Where the Players are Coming from

May he prosper in Singapore

May he prosper in Singapore

Around two years ago I had discussed naturalization, and this year’s AFF (ASEAN Football Federation) Cup features three teams with plenty of naturalized players – Singapore, Philippines, and Indonesia.

The Singaporeans are leftovers from a decade long project, but they are in the final. Shi Jiayi and Qiu Li, born in China, are 29 and 31 years old respectively. So does Sarajevo native Fahrudin Mustafic, and Daniel Bennett (34) came from England. One of the deadliest strikers in Southeast Asia, Aleksandar Duric, is 42. I wouldn’t be surprised if a fan put on their heads over the bodies of The Expendables.

Philippines and Indonesia invested in young bloods from Europe with different results. Philippines remain the dark horses of Southeast Asian football and no SE Asian team now can be confident they can secure win against the Street Dogs (yep, the nickname itself is quiet un-Asian). Indonesia received little support with the FA civil war lingers on and fans greeted the 0-2 defeat to Malaysia with little emotion. The prevailing mood was “I’ve told you so.”

Actually, naturalization is hardly the business of Asian nations too lazy to develop homegrown players. Both England and Australia are recruiting migrants from Africa, like Wilfried Zaha and Emmanuel Frimpong (England) or Kofi Danning and Bernie Ibini-isei (Australia). In the case of England (less likely with Australia), the FA is aware that some players can still opt to play for their countries of birth.

When the naturalization debate began in Indonesia five years ago, many commentators erroneously cited the example of France – they said that Zinedine Zidane and Marcel Desailly were also naturalized. I wouldn’t be surprised if several Indonesians believe that Mario Balotelli is naturalized (heck, even some Italians refuse to accept that he is Italian). My definition for a player who is naturalized is someone who had spent a good deal of his life in a country and played football there (i.e. joining a football club) before moving somewhere else. This definition sticks for most players in Asia (e.g. Singapore, Qatar, and Indonesia).

That is because you hardly have people from elsewhere migrating to Asia and raising kids there. Japan makes an exception. Until last year I thought that Mike Havenaar was a son of a Dutch and Japanese, rather than a Dutch who was born in Japan. In early 1990s Japan did naturalize adult Brazilians such as Ruy Ramos and Wagner Lopes, but in the last ten years Japan features one of the most multicultural national teams in Asia, and they are made in Japan – Havenaar, Tadanari Lee, Ariajusuru Hasegawa, and Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Alex Santos in the past (well, Santos finished his school in Japan). I’m still waiting for an Asian Socceroo. Their closest counterparts in Asia might be English Hong Kongers like Michael Campion and Jaimes McKee (a midnight child – his family came to Hong Kong in 1997).

Filipinos can be defensive about their footballers, worried that outsiders accusing them of playing cheap. Of course, it’s fair for them to recruit half-Filipinos, rather than arranging a Brazilian or Nigerian to switch citizenship (did Emerson wave the flag of Qatar yesterday?). Actually, that what Singapore did, and it was bit lazy – rather than owing to the virtue of immigration. I’d be happier (and no doubt many Singaporeans would be) if they look for Western footballers with a Singaporean parent (isn’t that wonderful that many half-Filipino kids in Europe and USA are boys who choose footballing as a career?) or develop migrant kids in Singapore to become footballers, the way Japan does. While there could be, could be, not enough white French footballers in France, definitely there is not enough Chinese and non-Muslim Indian footballers in Singapore.

What’s the outlook of the future of Singapore’s football? Well, the naturalization program is still living, seeing that Jonathan Toto and Sirina Camara (France) and Sherif El-Masri (Canada) are in the Young Lions. There are certainly more Chinese names, like Emeric Ong, Gary Lee, and even Benjamin Lee, whose mother is Danish. Certainly it’s quite fair to say that in Singapore, footballing (playing professionally, that is) is a Muslim affair. But seems Chinese Singaporeans are able to live with it like white French supporters do with Les Blues.

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Aren’t You Entertained?!

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

But my god will you look at that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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