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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Good Times, Bad Times

"So uh...you think they have good sushi bar in Liverpool?""Nah, me and the Saints have regular get together in London."

“So uh…you think they have good sushi bar in Liverpool?”
“Nah, me and the Saints have regular get together in London.”

Certainly these weeks have been full of mixed news for Asian football (cancelling my earlier draft of ‘It’s Even Worse’. To sum up, it’s the case of great news in Europe and bad news in Asia.

Start with the Dan Tan saga. Slovenian Admir Sulic was arrested gave himself up in Italy after a short flight from Singapore. And I did not even have to put another theory that Dan Tan is in Singapore. He is in Singapore, protected by the Singaporean police. And Interpol has no problem with that.

So why does Singapore protect him? The saving face theory is still in effect, plus another theory. The arrest of Tan can trigger investigations and spotlights on international banks involved on this major scandal. And Singapore (and even Interpol) does not want to disturb the peace of minds of all the big names here…HSBC, Citibank, Standard Chartered, several Swiss names…I’m just firing names here, but considering they did and do business with Iran and gave middle fingers to United States for having problem with that, well, I went ahead. Singapore is an important banking and finance hub in the world, like Hong Kong it relies on these incomes to become a big city, and no way it will let integrity and justice stand in the way of wealth and reputation. Just ask Interpol (so kids, give up on your dream to become an Interpol officer. You are not going to become James Bond with a badge).

For many in Singapore – British pundits, member of the governments, and perhaps ordinary football fans, this is a ‘victimless’ crime. Random Africans, Arabs, and Eastern Europeans told to fix something in an unimportant league or international friendly where punters could gain some extra cash necessary for their Audi, Patek Phillipe, and condominium aspirations. What matters is Manchester United, the Three Lions, and Barcelona are winning.

Therefore I continue my boycott on the S. League.

Then good news comes from Portugal. Forty Chinese youth are playing in Portugal. They are not the best – the best are with China U-23 to learn disappointment, mediocrity, bullying, and match fixing. They were the next best things and were shipped to Portugal in a project made by Chinese and Portuguese football federations. Portugal needs the money and China needs a proper football environment. For the young Chinese, the cultural differences are not just about food, weather, and language. In China they would live in cities of dozen of millions, while in Portugal they are staying in towns populated by hundred of thousands, and we are talking about a Catholic country. But these towns have strong football culture and working leagues, while Chinese megapolises (well, they are over 10 million people big) have only one club. Good luck for them, although it looks like a typical Chinese case of Do-it-for-Me rather than Do-it-Yourself.

Second good news is from the English League Cup final. A match of two fairy tales – League Two mid-rank Bradford City vs the pride of Wales Swansea City. Bradford City’s achievements won them the support of the South Asian communities who saw the club as the pride of white bigots who harassed their business after games (like how black South Africans saw the Springboks). Michael Laudrup put Ki Sung-yong on the defense, to the bemusement of Swansea supporters. Instead, it was a master stroke as he not only held the line but even initiated the charges by Michu, de Guzman, and Dyer. And the link to Guardian Football’s discussion on Ki made my Twitter entry favorited and retweeted by Korean girls. Sweet.

Back to bad news from the Asian Champions League. Which is actually good news for Thailand with Buriram and Muangthong holding Sendai and Jeonbuk. Predictably, this is a bad start for J. League teams except one. It’s also a disappointing day one for Korea, with one win (a good one for FC Seoul) and three draws. Even from China’s perspective, it’s also a bad start with with two losses, although Guangzhou were overjoyed with complete ownage over Urawa. Australia is also experiencing sinking feeling with a single representative in the AFC Champions League and the Mariners rely more on the teamwork rather than stars quality, with Matt Simon gone to Korea and Daniel McBreen, Matthew Ryan, and Bernie Ibini-isei yet to prove themselves in the national team.

And well, you know the next big good news. Shinji Kagawa scored three goals, the second in his career. Japanese journalists posted in Manchester (not a bad deal, smaller than London but more functional than Liverpool and Birmingham) only to follow him are still enjoying their big catch prior to the match against Madrid (here’s hoping they are for second and even bigger treat). Liverpool go to ‘want that one’ mode and return to Keisuke Honda. Again, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel with that news.

It’s sad to end this story with the twist – good news from Asia and bad news from Europe. Good news: Sergio van Dijk is enjoying himself in Bandung, Indonesia, with four goals out of four matches. Five goal less than another naturalized Indonesian, Cristian Gonzales, but he’s going there.

The bad news from Europe? A week after he was panned by Vigo press for being a dud forward, Park Chu-young is not included into Team Korea for the crucial World Cup qualifier against Qatar. When you have got Son Heung-min and Ji Dong-won, you want to take two K-League strikers, and you have Kim Shin-wook and Lee Dong-gook. Despite Park’s six goals in the 2014 qualifying campaign last year. If I had been Choi Kang-hee, I’d choose Kim too over Park. Maybe June is a good time for him to enter the National Service. He’s had two World Cups and he won’t go to Brazil at this rate. Just like Julio Cesar.

The importance of Lee Dong-Gook

내가 제일 잘 나가

I never like a bad boy. Just the nature of a geek who plays by the book. There is, however, a bad boy who I admire. Lee Dong-Gook. On Tuesday he scored twice in injury time to defeat the Manchester City of Asia, Guangzhou Evergrande (which just recruited Lucas Barrios, former team mate of Shinji Kagawa). Now Lee stands as the top scoring Asian in the ACL, along with Al-Hilal’s duo Naif Hazazi and Mohamed Abosaban (and Iranian Arash Borhani). In the K-League, he’s the only Korean and AFC player in the top five of goal scorers. He was the MVP and top scorer of 2011 ACL and the MVP of K-League 2011.

Yet, he does better service to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors than to the national team. Lee has played for Korea since World Cup 1998, and was the top scorer of 2000 Asian Cup (which was rough enough for Korea, finishing third in the group below China and Kuwait, before taking the third place of the tournament), scoring late goals against Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China, plus a hattrick against Indonesia. He failed to flourish in Werder Bremen, but scored the winning goal against Chile in the Sydney Olympics. A deep irony since Chile, Spain, and Korea all finished group stage with two wins and one defeat, and Korea had the worst goal difference (due to 0-3 damage done by Spain) while Chile had the best.

Enter Guus Hiddink for the 2002 project and he disliked D.G. He was powerful but was not fast or long-lasting – his assessment after the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Like his Japanese counterpart Takayuki Suzuki, he was seen as a “Lazy Genius” – he had the potential but didn’t work hard for it. So he was not in and Hiddink never regretted the decision, while Troussier was in despair after he omitted Shunsuke Nakamura and Naohiro Takahara was not available. In true bad boy fashion, Dong-Gook spent the glorious Korean summer drinking and tuning out of the tournament.

He got over the bitterness with the national service (Korean celebrities answer the draft when they think they’re over their prime) and returned to Pohang Steelers afterward. He scored goals in all but one Korea’s match in the 2004 Asian Cup, but unfortunately he was out-vicioused (this is not a word) by Ali Karimi who scored three against Korea. He led South Korea to qualify for Germany 2006, but World Cup rejected him again – injury failed him and Korea had to settle for Lee Chun-Soo, Ahn Jung-Hwan, Seol Ki-Hyeon (all veteran of 2002) and the young Christian hope Park Chu-Young.  After they went down to Switzerland, it was clear that Korea needed Lee Dong-Gook.

In his ninth year of service, Lee demonstrated why he was bad. The highlight of his contribution for 2007 Asian Cup was his carousing in Jakarta with unsung K-League hero Woo Sung-Yong and the darling of Muslim fans Lee Woon-Jae. He played for Middlesbrough so he escaped the club ban, but he was so disappointing in England and was remembered as a drunkard. The downfall seemed hard enough that he had to play for Moonie club Seongnam (which is a great club, but you have to pity any sane people who seeks employment there. As for the fans, I just assume that they love the city) and was still a flop.

And yet, Jeonbuk saved him. The credit might go to coach Choi Kang-Hee who wised him up. Right of the bat, he was not only becoming the top scorer of 2009 K-League, but also took Jeonbuk to win the K-League Championship for the first time. He never looked back again in the K-League and the ACL. It was a big disappointment that he failed to win the 2011 Champions League, but then he just recovered from injury.

The question is if Lee Dong-Gook is that good. He finally got his World Cup in 2010, as a sub, and he failed to impress. Added with his bad record in Germany and England, and the answer is he’s not good enough for global competition. But for Asian competition, the 33-year old can be said as the deadliest striker residing in Asia. His closest rival would be Ali Karimi. Joshua Kennedy is yet to shine in the ACL, and J. League clubs hardly have illustrious Japanese forwards in their Asian campaigns (Gamba’s Masato Yamazaki is unemployed – the closest thing to a good Japanese striker is Tokyo’s Kazuma Watanabe).

Lee Dong-Gook flourishes in a tournament where clubs in both West and East Asia are even more depended on South American and African forwards, while their best strikers are studying in Europe. Australia tried to buck this trend with no avail. Even so, he’s successful in both the Korean and the Asian fronts. He’s more than good for both. He’s the best for both leagues. He can’t deliver anymore to the Red Devils, but he deserves to be called a legend for the Mad Green Boys.