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.

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Five Things about J. League 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2. Big Name Foreigners Cannot Flourish in J. League

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Evil Asian Football Clubs

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

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

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

1. Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Guangzhou Evergrande (China)

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Al Sadd (Qatar)

Play to win

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You might not like the title

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conned. Even the Japanese.

 

And oh, of course. J. League.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The meaning of all these

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

All Right in the East…and West

Who said Twitter campaign doesn't work?

Who said Twitter campaign doesn’t work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

AFC Champions League & AFC Cup 2014: Group Stage Review

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

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

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

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

 

AFC Cup – Group E

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

Group F

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

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

Group G

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

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

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

Group H

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

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

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

 

AFC Champions League – Group E

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

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

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

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

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

Group F

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

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

Group G

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

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

Group H

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

 

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

 

 

5 Things About AFC Champions League Match Day 1

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

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

1. So much for Japan’s determination

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

3. It’s another season for the Koreans

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

I’m not worried about Southeast Asian Football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Three Stories+

It’s been a month. Let’s say that I’m experiencing the Kagawa Situation (it’s the title of a Robert Ludlum novel). Well, he’s back into action last Wednesday, so I expect to be like him soon (Kagawa, not Ludlum).

O yeah, unfortunately I don’t think I can do better than Kagawa in helping Japan winning the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup. That’s because I heard that Pro Evo Soccer 14 is terrible. Good points: it has Japan and AFC Champions League. Bad points: As always, JFA and J. League and Konami refuse to release J. League Division 1 outside Japan. The presentation always makes me wonder what has gone wrong with Japanese aesthetic. The chance to play ACL is tempting, but PES has let me down too many times before.
What really pisses me off is it’s licensing Argentine and Chilean leagues but not Japanese. At least with FIFA I can play K-League Classic, A-League, Kagawa, Honda, and Son.

Which brings me to the main topic and the supposed sole topic of this entry: Asian-European footballers. I had noticed that FIFA rated Nagatomo at the same score with Austrian and Munich sideback David Alaba. Just few days ago, after he kept Austria’s hope for Brazil 14 alive by scoring against Ireland, that I knew that his mother is Filipina.

The next day, I learned that a Hamburger SV player named Lam scored. I thought “OK, a German like Phillip Lahm.” German alright, but his surname is Cantonese, a variation of Lin/Lim. Zhi Gin Lam joined the first team squad since 2011 and this week’s goal against Dortmund was his first.

And of course, Indonesians are really proud of Belgian midfielder Radja Nainggolan. Both Alaba and Nainggolan have already played for their European national teams – otherwise you can bet the Philippines’ and Indonesian football associations will ask them to migrate to Southeast Asia (Nainggolan has appeared in an Indonesian cigarette advertisement with the Becks. But of course, it’s football media ad, not cigarette).

As for Lam, well, at this point I think the competition to be in the German national team is tough, so let’s see if the Hong Kong FA approaches him like they have with English-born Sean Tse (er, actually he hasn’t played for Hong Kong) and James Ha (for HK U-23).

Anyway, none of the name I mentioned has Asian father and mother. Alaba’s father is Nigerian while the other names have European mothers. Just wondering if it’s really helping to be half-white/black when you are becoming an athlete – and why don’t more fully Asian men don’t/can’t/won’t become athletes.

That’s all about Europe. I certainly have neglected Japanese and Korean leagues for sometime, in which is a promising year for my supported team Yokohama Marinos (and another meh for Busan. At least, again, they are better than Jeju and Seongnam). Even I was just aware of the Asian Champions League’s results tonight, because of Lekhwiya’s crappy shooting skills (1. they hit the bar accurately and 2. they have Nam Tae-hee). And to my surprise, it was a great arrangement – Korea, China, and Japan all go to the semi finals. Feisty semi finals, in which a Korea team (Seoul) must travel to Iran and Japan (Kashiwa) meet China (Guangzhou). Hopefully they won’t be too ugly.

Maybe I’m just happy that Qatar again learns the lesson that money doesn’t equal to wins if they don’t invest it to grassroot football and local players the way Japan and Korea do.

Of course, Qatar has no history of land reform, heavy industry, and indigenous population holding professional skills and experiences. That’s why the government has more money than Japan and even Australia do.

O yeah, the Singaporean police has arrested Dan Tan. Hooray.