese, Yusuke Tanaka and Yojiro Takahagi. At least they can see Tokyo again, well, its mirage, from the deer island of Kashima. The Antlers are same as always, with Masashi Motoyama, Koji Nakata, Davi, and Mitsuo Ogasawara. It’s like 2005 all over again. Finally: FC Seoul. Same – Kim Yong-dae, Kim Jin-kyu, Mauricio Molina, and Cha Du-ri. I hope Japanese Sergio Escudero stays with Seoul, although its fans prefer to take him as a Spaniard.

So yeah, ready for another disappointments and relief? Now move on to the cheaper brand of AFC Cup, which is more interesting for Southeast Asians and Hong Kongers.

Group A-D

Nothing’s important. Ignore the rumor that porn star Akari Asahina is the manager of Al Wahda Damascus. Certainly one of these West Asian clubs will lift the trophy again, like from Bahrain or Kuwait or Iraq.

Group E

Bengaluru have India’s darling Sunil Chhetri, Josh Walker, whose virtual version was available from FIFA 08 (Bournemouth) to FIFA 13 (Scunthorpe United), and Wayne Rooney’s long-lost brother Sean. Persipura retain many Papuan football stars like Boaz Solossa and Ian Louis Kabes. Warriors prove the sorry state of Singaporean football by only having 20 players, including four foreigners and two naturalized Singaporeans. Yes, what a football crazy nation. Maziya from Maldives surprisingly have a Spanish, Bulgarian, and Japanese (why surprising? No man would refuse working on a resort island where there are places where the sharia doesn’t apply for them).

Group F

Kitchee: five Spanish, two Brazilians, a Nigerian, two Koreans, a Canadian, and four naturalized Hong Kongers who grew up in Ghana and China. Nice. Besides two Nigerians, East Bengal have Australian Milan Susak, who played in Serbia, Germany, Indonesia, China, Iran, and UAE. Now this is one Mr. International. And also New Zealander Leo Bertos, who played in NZ’s three draws at 2010 FIFA World Cup. Like Kashima, Johor maintain the spirit of 2005 by playing Luciano Figueroa, Argentina’s hero of Copa America 2004 and FIFA Confederations Cup 2005. Sadder than Warriors, Balestier only have 19 players.

Group G

Yadanarbon win the Club with Interesting Players’ Names award, thanks to Okpechi Happiness, Boakay Foday, and Djedje Djawa (who should have played in Java). South China prove that globalization happens with Hong Kongers Jack Sealy and Michael Campion and Irish Sean Tse. And also Daniel McBreen, 2012-13 A-League golden boot winner. Global become the first Filipino team in the championship, and you can get Japanese overload with names like Daisuke Sato, Hikaru Minegishi, and John Kanayama. And there are two actual Japanese players besides those locals. Finally, Pahang make dream comes true for Pakistani and Jamaican football fans dreaming of seeing their nationalities represented in the world-famous AFC Cup.

Group H

My hometown team, Persib Bandung, are here. Sadly nothing is really interesting from this group (group of bore? Lucky you, Persib), besides the fact that Lao Toyota’s Japanese midfielder Dan Ito has played in 16 Asian countries over the last 15 years.

Milan Susak: Friend with Dan Ito on Flickr?

What, you want group prediction? I’m too afraid to make one. It’d be so funny though if GET don’t get the first place.

The Chosen 23 – who will be there Part 1

A dog doing his guard

A dog doing his guard

Thanks to my nephew who asked who Spain’s forwards will be for World Cup 2014 – and if Fernando Torres is among them*.

So with the World Cup coming in one and half months, it’s time to check and speculate on the top 23 picks for Japan, Korea, and Australia (but not Iran, sorry). And who should be on waiting lists.

*My takes: Pedro, Diego Costa, Negredo, Soldado, and David Villa. Torres is a possibility backup along with Llorente.

 

Japan

Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima is Japan’s biggest improver for this season. Already the safest pair of hands in Belgium, he has the good chance to lift the Belgian Pro League trophy. Behind him would be the safest hands in Japan (but not so in Asia, at least last year) Shusaku Nishikawa, who had moved from Hiroshima to Urawa. Number three is trickier. Usually they are Tokyo’s Shuichi Gonda and Hiroshima’s Takuto Hayashi, but Hayashi is crap in Asia and so is Gonda in Japan this season. If Al Z is interested in archeology, he could pick Kashima Antlers’ 34 year old Hitoshi Sogahata, who had deserved a decade worth of international appearance.

Defenders: Atsuto Uchida (Schalke), Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), and Hiroshi Sakai (Hannover). Japan’s four backs are covered. The reserves would be…all from J. League. I’d pick Kobe’s Takahiro Masukawa, Kashima’s Gen Shoji, and Sagan Tosu’s Michihiro Yasuda. Wild card: Tsukasa Shiotani (Hiroshima) and Wataru Hashimoto (Kashiwa).

Midfielders: Besides Kagawa (recovering) and Honda (falling), we have Nagatomo (who can be either left back or midfielder), we have Hajime Hosogai (Berlin), Hiroshi Kiyotake (Nurnberg), his compatriot at the club Makoto Hasebe, Takashi Inui (Frankfurt). Outside Germany, I reckon 33 year old Shinji Ono, leaving Western Sydney as a hero, deserves a place. Finally, Bochum’s Yusuke Tasaka. J. League picks would be Shoma Doi and Yasushi Endo (Kashima), Akihiro Ienaga (Omiya) and of course, Yoichiro Kakitani, who performs better in Asia than in Japan so far with Cerezo.

Forwards: Shinji Okazaki (Mainz) deserves the top bill. As I want Japan to try to have two forwards instead of one, we should go with Mike Havenaar (Vitesse) as the tandem. Yuya Osako (1860 Munich) shows great potential and should be included in with four goals from six appearances. The local dudes I’d pick are among Yohei Toyoda (Tosu), Yoshito Okubo (Kawasaki), and Yuu Kobayashi (Kawasaki). Still uncertain about Hiroshima’s Hisato Sato.

 

Korea

Goalkeepers: Gosh, going all locals. Okay, play safe and go with Kim Yong-dae (Seoul), and his lifelong rival Kim Young-kwang (Gyeongnam). Actually, for Yong-dae’s rival I pick Cerezo’s Kim Jin-hyeon, one of few Korean top players who are still playing in Japan. In fact, I might replace Young-kwang with Ulsan’s Kim Seung-gyu or Pohang’s Shin Hwa-yong, seeing how good Pohang are in both Korea and Asia.

Defenders: Okazaki’s mate at Mainz Park Joo-hoKwak Tae-hwi (Al Hilal), Hong Jeong-ho (Augsburg), Kim Jin-kyu (Seoul), Kim Young-kwon (Evergrande), Hong Chul (Suwon), and Yun Suk-young (Queen Park Rangers). Can’t think of any good reserve at the moment. 

Midfielders: Park Ji-sung? The Guard Dog has little desire to return to the national team, although at 32, he’s still the greatest footballing Korean in the world. If he refuses the spot, then it’s up to Koo Ja-cheol (Mainz), Lee Chung-yong (Bolton), Ki Sung-yong (Sunderland), Kim Do-heon (Suwon), Kim Nam-il (Jeonbuk), Kim Bo-kyung (Cardiff), Ji Dong-won (Augsburg), Ha Dae-sung (Beijing Guoan), and Lee Seung-gi (Jeonbuk). Reserves are Jung Hyuk (Jeonbuk) and Kim Jae-sung and Lee Myeong-ju (Pohang).

Forwards: Lee Dong-gook, obviously. And obviously he has to stay smart this time. Then Son Heung-min (Leverkusen), Kim Shin-wook (Ulsan), and Yeom Ki-hun (Suwon). I’m not sure about 34 year old Seol Ki-hyeon, so I’d go for Kim Seung-dae (Pohang), and Lee Keun-ho (Sangju, as he’s in the Army at the moment). And there’s always Park Chu-young :p.

 

Australia

Oh Socceroos, what has happened to you. At this rate you won’t cut it for the World Cup, trailing behind Uzbekistan.

Goalkeepers: Luckily there’s Mathew “Mat, not Matt” Ryan (Club Brugge), Kawashima’s nemesis in Belgian Pro League. Since we have to cross Mark Schwarzer, then Ryan’s deputies would be Adam Federici (Reading), and two bench warmers in great clubs, Brad Jones (Liverpool) and Mitchell Langerak (Dortmund).

Defenders: Luke Wilkshire (Dynamo Moscow), Rhys Williams (Middlesbrough), Lucas Neill (Doncaster), Chris Herd (Aston Villa), Ryan McGowan (Shandong Luneng), Matt Smith (Brisbane Roar), and Matthew Spiranovic (Western Sydney). Reserves are Sasa Ognenovski (Sydney), Alex Wilkinson (Jeonbuk), and Jason Davidson (Heracles).

Midfielders: Cahill of course, then Brett Holman (Al Nasr), Mile Jedinak (Crystal Palace), Robbie Kruse (Bayer Leverkusen), Matt McKay (Brisbane Roar), Thomas Oar (Utrecht), Mark Milligan (Melbourne Victory), Dario Vidosic (Sion), and Adam Sarota (Utrecht). Harry Kewell has just retired so the wild card is James Holland (Austria Vienna).

Forwards: How can you tell Australia is an Asian team? When they are out of strikers. The best we can recruit are Mathew Leckie (FSV Frankfurt…what’s with Australian parents and Mat(t)hew for a son’s name? Just like Japanese with Shinji), Scott McDonald (Millwall. Yes, him, please), Adam Taggart (Newcastle Jets), and James Troisi (Melbourne Victory). Well, none of them is a household name in Europe so far. I also consider Ivan Franjic (Brisbane Roar), Joel Griffiths (Newcastle Jets..but he’s 33), and David Williams (Melbourne Heart).

Those are the names that if, they are fit and healthy enough, might play in Brazil this June. Let’s see how the Australians are doing with the final matches of A-League, and the Japanese and Koreans (and Australians too, great showing this season) with the group stage of AFC Champions League coming to an end.

5 Things About AFC Champions League Match Day 1

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

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

1. So much for Japan’s determination

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

3. It’s another season for the Koreans

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

I’m not worried about Southeast Asian Football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Confessions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which A-League Team to Support?

Australia FlagIt’s about a week before I’m entering my second season of teaching. Currently there are more than a dozen Indonesian youth braving Perth winter mornings (not that severe, I suppose, ah, 5C/41F). Some of them follow football, but the European kind as always.

I really admire Westerners who ask “which team to support?” when they are moving overseas. While Asian students and expats can be aware of the local football scene (more on the students than the expats), and might be even supporting the national team, I’d like to spend sometime giving the outline of A-League teams playing in the upcoming season, in case a newly arrived visitor to Australia wants to indulge in the local sport spectacle. Believe me, it’s easier to follow than trying to understand Australian Football or forms of rugby.

___________________________________________________________________________

Adelaide United

Stadium: Coopers Stadium, Hindmarsh. Accessible through Adelaide Metro tram (Entertainment Centre) and train (Bowden).

Shirt: Kappa

Shirt sponsor: Solarshop solar power provider

Star players: Eugene Galekovic (GK), Jonathan McKain (DF), Dario Vidosic (MF), Bruce Djite (FW)

Outlook: A regular of AFC Champions League, they were the first Australia’s representatives after Australia entered AFC and reached the 2008 finals. Despite losing to Gamba Osaka, they represented Asia in the 2008 Club World Cup and defeated African champions Al-Ahly 1-0. Last year they failed to overcome Bunyodkor.

Niche: Adelaide is still not a favorite for international students (and business expats) and many students there come on scholarship rather than by personal preference. Still, if you like to go off the beaten path, leaving somewhere more affordable and peaceful (with the conveniences of a capital city), having a strong hometown team is an extra.

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Brisbane Roar

Stadium: Suncorp Stadium, Milton. Accessible through Citytrain (Milton and Roma Street stations) and 375 and 385 buses.

Shirt: Puma

Shirt sponsor: The Coffee Club cafe chain

Star players: Matt Smith (DF), Jade North (DF), Liam Miller (Ireland, MF), Besart Berisha (Albania, FW)

Outlook: Founded by Dutch community in Brisbane and owned by Indonesian corporation Bakrie Group, Roar were known as Queensland Roar before the 2009-10 season. In the following season, they won the A-League title with 28 matches undefeated – and became the first A-League team to defend the title. Bundesliga alumni Besart Berisha is the most feared forward in Australia.

Niche: Brisbane, and Queensland is still a hip market in Australia – not many people go there, but those who do enjoy the sun and the tropical climate. Brisbane itself is a favorite for Japanese and Taiwanese students and expats.

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Central Coast Mariners

Stadium: Bluetongue Stadium, Gosford. Accessible by CityRail and RailCorp lines from Sydney.

Shirt: Kappa

Shirt sponsors: Masterfoods food products

Star players: John Hutchinson (Malta, MF), Michael McGlinchey (NZ, MF), Mile Sterjovski (FW)

Outlook: Now this is a team that punch above their weight. Currently they are the defending champions and yet they are yet to have someone wearing number 1, 9, 10, and 11. The senior squad has only one listed goalkeeper. Yet they survived the 2013 ACL group stage and defeated Guizhou and Suwon Bluewings.

Niche: Gosford is 76 km away from Sydney and is considered as a satellite town of Sydney, the third largest urban area in New South Wales after Newcastle. Students are unlikely to live here, although those who choose to stay in Australia might by chance and choice opt to live a beach life here.

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Melbourne Heart

Stadium: AAMI Park, Melbourne.

Shirt: Kappa

Shirt sponsor: Westpac bank

Star players: Patrick Gerhardt (Liberia, DF), Harry Kewell (MF)

Overview: The second team in Melbourne, their name of choice is based on newspaper poll, and had some controversy due to objection from the Australian Football League authority (over who owns the term ‘football club’) as well as from the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation, which holds the annual Heart of Melbourne Appeal. Naturally bad blood rivalry brews with the older Melbourne Victory.

Niche: As far as I know, there is no geographical division between Heart & Victory supporters (there is big difference between the working-class northwest Melbourne and the middle class southeast Melbourne) as both teams play in the city. Heart, however, practice in the working class La Trobe University (and my alma mater).

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Melbourne Victory

Stadium: Etihad Stadium, Melbourne Docklands

Shirt: Adidas

Shirt sponsor: Adecco human resources

Star players: Adrian Leijer (DF), Mark Milligan (MF), Jonathan Bru (Mauritius, MF), Archie Thompson (FW)

Outlook: Okay, I get it. Victory have the signs of the richer team – more stars, glamorous sponsors, and even the stadium is located in the controversial Docklands area – a Melbourne attempt to build a glitzy waterfront. So Victory might be more suitable for Asian students who are into style.

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Newcastle Jets

Stadium: Hunter Stadium, New Lambton, Newcastle. Accessible by train (Adamstown)

Shirt: ISC, an Australian brand more popular with Australian Football and English Rugby clubs.

Shirt sponsor: Hunter Ports

Star players: Ruben Zadkovich (MF), Emile Heskey (England, FW), Michael Bridges (England, FW)

Outlook: The club’s name and logo (depicting three F/A-18 Hornets) come from its proximity to the Williamtown Air Force base, and Newcastle naturally struggle seasons after seasons.

Niche: The University of Newcastle is popular for Asian students, hosting about 7,000 students out of 80 countries, in a town populated by 300 thousands. If you want to live in NSW and Sydney’s too crowded and expensive, try Newcastle.

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Perth Glory

Stadium: NIB Stadium, Perth

Shirt: Macron

Shirt sponsor: QBE Insurance

Star players: Michael Thwaite (DF), Jacob Burns (MF), Travis Dodd (MF), Shane Smeltz (New Zealand, FW)

Outlook: Like Perth, this is the only major thing available on the west side of the continent. Shane Smeltz is the deadliest striker in Oceania.

Niche: Perth is pretty popular with Asian students due to its proximity and time difference. Its unfortunate geographic location, however, prevents it from becoming bigger and more popular. Still, like other Australian major cities, it’s still among the world’s finest.

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Sydney FC

Stadium: Allianz Stadium, Sydney

Shirt: Adidas

Shirt sponsor: Webjet online travel agent

Star players: Brett Emerton (MF), Terry McFlynn (N. Ireland, MF), Ali Abbas (MF), Alessandro del Piero (Italy, FW)

Outlook: Sydney FC fashion itself as the elite club of Australia, at least by style. It signed past stars such as Kazu Miura and Dwight Yorke, and del Piero is playing his second season here. While they have won the A-League twice, they are yet to be successful in the Asian Champions League. While in 2007 they were second in the group E, unfortunately only group winners passed and that was Urawa Red Diamonds.

Niche: Sydney is the “most Asian” city in Australia, with 20% of the city population can be identified as having South, Southeast, or East Asian background.

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Wellington Phoenix

Stadium: Westpac Stadium, Wellington

Shirt: Nike

Shirt sponsor: Sony electronics

Star players: Glen Moss (GK), Leo Bertos (MF), Paul Ifill (Barbados, MF), Stein Huysegems (Belgium, FW)

Outlook: A New Zealand club who join the A-League, to the past protest (and threat) of AFC. Consequently, they cannot compete in the AFC Champions League. In some seasons, Phoenix can be very strong because they are composed of New Zealand national players, but that was not the case last season.

Niche: If you happen to live in Wellington (instead of Auckland), well, you have a spectacle.

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Western Sydney Wanderers

Stadium: Parramatta Stadium, Parramatta. Accessible through CityRail

Shirt: Nike

Shirt sponsor: NRMA Insurance

Star players: Ante Covic (GK), Michael Beauchamp (DF), Shinji Ono (Japan, MF), Aaron Mooy (FW)

Outlook: The geographical division is clear. Western Sydney is proud of its working class background against the richest city in Australia, and against the richest club in the A-League.The name Wanderers is not modeled after typical English football clubs, but after the name of one of the earliest football club in Australia.

The debutant shook the league last season by winning the regular season and recorded ten winning streaks, and gaining rights to compete in 2014 AFC Champions League. The new club does not only demonstrates the coaching skill of ex-Socceroo Tony Popovic, but also resurrects the career of Shinji Ono, who scored seven goals and provided three assists last season.

Niche: Last season Western Sydney Wanderers was my favorite A-League team. Seems strange but they have Shinji Ono, and then I read that Parramatta is growing fast to become an Asian (and Middle Eastern) area.

So here’s the overlook to 2013-14 A-League teams (10 of them, thank God). If you’re a foreigner in Australia, hope you’re interested to take a look at the local league. I know that it’s more likely that my Asian readers, for a funny but good reason, study in Australia instead of Japan or Korea.

This is a sponsored post but opinions are my own.

Agony of February

Just keep doing better, man.

Just keep doing better, man.

February. 30ish days after your New Year’s Resolutions, you meet the truth that some old troubles stick. Others are popping out. That fresh start is not really fresh. People replaced their calendar with dread – O God, it’s one month already and I’m still like this?!

As for me, health problems keep dragging me down and prevented me to write on the scram from Shanghai and the Singapore fix sooner. But let’s get it on with the bleeding.

First paragraph applies to Korea. Now they are six months away from their last victory – 2-1 in friendly against Zambia back in August. Then draw with Uzbekistan, and then loss to Iran, and then…loss to Australia at home.

In February 2013 Korea attempted to be international and held friendly with Croatia in London – so Ki SY and Lee CY could take trains, Park CY, Son HM, and Koo JC could take budget flights, while Croatia could bring in the heavies.

Indeed they were. Ah, 0-2 at half-time. Well, Mario Manduzkic is certainly better than Mario Gomez, isn’t he? Let’s try second half, this time with Lee Dong-gook, Park Chu-young, and Kim Bo-kyung thrown in. Ah, 0-4. By guys who played in Everton and Fulham. For comparison, Australia also went down 2-3 to Romania in Spain…but they scored twice. Well, their defenders, anyway. And that after winger Robbie Kruse had a great weekend before the match.

If I were a Korean, I’d be so envy toward the Japanese, who enjoy the spotlight with Shinji “I’m not good enough” Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, and Shinji Okazaki. And Yuto Nagatomo, who is playing for Inter and might play for Munich or Manchester United. Granted, Latvia didn’t send its best team to Japan (i.e. no Hamburg’s Artjom Rudnevs), but see how offices were like on Thursday morning in Tokyo and Seoul. I even wore Samurai Blue scarf to work – flu-chic.

Umm, now in Shanghai people are celebrating New Year, Anelka and Drogba must be not on their minds. In mid-January I was searching the reasons why they left – Shanghai sounded supposed to be a fun place to play easy football and gaining easy money. Turned out the explanations were so simple.

Shanghai boss Zhu Jun is a bizzare character in first place. Some say that he’s more interested in self-publicity, oneupmanship, and online gaming business (The9) rather than football business. That could be the logical explanation behind the sellings of Duvier Riascos (24 goals in 39 matches) and Gao Lin (to scandal-tainted Guangzhou Evergrande, well this is back in 2010). That’s why Joel Griffiths left (he wasn’t happy in Beijing either). That’s why Tigana was sacked just after five matches.

That’s why the team went on strike in October. Zhu Jun himself was unhappy – his business partners in the Communist Party didn’t give him ‘his fair share’.

I was one of those who believed that Anelka and Drogba could flourish in China. The men themselves had pictured great lives in the great Far East metropolitan. The result was like what I wrote in the 2012 review – goals to force a draw, frustrations, and Anelka sulking on the supporters. When they left, Shanghai Shenhua supporters blamed the club – or saying that actually they were too good for Shanghai. And so greed and ignorance of several tycoons (and their cronies in the government) cancelled the rise of Chinese football.

Worse thing came out of Singapore, and also with worse reaction. The fixing of boatloads of friendlies, lower leagues, and even probably the Champions League match between Liverpool and Debrecen. For years everyone had spoken about ‘Asian gambling syndicate’. Now we have names – Dan Tan Seet Eng (Dan is his English name. His Chinese given name is Seet Eng) and his lieutenant Wilson Raj Perumal. WRP was arrested in Finland soon after he berated some players who didn’t fulfill order. There were stories that it was Tan who tipped the police because Perumal blew his budget and had too many debts to the boss.

Why it’s a worse news? Not just because it’s a major international crime. But it’s depressing how Singapore reacts to the scandal. Major media outlets (controlled by the government) did put it on headlines, but no more than that. Now it’s a forgotten story in Singapore. Several Westerners believe that Dan Tan is not really a fugitive – he’s still in Singapore. I wonder if many Singaporeans think the same – they don’t say. Even these days it’s easier for correspondents to know what the Chinese think (through anonymous interviews and lurking on microblogs) than what do the Singaporeans think.

So why does the Singaporean government seem to aloof on Tan? I don’t believe that they have the share from his profit – it’s rather the very annoying Asian concept of ‘saving face’. One explanation on why do Singaporeans control the fixing industry rather than the Chinese is because the islanders speak English and the passport has very good reputation. Being a small nation, Singaporean passport holders can travel the world effortlessly under the radar. And even after this scandal is known worldwide, they are protected from law and media scrutiny simply because of that saving face thing. Not just from ‘mere outsider’ but from the Malay minority and neighbors. Chinese and Indian Singaporeans cannot afford to live with the fact that they can be baddies too. The government cannot live with the fact that it lives from dirty money. And they are lucky again – the world pays more attention for bad news from China than from the unassuming Singapore.

And so, the result was the destruction of Southeast Asian teams in the first round of 2015 AFC qualification. Jordan – Singapore 4-0. Thailand – Kuwait 1-3. Iraq – Indonesia 1-0 (that was okay, actually). Qatar – Malaysia 2-0. Vietnam – UAE 1-2. Saying that ‘we suck’ isn’t enough. Putting too much attention on English football (only for 4-5 teams, actually) while looking down on local football is the issue. Southeast Asia and China have their asses kicked by West Asia and they are supposed to angry about that, not just merely shrugging (Hong Kong got my credit for holding Uzbekistan 0-0). And yeah, Singapore disappoint again. Big time.

At least there’s a ray of hope. Tonight Buriram United join Muangthong United in representing Thailand in the AFC Champions League, after defeated Brisbane United 3-0 on penalties. Buriram’s forwards were composed by non-Thai Asians – Japanese Kai Hirano and American Anthony Ampaipitakwong. It’s actually unfortunate that Australia only has 1.5 allocation, with Uzbekistan having a very weird arrangement – 1.5 in West and 1 in East. But that means Australia, and Southeast Asia, have to fight hard to get more spots in the Champions League. Yes you, Southeast Asia.

 

2012 in Asian Football

I want love in a peaceful world.

I want love in a peaceful world.

January

  • The earliest (and latest) cup in global football is lifted every 1st January in Japan. FC Tokyo win the 201..1 Emperor’s Cup by defeating Kyoto Sanga FC 4-2. Second Division FC Tokyo win a spot in the 2012 AFC Champions League.
  • Tim Cahill ends his goal drought after 34 matches (he passed 2011 without any goal, including in Asian Cup) by scoring for Everton against Blackburn Rovers. The match ends 1-1.
  • Arsenal teenage winger Ryo Miyaichi is loaned to Bolton.

February

  • Adelaide United and Pohang Steelers qualify to 2012 AFC Champions League by defeating two Southeast Asian hopefuls – Persipura of Indonesia and Chonburi of Thailand. Buriram of Thailand is the sole SE Asian representative in the ACL. With SE Asian federations underperforming or in legal problems, Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan fill a spot in the East Asian division.
  • Shinji Okazaki scores with a bicycle kick for Stuttgart against Hannover 96.
  • China end hope to qualify to Brazil 2014 despite defeating Jordan 3-1 at home. Its doom had been pronounced in Autumn 2011 thanks to back to back defeats against Iraq and Jordan. The Economist‘s Christmas 2011 edition runs special article on why Chinese football sucks.
  • On the other hand, Asian champions Japan qualify as runner ups without able to defeat Uzbekistan and lost the away match in North Korea, where coach Al Zaccheroni complains that the custom seizes his soy sauce.
  • Still on road to Brazil: demoralized Indonesia are torn apart 0-10 by Bahrain. Bahrain, however, fail to qualify as rival Qatar fight to the end to hold Iran 2-2 and pass the group undefeated. While Indonesia field players only from the official Premier League (leaving veterans playing in the Super League), Bahrain also ban Shiite players from the team.

March

  • North Korea qualify automatically to 2015 AFC Asian Cup after defeating other minnows such as Philippines, Tajikistan, India, and Turkmenistan. At that time NK are ranked 15th in Asia, far above non-Challenge Cup participants such as UAE and Thailand.
  • Woeful year for Japanese powerhouse Gamba Osaka begins as they go down in the ACL to Pohang Steelers 0-3 and to Adelaide United 0-2.
  • Australia end its quest for Olympics gold finishing bottom of Group B without scoring any goal and ended four matches 0-0. The Matildas had failed to qualify in 2011 after falling one point short below North Korea. The duel between Japan and Korea U-23 in London is anticipated.

April

  • Brisbane win the A-League Grand Final due to 90+7th minute penalty kick by Albanian Besart Berisha into Perth Glory’s goal. Man of the match award for Perth’s Jacob Burns is for a while incorrectly awarded to Brisbane winger Thomas Broich.
  • Japan and Korea begin their 2012 league season in the familiar manners – taking in Australians and few Japanese players for the Asian Player spot in Korea, and taking in Koreans and few Australians for the AP spot in Japan – along with South and North Koreans who were born in Japan. Both leagues also use Brazilian players extensively and are still reluctant to draw big names from Europe.
  • No such qualm in China, where Nicolas Anelka, fresh from enjoying a late summer period in Chelsea, moved to Shanghai. In February he scored 40 seconds in the friendly against Hunan. In April the club is in crisis and he becomes player-manager.
  • Meanwhile, Guangzhou Evergrande ace the ACL group stage by defeating ex-champions Jeonbuk Hyundai 5-1 and Kashiwa Reysol 3-1. Except for Gao Lin, however, all the goalscorers are South Americans Cleo, Muriqui, and Dario Conca. Still, credit for their defense team.

May

  • Shinji Kagawa completes his glory in Germany by scoring against Bayern Munich in the DFB Pokal final. He scores 13 goals in Bundesliga, 3 in DFB Pokal, and 1 in the Champions League – against Arsenal.
  • Kagawa’s rival Keisuke Honda scores consolation goal against Rubin Kazan. After missing much of the season to injury, Honda fails to help CSKA to qualify for the Champions League as rival Spartak take them over with two points.
  • Tim Cahill ends his career in Everton with a sour note after being sent off for fighting with Yohan Cabaye, who pushed an Everton ball boy.
  • Internazionale signs a loaned player from Cesena, Yuto Nagatomo. Smaller than average (compared to other Japanese players) Nagatomo becomes the most successful player in Serie A in the last five years. He is also the first Japanese player to play in the city of Milan.
  • J. League lose all representatives in the ACL with Nagoya, Kashiwa, and Tokyo all shot down. K-League also only spare Ulsan Hyundai alive, while Guangzhou and Adelaide United stay on course.

June

  • Keisuke Honda returns to Samurai Blue with the goal against Oman and hattrick against Jordan.
  • Big moves for Asian players – Kagawa to Manchester United (where porn star Ameri Ichinose is mistakenly identified as his girlfriend), Hiroshi Kiyotake to Nuremberg, Kim Bo-kyung to Cardiff City, Ki Sung-yueng to Swansea, Maya Yoshida to Southampton, and Eiji Kawashima to Standard Liege.
  • The transfer headline is on Didier Drogba. Fresh after taking Chelsea to become the kings of Europe, money and Anelka lure him to Shanghai. The French star fights with a fan after he refuses to follow the customary bow toward Shanghai’s supporters.

July

  • Controversy in Cardiff after its Malaysian owners change the crest and the home shirt color to conform more with feng shui – from blue and Blue Birds into red and the Welsh red dragon.
  • Another Malaysian-owned team, Queens Park Rangers, also looks forward for a better EPL season. They sign Park Ji-sung (Korea) from Manchester United, Julio Cesar (Brazil) from Internazionale, and Ryan Nelsen (New Zealand) and Junior Hoillet (Canada) from Blackburn Rovers, distinctively becoming probably the only team in the world with players from all confederations. The shirt sponsor is changed from Malaysia Airlines to owner Tony Fernandes’ own Air Asia.
  • Unfortunately, by the end of this year Asians who love Air Asia for their travels are too embarrassed to wear the jersey.
  • More than they wear the MU’s red tartan jersey.
  • Korea and Japan pass Olympics’ group stage in minimalist manners – Korea with 2-1 victory over Switzerland and 0-0s against Gabon and Mexico, while Japan steal headline after defeating gold medal favorite Spain 1-0. The rest is unconvincing – 1-0 to Honduras and 0-0 to Morocco. The women team also draw 0-0 with Sweden and Africa after defeating Canada 2-1.
  • Swiss player Michel Morganella is sent home after sending racist tweets against Koreans. North Korea is also angry as organizer shows their future flag of Taegeukgi in the match against Colombia. Heck, even they complained that there was the flag of Korea in the stadium along with the flag of Cameroon and Sweden. Are they Koreans or not?

August

  • Shinji Kagawa scores his first goal for Manchester United past Asia’s best goalkeeper – Fulham’s Mark Schwarzer.
  • Anelka and Drogba’s partnership in Shanghai result in astonishing 3-3 draw with Shandong Luneng.
  • Arsenal loans number nine forward Park Chu-young to Celta Vigo, sparing him the horror of wearing number 30 after 9 is given to Lukas Podolski.
  • Nadeshiko Japan defeat favorite Brazil 2-0 and France 2-1. Unfortunately they go down to United States 1-2 and get silver medal. Turbine Postdam’s Yuki Ogimi scores three goals.
  • Project Team Great Britain go down in typical English manner – lose penalty shootout in the quarter finals, this time to Korea. Chelsea’s Dean Sturridge fails to score while Korea put five past Jack Butland.
  • Korea win the bronze medal after Park Chu-young and Koo Ja-cheol score against Japan. Defender Park Jong-woo sport a banner written “Dokdo is Ours!” after the match, winning critics outside Korea and praises from Koreans. Since then Korean TVs have gone too hard in putting Dokdo in every context and criticizing celebrities who refuse to join the chorus, especially those who are being popular in Japan.

September

  • Both Korea and Australia are in crisis mode for their World Cup qualification as Uzbekistan hold Korea and Australia’s defeat to Jordan condemn them to zero win from three matches.
  • Park Chu-young becomes the first Korean to score in La Liga against Getafe. Lee Chun-soo was the last Korean to play in La Liga a decade ago.
  • Korean Army team Sangju Sangmu Phoenix walk out from the Relegation round of K-League after AFC requires professional contracts for players in every club. The club serves as a host for players serving their military draft. Even without the drama, SSP are already relegated. Recently some other players prefer to join the Korean Police FC for their national service.
  • The Championship round in K-League is switched from playoff rounds between the top six (Australian style) to the mini league involving top eight teams (Russian style).
  • Both Guangzhou and Adelaide fail their first tests against West Asian teams. Ulsan pass through favorite Al-Hilal 5-0.
  • Consadole Sapporo secure relegation from J-League Division 1 with two months to go.

October

  • Keisuke Honda scores his fifth goal from eleven Russian Premier League matches. He failed to move to Lazio, probably for the better. He might be play in Liverpool next month.
  • Alessandro del Piero moves to Sydney FC, while Western Sydney Wanderers recruit Shinji Ono. Sydney also sign Chinese-Panaman Yairo Yau.
  • Shinji Kagawa provides his second assist in the Champions League and then twists his knee. The injury lasts for two months.
  • For second year in the row, a Hyundai-owned team is in the ACL final after Ulsan defeat glamour-less Bunyodkor. The national team of Uzbekistan keep their hope alive by defeating Qatar 1-0. Korea end 2012 in sour note with 0-1 defeat to Iran.
  • S-League authority announces that in 2013, the team that finishes last will have to pay heavy fine for being a loser, continuing the fine tradition of the fine city.

November

  • A drop of Asian players’ presence in the English Premier League with Kagawa injured, and so does Park Ji-sung, and Southampton’s Tadanari Lee and Sunderland’s Ji Dong-won nowhere in sight. Maya Yoshida passes every match day painfully with Southampton. In Bundesliga, on the other hand, Son Heung-min, Koo Ja-cheol, Shinji Okazaki, Hiroshi Kiyotake, and Takashi Inui provide goals and assists now and then.
  • Korea recovers the AFC Champions League trophy as Ulsan defeat Al-Ahli 3-0. Japan defeat Oman 2-1 and need to wait for March 2013 to defeat Jordan to secure a ticket to Brazil 14.
  • Hiroshima win J-League title, breaking the hearts of Sendai. Hisato Sato hopes that he can return to the national team. Al Z’s favorite Ryoichi Maeda continues his Maeda’s Curse by condemning Gamba Osaka to the Second Division, ironically despite Gamba’s 67 goals for compared to Hiroshima’s 63. Gamba’s best hope is to flourish in Division 2 in 2013 and return in 2014.
  • Ian Crook resigns from Sydney FC management. Club’s and fans’ expectation for del Piero is cited as the main reason. Sydney languish at the bottom while uglier sister Western Sydney are in the top four.

December

  • Substitute Brian Ching fails to save Houston Dynamo in the 2012 MLS Cup, a fitting farewell for David Beckham. American soccer is still waiting for its Jeremy Lin.
  • FC Seoul win the 2012 K-League, with Colombian Mauricio Molina providing 18 goals and 19 assists.
  • Australia qualify for 2013 East Asia Football Federation Championship by destroying Taiwan 8-0, scoring five goals in 30 minutes. They win aggregate goals against North Korea.
  • Indonesia, Philippines, and Singapore field teams composed of naturalized players in the ASEAN Football Federation Cup. Indonesia lose to Malaysia 0-2 and draw with Laos 1-1, and Indonesian fans treat the news apathetically.
  • FIFA extends its deadline for Indonesian FA to settle its internal dispute for three months, Sepp Blatter gleefully says that he’s giving a holiday gift to Indonesia.
  • The resurgence of Thai football is annulled by Singapore, whose 30+ years old foreigners help the Lions to win the AFF Cup. Singapore’s best players, however, are Shahril Ishkak and Khairul Amri. Both of them play for Singapore LionsXII, a guest team in the Malaysian Super League (and the runner ups of the 2012 season).
  • Ulsan Hyundai become the first Asian team to fail to qualify to FIFA Club World Cup Semi Finals after lost 1-3 to Monterrey. In the fifth place match against Hiroshima, Hisato Sato proves that he’s the better striker than Lee Keun-ho and Kim Shin-wook.
  • Shinji Kagawa win AFC’s first ever “International Player” award, effectively the award for the best Asian player in the world. His competitors are forty years old Mark Schwarzer and Yuto Nagatomo. In Asia, the best player is Lee Keun-ho, and below him are Ali Karimi and Zheng Zhi.
Happy Holidays everyone. Thank you for reading.

Five things we learnt from AFC Olympics qualifications

Football at the Olympics

1. Japan have plenty of talents

What do you know. There was a chance that Japan would bottle the group and have to qualify to London through intercontinental playoff. Instead they top the group with the best goal aggregate and the best point. Past that fumble against Syria, Japan are simply the best U-23 team in Asia. Well, they are officially, after the gold medal at the Asian Games.

The biggest headache for Japan now is to choose their forwards. There are so many choices – All-European Otsu, Ibusuki, and Usami? Or tried and true J. Leaguers Nagai and Yamazaki? (Sorry, I still have some reserve on Yuya Osako). They certainly don’t want to be like Senegal which came with six forwards for the African Cup of Nations and lost all matches.

Certainly everybody has learned to stop calling a team “the Golden Generation”. Certainly pessimistic Japanese fans can recite these names: Shoji Jo, Yanagisawa, Robert Cullen, and sigh, Sota Hirayama. But the Japanese are happy to know that they are not Australians. Or Italians.

2. South Korea and Japan can alternately being unstable

Should I start call them Tweedledee and Tweedledum? Certainly they fight alot in many issues, they have host World Cup together and many Koreans grind themselves in the J. League. And like magnets, they often move to opposite direction (disclaimer: I suck at sciences). Korea played Qatar in Seoul National Stadium. Japan played Bahrain in Tokyo National Stadium. Qatar and Bahrain, are of course, the dee and dum of the Gulf. Certainly when you play in Seoul National Stadium you give your all and you don’t play half-ass, even if your club needs you for weekend K-League. Even when your rival for that position is arrested (sorry, can’t resist). And yet, Korea let 20 thousand supporters down. They come to see a goal. On the other hand, it was the turn for the Japanese to make the 30 thousands Tokyo residents proud. The lesson: Never, never assume that South Korea are more solid than Japan.

3. What shall we do with Australia?

Jesus. Four draws out of six games, which includes, of course, all home games. And here’s the now famous punch line. No goal. Even Malaysia could score three, all of them at Bahrain. The agony of the Olyroos would be too cruel and only could come from the fantasy of a Socceroos hater (there are many of them in Asia). I wonder if Australia couldn’t score a goal because they faced West Asian (including Uzbekistan) teams. No myth about physical advantage. Hostile and unfamiliar away matches, not to mention tiring. But how they could go down 0-2 at Tashkent is beyond my Acomprehension.

Australian media, luckily for the Olyroos, are both too optimistic and aloof about youth football to scream in panic. The women team also failed to qualify, ranked below Japan and North Korea at the final group stage. Now, the Australia U-23 team for the match against Iraq was drawn totally from A-League teams. Certainly, as a non-fan, I think Australian fans need to be somewhat panic with the state of their leagues and young talents. No one can deny that the Socceroos are still formidable, but I’m somewhat puzzled that young Aussies don’t play in Europe while young Japanese and Koreans are. Heck, if Europe’s too far, then play in Japan or Korea or China.

4. There’s still hope for UAE football

You cannot blame Star Sports to skip on Japan’s match yesterday. Of course the priority was for Malaysia, which match ran at the same time with Japan’s and Korea’s. The Uzbekistan v UAE match ran immediately after that, and it was really and dead or alive match. UAE’s senior team have taken severe batterings lately, and the junior team looked to be disappointed as well as Uzbekistan played before, er, 7500, are having a rising senior team, and led 1-0 at halftime. Made that 2-0 two minutes later. Theeen….Ahmad Khalil scored two goals in the space of two minutes. UAE held on for a draw…no, for a win, their fourth win in the group. The emirates achieved what their Gulf rivals failed to do, heck, even what Saudi failed to do, and condemned Uzbekistan to the torture of Play-off round. UAE have a decent league and AFC rules might check their clubs’ dependencies on Brazilian and aging European imports. Although, don’t expect the crowds to come. They are too beautiful to watch open air local football.

5. Malaysia are not Southeast Asia’s finest, but they have the flair.

Malaysia finished their group with total defeats and sixteen goals. But they often punched above their weights. Their national team were not supposed to win the AFF Cup. The Young Tigers were not supposed to win gold medal at the Southeast Asian Games. They were not supposed to aim for London. But they defeated Lebanon and braved long trips to Bahrain and Jordan and the prospect of being bullied by Japan (which happened well, in Kuala Lumpur). But they were not afraid.

Because apparently other Southeast Asian teams couldn’t bother with qualifying. Thailand carelessly fielded ineligible player for a narrow 1-0 win over Palestine. Singapore lost twice to Yemen when they should have won. Indonesia threw away games against Turkmenistan. Well, it was Vietnam’s bad luck to be pitted against Saudi Arabia. In short, lack of motivation and skills from the players, and more importantly, self-defeatism from their NOCs and football federations, disguised as realism. “We wouldn’t get a gold medal so why bother.” Ugh.

Malaysian national pride and willingness to improve and to compete, fortunately, trumped the apathy. They represented Southeast Asia, they lost badly, but they had tried with all their hearts.

Comparing Asian and African progresses: Now and next

Waiting for moments like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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