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.]

 

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AFC Champions League & AFC Cup 2014: Group Stage Review

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

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

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

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

 

AFC Cup – Group E

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

Group F

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

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

Group G

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

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

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

Group H

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

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

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

 

AFC Champions League – Group E

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

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

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

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

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

Group F

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

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

Group G

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

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

Group H

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

 

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

 

 

5 Things About AFC Champions League Match Day 1

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

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

1. So much for Japan’s determination

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

3. It’s another season for the Koreans

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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