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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Taking good look at Southeast Asian football

Yesterday I was writing a draft on the upsets in Champions League and what it meant for Japanese clubs, Australian teams, and the hosts. But then something came out. Brunei won the Hassanal Bolkiah Trophy (I shouldn’t have surprised, really). They bettered Malaysia and Timor at the group stage and defeated Myanmar in the semi. Yesterday they defeated Indonesia. O yeah, the tournament is supposed to be a U-21 tournament, but Brunei enlisted its U-23 team which played in last year’s SEA Games. Luckily they didn’t employ their naturalized players from Eastern Europe, but watching Indonesia them last night was like watching Jeonbuk v Guangzhou. Or Buriram v Kashiwa, except that Indonesia couldn’t bite back.

The result of the tournament concerns me in several levels. First, again Indonesia sent a weakened team since only players who are in the Premier League clubs could go in. But even this weakened team did alright again Vietnam and yeah, Singapore. Defending champions Thailand skipped out of the competition, citing “unforeseen circumstance” (whatever that means. I always hate that excuse). Malaysia, which U-23 team won the SEA Games gold medal and the senior team are defending champs of AFF Cup, played a U-21 team which ranked below East Timor.

In short, the problem is national consistency. Even since five years ago, you cannot rely on Thailand to represent football power in the region. And nothing could really fill in the vacuum – not Malaysia, nor Vietnam. Granted, Buriram were impressive in defeating the J. League champions and it was refreshing to see that their Thai playmaker, Jirawat Makarom, shone. The White Elephants were also close to qualify to the Brazil 14 qualification’s final stage. But still, it means nothing if they cannot even ace the region or employing their full strength to achieve that aim. Perhaps the political turmoil in the past five years was an important cause to the decline of Thai football, and one only hopes that they could climb up again. They should not accept the fact that they are five levels behind Vietnam in Asia.

Vietnamese football is certainly on the rise, but they also have the lack of will to win. Both Song Lam Nghe An and Sai Gon failed to overcome their Malaysian opponents in the AFC Cup. In regional tournaments, they are simply a semi-finals team. Yes, corruption, match fixing, and the reluctance of the government to promote football are the main cause of a wingless Vietnam.

It’s a good sign that Malaysia and Singapore decide to renew their cooperation, again; this time by exchanging their junior national teams in their national leagues. As Chinese and Indian Singaporeans and Malaysians point out every now and then, there are really no difference between their countries. Again, Malaysian clubs and teams have average more Indian and Chinese players than Singapore’s. The funny thing every time Singapore face Indonesia is that Indonesia always have more players with Christian given names.

I was hoping that Malaysia could complete the regional treble by winning the HB Trophy, but it was impossible. Worse, their only Chinese player, Gan Jay Han, scored an own goal. Singapore, on the other hand, complete the bizzaro treble by not winning anything. I dream a day when Radjoko Avramovic is replaced. Simply because he has been with the Lions too long – nine years. No foreign coach is ever with that a national team that long.

Avramovic doesn’t stick with Singapore that long because he’s good. He’s still on the job because FAS can’t bother to appoint a new, better coach. No personal grudge again the man (Singaporean fans are more suited for that emotion), but his employment security is a proof that Singapore have given up its football project. Perhaps they won’t bother anymore to naturalize Mendy or Jordan Webb and just let the aspiring Malays to play football, whatever the result is. What’s matter is that retired English footballers are working as pundits (and punters) in Singapore.

Yes, I appreciate the fact that Star Sports run the highlights of the S. League. I watch the show. It’s the only Asian football show I can enjoy in Indonesia besides J. League live coverage and Singapore-produced Football Asia magazine show (which is unbelievably drab). Even watching S. League highlights is hardly a happy experience as I can’t get over the fact that I hear no chant and see no supporters.

Whether they play for Premier League or Super League team, I don’t care. An Indonesian team is an Indonesian team, and I support the Red and White players as long they don’t play South Korea or Japan. I hate Indonesians who are delighted with the current national teams are defeated simply because they hate the FA (me too), while I also hate commentators who make tiring nationalistic remarks in matches. Shut your slogans and analyze what happens. Yes, the schism is holding back Indonesian football, which is never good in the first place. But certainly Indonesia are still one the best teams in the region.

As for Brunei…eh.