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.

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Sing Sing Sing

The largest football stadium in Singapore. During a matchday.

The largest football stadium in Singapore. During a matchday.

I went to Singapore recently. It’s a delight for any Indonesian to go to Singapore, especially a Chinese. 1.5 hour flight and suddenly homie we major. The streets are clean and orderly and you can actually walk on the pavement (and there’s such thing as a pavement/sidewalk).

And the met. In Indonesia you only see train scenes when watching anime and probably Korean drama (and some American action movies), there it’s the real thing. With office girls and school girls preoccupied with their Galaxy Notes (iPhone was so last year). Going here and there at anytime without worry. I stayed outside until 11 pm in places far away from downtown and I was happy. And yeah, the people in Singapore were friendlier than in Indonesia. Go figure.

Oh, football. First, the boycott on S. League is still on effect. Not that it makes much difference – ordinary Singaporean is indifferent about the league. What matters are Manchester United, Barcelona, Milan, England and Spain. But the city is overall pretty sterile from football environment, even during the World Cup qualification week. At least outdoor.

I did not find anyone wear football jersey. I did pass a suburbia field where Chinese, Indian, and Malay teens played football together, and that’s about it. The Adidas and Nike shops were like the ones I used to visit in Bandung when vainly hoping for Japanese and Korean merchandise (and actually finding some good stuff randomly).

The winner was Goal@313, 313 Somerset mall. They sold Japan jersey, Kashima and Hiroshima jerseys (premium price), and complete jerseys from all over Southeast Asia (what I really hate about Indonesian fandom is that it’s really aloof about Southeast Asian football, bordering on racist ignorance). I settled for a Singapore polo shirt since a) it’s not something you’ll find elsewhere and b) I’d just love wearing that stuff in Bandung, like screaming out “I’m Chinese”. I could buy Japan 13-14 kit online with cheaper price (the shirt, not the shipping cost), if they’re doing great in the Confederations Cup. O yeah, every staff in the shop was male Malay, with one wearing Loic Remy’s Marseille jersey. They were reviewing European qualification goals on a smartphone.

Japan, however, blew it away. I had worn “My Team is South Korea” shirt days before and reserved the “Japan 2011 Champions” (Asian champions and Women’s world champions) for Wednesday. God they were unbelievable. It was not unlucky. It was horrible. On Wednesday morning I pondered on wearing that shirt. Would people care? But then again, I was to go to Chinatown that day, and nowadays there are a lot of Chinese FOBs (Fresh Off Boat) there. So no. It’s your fault, Al Z. And CSKA, for holding Honda.

So outdoor, Singaporeans are not so crazy about football. News were buzzing about World Cup qualification results, including from Asia (Indonesian media care less about the AFC, anyway), and local news also featured results from the S. League. But I did get the impression that football is seen as a Malay sport here, maybe similar to how France is seeing football as an African sport. The Chinese are more into swimming and table tennis (watched a table tennis match in an alley).

I often think what my life would be had I been born in Singapore. Would I still be a liberal? Would I still went ‘back’ to Singapore after graduated from Australia, or would the drive to migrate to Australia was even stronger? I had thought that had I was good in mathematics and swimming and was born in Singapore, I’d join the Navy. I also had a thought that I could be a policeman, although it’s a pity that I couldn’t arrest Dan Tan and put him behind the bars. The only police action I saw was interrogating a geeky punk in front of the train station.

So, that was that. I am sure had I not been boycotting the S. League, I’d have spared some time to watch a football match. It’s easy to reach the stadiums, I know the teams and the key players, and the football scene is so safe. And I want to know how many Chinese were watching the game.

Can the Chinese play football? Would they?

Still the one

One of things that keeps me awake at night is thinking about Chinese footballers. Not only footballers from People’s Republic of China, but all footballers of Chinese descents. The only names I could think of are Brian Ching from United States and Chan Siu Ki from Hong Kong. The former because he made it to 2006 World Cup and the latter because I enjoy playing Hong Kong in 2010 FIFA World Cup game. I don’t really remember any Chinese national player on the top of my head. I thought about Shi Jiayi, but he plays for Singapore. Alright, I thought about Shao Jiayi.

Japanese kids had their heroes – Kazu Miura, Hide Nakata, Shun Nakamura, and now Honda and Kagawa. South Korean kids had Kim Jung-Soo, Seo Jung-Won, Ahn Jung-Hwan, Park Ji-Sung, and now Park Chu-Young (well he’s doing great for the national team) and perhaps Ki Sung-Yueng and Ji Dong-Won. What about Chinese kids in the last 20 years? Or Hong Kong kids? Or Chinese-Singaporeans? Or ethnic Chinese in Australia, UK, and Netherlands?

Certainly there are some Chinese-Dutch footballers. I can think of Calvin Jong-a-Pin, playing for Shimizu, and Cerezo Fung-a-Wing, who played for Volendam and Waalwijk. There are also  Tschen La Ling, who played for Ajax and Marseille in 1970s and early 1980s, and Etienne Shew-Atjon, who just retired. Their parents came either from Suriname or Indonesia.

A burning question coming from United States fans, satisfied with the class of 2010, was “where is China? Why don’t China play in the World Cup? Are not they the new Soviet Union in sports?”. Indeed. The steady downfall of the women team is astonishing, especially when newcomer Japan don’t only become the first Asian team to win the World Cup, but also producing a woman who wins the Golden Ball. Back to men football, many American fans are astonished to hear that in Asia, China are less dangerous than Uzbekistan and…Iraq.

British journalists have covered the state of football in China. Not good. Besides the standard corruption and violence in the league, Chinese boys are not that interested to become professional footballers. Afterall, they are the only child and football is not the state’s favorite sport (i.e. it won’t guarantee a gold medal in Olympics). Currently only one Chinese player is in Europe – Zhang Chengdong is on loan at Beira Mar in Portugal, his second loan after playing in Leiria two seasons ago. Which is not that bad considering that his parent club is Second Division Mafra. Besides him, only Huang Bowen plays outside China, for Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.

Nevermind China, what about Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore? Perhaps for those island nations (*ahem*) there are not enough men to play football. But the case against lack of men equals lack of footballers, of course, lies in Scandinavia. For extreme argument, refer to Montenegro. Population: 600,000. That’s 10% or less the population of Hong Kong. Failed in the last moment to qualify to Euro 12, but prevailed in group stage against Switzerland and Bulgaria. Only one of its top 22 is playing in domestic league, the rest are playing in Israel, United States, Korea, and of course Russia and Italy.

Taiwan has no professional league. As I mentioned in earlier post, Xavier Chen plays in Belgium because he’s born there. Hong Kong has a long tradition of utilizing players who were born overseas, either Brazilians or Africans who are naturalized, or British who grew up in Hong Kong and are expected to play for five years or less. There might be several players who were born in mainland China too. As for the league, roughly only 1500 people attend each First Division match, with more fixing attention on the English Premier League. The only Chinese name in the top-scoring list is Cheng Siu Wai from mid-table Sun Hei.

It’s never easy to find a Chinese name in Singapore. I’m still not certain if veteran goalkeeper Lionel Lewis is half-Chinese or not. Besides Shi Jiayi, there’s Andrew Tan, and also naturalized Qiu Li. So we have to settle for Andrew. In fact Malaysia have more homegrown Chinese players: Yong Kuong Yong and Joseph Kalang Tie. Two to one. One and half, maybe.

So, what’s this about? As for the lack of Chinese football stars in Asia, I think culture is the main culprit. Chinese parents and community discourage their sons from becoming professional footballers, even if they come from the working class, as most footballers are. I don’t know, maybe some even think that football is not a Chinese trade? Certainly this kind of thought is absent in Japan and Korea, looking at how Hide Nakata and Lee Chun-Soo remember fondly their fangirls back in high school. But I remember that back in school girls didn’t come after Chinese guys who were good in football, although every boy played football and talked about del Piero and Owen.

Governments and investors themselves are hardly serious about club and league developments. One ironic thing about the S-League is its constant struggle to gain sponsors, despite the richness of Singapore. Many Chinese-Singaporeans are of course not interested to see Malays playing football in empty small stadiums, when they can watch MU v Chelsea in glitzy sports bars and meet real Mancunians. The Singaporean FA chooses to defer from Champions League rather than disbanding foreign clubs, which are not only paying rents but also providing potential Lions (Frederic Mendy, anyone?). One downside of having a Commonwealth island like Hong Kong and Singapore is that the Chinese have been used for too long to let the other groups doing sports for them.

Taiwan still puzzles me, anyway. They can create good cartoons on EPL incidents…so why don’t they get on with a professional league like Japan did twenty years ago? You know, when Japan was still suck with football?

That’s in Asia. What about in the West? The NBA now has Harvard graduate and New York hero Jeremy Lin. Here’s I thought that even when family and community don’t hinder Chinese boys playing football, another foul factor is at play – the low glass ceiling, which is also hindering Asian artists. Once I spoke to a Chinese girl who played high school soccer in United States. Other girls targeted her because she’s Asian. The worst haters were not whites, but black girls. I know, many Asian Westerners must have tried football and other sports. They are not just that good enough to make the cut. But when they make the cut, not everyone’s happy.

Some Americans cannot face the fact that Jeremy Lin and ice skater Michelle Kwan are American athletes, and I only hope that the road is bit easier for women hockey goalkeeper and Olympic gold medalist Julie Chu. Certainly Lin must faced shits that African-American players faced back in 1950s and are supposedly unacceptable now (and surprise, now is getting intensified in European football). While there are great coaches and managers who see an athlete’s potential despite his or her ethnicity, perhaps in football it’s still hard for Asians to be selected unless they have a parent who is not Asian (I’m thinking about Brian Ching and Issey Nakajima-Farran).

So, can the Chinese play football? Of course they can. Would they? No, for dozens of reasons. The big question is, will the next Chinese star in Europe play for China? Or will he play for United States?

College Boys

At this hour, Malaysia U23 just won the final match in the Southeast Asian Games against Indonesia U23. It was the Young Tigers’ second victory against Indonesia in a week in Jakarta.

So, Malaysian senior and U23 teams have become Southeast Asia’s best, in both occasions, in Jakarta. Oh, I very much appreciate the great dedication and skills possessed by the Young Garudas.  But I am not down with their defeat for several reasons, some of them are subjective.

First, Malaysia are willing to employ ethnic minorities as coaches – Indian Krishnasamy Rajagopal in the senior team and Chinese Ong Kim Swee in the U23 team. I’m not for local coach by default. I’m against over-reliance on Western coaches. You get geniuses like Guus Hiddink (in both counts) and Alberto Zaccheroni and flops like Zico (well, he did very well with Kashima, I’m still unsure about Iraq), Ivica Osim (aah, this is undisputed), and assorted Middle Eastern coaches. The list includes current Indonesian coach Wim Rijsbergen.

Second, Indonesia does not include Chinese-German Kim Kurniawan, on the ground of fitness. But rumors have it that he was ousted because he plays for Persema Malang, a club that has disagreement with the Indonesian FA. On fairness, big credits for Indonesia are due for its shining Papuan forwards, Titus Bonai and Patrich Wanggai.  Ironically, in the match against Singapore, half of Indonesian players are Christians while almost all playing Singaporeans are Muslims. Still, it might be quite a while before Indonesia have its first Chinese player since 1970s. I don’t know if Malaysian Yong Kuong Yong and Singaporean Eugene Luo played even as substitutes, anyway. Singaporean chosen keeper was, er, Izwan Mahbud instead of Jasper Chan.

Third, the jingoism in Indonesian media was so annoying. All kinds of media jumped on it, to the point of launching racist and childish attacks on Malaysia simply because it sells. I just felt strongly that Harimau Muda are the better team and it’s nice to see that you’re right.

This week it’s the turn of the big boys of East Asia in the pre-Olympic tournament. Japan U23 will face Bahrain, South Korea and Australia take away trips to Qatar & Iraq respectively, and my, Malaysia to face Syria on Wednesday. Would they use this same team again?