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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Homare Sawa: Still Unsung

The Number 10 wears kimono

It’s the picture that should have made headlines across the world: Lionel Messi next to a Japanese woman in kimono. He is the best footballer in the world. Actually, he’s the best man in the world in playing football. She is the best woman in the world to play football.

The news that Homare Sawa wins the award, the first Asian to do so, still does not ring outside the following circles in English-language media: international Japanese media, mainstream American sports media, and official sites of football authorities. For the rest, there’s only Barcelona with Neymar’s goooooollllllllll on the side.

In many macho part of the world, report on Sawa’s victory follows to only what Reuters and AP have provided. Here in Indonesia, some ever omitted the news, as a headline on Messi and Barcelona is really what the readers are after. I guess maybe for Westerners the image of a champion footballer is a roaring amazon in her black sports bra, while for the rest of the world (China included), it is Ronaldinha. Not a Japanese in kimono.

On second thought, let alone Sawa, Neymar also had his fame put very, very, sidelined. Before showing his rampage with Portuguese commentary, ESPN Asia had to maintain its English-centric view and ran Rooney’s scissor against City (not there was anything wrong with it).

The problem, of course, lies with the appeal of women football.  In the Promised Land of women football, Women’s Professional Soccer only has five active teams, with the team with most catchy name magicJack (in an Asian mall it’s a good name for a frozen yogurt outlet) is already defunct. That is why the world champions stick to semi-professional L. League (well done Japan, now Latvia and Lebanon can’t rebrand their leagues). Well, that the Proper Ladies of Japan had their time in America were handy, so that American media could say “she played for Washington Freedom”. United States’ best player, Abby Wambach, is currently without club, and even last season in magicJack she was the player-manager. So even despite Americans’ high interest for the last World Cup, and the inclusion of women football in American nationalism, Americans still don’t see the appeal of watching a week in week out of women football. Maybe after all, Americans still see that their national teams serve only one function: to pummel out the world during random summer. Maybe that what is what “USA! USA! USA!” is about.

On the other hand, I can only *imagine* that the Homare Sawa craze in Japan is less subdued than the past exposes…like for Miwa Asao or volleyball stars like Saori Kimura and Megumi Kurihara (let’s not go into Megumi Kawamura). Certainly it’s less like Korean craze for Kim Yuna. Sawa’s a national hero alright, but facially she’s less attractive* than the mentioned stars (hey, even America has soft spot for Hope Solo). But considering the hype Japanese media can build for the flavor of the week, maybe the normal level of exposition of Sawa is alright. But already there’s a scam (here’s another Japanese tradition) for ‘photo opportunity with Sawa/Nadeshiko’. And yes, this year is Olympics’ year. duh.

*Well, I found it’s hard to advertise other players like Ayumi Kaihori or Aya Miyama to people who would assume that they look like Ayumi Hamasaki and Aya Ueto. Personally my favorite is Karina Maruyama. Since she was sporting cornrow.

I think the most well-developed female league in business is Frauen Bundesliga. Already three Nadeshiko playing there – Saki Kumagai (Frankfurt), Kosue Ando (Duisburg), and Yuki Nagasato (Turbine Postdam). Aya Sameshima and Rumi Utsugi, meanwhile, play for Montpellier in French D1 Feminine. Still, knowing how much sexism still rules Japanese and Korean business and societies, I’m still astonished which how much women football a) raises little objection from males compared to the general attitude in the West and b) how good are Korean and Japanese women at it, something that still evades the Europeans and Spanish-speaking Americans.