AFC Asian Cup 2015. Heh.

The magic of AFC Asian Cup.

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

It’s all your fault, Japan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AFC Asian Cup 2015 Team of the Tournament

Goalkeeper: Mat Ryan (Australia, Club Brugge)

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

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

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

 

What’s on this February

AFC Champions League

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

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

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

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

2015 AFC Asian Cup. Yay.

Nasser Al Shamrani ponders where he will go out tonight in Melbourne.

Happy New Year, Maya Yoshida. That’s a sweet victory against Arsenal, wasn’t it? You did good job in blocking Alexis Sanchez, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (a hipster favorite), and Theo Walcott for 20 minutes. You’re good to go for Australia 2015.

Asians are so diligent and hardworking, we are doing a major tournament in the first working week of 2015. Making the good use of southern hemisphere summer.

And so let’s see the teams that will compete in Asian Cup 2015.

Australia

When they won the hosting rights in 2011 (without competition), it was too easy. Only Japan could spoil their party. Four years later, everyone could tear down the house. Australia had experienced defeats by Qatar, China, Japan (in 90 minutes in 2013, breaking a 12 years record), and Jordan. They were held by Oman, North Korea, South Africa, and UAE.

As I said, while Australians tell each other that they are on transition, the world does not care. Asia enjoys the agony. [Update: Australia have stopped saying that they are on transition.]

Tim Cahill, still the most reliable goal scorer for the last ten years, survived against pretenders like John Aloisi, Scott McDonald, Brett Holman, and Joshua Kennedy. Now Australia badly need new goalscorers. Thankfully Nathan Burns is on good form, Tomi Juric is at the crossroad (his last goal came in November), while Mat Leckie is doing fine with Ingolstadt, currently topping the 2. Bundesliga.

Australians and me hope that they could be like Germany in 2006 – turning shameful slumps into a glorious, proud summer (the semi final match could be held on Australia Day). Therefore the only permissible way to begin is to win comfortably against Kuwait. If everything goes well (Korea are a major stumbling block), then it’s quarter final against China in Melbourne. That’s dream comes true for broadcasters and organizers, but expect plenty of venom coming from Chinese commentators (since Australians are, uh, Western white men). The other option is no more friendly – Spiranovic vs Al Shamrani II.

Going to semis? Iran. The ideal final, of course, pitches Australia and Japan.

Goalkeeper: Ryan

Defenders: Franjic, Sainsbury, Spiranovic, Davidson

Midfielders: Jedinak, Bresciano, McKay

Forwards: Kruse, Cahill (false 9), Oar/Leckie

Korea

Supposedly, they have put the disaster of 2013-14 behind with the leadership of Uli Stielike, the only German international to fail a penalty shootout. Their recent records are still mixed, however – wins against Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Paraguay, losses to Iran (a bloody one), Costa Rica, and Uruguay. Like Australia, they were on transition but Koreans hardly said that (at least in English).

The match against Australia is the biggest challenge, and I would say it will end in a draw, just like in 2011. A quarter final against North Korea is unlikely (some South Koreans actually fancy the idea), while Korean “netizens” hope for China so they can update Eul-Yong Ta for 2010s.

The semi final will be another heated affair whether as runner ups or group winners – either Iran or Japan. Heck, even in the final they will face either Iran or Japan and things can go nasty. Boy, Koreans do have plenty of issues, don’t they?

Goalkeeper: Kim Seung-gyu

Defenders: Kim Chang-soo, Kwak, Kim Young-gwon, Park Joo-ho

Midfielders: Lee Chung-yong, Ki, Koo

Forwards: Cho Yeung-chol, Lee Keun-ho, Son

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan, Uzbekistan. Our football team is more famous than Kazakhstan’s. We have Natasha Alam and you Kazakhstan have…you have that volleyball cutie.

No, she won’t care about Asian Cup. Maybe neither is Natasha Alam.

Remember Road to Japan and Korea? A pretty surreal qualification since Japan and Korea were not in and Australia were still in OFC. So if you remove these three nations, the final round of AFC qualification would be full of creepy countries ruled by mad dictators. Group B is a terrible put down. I blame the desert and the northern latitudes. And Stalin.

Uzbekistan feature the balanced lineups of players based in Uzbekistan (always a challenge in AFC Champions League, although not big spenders like Bunyodkor used to be). The spread of its foreign-based players is also interesting. Vitaly Denisov and Lutfulla Turaev play for Lokomotiv (spelling it “Locomotive” makes it sounds less communist) Moscow, Anzur Ismailov is with Changchun Yatai, Bahodir Nasimov plays in Iran, and captain Server Djeparov still can eat Seongnam’s best bulgogi. Not to mention those who play in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

So there’s no reason they cannot ace Group B, above Saudi Arabia and China. A quarter final against Korea will be a friendly derby, and so does semi final against Japan. For a mad dictatorship, it’s surprising that they have no personal problem with anyone.

Saudi Arabia

The ballad of Nasser Al Shamrani. Australians heckled him mercilessly in Melbourne when Saudi Arabia were humiliated 1-4 by Bahrain and in Parramatta, home of Western Sydney Wanderers. They will hunt him again in Brisbane and Melbourne. It’s still unknown if Arab-Australians will stand up for him, especially (or despite) after Al Hilal players described Sydney as the boonies.

China

Thank God you’re here, said the organizer. Otherwise Asian Cup will be devoid of the most important of all East Asians. Will Chinese-Australians care about China? Maybe they hardly care about any sport in the first place. But the Chinese students will persuade their Southeast Asian (and some Australian) friends to support China.

China did plenty of friendlies in preparation of the cup, but none of them was outside China. Why bother going to savage lands where you can invites barbarians such as Kyrgyzs (twice), Palestines, and New Zealanders to enjoy a bit of Chinese hospitality in the world-famous cities of Nanchang, Chenzhou, Shenzhen (Hong Kong’s ugly sister!), and Changsa?

Half-assed friendlies in faraway cities to tire out the visitors, local-based players since no Chinese footballer is good enough to play in Europe (and why bother playing in tiny Mainz where you can enjoy Guangzhou’s nightlife), and equally strong opponents. They won’t make it past the group stage.

North Korea

Scums of the Earth and a total waste of space. But wait, even the Hermit Kingdom has players based in Europe and Japan! Wunderbar! Ryang Yong-gi and Ri Yong-jik are Korean-Japanese who swear allegiance to North Korea. Now the nice Switzerland opens its door to the misunderstood North Koreans, from Kim Jong-un to Cha Jong-hyok and Pak Kwang-ryong, who is loaned by Basel to Vaduz. Hey, Liechtenstein is just like North Korea – the people are smiling, the mountains are beautiful, and the underground vault is shining.

Iran

Look at the champions. Asia’s best. Lack of playing time but they make the best of it, whether against Korea or Iraq. Like in 1997, they can expect full support from Iranian Australians. Their European players are so-so: Keeper Alireza Haghighi keeps picking balls from inside his net with Penafiel in Portugal, Javad Nekounam still proves his worth with four goals with Osasuna, while his team mate Karim Ansarifad is yet to score. But as a team, they can be invincible. Iranians will gleefully see the Princes of Persia slash down those pesky Arabs (they are conveniently group with Qatar, Bahrain, and UAE, who insist that it’s called Arabian Gulf).

Japan

The samurais care less that their daimyo is accused of match fixing back in 2010 – they have a cup to defend. Traditionally Japanese fans will sit on the fence – Aguirre is another foreigner whose main purpose is to lead Nippon. If he won’t resign over the allegation, he will resign over bad results. But he won’t stay forever.

Japanese footballers, the mainstay of Asian football in Europe, are again in dire need of redemption. Shinji Kagawa must be cannot believe his terrible luck, worse than his Manchester United days. Keisuke Honda could not sustain his goal scoring streaks and now Milanistas are singing for Jeremy Menez instead of him. 2015 has arrived and Eiji Kawashima is still thinking about next season – stay or leave? – as he’s sitting on Liege’s bench. His challenger, Shusaku Nishikawa, rue the days he slipped the J. League trophy – and the chance to be Japan’s number 1 – past his hands.

For some others, this is the moment of truth. Yasuhito Endo can’t believe his fairy tale story. At 34 going 35, he resurrected a disgraced team to win a Triple and is still Japan’s best holding midfielder for one and half decade. Without ever playing in Europe. Shinji Okazaki wants to match his club performance with national team performance, especially if he wants to move a bigger (and better paying) club next August. Yoshinori Muto will be thrilled to think which European scouts are watching him.

Japan will face nemeses Jordan and Iraq and have to put up with the crowds and the world who will support Palestine. They will get the job done and will face one of the Gulf nations. Then it’s Uzbekistan, who defeated them twice on the Road to Brazil. Then a final showdown against Australia or less likely, Iran.

Goalkeeper: Kawashima (my choice is as tricky as Aguerre’s. Higashiguchi can handle Palestine but first impression is everything)

Defenders: Sakai, Konno, Yoshida, Nagatomo

Midfielders: Endo, Hasebe, Kiyotake, Kagawa, Honda

Forward: Okazaki

6 Things from Asian Cup qualification final day…and friendlies

Still the boss.

Still the boss.

My gosh, a new post in less than a month! It’s just that yesterday’s international orgy frenzy was so awesome I had to make some notes. Here they are.

1. Cahill: Still the Boss of Asia.

When he ruined Japan back in World Cup 2006, coming in for Mark Bresciano at the 53th minute, Tim Cahill still represented Oceania Football Confederation. Indeed, he had the choice to represent Samoa (like his brother Chris does).  I could not hate Tiny Tim – he did his job, and he did it better than Shunsuke Nakamura and the forgettable Hidetoshi Nakata.

One year later, Australia joined the AFC Asian Cup and many Asians – Arabs, Chinese, Indians, and Malays – did not welcome the white ‘intruders’ well. Oman were close to welcome Australia into the barrack, but Tim saved Australia’s face on injury time. Iraq did the job (3-1), before Australia defeated Thailand soundly 4-0.

Australia came into the knockout rounds as favorites against Japan, and this time Japan prevailed in the penalty shootouts (Cahill scored). Japan’s victory, however, felt hollow after Iraq took all the glory. Seasons afterward, Cahill became a cult player in the Premier League – goals after goals with the football hipster’s (if you can say so) club Everton. Then he thought that’s that and ‘retired’ to United States, where again he used heads and feet to score for NY Red Bulls.

Meanwhile, Australia had no other player like him while Japan produced Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda and Korea released Son Heung-min and Ki Sung-yong. No Australian player took the center stage of European leagues in the past two years.

Not everyone in Australia takes well the news that the 34 year old is still Australia’s prime goal scorer and best player. But with his reliability and relatively lack of drama (compared to Kagawa in Europe and Ki in Korea), how come you don’t love someone who keeps scoring for your team?

Australia 3 Ecuador 4 (Cahill 2 goals. Ryan was subbed for Langerak at second half, who then was replaced with Jones after Langerak was red carded).

2. Who’s Asia’s best goalkeeper? Kawashima or Ryan?

It was Mark Schwarzer. He had mixed records with Middlesbrough and Fulham, but any Asian goalkeeper is lucky enough to be trusted by a European club. Maybe the impression that they are “too short”. Maybe the sense that they are either not aggressive and commanding enough, or too panicked and erratic to guard the posts. Schwarzer, Federici, Jones, and Petkovic were recruited by European clubs because they are European Australians.

Then Eiji Kawashima became the first Japanese goalkeeper to play in Europe since Kawaguchi was booed in England and Denmark in early 2000s. It was not easy – he had to contend with the “Fukushima Kawashima” jeers in 2011 and Standard Liege benched him several times before he survived loan consideration and saw rivals Anthony Moris and Yohann Thuram-Ulien loaned out instead.

Schwarzer still wants to play for Brazil 14, but Australian coaches wanted a younger face. They might have found it in Mathew Ryan. Kawashima might be the safest hands in Belgian Pro League with streaks of clean sheets, but Ryan prevailed over him when Club Brugge defeated Standard Liege 1-0 last Sunday.

Kawashima played for 90 minutes against New Zealand and how he missed Liege’s defense on the second half. Meanwhile, Ryan logged off when it was Australia 3 Ecuador 0 and partly bemused, partly amused, by the sight of his rivals Langerak and Jones messed things up.

O yeah, Jung Sung-ryong restarts the competition with Kim Seung-gyu for Korea’s number one, but one of them has to be able to play in Europe eventually. And that’s a tall order. On Iran? Daniel Davari is just terrible for club and country.

Japan 4 New Zealand 2. Japan scored four goals in 20 minutes then let New Zealand pulled back two in the next 70 minutes.

3. Korea can do better.

Poor, poor Greeks. Losing 0-2 to Korea twice – on neutral and home grounds. Park Chu-young has redeemed himself much sooner than the Greek economy and football have. Korean football is still an anomaly after the 2011 match fixing scandals – plenty of promising stars in Britain and Germany, hidden gems in Japan and the Gulf, and clubs with strong performance in Asia. But put them against Uzbekistan and Iran and I’ll be very stressed out for 90 minutes.

At least now Hong Myung-bo knows that Korea can win without Park Ji-sung. This is not a totally good news, as now there’s a dilemma to call him for Brazil 14 or not. And if he’s called and he heeds the call, should he be a marquee sub or a starter? Is it wise to gamble eternity for the decision, knowing every movement and final result of a World Cup match are remembered forever?

Actually, Korea have nothing to lose. They know they will not win the World Cup and the best possibility is to pass the group stage. Nobody expects Son Heung-min, Koo Ja-cheol, Ki Sung-yong and Kim Young-gwon to become global brands (they even aren’t hipsters’ favorites). The goal of the Class of 2011 is to win the 2015 Asian Cup.

But the expectation and demand of the people of Korea can be overwhelming and burdensome. Forever they’ll curse a player who makes a mistake and make a catchphrase out of a missed opportunity. Korea can do better if only their fans lower the expectation and let things go easier, but no. They will want Korea to win gold.

Greece 0 Korea 2. Park Chu-young returned from disgrace with the first goal.

4. China must stop relying on luck.

Lucky losers China are. Had Zhang Xizhe missed the penalty kick against Iraq, it would have been Lebanon who qualified, leaving no East Asian team to qualify via proper process. China go to Australia 2015 as lucky losers, the best of all third place teams. During the qualification process, China won twice, two 1-0s at home to Indonesia and Iraq. This is not good enough for the country with the supposedly most exciting league in Asia (well, more foreigners will agree with that claim than most Chinese do). Not good enough for players who play week in week out for Guangzhou Evergrande.

In Australia 2015, China might have bit of luck on their side. But that’s not enough. It’s about time they have some players good enough to play Europe by their own merits.

Iraq 3 China 1. China qualify to Asian Cup 2015 as the best third-place team, above Lebanon.

5. Southeast Asia: Some Try, Some Don’t.

One terrible thing for Australia, host to the next Asian Cup, is that no Southeast Asia country coming. Southeast Asians make up a great part of Asian-Australians: Chinese and Indian Malaysians, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Thais, and Chinese and non-Chinese Indonesians. These Asian residents and citizens might not have flocked the stadiums had their teams qualified, but there would be spotlights on both Australia and Southeast Asia. Some European Australians might even support Thailand or Vietnam out of family or social relations.

Malaysia and Vietnam were Southeast Asians who tried hard. Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia did not try hard. Thailand are a puzzling case. I just praised Buriram United, and yet the national team lost all their matches – against Lebanon, Iran, and Kuwait. Lest they could have done were putting a fight against Lebanon and Kuwait. Instead they conceded at least two goals in each match – three goals was the norm. No way the political crisis is a valid excuse.

African stars in Europe have lamented on how corruption, football as political tools, petty rivalries, elites’ obsession for watching European football, and ignoring grassroot development destroy the supposedly promising national sides. It’s the same story in Southeast Asia.

Thailand 2 Lebanon 5. Saudi Arabia 1 Indonesia 0. Yemen 1 Malaysia 2. Vietnam 3 Hong Kong 1. Oman 3 Singapore 1. Only Malaysia finish the group at the third place.

6. Stop AFC Challenge Cup, please.

Ironically, Philippines have the good chance of being the sole Southeast Asian representative in Australia 2015, if they win the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup. The Challenge cup is supposedly a medium for the weakest teams in Asia to get something to care about. But it’s never that. It’s a sneaky ploy to get India and North Korea to play in the Asian Cup although they don’t deserve it. It’s a device to jump the queue.

I get the point if AFC wants India to love football. I get the point if AFC wants Philippines to love football. What I never understand is why AFC loves North Korea (qualified to Asian Cup via Challenge Cup). If money is the answer, then we have a very disturbing situation, because North Korea gets its money through crimes.

Even according to the current FIFA ranking, Philippines do not belong in the Challenge Cup. Now they are the strongest team in Southeast Asia, and I believe it. Indonesia and Singapore (and Malaysia, actually) fit in better to be put into the Challenge Cup, although it won’t be done. It’d be too humiliating for both these football crazy countries and for the AFC. But if the Challenge Cup’s category is “for countries where football is not the primary sport and/or whose national leagues are in um, developing stages” then North Korea do not fit the first category and India don’t fit the second. AFC Challenge Cup is a big fat junk and it should be kicked out.

Otherwise, the winner of the challenge cups must face lucky losers of the proper Asian Cup qualifications – if North Korea or Philippines want to play in the Asian Cup (India, mercifully, were eliminated by Bangladesh), then they have to prove that they are better than China and Lebanon first.

AFC Challenge Cup 2014 is set to begin on May 2014. The winner will qualify to the Asian Cup. “Favorites” are Turkmenistan, Philippines, and Myanmar.