2015 AFC Asian Cup. Yay.

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

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

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

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

Australia

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

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

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

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

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

Goalkeeper: Ryan

Defenders: Franjic, Sainsbury, Spiranovic, Davidson

Midfielders: Jedinak, Bresciano, McKay

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

Korea

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

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

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

Goalkeeper: Kim Seung-gyu

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

Midfielders: Lee Chung-yong, Ki, Koo

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

Uzbekistan

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

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

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

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

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

Saudi Arabia

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

China

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

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

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

North Korea

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

Iran

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

Japan

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

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

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

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

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

Defenders: Sakai, Konno, Yoshida, Nagatomo

Midfielders: Endo, Hasebe, Kiyotake, Kagawa, Honda

Forward: Okazaki

Four Great Asian Female Footballers

Anime/Manga perception of women soccer. Seriously.

Otaku perception of women soccer. Seriously. Yes, I’m aware of a Homare Sawa biography manga, but that’s one shot.

I wished I could write this post in happier circumstance. But Chelsea ladies lost their final match against 7th position Manchester City and so Liverpool won the 2014 English Women Super League by better goal difference.

I just noticed some weeks ago that Chelsea Ladies are the Dortmund of women football. Like Dortmund have Kagawa and Ji Dong-won, Chelsea have forward Yuki Ogimi (nee Nagasato) and midfielder Ji So-yun. Ogimi scored five goals this season (out of 14 matches) while Ji scored three, making them Chelsea’s top scorers along with English forward Eniola Aluko.

Few weeks ago several women internationals sued FIFA and Canadian Soccer Association for deciding to hold the 2015 Women World Cup on artificial turf. They argue that it’s essentially playing on concrete, and Kobe Bryant agrees (warning: bloody photo). I checked if any Asian player joining the lawsuit and I was happy to find that Ogimi and Ji did together with Australians Samantha Kerr and Caitlin Foord.

So, why them and not others? Why not Homare Sawa, the 2011 FIFA Footballer of the Year (her successors Abby Wambach and Nadine Angerer signed)? Ogimi and Ji, as I have said, played in Chelsea while Kerr and Foord plays in Perth Glory (it could be my favorite Asian club). Sawa plays in INAC Kobe in Japan. Maybe at 36, she feels less stronger than Ogimi about the issue. Maybe for her career in Japan, it’s wiser to take no position (as Ogimi shows, the issue won’t be with JFA but with the club and the league). Maybe she feels grateful with the FIFA award. In fact no Canadian player joined the lawsuit, and that tells a story.

Now I want to give you profiles of these great four Asian players – because women football is overlooked worldwide, especially in “football crazy” Asia.

1. Yuki Ogimi. Japan. Striker.

Yuki is used to win.

Yuki is used to win.

We start with her since Japan are now the third strongest team in the world after United States and Germany, and Japan are the reigning world champions. Born in Atsugi, a satellite town of Tokyo, she played professional football at the age of 14 with NTV Beleza, which is owned by Nippon TV. Scored her first professional goal for NTV at the age of 17 and scored 18 goals in the 2005 season, although it was still nothing to Shinobu Ono’s 25 goals (she also played for NTV). Those goals, however, put her into the L-League best eleven as the best forward together with Ono and Tasaki’s Mio Otani.

In 2006, she shined for club and country. She repeated her 18-goals feat in the L League and finally became the top scorer (Sawa, playing behind her, was the best player). They played for Japan in the 2006 Asian Cup and Ogimi, then known with her maiden surname Nagasato, scored one goal against Vietnam, five to Taiwan, but lost to Australia 0-2 in the semi finals (ah, 2006). Nagasato scored again the third place match against the super rude North Korea (who kicked the referee in the semi final loss to China) but still lost 2-3.

China, Australia, and North Korea qualified to 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup while Japan must face Mexico. Nagasato did not score but Japan prevailed by 3-2 aggregates and so went to China. Meanwhile, Nagasato scored 14 goals for NTV but she did not join L-League’s best eleven, losing to Ono (23 goals), Kozue Ando (Urawa), and Mizuho Sakaguchi (Tasaki).

In China, Japan did badly. They avoided 1-2 loss to England by last minute strike by Aya Miyama, and things looked well when Nagasato scored the last minute winning goal against Argentina. But they lost 0-2 to Germany while at the same time England rampaged 6-0 over Argentina. Other Asian teams made it past the group stage but not in the quarter finals.

Nagasato failed to repeat her double digit goal achievements in 2008 with NTV, but things were much better with Japan. She did not score in Japan’s lucky escape from the group stage (unnecessary draw with New Zealand, lost to USA, and 5-1 jackpot against Norway). The sweetest thing was they were the best third place team, above Canada and hah, North Korea.

In quarter finals Japan faced its nemesis China, who they beat 2-0 thanks to Sawa and Nagasato. It’s downhill from there – losses to USA and Germany. No medal but fourth place, still ok.

Nagasato left Japan in summer 2009 and played in Germany with Turbine Postdam. She scored six goals and lifted the Bundesliga Women trophy and the UEFA Champions League Women trophy – two goals against Norwegian champions Roa and a penalty goal in the 6-7 final shootouts with Lyon.

2011 could be her highest mark: 10 goals in Bundesliga (nothing to team mates Anja Mittag and Fatmire Bajramaj) and read this – 9 Champions League goals. While Postdam retain their Bundesliga trophy, they lost the Champions League cup to Lyon.

And of course, there’s the 2011 Women World Cup. Nagasato scored against New Zealand, but that’s about it and she missed the penalty kick against United States in the final. Because of that, she failed to make it into the tournament’s best players.

She married Kosuke Ogimi in 2012 (most of online items on him are on German) and changed her professional surname to Yuki Ogimi, the name she’s listed as in the 2012 Olympics. Japan did badly in London, drawing 0-0 with Sweden and South Africa after defeated Canada 2-1. Ogimi heated up at last and scored against Brazil (together with Ono) and scored again in the semis against France. She even scored in the final, but failed to follow up and United States won the gold medal.

Another year and another year of victory for Postdam. You have to say she has the habit of winning. She became one of the deadliest feet in Germany in 2012 with her team mate Genoveva Anonma – the Equator Guinean became the first non-German to become Bundesliga’s top scorer. In Europe, she and Anja Mittag scored 7 goals each but Postdam lost 1-5 to Lyon (again!) in the semi finals.

In 2013 Ogimi got bad and good news. Bad: Postdam lost the Bundesliga title to Wolfsburg. Good: she became the first Asian to win the golden boot with 18 goals. It was worse in Europe – Postdam failed to enter the top eight and she failed to score 5 goals.

So she moved to London for a new challenge (and better sight). She was off to terrible start, as Chelsea were at the bottom of the league, had not Doncaster Rovers Belles were relegated. And tonight, she was close to lift the trophy. But not yet.

 

2. Samantha Kerr. Australia. Right Winger.

Google often thinks the only Australian Kerr is Miranda.

Google often thinks the only Australian Kerr is Miranda.

Samantha was born in Fremantle, Western Australia’s second largest city. If Ogimi’s siblings play football, Kerr’s brother and father play Australian Football. She’s also Asian in another sense since she’s 1/4 Indian. She moved to Perth and played for Glory in 2008. Her goal against Sydney FC in 2009 won the W-League Goal of the Year Award. She entered the Matildas and scored against South and North Koreas to win the 2010 Asian Cup.

Unfortunately she scored no goal in the 2011 World Cup as Australia lost 1-3 to Sweden in the quarter (preventing an all-Asian semi against Japan). In 2012 Kerr moved to Sydney FC (Perth had been a lower end team), and although ironically lost to Perth in the regular season, Kerr went berserk in the playoffs, er, finals series and scored two goals against Brisbane and defeated Melbourne Victory in the Grand Final.

Kerr was loaned to Western New York Flash and so she moved from a metropolis to another. The competition was tight against world’s best players such as Abby Wambach and Carli Llyod (fortunately in the same team with her) and Alex Morgan (Portland. Come on. You know her by googling her bikini pics). The Flash almost won 2013 Women’s Soccer League (won the league, lost the final to Portland) but Kerr did not get any award.

In 2014 Kerr got bad news and good news: Flash kept on losing and ended up at the 7th place, but she became the club’s top scorer and won a player of the week award. Released by Sydney, she went home to Perth, which now dominate the W-League thanks to Kerr and Kate Gill. And of course, to Caitlin Foord.

 

3. Caitlin Foord. Australia. Right Winger/Right Wing Back.

It was such a hot day.

It was such a hot day. Foord wears purple, anyway, vs Leena Khamis.

She came from the other way around – Foord (not Ford) was raised in Shellharbour, about 100 km from Sydney. Readily joined the local big club Central Coast Mariners, the club folded and so Foord took the bus (or train? Or did her father drive her?) to Sydney. The 17 year old wore number 9 for the 2011 World Cup, and yeah, did not score.

Her big break came in 2013 as she scored six goals for Sydney and moved to USA to join New Jersey’s Sky Blue FC. Kerr’s Western New York defeated the Jersey girls in the semi finals. She took the flight back (figuratively, not necessarily actually) to Sydney together with Kerr and she scored 5 goals compared to Kerr’s three.

And this semester, they are playing together again in Perth.

4. Ji So-yun. Korea. Midfielder.

I always like it with Korea and Japan make up.

I always like it when Korea and Japan make up.

A native of Seoul, like many other Koreans Ji puts education before sport (at least her parents did). She graduated from Hanyang Women’s University in Seoul before moving to Japan to join INAC Kobe. She, however, had played for Korea U-17 and U-20 teams. In fact, she scored her first senior international goal – goals –  at the age of 15 against Taiwan. So Korea could hardly wait for Park Chu-young but they were extremely patient for Ji So-yun. Figures.

In 2010 Asian Games Ji went for a killing spree, scoring against Vietnam, a hattrick to Jordan, but lost the semi final to North Korea. Ji, however, scored Korea’s second goal against China and got the medal bronze – and the bragging right of being the games’ top scorer. With the absence of Yuki Nagasato, INAC became the new queens of L-League and Ji became probably the first Korean to be in L-League best eleven in 2012, supplying great passes to Megumi Takase and Shinobu Ono (yes, she has switched side). She re-entered the best eleven in 2013, together with American team mate Beverly Goebel-Yanez (who fits Japanese caricature of an American woman).

Sadly Korean women football progresses slower than Ji’s progress, and she remains one of a kind. Tonight, her magic partnership with Yuki Ogimi still has to wait for another year.

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.

World Cup Debriefing: Match Day 1

This will be brief so we can get back to practice soon.

Australia

The perpetual optimists, blessed them, look forward to hurt Holland for their upcoming match. Naturally this means two things: a) they will do it and score a draw (any chance Ryan becomes tonight’s Ochoa?) or b) it will get worse. On record, Australia’s worst defeat in World Cup was 0-4 to Germany in 2010, and Australia looked tough for the first five minutes.

Certainly Chile were their best chance to score three points, but by all counts it was impossible (same result achieved by my high-tech analytical machine – EA’s World Cup 2014). The good news is, the perpetual optimists (TM) Australians can now look forward to surprise (or annoy) two teams with serious claims for the trophy (and one with serious need to rebound).

Certainly Australians take sports more seriously than Japanese and Koreans. This nation divided between sports buffs and obese, healthy eating and double crispy bacon, does not have to boringly claim “football is war” and yet they looked sober instead of crushed, considering they were the worst Asian team of the week.

Maybe it’s genetic. They knew they were slower and less skillful (this is relative) compared to European and South American contestants at the World Cup. But they are as big and aggressive as these football veterans. They are absolved from other baggage dragging town Japan and Korea – short, weak, non aggressive, boring, etc.

Maybe it’s also cultural. Australians are new to association football (still called soccer to avoid confusion with Australian Rules Football, makes me wondering why Japan calls it soccer although they don’t have to differentiate it to another code). On one side, Australian media and spectators do not put the hope and pressure as high as they might have on Australian swimmers and rugby players.

On another side, since Germany 2006 football, particularly the World Cup, has united Australian public even more than cricket or rugby international (i.e. Mediterranean and East Asian Australians also pay attention besides Anglo-Irish and South Asian/Pacific Australians). It took Japan’s disastrous meltdown after Tim Cahill’s equalized in June 2006 to put football into the main stream of Australian ads and pub conversation (although it might also started from John Aloisi’s penalty against Uruguay a year earlier).

The difference is, unlike Japanese and especially Koreans, Australians don’t put overtly burden toward its players. Chris Herd is a laugh in some forums, but there is no public condemnation against him, accusing him as selfish or whatever. And so Cahill and Mike “Mile” Jedinak left Arena Pantanal walking tall, felt less stung than Japan did in Recife.

Japan

Throughout Asia, everyone (except Koreans, maybe) equates “fighting spirit” with the Japanese. Numerous Second World War references ensue, and strangely in positive way. They were taken as the strongest Asian side, and certainly the sported names notable enough in both the West and East: Kagawa, Honda, Internazionale’s Nagatomo, and Mainz’ Okazaki.

Unlike Australia, Japan had the chance to defeat Ivory Coast. Yes, this is Drogba’s and now Yaya Toure’s Ivory Coast. Gervinho’s and Bony’s. But African teams have patchy records in 21st century’s World Cups thanks to terrible FAs mismanagement, overrated coaches, disparities between local and European based players, and clash of egos.

Yet it took aged Drogba to motivate the Elephants to spring to life, including changing the misfiring Bony. Sadly, Kagawa played like he did in Manchester United and overall Japan played, like, Japan.

Most news and reports on the match focus on Ivory Coast, because not only they won, but because the Toures and Gervinho have made more impact on the Premier League than Kagawa and Yoshida. Japanese fans naturally focus on criticizing the players and Al Z did the same – fuming why didn’t his players attack on the second half.

So, that 1-2 felt much more hurt than 1-3 (minus the foul plays experienced by Australia, and with several Ivory Coast players leaving the pitch limping). Maybe Japan really did not demonstrate the fighting spirit showed by Australia (Leckie’s rushes vs Yoshida’s dangerous tackles). Maybe Japanese fans worldwide set the standard too high – and the Japanese players set their standard too low. Japan’s fate still hangs on the balance – topping this manageable group or be at the bottom.

First half was fun.

First half was fun.

Iran

I want to care about them but I cannot. Maybe it’s the Eastern bias. Maybe because I can’t see anything interesting from modern Iran. Maybe because Carlos Queiroz had to bring Japan (which he referred as “Iran”) and Korea to angrily defend himself.

 

Korea

Heh, just like Japan in 2010 – terrible warm ups, surprising World Cup result. The difference is, this is the first time Korea failed to win its first World Cup match since 1998 (wow!). And they were close to win it. Can we have Kim Seung-gyu on goal for second match, please? He’s not much better, but still better than Jung.

Londoners, meanwhile, make another joke on Park Chu-young, who completed only 55% of his passes. Of course, the bigger jokes fell on Fabio Capello. Which is a good news – if Russia are England 2014, then the Koreans are USA 2014. 2-2 draw with Belgium and 1-0 victory against Algeria. Yippee.

Global media are obliged to show more pictures of Korean supporters. Don't everyone love Asian women?

Global media are obliged to show more pictures of Korean supporters. Don’t everyone love Asian women?

PS: Meanwhile, the Chinese do their own football in a series of friendlies: back to back against Macedonia and against Mali. Rich and strong China can’t pay Serbia or Tunisia to come, heh.

Er, shorts and cans of beer at midnight are bad for your health

Er, shorts and cans of beer at midnight are bad for your health

 

6 Things from Asian Cup qualification final day…and friendlies

Still the boss.

Still the boss.

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

1. Cahill: Still the Boss of Asia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Korea can do better.

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

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

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

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

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

4. China must stop relying on luck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Stop AFC Challenge Cup, please.

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

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

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

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

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

5 Things About AFC Champions League Match Day 1

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

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

1. So much for Japan’s determination

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

3. It’s another season for the Koreans

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

I’m not worried about Southeast Asian Football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The China Post

Manner, gentlemen.

Manner, gentlemen.

Well, if this blog is about East Asian football, then this blog has to write something about when a K-League club does not win the AFC Champions League for the first time. The ACL trophy stays in East Asia, this time in China.

Guangzhou Evergrande did have to win the 2013 Champions League. For them to fail to do so is like Chelsea failing to win anything with Mourinho (eh. oh.), like Manchester City cannot prosper in Europe (…), and like France being put in Group A in a World Cup with easy opponents that included Uruguay (what’s your point, really?). We have to think of Marcello Lippi’s legacy and stories he tells to his grandchildren.

And so, Evergrande’s victory is China’s football renaissance? I’m belonged to those who think no, they won because they got the right South Americans. Of course, they had to be supported by able Chinese (and Korean) defenders and goalkeepers, otherwise they would keep losing 2-3 and 3-4. And oh, Guangzhou defeated Seoul by away goal aggregate instead of a win. This one’s thanks to AFC again.

In modern football, it’s hard to argue that Evergrande is not a Chinese team just because more than half of their goals this season in China and Asia were scored by Dario Conca, Elkeson, and Muriqui. That’s all. That’s all they needed. No different to other teams in Japan and Korea or Thailand, and compared to European teams like Chelsea or Internazionale…

Tonight China won 1-0 against Indonesia in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup qualification. And China didn’t look that good, playing to their advantage deep in the continent (OK, I can hear them arguing that United States choose Kansas and Colorado for CONCACAF matches). This is the team that fielded Zeng Cheng, Rong Hao, Zhang Linpeng, Zhao Xuri, Huang Bowen, and Gao Lin. Guangzhou Evergrande minus the foreign players. That’s how they fared – winning 1-0 against a Southeast Asian team who could not exploit their mistakes and of lesser skills. Next week they hosted Saudi Arabia, and I want to see the Guangzhou players to kick up their standard.

Guangzhou Evergrande’s victory is a victory for the team, no matter how China wants to see it as a victory for China. Certainly the national team live in another world. Apart from the inferiority demonstrated by Chinese players tonight compared to watching Japan and Korea, I was concerned by two things. First, China kept attacking when Victor Igbonefo lied down injured on his own penalty box. It was bad enough for Australian referee Peter Green to not call of play. It was worse for Sun Ke to press on and attempted a shot on goal (Indonesian players protested to Green after the ball left the field). I understand that there’s no big moral obligation in throwing away the ball when an opposition is injured, but it was simply not fair play (don’t give me the East Asian rubbish that “football is war”, quoted/misquoted from a Dutch).

Second, it was fun to see Korean supporters being sexy and cute. It was bit disturbing to see Chinese supporters – didn’t see much female to my surprise – literally went shoulders to shoulders in red tracksuits. Uniformity starts to creep me out.

Among my favorite athletes are Yao Ming and Li Na, but I start to understand why I cannot support China football the way I support Japan’s and Korean. The fan culture seems not fun, but can be scary like what I saw tonight. In short, it’s just not cute enough.

Good Times, Bad Times

"So uh...you think they have good sushi bar in Liverpool?""Nah, me and the Saints have regular get together in London."

“So uh…you think they have good sushi bar in Liverpool?”
“Nah, me and the Saints have regular get together in London.”

Certainly these weeks have been full of mixed news for Asian football (cancelling my earlier draft of ‘It’s Even Worse’. To sum up, it’s the case of great news in Europe and bad news in Asia.

Start with the Dan Tan saga. Slovenian Admir Sulic was arrested gave himself up in Italy after a short flight from Singapore. And I did not even have to put another theory that Dan Tan is in Singapore. He is in Singapore, protected by the Singaporean police. And Interpol has no problem with that.

So why does Singapore protect him? The saving face theory is still in effect, plus another theory. The arrest of Tan can trigger investigations and spotlights on international banks involved on this major scandal. And Singapore (and even Interpol) does not want to disturb the peace of minds of all the big names here…HSBC, Citibank, Standard Chartered, several Swiss names…I’m just firing names here, but considering they did and do business with Iran and gave middle fingers to United States for having problem with that, well, I went ahead. Singapore is an important banking and finance hub in the world, like Hong Kong it relies on these incomes to become a big city, and no way it will let integrity and justice stand in the way of wealth and reputation. Just ask Interpol (so kids, give up on your dream to become an Interpol officer. You are not going to become James Bond with a badge).

For many in Singapore – British pundits, member of the governments, and perhaps ordinary football fans, this is a ‘victimless’ crime. Random Africans, Arabs, and Eastern Europeans told to fix something in an unimportant league or international friendly where punters could gain some extra cash necessary for their Audi, Patek Phillipe, and condominium aspirations. What matters is Manchester United, the Three Lions, and Barcelona are winning.

Therefore I continue my boycott on the S. League.

Then good news comes from Portugal. Forty Chinese youth are playing in Portugal. They are not the best – the best are with China U-23 to learn disappointment, mediocrity, bullying, and match fixing. They were the next best things and were shipped to Portugal in a project made by Chinese and Portuguese football federations. Portugal needs the money and China needs a proper football environment. For the young Chinese, the cultural differences are not just about food, weather, and language. In China they would live in cities of dozen of millions, while in Portugal they are staying in towns populated by hundred of thousands, and we are talking about a Catholic country. But these towns have strong football culture and working leagues, while Chinese megapolises (well, they are over 10 million people big) have only one club. Good luck for them, although it looks like a typical Chinese case of Do-it-for-Me rather than Do-it-Yourself.

Second good news is from the English League Cup final. A match of two fairy tales – League Two mid-rank Bradford City vs the pride of Wales Swansea City. Bradford City’s achievements won them the support of the South Asian communities who saw the club as the pride of white bigots who harassed their business after games (like how black South Africans saw the Springboks). Michael Laudrup put Ki Sung-yong on the defense, to the bemusement of Swansea supporters. Instead, it was a master stroke as he not only held the line but even initiated the charges by Michu, de Guzman, and Dyer. And the link to Guardian Football’s discussion on Ki made my Twitter entry favorited and retweeted by Korean girls. Sweet.

Back to bad news from the Asian Champions League. Which is actually good news for Thailand with Buriram and Muangthong holding Sendai and Jeonbuk. Predictably, this is a bad start for J. League teams except one. It’s also a disappointing day one for Korea, with one win (a good one for FC Seoul) and three draws. Even from China’s perspective, it’s also a bad start with with two losses, although Guangzhou were overjoyed with complete ownage over Urawa. Australia is also experiencing sinking feeling with a single representative in the AFC Champions League and the Mariners rely more on the teamwork rather than stars quality, with Matt Simon gone to Korea and Daniel McBreen, Matthew Ryan, and Bernie Ibini-isei yet to prove themselves in the national team.

And well, you know the next big good news. Shinji Kagawa scored three goals, the second in his career. Japanese journalists posted in Manchester (not a bad deal, smaller than London but more functional than Liverpool and Birmingham) only to follow him are still enjoying their big catch prior to the match against Madrid (here’s hoping they are for second and even bigger treat). Liverpool go to ‘want that one’ mode and return to Keisuke Honda. Again, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel with that news.

It’s sad to end this story with the twist – good news from Asia and bad news from Europe. Good news: Sergio van Dijk is enjoying himself in Bandung, Indonesia, with four goals out of four matches. Five goal less than another naturalized Indonesian, Cristian Gonzales, but he’s going there.

The bad news from Europe? A week after he was panned by Vigo press for being a dud forward, Park Chu-young is not included into Team Korea for the crucial World Cup qualifier against Qatar. When you have got Son Heung-min and Ji Dong-won, you want to take two K-League strikers, and you have Kim Shin-wook and Lee Dong-gook. Despite Park’s six goals in the 2014 qualifying campaign last year. If I had been Choi Kang-hee, I’d choose Kim too over Park. Maybe June is a good time for him to enter the National Service. He’s had two World Cups and he won’t go to Brazil at this rate. Just like Julio Cesar.

Agony of February

Just keep doing better, man.

Just keep doing better, man.

February. 30ish days after your New Year’s Resolutions, you meet the truth that some old troubles stick. Others are popping out. That fresh start is not really fresh. People replaced their calendar with dread – O God, it’s one month already and I’m still like this?!

As for me, health problems keep dragging me down and prevented me to write on the scram from Shanghai and the Singapore fix sooner. But let’s get it on with the bleeding.

First paragraph applies to Korea. Now they are six months away from their last victory – 2-1 in friendly against Zambia back in August. Then draw with Uzbekistan, and then loss to Iran, and then…loss to Australia at home.

In February 2013 Korea attempted to be international and held friendly with Croatia in London – so Ki SY and Lee CY could take trains, Park CY, Son HM, and Koo JC could take budget flights, while Croatia could bring in the heavies.

Indeed they were. Ah, 0-2 at half-time. Well, Mario Manduzkic is certainly better than Mario Gomez, isn’t he? Let’s try second half, this time with Lee Dong-gook, Park Chu-young, and Kim Bo-kyung thrown in. Ah, 0-4. By guys who played in Everton and Fulham. For comparison, Australia also went down 2-3 to Romania in Spain…but they scored twice. Well, their defenders, anyway. And that after winger Robbie Kruse had a great weekend before the match.

If I were a Korean, I’d be so envy toward the Japanese, who enjoy the spotlight with Shinji “I’m not good enough” Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, and Shinji Okazaki. And Yuto Nagatomo, who is playing for Inter and might play for Munich or Manchester United. Granted, Latvia didn’t send its best team to Japan (i.e. no Hamburg’s Artjom Rudnevs), but see how offices were like on Thursday morning in Tokyo and Seoul. I even wore Samurai Blue scarf to work – flu-chic.

Umm, now in Shanghai people are celebrating New Year, Anelka and Drogba must be not on their minds. In mid-January I was searching the reasons why they left – Shanghai sounded supposed to be a fun place to play easy football and gaining easy money. Turned out the explanations were so simple.

Shanghai boss Zhu Jun is a bizzare character in first place. Some say that he’s more interested in self-publicity, oneupmanship, and online gaming business (The9) rather than football business. That could be the logical explanation behind the sellings of Duvier Riascos (24 goals in 39 matches) and Gao Lin (to scandal-tainted Guangzhou Evergrande, well this is back in 2010). That’s why Joel Griffiths left (he wasn’t happy in Beijing either). That’s why Tigana was sacked just after five matches.

That’s why the team went on strike in October. Zhu Jun himself was unhappy – his business partners in the Communist Party didn’t give him ‘his fair share’.

I was one of those who believed that Anelka and Drogba could flourish in China. The men themselves had pictured great lives in the great Far East metropolitan. The result was like what I wrote in the 2012 review – goals to force a draw, frustrations, and Anelka sulking on the supporters. When they left, Shanghai Shenhua supporters blamed the club – or saying that actually they were too good for Shanghai. And so greed and ignorance of several tycoons (and their cronies in the government) cancelled the rise of Chinese football.

Worse thing came out of Singapore, and also with worse reaction. The fixing of boatloads of friendlies, lower leagues, and even probably the Champions League match between Liverpool and Debrecen. For years everyone had spoken about ‘Asian gambling syndicate’. Now we have names – Dan Tan Seet Eng (Dan is his English name. His Chinese given name is Seet Eng) and his lieutenant Wilson Raj Perumal. WRP was arrested in Finland soon after he berated some players who didn’t fulfill order. There were stories that it was Tan who tipped the police because Perumal blew his budget and had too many debts to the boss.

Why it’s a worse news? Not just because it’s a major international crime. But it’s depressing how Singapore reacts to the scandal. Major media outlets (controlled by the government) did put it on headlines, but no more than that. Now it’s a forgotten story in Singapore. Several Westerners believe that Dan Tan is not really a fugitive – he’s still in Singapore. I wonder if many Singaporeans think the same – they don’t say. Even these days it’s easier for correspondents to know what the Chinese think (through anonymous interviews and lurking on microblogs) than what do the Singaporeans think.

So why does the Singaporean government seem to aloof on Tan? I don’t believe that they have the share from his profit – it’s rather the very annoying Asian concept of ‘saving face’. One explanation on why do Singaporeans control the fixing industry rather than the Chinese is because the islanders speak English and the passport has very good reputation. Being a small nation, Singaporean passport holders can travel the world effortlessly under the radar. And even after this scandal is known worldwide, they are protected from law and media scrutiny simply because of that saving face thing. Not just from ‘mere outsider’ but from the Malay minority and neighbors. Chinese and Indian Singaporeans cannot afford to live with the fact that they can be baddies too. The government cannot live with the fact that it lives from dirty money. And they are lucky again – the world pays more attention for bad news from China than from the unassuming Singapore.

And so, the result was the destruction of Southeast Asian teams in the first round of 2015 AFC qualification. Jordan – Singapore 4-0. Thailand – Kuwait 1-3. Iraq – Indonesia 1-0 (that was okay, actually). Qatar – Malaysia 2-0. Vietnam – UAE 1-2. Saying that ‘we suck’ isn’t enough. Putting too much attention on English football (only for 4-5 teams, actually) while looking down on local football is the issue. Southeast Asia and China have their asses kicked by West Asia and they are supposed to angry about that, not just merely shrugging (Hong Kong got my credit for holding Uzbekistan 0-0). And yeah, Singapore disappoint again. Big time.

At least there’s a ray of hope. Tonight Buriram United join Muangthong United in representing Thailand in the AFC Champions League, after defeated Brisbane United 3-0 on penalties. Buriram’s forwards were composed by non-Thai Asians – Japanese Kai Hirano and American Anthony Ampaipitakwong. It’s actually unfortunate that Australia only has 1.5 allocation, with Uzbekistan having a very weird arrangement – 1.5 in West and 1 in East. But that means Australia, and Southeast Asia, have to fight hard to get more spots in the Champions League. Yes you, Southeast Asia.