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.

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The China Post

Manner, gentlemen.

Manner, gentlemen.

Well, if this blog is about East Asian football, then this blog has to write something about when a K-League club does not win the AFC Champions League for the first time. The ACL trophy stays in East Asia, this time in China.

Guangzhou Evergrande did have to win the 2013 Champions League. For them to fail to do so is like Chelsea failing to win anything with Mourinho (eh. oh.), like Manchester City cannot prosper in Europe (…), and like France being put in Group A in a World Cup with easy opponents that included Uruguay (what’s your point, really?). We have to think of Marcello Lippi’s legacy and stories he tells to his grandchildren.

And so, Evergrande’s victory is China’s football renaissance? I’m belonged to those who think no, they won because they got the right South Americans. Of course, they had to be supported by able Chinese (and Korean) defenders and goalkeepers, otherwise they would keep losing 2-3 and 3-4. And oh, Guangzhou defeated Seoul by away goal aggregate instead of a win. This one’s thanks to AFC again.

In modern football, it’s hard to argue that Evergrande is not a Chinese team just because more than half of their goals this season in China and Asia were scored by Dario Conca, Elkeson, and Muriqui. That’s all. That’s all they needed. No different to other teams in Japan and Korea or Thailand, and compared to European teams like Chelsea or Internazionale…

Tonight China won 1-0 against Indonesia in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup qualification. And China didn’t look that good, playing to their advantage deep in the continent (OK, I can hear them arguing that United States choose Kansas and Colorado for CONCACAF matches). This is the team that fielded Zeng Cheng, Rong Hao, Zhang Linpeng, Zhao Xuri, Huang Bowen, and Gao Lin. Guangzhou Evergrande minus the foreign players. That’s how they fared – winning 1-0 against a Southeast Asian team who could not exploit their mistakes and of lesser skills. Next week they hosted Saudi Arabia, and I want to see the Guangzhou players to kick up their standard.

Guangzhou Evergrande’s victory is a victory for the team, no matter how China wants to see it as a victory for China. Certainly the national team live in another world. Apart from the inferiority demonstrated by Chinese players tonight compared to watching Japan and Korea, I was concerned by two things. First, China kept attacking when Victor Igbonefo lied down injured on his own penalty box. It was bad enough for Australian referee Peter Green to not call of play. It was worse for Sun Ke to press on and attempted a shot on goal (Indonesian players protested to Green after the ball left the field). I understand that there’s no big moral obligation in throwing away the ball when an opposition is injured, but it was simply not fair play (don’t give me the East Asian rubbish that “football is war”, quoted/misquoted from a Dutch).

Second, it was fun to see Korean supporters being sexy and cute. It was bit disturbing to see Chinese supporters – didn’t see much female to my surprise – literally went shoulders to shoulders in red tracksuits. Uniformity starts to creep me out.

Among my favorite athletes are Yao Ming and Li Na, but I start to understand why I cannot support China football the way I support Japan’s and Korean. The fan culture seems not fun, but can be scary like what I saw tonight. In short, it’s just not cute enough.