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.

Advertisements

The Tigers and the Hello Kitty

We’re so 2014, Godzilla is so 1990 and late

2012 season is over for Japan and Korea.

Wah.

So, how did they go? The easy answer is of course – so-so. Still, Olympics semi-finalists and still the big boys on the block. But the feeling can be more complicated if you are an Australian supporter. With the failure to qualify for Brazil 14 still a good possibility (Japan, however, are there to give a hand), Australia will still relish tonight’s victory over a K-League Korean team, with the scorer, Rukavytsya and Cornthwaite (yep, needed some effort to spell their names) are under 30 years old. It’s been a very tough year for them, having failed to qualify for the Olympics and coping with life after…um…Harry Kewell and John Aloisi?

And Japan was close to get another bad verdict from me. First, was quite in bad mood after all chance to get a 2010-11 Japan jersey (the one worn by Honda in Qatar and Sawa in Germany) was closed. Should I order that gorgeous blue pajamas, although with it Japan failed to win an Olympic gold? Why it’s so hard to find Adidas stuff related to Blue Samurai around? And of course, Japan looked horrible in the second half away match against Oman – Yoshida played as bad as he is in Southampton these days and Honda seemed too tired to direct any build up.

Add that with the typical minimalist presentation by ESPN Asia/Star Sports – a pair of British with bland and pointless (as in having a point can offend anyone and they are told not to do that) comments and I have no chance to see them during half time and full time. As if I was watching an illegal video streaming or watching a pirated DVD – no extra and no perk of cover sheets.

So, Yasuhito Endo, 32 years old, 122 games for Japan (Steven Gerrard. Meh), leaped and aligned the ball toward the center, passing Ali al Habsi who anticipated his shot. Okazaki drove it home and for the next three minutes the stadium went silent. Cheerful Japanese girls lifted up a Hello Kitty float. Hello Kitty! Where else you can see it in a football stadium? Japan are yet to go to Brazil, but they will not finish the group in rank 4 or 5 for sure. And putting Australia in rank 2 with better goal difference to Oman (0 to -3, actually). I ended up ordering a scarf and a ‘Japan Soccer’ long sleeve.

Last Saturday, the Ulsan Munsu stadium featured a tiger that really looks like a menacing tiger, not the cutesy one like the Seoul Olympics mascot. Al Ahli supporters strengthened their players’ hearts with a cardboard saying something about Allah, but at full time, it was Kim Shin-wook and several other Koreans who kneed and raised their hands into the air, praising Jesus. Korea have won the Asian Champions League again and Ulsan will look forward to pummel the champions of Japan next month – Hiroshima, Sendai, Urawa, or Nagoya.

That Ulsan tiger must be menacing. But Japanese supporters should employ that Hello Kitty float more often – it will become the terror from the East. Really East, the place where the sun rises. Except when facing Korea, the message will be like this – I can be less manly and acts cutesy and I still kick your ass.

Chill down

Never mind Kagawa, here’s your Asian striker.

In other words, because Kagawa isn’t around.
Well, that’s not very fair, is it? Ulsan Hyundai qualify to the AFC Champions League final, the fourth in the row for K-League teams, Keisuke Honda’s kicking around in Russia, and Manchester City is interested to give Hideki Ishige a training run.

But it’s another calm weekend for Asian football. Certainly Shinji Kagawa is the focal point of Asian representation in world football, just like Jeremy Lin does in basketball. And yeah, it’s making me nervous if he does play – worried that he would play badly. Again, that’s not very fair considering that he has scored two goals and several assists in England and Europe, better than Rooney and Welbeck. But while many in Japan overhype him (as usual with any Asian sporting star), many others want to see him fails to make impression in Manchester United, and not only in Europe. Perhaps some of them are also in Asia. They have no problem with a Turk, or Barbadian, or an Congolese, but many people in this world still think that an East Asian doesn’t belong on the pitch. Of course, no one thinks that Ali al-Habsi or Sanharib Malki is doing what he’s not supposed to do.

Sadly, there’s not much replacement could stand in for Kagawa. Whether he plays or not, these days it’s hard to admire Park Ji-sung as the captain of Queen’s Park Rangers (although QPR is probably the only team in Europe to feature players from all confederations, thanks to him, Ryan Nelsen, and Junior Hoillet). The worse thing I can do is to watch Southampton – Maya Yoshida is tumbling and fumbling once more week after week, and Tadanari Lee is never around, not even on the bench (please choose him over Emmanuel Mayuka. Please).

Of course, I am envious of the Belgians – five years ago they were the jokes of Europe, now their players are sought after even perhaps more than the Dutch. Five years ago, Japan and South Korea could handle them. A fate that Kagawa has is that he’s seen as the poor replacement to Eden Hazard. Of course, if you think about it, at least the Japanese and the Koreans are not Australians. Yeah I know, I’m thinking about Koo Ja-cheol rather than Ryo Miyaichi when trying to compare them with Kofi Danning.

…and another thing

First, of course the best news this week is Ulsan Hyundai. I’ve taken the fact that a Korean team will play in the ACL final for granted and it happens again. Yeah it’s good luck, but in any year there’s must be one Korean team that have the guts, the tradition, the determination, and the skill to get forward. Japan qualified three teams to the playoff round and none of them had enough of those requirements. Seongnam, in short, was just out money just like Bunyodkor were, but even the glamour-less Uzbeks still could overcome Adelaide United.

The ACL 2012 were full of unfulfilled fairy tales, it wasn’t UEFA Champions League 2003-04 (final: Porto versus Monaco). No Guangzhou, no ‘wild card’ Adelaide, and Ulsan dispatched Al Hilal too easily. In the end, it was the battle of giants (also Al Ahli were also supposed the third rank team behind Hilal and Ittihad). So what makes Ulsan great? Simply Kim Young-kwang, a cultish goalkeeper, and the ex Gamba Osaka duo of Rafinha and Lee Keun-ho. There’s one in the list of reasons of Gamba’s sudden decline.

Their midfielders are not famous, while defenders Kang Min-soo and Kwak Tae-hwi can be as clumsy as Manchester United defenders (evident in the first half of last mid-week match against Bunyodkor). But I’ve taken another assumption for granted – AFC representatives will become the third best team in the FIFA Club World Cup. They can still take on African and CONCACAF champions anytime.

….suddenly I wonder if J. League disinterest with the ACL is also related to the fact that it only needs to win the J. League to qualify for the Club World Cup. Then again, I don’t want the CWC to be hosted in the Gulf.

A sad day for North Korean football. The post is actually about Qatar.

North Korean footballer An Young Hak

Don't cry. That thing did nothing good for you (can't find his photo wearing Kashiwa jersey :().

Of course they will be sad. From their childhood they have been taught that that beer-belly freak is the Juche equivalent of God. Perhaps even in the North Korean schools in Japan. Its (Yes, I doubt that it’s a male human) death could mean that the unofficial boxing-style world champions title is in jeopardy. No way Tajikistan would defeat North Korea next February and God knows when NK will have its next friendly match against what. On the other hand, South Korea’s preparation for that deciding home match against Kuwait could be hindered by security concern. Could Dzenan Radoncic be the player-manager for the Taegeuk Warriors?

That news comes as a little relief after the passing of great playwright, humanitarian, and president Vaclav Havel. And after another East Asian team’s inability to unlock Al-Sadd’s defense. Tanaka, Kitajima, and Jorge Wagner played very well, but my fears were realized – like Jeonbuk, Kashiwa might have relied too much on its Brazilian playmaker. Second, Nelsinho’s….unconventional substitution policy (kinda like Zico’s actually) could not sustain Kashiwa’s campaign. I’m truly hoping that he could be wiser for next year’s Champions League, or Kashiwa would be eliminated from the group stage, or from Round of 16 at the best. Masakatsu Sawa is not the best attacking midfielder or winger out there. I still don’t understand why both Park Dong-Hyuk and An Yong-Hak were not played at all. I hope the best explanation is that they were injured.

How on Earth did Al-Sadd gain its third victory against an East Asian champions who were playing in front of their crowds? First, Al-Sadd are a good team, despite a bad season in the Stars League (only 4 wins out of 8 games). If they are not that good Jeonbuk , Suwon, Kashiwa, and ES Tunis would have no hard time against them. Second, I wonder if various elements in Al-Sadd, especially its defense squad, perform better against East Asian sides. Lee Jung-Soo seems to be highly motivated to stop his Korean rivals, the bloody Japanese, and even with Algerian bad boy Belhadj he had no qualm to break David Villa’s foot, something he might not able to do if he’s playing for Korea. Goalkeeper Saqr proves that he’s a howler for Barcelona but is a stonewall for East Asian teams, whose offenders gives him too much respect.

Al-Sadd is a good news for Qatar Football Association, which will continue its campaign for Brazil 14 (come on, they will lose to Iran but no way the Shiites-less Bahrain could own the Indonesia’s Reserve squad*). In a way they are Qatar’s middle finger to Japan and Australia who question the 2022 hosting rights. Will they last long in the 2012 ACL season?

….no, they will not play at all. They ranked 6th in 2011 Stars League. Maybe they can be called the Liverpool of Asia. Even Niang and Ibrahim can’t score for #### in the League.

Jesus, now I’m starting to get more worried about how Kashiwa and Jeonbuk will go next year.

*Indonesian national team are now barred from players who playing for Indonesian Super League. The regular internationals.

 

AFC: Still the third best confederation in the world

Once more AFC puts its representative in the top four of the FIFA Club World Cup. Again Asian clubs prove that they are better than the champions of Africa and North America. Of Central America, North America, and the Caribbean. Of anything north of Colombia, except Suriname, Guyana, and French Guyana since they don’t speak Spanish/Portuguese and they’re crap at futbol.

I missed the Al-Sadd game and I felt like the crime lord who left the hero to be executed by his minions (sorry, it’s James Bond month in HBO Asia). Still, the feeling that Al-Sadd is an Asian club after all prevails. Especially after Kashiwa won. Especially after I knew that Lee Jung-Soo put in another great defense, more than he demonstrated when playing for Korea (or perhaps that it’s true that he’s Korean best defender, even better than Chabot). You want a Korea to play in Club World Cup Semi, you got it. Especially since Kashiwa are still not playing Park Dong-Hyuk. Even after Kondo got his nose bleeding.

It was just great joy to see Kashiwa prevailed against a team which owned the whole MLS clubs and also other Mexican clubs. Japan showed that again it’s comfortable with penalty shootouts (cue to 3-5 loss to Paraguay in 2010) , even as Junya Tanaka failed to become the finisher – just like Takahara did in the shootout against Australia in Asian Cup 2007 (not both men’s faults, mind you). Yet the Indonesian commentators seemed to displease, and I could imagine that similar things happened in other places.

Even with AFC great records, it’s still the same stories – African and CONCACAF players prevail over Asian players in popularity. Well, it’s a fact that Drogba, Hernandez (Chicarito! Mexico didn’t have a star forward in Europe before him and after Sanchez!), Eto’o, Yorke and Dempsey have scored more goals in European leagues than Honda, Kagawa (yes, please bear for a moment), Park Ji-Sung, and Nakamura. Even if Ji-Sung and Kagawa had actually scored more goals than half of American and African players in Europe, they were still beyond the stardom.

Kashiwa's Goalkeeper

This man deserves a place in Samurai Blue

Social networks are abuzz with proud fans of de Rosario, de Guzman, Charlie Davies, UNAM, and Brek Shea than proud fans of Honda, Gamba Osaka, and Kawashima. When joining the Guardian Football Fans Network last year, I was smiling while several African students in England were despairing about their teams. That before I went to desperation that my co-Korean fans are Englishmen living in Seoul and all the Japanese fans are Englishmen living in Japan. Until today I’m yet to discuss Asian football with an Asian.

That, after AFC demonstrates that it could nurture successful clubs and that Japanese, Korean, and now Qatari clubs are only behind the almighty UEFA and CONME…South American clubs. I’ve seen the virtue of Kashiwa winning the J. League – they have only two Brazilians playing, don’t overtly relying on them like many other clubs worldwide do, and that they have Japanese players waiting for Zaccheroni to call them. I am so worried, anyway, with Nelsinho’s decision to use only one substitution for 120 minutes. I still have the feeling that he doesn’t really trust a second line that includes Kitajima and Ahn rather than reserving them for Wednesday. Kashiwa can throw away the match against Santos, but this time they must strive to beat Al-Sadd in the 3rd Place Match. For the sake of Japan 2022.

 

 

Who will represent Japan and Korea?

Crest for Nagoya Grampus

I'm impartial

Ah, the final week. Everyone in teams contesting J. League and K-League championships have to be sure they are healthy up to the kick off time. That’s including minding where is the aftershave bottle and make sure that the meals they were eating have positive agreement with their bowels.

Start with the easier, Korea. Jeonbuk, Pohang, and Seongnam have got the tickets to next year’s ACL. Just like a good K-League season should be: leave nothing to Suwon & Seoul. Meanwhile, Ulsan…well, Ulsan have beaten both aforementioned team, plus Pohang for good measure, and will face Jeonbuk this Sunday in the K-League Championship. So it’s decided: Lee Dong-Gook, Kim Jung-Woo (welcome back, soldier), Mota, Kim Dong-Chan, Eninho, and Seol Ki-Hyeon will fight for the Korean revival (this year’s loss to Al-Sadd is too much) in 2012. Unless they are transferred out. Except if they are transferred out to another ACL competitor from Japan or Saudi Arabia. Or Qatar.

What matters most for me in this year’s FIFA World is for the Japanese champions to reach semi-final match against Santos and to win the Third Place match against Al-Sadd  ES Tunis. Who are the most fitting firm to pounce Auckland City 5-0 before handing down a devastating 2-1 defeat to Monterey and to prove that CONCACAF is ALWAYS below AFC?

Three clubs answer the call and they are only one point separated between them. Kashiwa Reysol have 68. Nagoya Grampus have 67. Gamba Osaka have 66. Marinos, having a good year, are 12 points below Gamba. So three out of Japanese representatives for ACL 12 are already determined. Fourth place goes to Emperor Cup’s winners, which will have its fourth round next month after Club World Cup 11 is over.

Kashiwa have it tough – they will face Urawa, the former Asian Champions now in the danger of going down to J. League Division 2. Which means that the good people of Chiba will be happy to ensure that the good people of Saitama will see  Tatsuya Tanaka becoming the top scorer of D2 in 2012.

Nagoya will also face Albirex Niigata in the northern country. Bruno Lopes is not Josh Kennedy nor Keiji Tamada, so Nagoya will also be victorious.

What about Gamba? They have the toughest matches of all the championship hopefuls – away trip to Shimizu. Even as Korean Lee Keun-Ho can save the day, both Gamba and Nagoya have to rely on a simple fact: That Urawa will defeat Kashiwa. Urawa will do it for sure so that they will survive in the Division One.

Which team has the right to represent Japan in the Club World Cup? I choose Nagoya. I want to see all the hottest Japanese representatives in Toyota and Yokohama: Fujimoto, Tamada, and Nagai. And of course, one of the best striker in Asia this year: Josh Kennedy. Or maybe that I always had soft spot for Nagoya, the city often forgotten behind the Kanto-Kansai duopoly.

 

Anyway, India just got pummeled 0-5 by Zambia in Goa.

Naturalization in Southeast Asia

The leagues are over in East Asia but there are still plenty of Asian football this December. The AFF Suzuki Cup group stage ends with some upsets: Favorite Thailand leave without a win, and supposedly non-footballing Philippines go to the Semi Finals undefeated. What happened?

‘Naturalization’ is a popular topic in Asian football. Despite the supposed less migrant-friendly societies, citizenship transfer of foreign born players are less controversial than it should in Asia. In modern times, Japan started it when Ruy Ramos and Wagner Lopes played for Japan in the 90s. In Korea, Valery Sarychev and Denis Laktionov became Korean citizens although in the end they never played for the Red Devils. Qatar has no qualm in recruiting Uruguayans and Brazilians.

Singapore was the pioneer in Southeast Asia when it opened path to foreign players in the S-League to play for Singapore. Nigerian born Precious and Agu Casmir, English born Jonathan Wilkinson and Daniel Bennett, and Chinese born Shi Jiayi did it for several reasons: They’ve married to Singaporeans and have children, they won’t be able to play for their national team, life’s better here, and so on. But after shocking Asia in mid 2000s, they might have been out of steam and looked less than impressive this month, getting away with a hard fought 2-1 win over Myanmar while held by Philippines and lost to Vietnam.

Now both Indonesia and Philippines do well with naturalized players. Cristian Gonzales have played in Indonesia for years and have an Indonesian family. He’s 34. Irfan Bachdim, now idolized as a pretty boy by middle class girls who usually skip local football, has Indonesian father and Dutch mother.

On the other hand, the Filipinos consist of several Filipino-looking men who have classy English surnames (e.g. Greatwich, Younghusband, or Etheridge). They study professional football in England and United States and the nutrition, training and experience there have rewarded them with the sharp edge in defeating Vietnam 1-0 and holding Singapore 1-1. Even Indonesia cannot take them easily despite having a double home advantages (the organizers deem Philippines to not having adequate ground for their home leg). Better for these Filipinos, they don’t have to ditch their father’s side citizenship, unlike in Indonesia (although they are aware they won’t be able to play for England or Iceland).

Of course, naturalization is difference with recruiting migrant kids. When the naturalization debate began in Indonesia, many people wrongfully thought that Zidane, Desailly, and Henry were ‘naturalized’ too, while in fact they grew up in France. Alessandro Santos graduated from Japanese high school and so were Tadanari Lee and Mike Havenaar. So far, Southeast Asia hasn’t had youth players who are born from migrants. Perhaps Singapore would have more half-Western players in the future, although this is still not the case in Thailand. Certainly, it would also help if more ethnic Indians and Chinese feel comfortable to become professional footballers in Singapore (which is still happening in Malaysia). Indonesia is still eager to find more European based players who have Indonesian parents, usually Moluccan-Dutch.

In Indonesia, the Red and White’s successive wins have overcome all the skepticism about the team’s quality, the new citizens, and the new coach. Even now people say that Gonzales and Irfan are ‘nationalist’ Indonesians who sing the anthem proudly. Still, the semi finals will just begin on Wednesday and more people going to get hurt when their enterprising team failed to reach the final. The expectation is very big on Indonesia’s side.

Asians on World Stage

Seongnam continue the tradition of Asian teams to qualify to the semi-finals of FIFA Club World Cup, after defeating host Al-Wahda 4-1. Goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryong attracts the attention of FIFA.com as the only Asian player who are in two World Cups this year. Seongnam will take it easy against Internazionale but feel at advantage with Inter’s current confidence crisis.

Shinji Kagawa scores. Again. In Dortmund 2-0 win against Bremen. Another FC Seoul striker joins the Ligue 1 after Auxerre recruits Park Chu-Young’s successor Jung Ju-Gook. Park’s Monaco are on the edge of the relegation zone, while Auxerre do bit better on the 14th.