Aren’t You Entertained?!

I might rue the premature usage of that holy phrase. It might be more fitting for the night of the ugly and highly controversial 2-2 overtime match between Ulsan and Hiroshima in December (although nasty Japan v Korea matches are probably strictly for the national teams), or when Japan go down 3-4 to Brazil after 0-3 half time deficit in 2013 Confederations Cup.

But my god will you look at that.

His name is Andik Vermansyah. 21 years old, 162 cm tall, attacking midfielder. In the dying minutes of last night’s ASEAN Football Fed Cup match against Singapore, he passed Daniel Bennett and unfortunately failed to unsettle goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud – but he was on that Ronaldo’s (as opposed to Cristiano Ronaldo’s) Barcelona routine. Couldn’t blame the boy for practicing.

And to be frank, I’m still not that excited about the AFF Cup. When the keywords in UEFA is ‘bloated’ (like in the World Cup qualification and the Europea League), the keyword here is ‘overlong’. Group stage will end on 1st December. Nice. But two legs semi finals on 8-13 December, and TWO LEGS FINAL on 19 and 22 December, as if they really want to see what’s it’s like on 22 December 2012.

In comparison, THE regional tournament of Asia, the East Asian Championship (Gulf? Meh) takes place in a week each two years. Yeah, there was preliminary rounds involving for example Macao and Guam, and then Hong Kong and Taiwan, and thankfully there was also qualification round in AFF involving countries like East Timor and Brunei (Myanmar and Laos survived).

But still, no need for two legs semi finals and finals – it’s a mini tournament that only deserves two weeks duration at most. By 13 December everyone wants to see Lee Keun-ho nutmegs John Terry. Three days later, Emerson will become the first Asian player representing South American champions in the Toyota Cup – the future is Asia (it’s a good guess whether number 200 Chen Zhizhao will join the team). Actually, they won’t. Chen is not included and Emerson is Brazilian, not Qatari. He said that pressure is about avoiding stray bullets, not playing Boca Juniors. Surely he’s not talking about Qatar because there are not stray bullets in Qatar.

Back to home. So yeah, Corinthians v Chelsea has been ended by the time Thailand gear up against…uh…Indonesia? Singapore? Malaysia? What an anticlimax.

There are great number of reasons to not get excited with Southeast Asian football. I’ve praised Malaysia U-23 willingness to qualify to the Olympics, only to see the Tigers eaten by the Lions. I’ve tweeted that I’m boycotting S. League after it announces punishment for the bottom of the league (Woodlands Wellington, I guess). Then, after Singaporeans somewhat got excited, the balloon was popped out by Indonesia. Did I happy with Andik’s goal? Of course.

Many Indonesians are skeptical with this team, thanks to the prolonged struggle in the Indonesian FA and terrible results in World Cup qualifications, 2008 or 2011 alike. And there’s AFF Cup 2010, when winning Indonesia attracted genuine from the middle class who usually don’t watch local football, not least thanks to half-Dutch Irfan Bachdim. Then the president started to compared himself with Nelson Mandela in Invictus – using the national team to unify the nation. The difference is Mandela wanted the blacks and whites to unite as South Africans, while Yudhoyono was just seeking personal vanity. Because of the overlong tournament, the hype had ended, Indonesia was unconvincing in dirty matches against Philippines (many of its half-white players were, and still are, as quarrelsome as West Asians – they are certainly not respectful Aussies) and then the downfall to Malaysia in the final legs.

So Indonesia did not have its best players and those who joined the national team, like venerated senior Bambang Pamungkas have fair share of new haters, although to simplify, the conflict in Indonesia football is essentially about this politician and that general. As Philippines enlisted more half-white from Europe and United States, Indonesia did the same.

Reading the squad list and I found no Chinese name in Malaysia and with the exception of Joey Sim (reserve goalkeeper), Singapore have no Singapore-born Chinese – both Qiu Li and Shi Jiayi grew up and played football in China. Indonesia raised hope in the name of Arthur Irawan, who played in Espanyol B. Like Kim Kurniawan, he hailed from Europe instead of the Chinese enclaves of Surabaya, Pontianak, or Medan, but still he’s Chinese-Indonesian.

Then Arthur Irawan was replaced at the last minute with Rafael Maitimo, who secured his Indonesian passport one day before the opening match (and scored against Laos. But then everyone should be able scoring against Laos). Hearing the news, I became convinced that like Kim Kurniawan, Irawan was not left out from the national team strictly by form, skill, or performance. He’s not chosen because he’s Chinese. The Garudas are fine with Malukus, Papuans, Timorese, Batakese, but not Chinese. Instantly I lost interest in Indonesia, and also take Singapore with great reserve.

As I had posted months ago, I want the renaissance of Thailand football. I want Thailand to win the AFF Cup. They must lead Southeast Asian football again, they must be able to challenge Oman and Jordan again. They must be able to easily overcome Philippines (2-1 recently) and Tajikistan. Because in Southeast Asia, they are the ones with the tradition and vision. Not only to entertain the local politicians and working class, but also to preserve the relevance of Southeast Asia in Asian football. To take on the continent. Now it’s their time.

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Asian Cup and SE Asian Cup

Seems I’ve missed two trains – the AFF Suzuki Cup playoffs and finals, and the AFC Asian Cup group stage. Luckily, redemption waits. Tonight Japanese supporters felt big relief and even some pride as Japan came back from two upsets to beat hosts Qatar 3-2 before the Extra Time. They are, also, mad with the referee who red carded defender Yoshida, (correctly) deemed Qatar’s first goal was onside, and prolonged the second injury time. As it happened, the referee is Malaysian, Subkhiddin Mohd Salleh.

Indonesians still have strong opinion for Malaysia. Although I wanted to steer clear from this supposed silliness, I could not. Yes, 3 quick goals against Indonesia in Kuala Lumpur was caused by Indonesia’s own ineptitude, and Indonesia’s frustration in losing to Malaysia on aggregate was more driven by the loss of self-made dream caused by over-exposition by Indonesian press and politicians to its maturing team.

But, even as it’s unfair to say this, it’s still hard for me personally to associate Malaysian football with integrity. Yes, of course Malaysian players and coach Rajagobal are decent people, and the Football Association is still a public enemy in Indonesia, even its chair Nurdin Halid won Guardian Football’s  “Most Corrupted President of the Year” – nobody in the world is worst than him, except perhaps the homophobic Croatian FA president. But during the online debates on the laser incident in Kuala Lumpur (which also recurred earlier in QF against Vietnam), Malaysian supporters offered no coherent arguments other than “well you did it first in Jakarta!”‘ or “Indonesia should not complain too much – we are brothers and you are supposed to be happy that Malaysian football does well.” (what? Nobody thought of simple “sore losers!” ?)

So when the referee for Japan-Qatar match is from Malaysia, and Japanese supporters screamed injustice, well, I associated his performance with his nationality. Actually it made sense – Qatar is not just the host but also strives hard to prove its worthiness as World Cup host (failed). Then, let’s face it, Muslim Malaysians would have softer spot for Qatar. My love for Asian football has to do with East Asian pride and quest for identity.

Whatever the reason – because when you talk about amateur refereeing, Europeans are not happy with their refs as well – both the Asian Cup and AFF Cup shows that Southeast Asian standards are still very much low. My pet gripe is the ridiculous home-away format of the finals. It prolonged the eight nations into a month as if it is the World Cup with so much wasted money and energy. It completely null the thrill of a tournament – giving all you’ve got before the home crowd or in foreign soil, with limited resting time and the risks of injuries, suspension, and bad luck. Although it’s never the intention of the AFF, by the time of Semi Finals the cup has become a farce in Indonesia. The president made the team his trophy, under the delusion that ‘Mandela did it too in Invictus‘. The press hovered on half-European Irfan Bachdim and scores of Filipino players, who flaunted their choleric emotion on field, a by-product of survival in American and European pitches. It was ended by the picture of the young Filipino manager with an Indonesian version of Kardashian sister – which also ended his job. By the time of the home-and-away finals, it has become so ridiculous. Thank God no SE Asian team qualified for the Asian Cup. By the team they reached Qatar, they would have been out of breath.

The Asian Cup’s foremost sin is the qualification of India and North Korea through the Challenge Cup. I don’t see other reason of this path rather than forcing India to get in, thus hoping that Indians will finally watch football. That said, I worried that India could become the surprise package like NZ did in South Africa and Philippines did in Vietnam. The surprise never came because unlike the two, the Indians played in local leagues, not in UK or US. Still, goalkeeper Subrata Paul became a cult hero for Asian football geeks for letting less than he could have conceded, especially in thwarting Korea’s quest to overtake Australia’s goal margin.

Saudi Arabia and North Korea exited in shambles – even with little resistance. Saudi has nurtured its five years disease of hampering its domestic players’ development – extreme version of what’s happening in England. After its loss in first game (which also happened to Spain in South Africa), in monarch fashion the coach was sacked (100 years ago perhaps he was literally beheaded), and it went downhill from there. Hopefully the Saudi FA sees the irony of putting two clubs in the Champions League Semis. As for North Korea, well, Chong Tae-Se is not good enough – or they are still sore from last year’s torture.

Next: Japan, Korea, and Australia. Providing the last two qualify to Semi Finals.

Naturalization in Southeast Asia

The leagues are over in East Asia but there are still plenty of Asian football this December. The AFF Suzuki Cup group stage ends with some upsets: Favorite Thailand leave without a win, and supposedly non-footballing Philippines go to the Semi Finals undefeated. What happened?

‘Naturalization’ is a popular topic in Asian football. Despite the supposed less migrant-friendly societies, citizenship transfer of foreign born players are less controversial than it should in Asia. In modern times, Japan started it when Ruy Ramos and Wagner Lopes played for Japan in the 90s. In Korea, Valery Sarychev and Denis Laktionov became Korean citizens although in the end they never played for the Red Devils. Qatar has no qualm in recruiting Uruguayans and Brazilians.

Singapore was the pioneer in Southeast Asia when it opened path to foreign players in the S-League to play for Singapore. Nigerian born Precious and Agu Casmir, English born Jonathan Wilkinson and Daniel Bennett, and Chinese born Shi Jiayi did it for several reasons: They’ve married to Singaporeans and have children, they won’t be able to play for their national team, life’s better here, and so on. But after shocking Asia in mid 2000s, they might have been out of steam and looked less than impressive this month, getting away with a hard fought 2-1 win over Myanmar while held by Philippines and lost to Vietnam.

Now both Indonesia and Philippines do well with naturalized players. Cristian Gonzales have played in Indonesia for years and have an Indonesian family. He’s 34. Irfan Bachdim, now idolized as a pretty boy by middle class girls who usually skip local football, has Indonesian father and Dutch mother.

On the other hand, the Filipinos consist of several Filipino-looking men who have classy English surnames (e.g. Greatwich, Younghusband, or Etheridge). They study professional football in England and United States and the nutrition, training and experience there have rewarded them with the sharp edge in defeating Vietnam 1-0 and holding Singapore 1-1. Even Indonesia cannot take them easily despite having a double home advantages (the organizers deem Philippines to not having adequate ground for their home leg). Better for these Filipinos, they don’t have to ditch their father’s side citizenship, unlike in Indonesia (although they are aware they won’t be able to play for England or Iceland).

Of course, naturalization is difference with recruiting migrant kids. When the naturalization debate began in Indonesia, many people wrongfully thought that Zidane, Desailly, and Henry were ‘naturalized’ too, while in fact they grew up in France. Alessandro Santos graduated from Japanese high school and so were Tadanari Lee and Mike Havenaar. So far, Southeast Asia hasn’t had youth players who are born from migrants. Perhaps Singapore would have more half-Western players in the future, although this is still not the case in Thailand. Certainly, it would also help if more ethnic Indians and Chinese feel comfortable to become professional footballers in Singapore (which is still happening in Malaysia). Indonesia is still eager to find more European based players who have Indonesian parents, usually Moluccan-Dutch.

In Indonesia, the Red and White’s successive wins have overcome all the skepticism about the team’s quality, the new citizens, and the new coach. Even now people say that Gonzales and Irfan are ‘nationalist’ Indonesians who sing the anthem proudly. Still, the semi finals will just begin on Wednesday and more people going to get hurt when their enterprising team failed to reach the final. The expectation is very big on Indonesia’s side.

Asians on World Stage

Seongnam continue the tradition of Asian teams to qualify to the semi-finals of FIFA Club World Cup, after defeating host Al-Wahda 4-1. Goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryong attracts the attention of FIFA.com as the only Asian player who are in two World Cups this year. Seongnam will take it easy against Internazionale but feel at advantage with Inter’s current confidence crisis.

Shinji Kagawa scores. Again. In Dortmund 2-0 win against Bremen. Another FC Seoul striker joins the Ligue 1 after Auxerre recruits Park Chu-Young’s successor Jung Ju-Gook. Park’s Monaco are on the edge of the relegation zone, while Auxerre do bit better on the 14th.

Asia Football Update – 2010 almost done!

League wise. The J. League 2010 season has been over.  In Division 1, Nagoya Grampus are the deserving champions due to great Joshua Kennedy and Keiji Tamada partnership. Kennedy shares his top scoring honor with Ryoichi Maeda of Jubilo and Edmilson of Urawa Reds. At least Japan now has developed promising strikers – Shinji Okazaki, Shoki Hirai (yet to be proved), Tamada (which unfortunately still shares the traits of Portuguese forwards), and Maeda (already has some trials with the national team, but is still far from being comfortable). Korea also has a young promise, Cho Young-Cheol.

Kashima, far from the danger of being overtaken at the final day, ended the season ahead of Gamba Osaka, after defeating Kyoto 2-1, while Gamba were surprisingly defeated at home by Yokohama Marinos. Shunsuke Nakamura’s stab and free kick assist spoiled Gamba’s season’s end party.

In Division 2, Kashiwa Reysol win the league comfortably with 77 points, nine above competitors Ventforet Kofu. Kofu’s Half-Dutch Mike Havenaar win the top scorer award with 20 goals. Actually there’s still one match left for J2, but all’s in the bag. With six points behind Avispa Fukuoka, JEF United must spend 2011 in Division 2. Good news for bottom of the ladder Kitakyushu, Toyama, and Okayama – they will not be relegated to the Japan Football League.

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K-League Championship is like what it should – between the champions and the runner-ups of the regular season. After Jeonbuk worked hard to overcome Asian Champions Seongnam, they fell to new sensation Jeju United 0-1 (Danilo Neco). Jeju will host the first final match against Seoul on Wednesday, while the day of decision will be on Sunday. Jeonbuk, however, have earned a Champions League ticket.

Park Ji-Sung and Shinji Kagawa have developed knacks to score goals in Europe. Park scored a goal in Manchester United’s massacre of Blackburn Rovers, while Kagawa scored his seventh goal with Dortmund in 4-1 rout against Monchengladbach. Park Chu-Young also follows this trend. Fresh from the grueling fight in Asian Games, he scored from penalty kick in Monaco’s 1-1 tie against Nice. He has scored five goals. Now if Takayuki Morimoto would kindly like to follow suit…

2010 AFF Suzuki Cup starts on Wednesday, featuring eight Southeast Asian nations.  Looking from FIFA’s ranking, Thailand is still the top SE Asian nation, while Indonesia comes second and will feature its foreign-born strikers Cristian Gonzales and Irfan Bachdim, while Papuan star Boaz Solossa is omitted for disciplinary problem. Melbourne Victory’s Surat Sukha join the Thai team under Bryan Robson, while almost half of Singaporean players play in the Indonesian Super League, including stars Agu Casmir, Precious, Shahril Ishak, and Noor Alam Shah.

Nicky Butt, a former Red Devil who fought alongside Scholes, Beckham, and Keane, is playing for Hong Kong’s South China AA.