5 Things from Asian Football this week

It’s Euro qualifying week so it’s friendly week in Asia. By tradition, it never runs well for both Korea and Japan (Kirin [Challenge] Cup was hardly fun), and for a change of pace, Australia still had not won an international this year (to the joy of some Asian media). Basically, it’s about how Asia moves beyond Brazil 2014. Here are five things I took note.

Work sucks.

Work sucks.

1. Keeper

Eiji Kawashima. 2014 caps with Japan: 8. Goals conceded: 13. 2014-15 appearances in Belgian Pro League: 7. Goals conceded: 16. He’s terrible in club and country. Last semester he was close to win the trophy (Liege were the top of the regular league, but lost in the final group by two points) and was the second safest hands in Belgium, together with Australian Mat Ryan (Anderlecht’s Silvio Proto was the top goalkeeper).

Last night he conceded five, his second time this season – to round up a terrible week after he was blamed for Venezuela’s second goal in the 2-2 friendly. He passed August without a clean sheet, and Liege’s sub goalkeeper Yoann Thuram is itching to take over his place. He has a great chance to be a benchwarmer before Christmas. Lucky for him, in Japan no one is able yet to replace him. Shusaku Nishikawa let three goals past him the last time he guarded Japan’s goal for 90 minutes (against Zambia), but things may change if Liege’s coach Guy Luzon has enough with Kawashima and if Nishikawa brings Urawa to win the J. League title.

Australia experienced a serious bout of Europe-based keeper disappointments. Adam Federici. Brad Jones. Nathan Coe. Mitch Langerak. Mat Ryan seemed to be answer, but just like Kawashima, he had conceded 13 goals this year, out of 8 games. Ironically, Australia’s first victory came when Langerak was on duty – considering that Ryan let no goal past him against Ecuador in the first half while Langerak missed four in 45 minutes.

Club wise, the rivalry between Ryan and Kawashima was one thing that made me keeping track of Belgian Pro League (not much news is in English), and often Ryan seemed like winning. He’s not doing that bad, compared to Kawashima, conceded seven goals out of six matches, but his mates did not do very well in scoring. Maybe just like in Australia. Langerak, meanwhile, experiences the benefits of training with Dortmund without the perk of playing. No one is sure who will stand for Australia in the AFC Asian Cup.

Now to Korea, which never exports a goalkeeper to Europe. Lee Woon-jae was much better than Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, but he stayed in Suwon. Jung Sung-ryong, a rival of Kawashima, seems to be having the same path (lucky for him, things are looking up for Suwon). New coach Uli Stielike tries new options with Kim Jin-hyeon (who I picked into my Korea 23 to Brazil) and Busan’s Lee Beom-yeong. They did well in their matches – both conceded only one goal against Venezuela and Uruguay respectively. But I still don’t understand why does Korea never look at keepers from the two best clubs: Jeonbuk and Pohang. It’s been like this throughout this century. Do KFA and POSCO and Hyundai Motors have some sort of unresolved issues? I’m asking this because both Kim and Lee are playing for clubs who are in the relegation zone.

2. The world does not really care about Australian transitional period.

Australian bloggers and pundit remind fans and readers that the Socceroos are in a transitional period. Results should be seen in perspective. Cahill scored one of the best goals of Brazil 14. Ange believes in the quality of A-League. Western Sydney are on the verge of making a big bang in Asia. The “Dad’s Army” of Bresciano, Emerton, and Kennedy were changing into one of the youngest squad to appear in a World Cup, and they did fine.

Unfortunately, no one outside Oceania cares. England is just happy that Australia fails to catch up in football, unlike in uh, rugby or cricket or basketball. Asia loves seeing Australia’s gradual decline with different kind of degrees – even if their footballs are not better either.

For one thing, Australia still cannot live without Tim Cahill, who is very likely to be in for AFC Asian Cup. He is still Australia’s best striker, with Mat Leckie and Tommy Oar are now employed as wingers. It won’t be all good for Mark Bresciano, but it seems that Socceroos can go on without him (he played 13 minutes against Saudi Arabia). Tomi Juric is on the card, but again, Americans and British (English+Scottish by next week) are more likely to follow news on him than Asians do.

3. Japan: The parts are better than its sum

“Don’t blame me, I wasn’t playing with Manchester United.” That was last year. That was last month. “Don’t blame me, I wasn’t playing with Japan.” That was this month. So Shinji Kagawa left Manchester and returned to Dortmund, got number 7, and was put behind Adrian Ramos. It took him 40 minutes to score. 40 minutes. After 30 scoreless matches with Manchester United.

Meanwhile, Shinji Okazaki is now improbably Bundesliga’s top scorer, together with Julian Schieber. Above Son Heung-min. Above Thomas Muller. Above Ivica Olic. Above Pierre Aubameyang. It’s a big question that Javier Aguerre does not put him as the striker – insisting that he’s a right winger.

One of my joys of life is holding an affordable official Blue Samurai merchandise. The three legged crow, the JFA letters, the beautiful blue. Now it feels like it’s a brand of disappointment, of poor quality, of being clueless. But maybe it goes the same for England. Or Manchester United.

4. China tries. Not too hard.

One of the things you can say to make me laugh is saying that China can win the World Cup (so do Japan. Logically, any nation can win the World Cup). A proud Chinese and admirers of China say nothing is impossible – China had sent people to outer space, has won the Olympics (gathering the most gold medals, actually), made great laptops and mobile phones, and won tennis Grand Slams.

The World Cup, football, of course is different. It’s not related with economic progress or growing political power. It’s related with football culture. United States, the richest country in the world, was terrible with football in the second part of 20th century because it didn’t like soccer. Same went with Japan and Australia. Then in early 1990s, USA and Japan made professional leagues and invested in grass root football. Australia followed suit in early 2000s. Three of them had different catalysts. For USA, it was the successful World Cup. For Japan, it was winning AFC Asian Cup 1992 followed by the Agony of Doha (Iraq-Japan 2-2). For Australia, it was defeating American Samoa 31-0 followed by inter-ethnic riots that marred the semi-pro National Soccer League in early 2000s.

What’s supposed to be the catalyst for China? The Beijing Olympics failed to do so. Would it be Evergrande’s AFC Champions League title? Still not quite. China has to send players to Europe first, busting their arses and feet like Hide Nakata, Viduka, and Park Ji-sung did. Like Okazaki, Jedinak, and Son Heung-min do. Chinese Super League won’t be enough.

At least this month China did friendlies not for the show. They challenged Asian teams who are as strong as them – Kuwait and Jordan. China should push further. Arrange friendlies OUTSIDE China. Travel to the Middle East, to Europe, to North America, to Oceania. Export players to Asia like other Asians do – Japanese in India, Koreans in Qatar, Australians in Malaysia. Any self help guru says you have to break through your comfort zone. Japan, USA, and Australia have done it. Now it’s China’s turn.

#WeAreHK. Dozens of us.

#WeAreHK. Dozens of us.

5. Hong Kong national team is more important than ever

Asia used to sneer Hong Kong as a mercenary team. Some Chinese with a number of Westerners and Africans thrown in to increase the winning odd. Maybe in this modern Carthage, it’s hard to find local who’s willing to become professional athlete, although every boy wants to play football and their dads bet for Barcelona.

As Hong Kongers believe it is under heavy pressure from China to abandon its freedom and way of life, the national team becomes a symbol of hope and independence. It’s no wonder that the history of Hong Kong 2 China 1 of 1985 is revived (All Hong Kong players were Cantonese in that match, saved for sub Phillip Reis, who might be half or full blooded Portuguese). #WeAreHK appeared during the match against Singapore.

Hong Kong footballers who were lost to Vietnam (twice) and held Singapore (they would meet Singapore again next month) consisted of local Cantonese, Chinese who were born in China, naturalized Africans, and Westerners who were born in Hong Kong. Such is the multiculturalism that Hong Kong holds as its identity, and which China takes as a relic of British colonialism. On the other hand, I agree that Hong Kongers should start accepting Chinese citizens as humans, not “locusts”. The problem is the People’s Republic of China, not the Chinese people.

Better yet for Hong Kong, China is out of the AFC Champions League, but a Hong Kong club makes it into the semi finals of the AFC Cup. Worse for China, Kitchee’s opponents would be Erbil, the Kurdish club whose hometown is not only much older than Xian, but which autonomy has been impregnable by Saddam’s regime, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State.

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.

 

 

The Header Picture Post

Look at the small picture to your left. What do you see? People – Asians – sitting on football skinned bean bag chairs. Clever, eh? I decided on the image when browsing for pictures of Asians enjoying football or something like that. It comes from a Christian Science Monitor story asking a big question after Japan 3 Denmark 1 in 2010 World Cup: Africans are enthusiastically supporting all African teams. Why can’t Asians support Asian teams? 0628-OASIANOT-asian-solidarity-soccer_full_600

That summer I joined Guardian Football’s Fan Network, where supporters of the 32 teams duked it out on Twitter. Three Asians joined. I, a Chinese-Indonesian who supported Republic of Korea. An Indian woman who supported England. And an Indian man who supported Germany. There were five supporters of Japan, all British blokes. Two other supporters of Korea, two British blokes. And a supporter of North Korea, an aging British bloke. And oh, Aussies who supported Australia. Supporters of African nations outside South Africa (all white South Africans) were African students in Britain.

So, maybe it’s just no Korean or Japanese student read Guardian Football. During the Japan v Denmark match, an infuriated Indonesian felt that the MBM’s host was belittling Japan. I wanted to ask him to chill, but I was busy following tweet feeds and tweeting on the match, plus I thought somebody did need to stand up for Japan – I warned indirectly a Brazilian who kept saying that Japanese matches were ‘boring and (were) the worst.’

My experiences were in accordance to the CSM article, that said that Africans – plagued in recent times by the largest and most brutal proxy wars after the end of Cold War – believed in a thing called pan-Africanism. They see African nations standing together against more favored South American and European rivals. Whatever the language and religion, the feeling of African unity was more than Coca-Cola marketing ploy.

On the other hand, Koreans and Chinese like to see Japan go down. Some Australians put great interest and respect on Japanese football, but many still believe that the default tactic against Japan is to ‘use long balls and force corners’. The Chinese and Arabs have been applauding Australia’s downfall ever since 2006. I was invited to a football-theme party right after the final, and so I wore a Korean shirt. Many people were bemused and asking why I didn’t wear red and yellow Spanish color. My answer was “I don’t support Spain. South Korea is my team”. Nor they did, but Spain were the champions.

The guy in the center wears a Spanish replica jersey. The picture was taken in Beijing during the 2010 World Cup. It’s taken inside a shopping mall and men and women in the picture had their attentions fixed on several different things – kids, smartphones, the ceiling. Most Asians supported Spain, Brazil, Germany, Argentina, England, and Netherlands during the tournament. Because they had famous players, because they won often, because they were big. Some hip people went for Japan (still respected in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, partly thanks to Captain Tsubasa and PES) or Ghana. But no one supported Korea outside Korean expats (and me. And I had not enough guts to visit a Korean BBQ joint during the match day. I’m not an English blogger, you know). Some weirdos rooted for North Korea because it’s a ‘cool country’ (and many South Koreans did, of course) but they couldn’t name a player (I could name half the team who play in J-League & Europe).

Indonesian pundits are also very ignorant of Indonesia’s football rivals. Who’s number 10 for Thailand? Euh, “A Thai player”. And number 4 for Hong Kong? “Hong Kong player”. All they needed was a team sheet and trying to spot the number, in case the name is not printed on the shirt. But never mind Ampaipitakwong (the Texan has decided to represent Thailand), they were too lazy to say Mohd Amri Yahyah. It’s the ‘why should I bother humanizing a foreigner?’ mindset. All rivals are supposed to lay down and die for Irfan Bachdim, Andik Vermansyah, and Boaz Solossa.

Therefore, the idea for a Southeast Asian super league is not feasible. Never mind Indonesia, I was surprised to know that Thailand has the only functional league in Southeast Asia. Vietnam – No money. Singapore – nobody sees. Philippines – amateurish. Indonesia – two rival leagues who agree to come clean next year so let’s hope so. Reuters did say about match fixing in Malaysia but I couldn’t find any article on that.

Selangor vs Tampines! Booya! I'm so watching this! But Fox said "Scheduled program preempted. Sorry"!

Selangor vs Tampines! Booya! I’m so watching this! But Fox said “Scheduled program preempted. Sorry”!

And so Thailand is the only association playing the Champions League and they hold themselves well, compared to past performances of Singaporean and Indonesian clubs (okay, I was talking about Buriram). Semen Padang have been so good in the AFC Cup, and oh, about Persibo Bojonegoro. They were in the tournament after winning the Indonesian Cup, but the financial troubles and low morale persisted. And so, when they went to Tsing Yi to face Sun Hei with 12 players, that’s really everyone they had.

8-0 for Sun Hei and match abandoned after 65 minutes after Persibo players literally rolled over and died (well, not died). Reactions from both sides illustrated the disconnection of Asia. Sun Hei’s coach said “We know that Indonesians are dirty at sports, but this is a new low.” Persibo’s fans said the match was fixed since “The Hong Kong side were supposedly much weaker than Persibo,” (yeah? How do you know? Because they are Chinese from Hong Kong they are not supposed to know how to play football, you think?)

And then, this month two Malaysian owners of British clubs made headlines for different reasons. Vincent Tan’s Cardiff City go up, with still mixed feelings from both fans and the press, while Tony Fernandes’ QPR go down, and many say that they’ll find life in the Championship will not be easy. A terrible finale for Park Ji-sung’s career. And I agree with those who say that QPR is not a diversification – it’s a very expensive promotion vehicle for Air Asia. So, Malaysians have the money but they don’t use it for home renovation (with respect, Malaysia and Malaysia U23 have shown some passion, but well, the state of the league), and same goes for the Qataris and Emirates.

Nice plane.

Nice plane.

And so the header picture is about how Asia treats football. A commodity to watch and buy, not to play and develop. Except in Australia, Japan, and Korea.

Are you watching continental cups?

One plays for Socceroos and the other plays for Suc…aw I cannot say it.

No.

Okay, I watched them. Arema (IPL faction, not the ISL faction. It’s a long story) versus Al Ettifaq. The lights in the Indonesian stadium got busted in the second half for about 10 minutes. At restart, Ettifaq scored two. Then the lights in my house got out for about 30 minutes. Thank God for modern gadgets and their LEDs.

Then Adelaide – Bunyodkor. I watched it. Ulsan – Al Hilal. I watched it. Damn, Al Ittihad – Guangzhou Evergrande. I watched it to the point I was too tired to see Manchester United – Galatasaray. Great assist Shinji, good night.

Of course, the continental cups in Asia have had their appeals even degraded. It’s never exciting in the first place. I want to see it to be exciting. But the lifeline of international football in Southeast Asia, ESPN and Star Sports, blessed them for still broadcasting Champions League and continental tournaments, show very budget and plastic presentation of the ACL. No studio preview, no half time analysis, no post match review. Because they are right, not many people in the region are like me. At least in local TVs, which show Indonesian teams playing in the AFC Cup, there’s that package of preview – half time – post match. Yes, it’s unfair – we always make fun of our pundits and reach for the mute button, but admit it, their suits or polo shirts and bar make us feeling not lonely and ridiculous.

Of course it’s also lonely at the stadium. At least the Hindmarsh Stadium or Ulsan Munsu Stadium isn’t as deserted as a typical S-League or Hong Kong First Division match, but it’s empty. The Ultras – Australians and Koreans they are, flock in in their hundreds – fat Irish or Greeks with their beer and meat pie, and skinny or flabby bespectacled Koreans with their chicken wings and glass noodle. Boy are their teams gonna be deafened by roars of dozen of thousands Saudi men when they set feet on Riyadh or Jeddah.

And finally, the teams. The fallout of K-League corruption scandal might explain why only Ulsan survived Round of 16, er, the group stage. Actually I was bit confused when Seongnam lost to Bunyodkor. A club belongs to a cult worse than Scientology or a club belongs to a kleptomaniac princess? Hmm…okay, I got sad Seongnam lost. And remember that I got peppy that J. League clubs were all in (except Gamba, but why should I remember that)? All were destroyed.

But again, look at the bright side. It’s indie. You get Adelaide, which got in through play-off, which were so bad in the last season’s A-League, but they are here. Is there a better time for Australia to win the ACL? Guangzhou – would they show that surge of big money will also work in Asia like it had worked in England, and might be brewing in Russia and Europe?
Can Ulsan continue the tradition of K-League to become the best in Asia? And from the west, you get the old guards – Al Hilal, Sepahan, and Al Ittihad.

Oh look, Adelaide scored! And again! Hooray. Go Australia! Oh look, they conceded a goal. And another one! At home! Without David Carney playing in the op-for! Can van Dijk leave for Indonesia now? And hoping he’ll eventually get the cap for the Garudas? Because Cristian Gonzalez said he’s frustrated now. Hey look, Indonesia just cancelled friendly match with Vietnam, saying they’re looking for an easier opponent for the sake of morale. Like Brunei.*cough* DPMM FC *cough*

The universe is bit easy on me for this week (kinda) since there’s a parallel between results of this week’s UEFA Champions League and the AFC Champions League. Al Ittihad v Guangzhou – Real Madrid v Manchester City. The new flashy pretender is put down by the old timer despite shocking leads. Ulsan v Al Hilal – Manchester United v Galatasaray. 1-0 at home despite playing badly against a superior opponent, thanks to luck and a good goalkeeping. Well there’s two differences – Al Hilal is more like MU or Milan, and Wesley was luckily was so vain. But Lee Keun-ho was also disappointing, despite his role in Rafinha’s goal.

And of course, Adelaide v Bunyodkor is akin to Chelsea v Juventus – hometown joy quickly goes off. The lifeline’s still there for Adelaide – they are not in crisis like Guangzhou do.

As for the AFC Cup – so much for Southeast Asian football.  Come back next week for more pain.

 

ACL QF results (first leg): Al Ittihad (Saudi) – Guangzhou Evergrande (China) 4-2, Sepahan (Iran) – Al Ahli (Saudi) 0-0, Adelaide United (Australia) – Bunyodkor (Uzbekistan) 2-2, Ulsan Hyundai (Korea) – Al Hilal (Saudi) 1-0.

AFC Cup QF results (first leg): Al Kuwait – Al Wehdat (Jordan) 0-0, Arema (Indonesia) – Al Ettifaq (Saudi) 0-2, Arbil (Iraq) – Kelantan (Malaysia) 5-1, Chonburi (Thailand) – Al Shorta (Syria) 1-2.

Taking good look at Southeast Asian football

Yesterday I was writing a draft on the upsets in Champions League and what it meant for Japanese clubs, Australian teams, and the hosts. But then something came out. Brunei won the Hassanal Bolkiah Trophy (I shouldn’t have surprised, really). They bettered Malaysia and Timor at the group stage and defeated Myanmar in the semi. Yesterday they defeated Indonesia. O yeah, the tournament is supposed to be a U-21 tournament, but Brunei enlisted its U-23 team which played in last year’s SEA Games. Luckily they didn’t employ their naturalized players from Eastern Europe, but watching Indonesia them last night was like watching Jeonbuk v Guangzhou. Or Buriram v Kashiwa, except that Indonesia couldn’t bite back.

The result of the tournament concerns me in several levels. First, again Indonesia sent a weakened team since only players who are in the Premier League clubs could go in. But even this weakened team did alright again Vietnam and yeah, Singapore. Defending champions Thailand skipped out of the competition, citing “unforeseen circumstance” (whatever that means. I always hate that excuse). Malaysia, which U-23 team won the SEA Games gold medal and the senior team are defending champs of AFF Cup, played a U-21 team which ranked below East Timor.

In short, the problem is national consistency. Even since five years ago, you cannot rely on Thailand to represent football power in the region. And nothing could really fill in the vacuum – not Malaysia, nor Vietnam. Granted, Buriram were impressive in defeating the J. League champions and it was refreshing to see that their Thai playmaker, Jirawat Makarom, shone. The White Elephants were also close to qualify to the Brazil 14 qualification’s final stage. But still, it means nothing if they cannot even ace the region or employing their full strength to achieve that aim. Perhaps the political turmoil in the past five years was an important cause to the decline of Thai football, and one only hopes that they could climb up again. They should not accept the fact that they are five levels behind Vietnam in Asia.

Vietnamese football is certainly on the rise, but they also have the lack of will to win. Both Song Lam Nghe An and Sai Gon failed to overcome their Malaysian opponents in the AFC Cup. In regional tournaments, they are simply a semi-finals team. Yes, corruption, match fixing, and the reluctance of the government to promote football are the main cause of a wingless Vietnam.

It’s a good sign that Malaysia and Singapore decide to renew their cooperation, again; this time by exchanging their junior national teams in their national leagues. As Chinese and Indian Singaporeans and Malaysians point out every now and then, there are really no difference between their countries. Again, Malaysian clubs and teams have average more Indian and Chinese players than Singapore’s. The funny thing every time Singapore face Indonesia is that Indonesia always have more players with Christian given names.

I was hoping that Malaysia could complete the regional treble by winning the HB Trophy, but it was impossible. Worse, their only Chinese player, Gan Jay Han, scored an own goal. Singapore, on the other hand, complete the bizzaro treble by not winning anything. I dream a day when Radjoko Avramovic is replaced. Simply because he has been with the Lions too long – nine years. No foreign coach is ever with that a national team that long.

Avramovic doesn’t stick with Singapore that long because he’s good. He’s still on the job because FAS can’t bother to appoint a new, better coach. No personal grudge again the man (Singaporean fans are more suited for that emotion), but his employment security is a proof that Singapore have given up its football project. Perhaps they won’t bother anymore to naturalize Mendy or Jordan Webb and just let the aspiring Malays to play football, whatever the result is. What’s matter is that retired English footballers are working as pundits (and punters) in Singapore.

Yes, I appreciate the fact that Star Sports run the highlights of the S. League. I watch the show. It’s the only Asian football show I can enjoy in Indonesia besides J. League live coverage and Singapore-produced Football Asia magazine show (which is unbelievably drab). Even watching S. League highlights is hardly a happy experience as I can’t get over the fact that I hear no chant and see no supporters.

Whether they play for Premier League or Super League team, I don’t care. An Indonesian team is an Indonesian team, and I support the Red and White players as long they don’t play South Korea or Japan. I hate Indonesians who are delighted with the current national teams are defeated simply because they hate the FA (me too), while I also hate commentators who make tiring nationalistic remarks in matches. Shut your slogans and analyze what happens. Yes, the schism is holding back Indonesian football, which is never good in the first place. But certainly Indonesia are still one the best teams in the region.

As for Brunei…eh.

2012 ACL: Still no sunshine for SE Asian football

Indonesia will not again participate in 2012 AFC Champions League. Right, so I have to make some explanation first. Long time ago, say in December 2010, a President called Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono knew a movie called Invictus. He envisaged himself as Nelson Mandela and the Indonesian national football team as the Springboks. Unfortunately, AFF dragged in the tournament into a month that strained away press interest and the teams’ morale. Indonesia failed to win the cup while underdog Malaysia proved that it full-local player league policy worked.

In 2011, Nurdin Halid, the former chief of Indonesia FA became the most hated man among Indonesian men. A power struggle brought in the fear that Indonesia could be banned by FIFA from 2014 World Cup qualifications. Fortunately, FIFA had the same power struggle, and the men who toppled Nurdin, led by businessman Arifin Panigoro and General George Toisutta, got friendly with Sepp’s men in AFC, so Indonesia could play on.

Panigoro created a rival league to IFA-sanctioned league ISL, called IPL. Because he set the English Premier League as his standard. Nobody really watched it. Then this semester, after long long delays involving fickle Indonesians’ dissatisfaction with its national team (hey, they were up against Bahrain and Iran. What did you expect?) and its overblown pride to the U-23 team (which poised to win gold in Southeast Asian Games), IPL has become the official league. Involving 24 teams. Most of these teams balked at the prospect of traveling 23 times over the vast archipelago, and that’s only for the league. Not to the mention the profit sharing and because many new teams included into the league were newbies favored enough by the new management. And some clubs’ managements were also taken over by the Panigoro-Toisutta’s men.

So 18 teams competed in the ISL, while 13 stayed in the IPL. Yeah, the math seems weird, because many clubs broke themselves up into two sides with their own outfits. So far, fans choose the ISL again.

 

That’s the domestic story. 2010 Indonesian champions Persipura compete in the ISL, which is not officially sanctioned. So they are disqualified from 2012 ACL. So do IFA’s proposed replacements – Arema and Persija (both clubs are also in the state of civil war) are turned down by AFC. So only Thailand will represent Southeast Asia (is Australia technically a Southeast Asian nation in the AFC, anyway?). Ho hum.

I know, football wise, Southeast Asians are easy fodders for Japanese and Korean clubs (and um, yeah, still beatable for Chinese and Australian clubs). But Southeast Asia often misses out on the ACL due to non-football factors. Lack of interest from the FA (i.e. Singapore). Mismanagement (esp. Indonesia and Thailand). Lack of professionalism (think Malaysia and Philippines). Corruption (Vietnam and Indonesia). So again, I urge, with a sobering thought for myself, for Southeast Asian football fans to halt their World Cup dream. Because they still can’t prevail in Asian Cup. Because their football associations and governments don’t want to take football seriously.

Anyway, if you are like me and wishing to know if Singapore are really better than Hong Kong although there’s  FIFA World Cup 2010, there’s still AFC Cup around. Featuring Tampines Rovers (Duric), Kitchee (four Spaniards), Citizen (Amaury, not Amauri), Home United (Shi Jiayi), Navibank (Phan Van TE) & SLNA (they have three Jamaicans), Arema (the IPL faction, with Noh Alam Shah), and for the first time, Malaysian sides – Terengganu & Kelantan. O yeah, and a couple of Burmese.

 

Play-offs for Australia

The A-League 2010-11 season has reached the Finals.  Brisbane Roars already booked a place to next year’s AFC Champions League by winning the regular season with astonishing 60% win rate and only one loss. The Roars are joined by Central Coast, Adelaide, Gold Coast, Melbourne Victory, and Wellington. Defending champions Sydney avoided the dearth of wooden spoon, but still ranked on the 9th position, one point worse than debutant Melbourne Heart.

Unlike the Korean system where the season leaders wait in the final, Brisbane will meet runner up Central Coast beginning this Friday. The losers will wait for the winners of playoffs between the other four, before setting up with the top two’s semi final winners in the Grand Final in March. While Brisbane rely on the duo of Jean Carlos Solorzano and Kosta Barbarouses, with some help from German Thomas Broich, Central Coast relies on the most productive local player Matt Simon.

Continental football being weird, again

UAE is located in East Asia. At least according to AFC Champions League, which will pit UAE’s Al-Ain with Indonesia’s Sriwijaya FC for the last East Asian slot. While the last AFF Suzuki Cup was a month-long 8 nations tournament, now the supposedly big cup is a hurried affair. When Sriwijaya tied 1-1 with Thai champions Muangthong United in Palembang, Indonesia, the match went on to extra time, where both teams scored, then to penalties shoot out, and to sudden death penalties shoot out, where Sriwijaya prevailed (and where goalkeeper Ferry Rotinsulu proved that he deserved better in the national team). In Europe and South America they would have gone home and away – but not here. Not with budget airlines, not with both teams located in Southeast Asia.

And the hard-earned victory only gave Sriwijaya the rights to host the Gulf team, who supposedly replaced the Vietnam representative. Really? Can’t Sriwijaya and Muangthong just play home and away to fight for the spot ? Or add an Australian team? Isn’t UAE overrepresented with three teams in the Western conference? Is there another better explanation than Arab Money? Even if Al Ain loses, and they better be to ensure the balance between West and East Asia, they will go to the East Asia bloc of the AFC Cup. Out of eight groups, only three are allocated for East. Indian allegiance is ‘flexible’ – in Champions League they are West Asia, in the Cup they are East.

Which brings us to East Asia’s own flaws. Indonesia’s league, bad as it seems, is still not as bad as other leagues in administration and in quality. It just gets worse beyond East Asia – Hong Kong. What else? Maldives? Nepal? We’re out of countries here. Taiwan doesn’t have a pro league. Is everything bad with Thai league has to do with its political situation?

A quick remedy is for East Asian representatives in the AFC Cup to reach for the finals.  They should have taken themselves, and the competition, more seriously. Simply put, West Asia have shown some Asian Vision – that they are continental clubs. South East Asia+HK better do the same.