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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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.

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.]

 

Asian Champions League 2013 – after Matchday 4

Since I don't post pictures of Socceroos often.

Since I don’t post pictures of Socceroos often.

North Korea. What about ’em, eh? Making Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese forget to hate each other? Imagine how dreadful it is for Japanese teams and supporters to make away trips to China and Korea. But well, in the current vicious (by 21st century standard) stadium atmosphere in Europe, thank the Lord any spat between a Korean and a Japanese on the pitch can be solved by a double yellow card. The last time Japanese players had laser beam pointed at them was in Jordan (still, no excuse for me to miss my penalty kick, said Yasuhiro Endo).

The amount of Korean and Australian…and even Japanese…players in Gulf/Red Sea clubs has attracted my attention. Kwak Tae-hwi (formerly Ulsan) in Al-Shabab Riyadh. Go Seul-ki (formerly Ulsan) in El Jaish Doha. Shin Hyung-min (formerly Pohang) in Al Jazira Abu Dhabi. Nam Tae-hee (formerly Valenciennes) in Lekhwiya Doha. Mark Bresciano and Harry Kewell in Al Gharafa Doha. Takayuki Morimoto in Al Nasr Dubai. Alex Brosque in Al Ain. And Yoo Byung-soo in Al Hilal.

Which should make watching the AFC Champions League less stressful than used to be. In the end a Korean will still lift a trophy. Of course, it’s not always painless, as experienced by Lee Jung-soo when he, uhm, disagreed with his club’s gameplay against Suwon in 2011. Now he’s still in Al Sadd since the other option was worse – Guangzhou Evergrande.

Al-Shabab Riyadh: Passed Group A. Kwak Tae-hwi is a starter and played full time in all the four matches.

El Jaish: Runner ups of Group A with Iran’s Tractor Sazi on their tails. Go Seul-Ki performed quite poorly – subbed out twice and was also receiving yellow cards twice.

Al Jazira: On the verge of going out, almost. Two draws and two losses. Shin Hyung-min played in all matches.

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Lekhwiya: Tight race with Pakhatkor. Nam Tae-hee has scored six goals in the league (his best record), but yet to score in Asia. A starter who is consistently subbed out.

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Al Gharafa: Trying to keep up with the dominating Al-Ahli, although they are blessed with the unexpected terrible performance of Sepahan. Mark Bresciano has played twice in the competition, while Harry hasn’t (can he, legally?)

Al Nasr: Already out with four losses. In the team, Morimoto faces tough competitions from Bruno Correa (ex-Sepahan and Incheon) and locals Humain Abdulla Abbas, Hassan Mohamed, and Younis Ahmad. Goes without saying that Al Nasr’s main forward is Giuseppe Mascara. Here’s the twist – Morimoto has scored three times in Asia, in the playoff against Lokomotiv Tashkent, and then in losses to Al Ahli and Al Gharafa. League-wise, his kill rate is five goals out of seven games.

Wish list: That FIFA 14 features UEA Pro League

Wish: That FIFA 14 features UEA Pro League

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Al Ain: Neck to neck to championship’s regular Al Hilal, and still can overtake Esteghlal. Alex Brosque is enjoying stable position as wingman to Asamoah Gyan and has scored two goals – but not against Esteghlal.

Al Hilal: The only reason I’m glad there’s Saudi League in FIFA 13. The only team capable to bring 50 thousand spectators into an ACL match. Yoo Byung-soo seems to be a sub option behind veteran Yasser Al Qahtani and Wesley, and he’s yet to make a mark as a super sub after coming out from the bench three times.

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FC Seoul: Top performers from Korea with patchy records (two wins, a draw, a loss). Cha Du-ri is now a seat warmer, Mauricio Molina is showing his age, and Japanese Sergio Escudero is settling quite well. The team rely on Dejan Damjanovic, Ha Dae-sung, and Adilson.

Buriram United: The rise of Southeast Asian football? They hold themselves quite well and are having a Mexican standoff with Sendai, which they held 1-1 in the cold north. Defenders Charyl Chappuis is the first half-Westerner Thai footballer and he plays well. And try to pronounce this Swiss sub – Chitchanok Xaysensourithone.

Vegalta Sendai: Qualification to playoff still not sure, but respect should always be given to these brave men. The goalscorers (three so far, same with Buriram) are the club’s most recognizable name – North Korean Ryang Yong-gi, Wilson, and 35 year old Atsushi Yanagisawa. Shingo Akamine is yet to show his magic this season.

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Guangzhou Evergrande: You know they are at it again. The big question is can they reach the semi-finals. Huang Bowen is back in China and Dario Conca is still probably the best number 10 in Asia (well he’s number 15). Muriqui is the current top scorer in Asia, while in China he is challenged by Guangzhou midfielder Elkeson (not playing in ACL). Lucas Barrios, who could become a flop in China, has scored against Urawa Reds.

Jeonbuk: One win, three draws. Bad records for Jeonbuk. Especially their defense. Choi Eun-seong doesn’t only look old – he’s 42. Central Coast alumni Alex Wilkinson is still settling in. Jeonbuk are supposedly to be scary with Eninho, Kim Jung-woo, Kevin Oris, and Lee Dong-gook. They should have been.

Urawa Reds: The most popular clubs in Japan are back, in regular shape – battered and bruised. 21 year old Genki Haraguchi is striving to graduate into Samurai Blue, while Shinzo Koroki is drifting away from chance to wear the national jersey. They will not pass the group stage. Hopefully Haraguchi can play in Europe in three years time.

Muangthong United: Well, they do what they can. And yet with a point, they still have chance to qualify, due to Jeonbuk’s disappointing form.

Genki desu ka? Hai, genki desu.

Genki desu ka? Hai, genki desu.

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Pohang Steelers: Same with Jeonbuk – one win and three draws. They are all-Korean this year, without any famous name. Surprisingly, they are doing well in the league, thanks to midfielders Cho Chan-ho, Lee Myeong-ju, and Hwang Jin-sung. Hwang Sun-hong legend in the making will depend on how they add up against Beijing, but certainly Hiroshima are no threat for them.

Beijing Gouan: They have Frederic Kanoute.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima: Turned out Hiroshima are not Asia-ready. Shusaku Nishikawa still have far to go before he can challenge Eiji Kawashima, and Mihael Mikic is never good enough. The biggest problem with Hisato Sato is that he seems to score only against Japanese keepers – a good argument against his return into the national team. And yes, I remember that he scored three goals in last year’s Club World Cup. Once against Al Ahly and twice to…Urawa. Well.

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Kashiwa Reysol: I thought that Yokohama Marinos deserved the Emperor Cup better. I take it back. Their Brazilian spice still kicks. This time it’s Cleo, who played for Evergrande, and old timer Leandro Domingues. This is also a great springtime for Masato Kudo.

Central Coast Mariners: Another bad year for Australian football, with Kewell rather be unemployed than playing in the A-League. There are, however, glimmer of hopes for the Socceroos from Matthew Ryan and Mitchell “Duke” Duke.

Suwon Bluewings: High maintenance, low returns. Three 0-0 matches. With Jung Sung-ryong, Eddy Bosnar, Kwak Hee-ju, Kim Do-heon, Oh Jang-eun, Jong Tae-se, Stevica Ristic, and Dzenan Radoncic, Suwon still don’t know how to win. A failed Samsung product.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Six things we learnt from AFC Champions League Group Stage

1. Qatar – numbers mean nothing

Like many things in Qatar, the Stars League can offer more than its neighbors. The payroll might not be as interesting as in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but Doha seems to be a more interesting place to live and has better football atmosphere. We’re talking about the Asian Cup and the World Cup host here (which, well, who knows, might get the fourth ticket to Brazil). Many Bahrain players move there to escape the political prosecution and complications, and supposedly, with a Qatari club as the defending champions, a Qatar club can go further than UAE’s, while the living condition is more pleasant than in Saudi.

Not so. All Qatari club, four of them, crashed. First, unlike Liverpool 2005, the champions Al-Sadd was not competing. They could be the third best club in the world after Kashiwa Reysol (okay, that’s not true), but they finished sixth in the 2010-11 Stars League season. They won’t compete in ACL next year either, finished fourth (the fourth ticket was taken by Emir Cup’s winners Al Gharafa).

So, Al Rayyan (Afonso Alves, ex-Middlesbrough) and Lehkwiya (Nam Tae-Hee) scored only two wins. Al Gharafa (Ze Roberto & ex-Urawa Edmilson) got three times draw – although facing Persepolis and Al Hilal would leave you a little chance of qualifying.  Al Arabi….certainly the worst. Six losses, four goals for against sixteen against.

I’ve said that there’s a ray of light shining for UAE since the Olympics qualification. It is, with Al Jazira topping Group A and Bani Yas overcoming Pakhtakor. Al Nasr and Al Shabab certainly crashed and ranked below their Qatari rivals, but the Emirates are still having in the game.

2. Can Saudi football redeem itself?

Certainly Saudi Pro League still have the two most fearsome clubs in Asia – Al Ittihad and Al Hilal. In the past both clubs could draw more than 30 thousands to an ACL match, although that’s not the case now. They are, however, are still powered by local players. In fact each of them has only two non-Muslim players – Paulo Jorge and Fabrice Ondama in Ittihad and Christian Wilhelmsson and Yoo Byung-Soo in Hilal, which are flourishing far away from La Coruna and Incheon.

Of course, club success can be powered by good management and national failures can be influenced by terrible FA administration, negative state intervention (including choosing a crappy or inflexible manager), and lack of motivation. It’s hard to describe nationalism in an absolute monarchy – Hegel had found it in the 1800s. Al Hilal, Al Ahli, and Al Ittihad have the good chance to go to quarter finals (and eliminating UAE clubs if they do so), and certainly they aim to reclaim the champions title, last won by a Saudi side in 2005. If they can do it, then the FA have to follow up with the Asian Cup 2015 project.

 

3. Adelaide are still the only reliable Australian club in the ACL

In A-League, they can go from top 3 to bottom 3 in alternating seasons. Adelaide qualified to this year’s ACL through playoff. But their experience and flair against the northerners count year after year, while Brisbane and Central Coast prove that unlike the national team, Aussie clubs are not first rate (league and clubs managements included). Adelaide destroyed two former champions, Pohang and Gamba, and could become the favorites against Nagoya. Bruce Djite might fit as Australia’s Emile Heskey, but Dario Vidosic has my vote to be a Socceroo regular, and Sergio van Dijk is the best forward Indonesia has never had.

 

4. These are testing times for Korean teams.

Finally, the fallout of last year’s bribe scandals is here. Only Ulsan proved the quality of a Korean team, and Seongnam were lucky they were in an equally boring group with half of the group’s games ended in draws  (hey, draws without losses is something to be proud of. Just ask New Zealand fans). The supposedly exciting Pohang lost in competition to Bunyodkor (another sign of Uzbek resilience against the Japan-Korea block), while I’m bit ashamed of praising Lee Dong-Gook in my last post, seeing how Jeonbuk fell. It seems that the life and death of Jeonbuk are decided by how he’s doing on the match day instead of the teamwork Eninho, Kim Jung-Woo, and Kim Sang-Sik. Hugo Droguett is promising, but it seems like he needs more time to be a worthy partner to D.G.

This is the first time Korea fail to qualify at least three clubs since the current format introduced in 2009. And I take it as a failure. Jeonbuk’s failure certainly influenced by the rise of Guangzhou Evergrande, which deserves its own talking point, but even Seongnam were close to fail were it faced more aggressive opponents.

 

5. Guangzhou Evergrande continue its empire building

Manchester City teach that money can build your glory, earlier than what you expect. that’s what’s happened in Guangzhou, probably the best-run metropolis in China, which scouted and nurtured South Americans who really delivered. If Chelsea rely on Africans and Arsenal on continental Europeans (and Manchester United, at one point, on the Celts), then Guangzhou can be forgiven to rely on Muriqui, Cleo, and Conca for the attack and Paulao for the defence. Still, they needed six others Chinese to hold the line – and it’s good to see Cho Won-Hee redeemed after terrible times in Wigan and Suwon.

Sadly, pride rather than ambition might influence the replacement of Lee Jang-Soo with Marcello Lippi. Evergrande RE just wants to boast that it employs the Italian legend rather than trusting a coach that can ensure its domination in China and in Asia. Just like Roberto di Matteo’s employment in Chelsea is still not ensured even if he’ll win them the UEFA Champions League tonight. Owners, after all, care more about employing famous generals than having the most suited general for the club.

 

6. Gamba aside, J. League clubs are fine

Oh the irony. Newcomers FC Tokyo, previously the West Ham of Tokyo football, did really fine. Unstable Japanese champions Kashiwa passed the test with the last day’s coup against Jeonbuk (a plus point, if you consider Japanese stage fright against Korean teams). Nagoya followed Seongnam’s policy of two wins four draws, and yet they still prevailed against the supposedly threatening Brisbane and Tianjin.

So, why do we need to speak about Gamba? Perhaps because they are the former Asian champions. Perhaps they are used to be one the most strongest teams in Japan year in and year out. And now in the J. League, their mission for the season would be to escape relegation, just one month into the completion.

I’ll leave the deeper discussion about Gamba to my good friend Ben Mabley, who’s considering himself Osakan. I counted myself as a Gamba supporter, but then again, I don’t feel the passion I have when I’m supporting Manchester United (come on, I feel bad writing this). Maybe had I lived in Japan, I chose to live in Yokohama. Yay Marinos.