A Parochial Guide to 2015 AFC Champions League and AFC Cup

A good example of how parochial the English media can be is by referencing the Prime Minister of Denmark as “The wife of Labour candidate for Aberavon” or “Wife of (Neil) Kinnock’s son“. This blog will also get parochial and view the Asian version of UEFA Champions League and Europa League (hmm…there’s simply no classical Asian word for “Asia”, is it?) from Japanese, Korean, and Australian perspectives. Specifically if those West Asian teams have Korean players in them, otherwise I will just ignore them. Begin with the Champions League.

Ask me about Riga’s best lounges.

Group A

Hot hot hot. Al Nassr, Lekwhiya, Persepolis, Bunyodkor. Only Al Nassr, however, have won a continental cup in 1998 (Cup Winners’ Cup) and played in FIFA Club World Cup. It has no one interesting, unlike Lekhwiya, whose no 10 is Nam Tae-hee and whose coach, Michael Laudrup, is browsing London and Tokyo city guides (great life, Mike). Persepolis predictably have only Latinos, but what about Bunyodkor? Their number 9 is Minori Sato, a journeyman who had lived in United States, Mexico, Latvia, and Belarus! And Keisuke Honda complained about how pampered Japanese footballers are.

Group B

Hmm…Pakhtakor, Al Shabab, Al Ain, and Naft Tehran. Just Al Ain with Lee Myung-joo, then (those clever Korean attacking midfielders! Choose to play in the Gulf when you want to get out of Korea, paid well, and not benched!)

Group C

Foolad, Lokomotiv, Al Hilal, and Al Sadd. Al Hilal have Kwak Tae-hwi while Al Sadd have Lee Jung-soo. Interesting though, that Al Hilal’s new forward is Georgios Samaras, on loan from West Brom.

Group D

Al Ahli Dubai, Tractor, Nasaf, Al Ahli Jeddah. Nice, two clubs with the same name will face each other. Dubai’s winger is Luis Jimenez, who played for Internazionale and West Ham and is listed as a Palestinian (since Dubai want to show that they are Asian-friendly and therefore can buy another Latino, and yay, Jimenez has Palestinian background). Meanwhile, their attacking midfielder is Oussama Assaidi, who played four matches with Liverpool. If AFC rejects Jimenez’ Asian status, then there’s ex-Jeonbuk midfielder Kwon Kyung-won.

Group E

East side – home to deserted stadiums, mediocre Japanese performance, interesting Chinese and Thai performances, and Australian away supporters who are proved to be more interested in local culture than other Asians are. Jeonbuk have familiar faces like Eninho, Alex Wilkinson, and Lee Dong-gook. Shandong have Diego Tardelli, who believed he should have been called for Brazil in World Cup 2014 (aren’t you glad now, Diego?). Vietnam again proves it’s the second best footballing nation in Southeast Asia with Becamex Binh Duo. Finally, there’s Kashiwa who wasted 2 hours last week to dispatch Chonburi. They are, though, still the best J. League team in the ACL for the past two years.

Group F

Gamba’s back, now with forward Shingo Akamine. They are with Seongnam FC (now Moonies-free), Buriram United, and Guangzhou R&F. Buriram’s New Zealander’s forward, Kayne Vincent, is half-Japanese. They also have Go Seul-ki, who lifted the 2012 ACL cup with Ulsan. Guangzhou R&F sport Park “Dokdo is Ours” Jong-woo and Jang Hyun-soo, who ironically played with FC Tokyo during the London Olympics.

Group G

Brisbane Roar have the usual names of Michael Theo, Henrique, Matt McKay, and Thomas Broich. Urawa maintain their all-Japanese look, with the exception of Slovenian forward Zlatan Ljubijankic. Same goes with Suwon Bluewings with Jung Sung-ryong, Oh Jang-eun, Jong Tae-se, and a trio of Brazilians. Beijing have no selling names but have a Swede with interesting name: Erton Fejzullahu (he’s Albanian Kosovar, like Adnan Januzaj).

Group H

G.E.T. Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, presented by Evergrande Real Estate Group and Alibaba Group. Kim Young-gwon is still there, and so are Elkeson and Rene Junior. Their new Brazilian is Ricardo Goulart, bought for 15 million euros from Cruzeiro. Western Sydney can expect another sleepless night in Guangzhou, and extra love for their two Japanese, Yusuke Tanaka and Yojiro Takahagi. At least they can see Tokyo again, well, its mirage, from the deer island of Kashima. The Antlers are same as always, with Masashi Motoyama, Koji Nakata, Davi, and Mitsuo Ogasawara. It’s like 2005 all over again. Finally: FC Seoul. Same – Kim Yong-dae, Kim Jin-kyu, Mauricio Molina, and Cha Du-ri. I hope Japanese Sergio Escudero stays with Seoul, although its fans prefer to take him as a Spaniard.

So yeah, ready for another disappointments and relief? Now move on to the cheaper brand of AFC Cup, which is more interesting for Southeast Asians and Hong Kongers.

Group A-D

Nothing’s important. Ignore the rumor that porn star Akari Asahina is the manager of Al Wahda Damascus. Certainly one of these West Asian clubs will lift the trophy again, like from Bahrain or Kuwait or Iraq.

Group E

Bengaluru have India’s darling Sunil Chhetri, Josh Walker, whose virtual version was available from FIFA 08 (Bournemouth) to FIFA 13 (Scunthorpe United), and Wayne Rooney’s long-lost brother Sean. Persipura retain many Papuan football stars like Boaz Solossa and Ian Louis Kabes. Warriors prove the sorry state of Singaporean football by only having 20 players, including four foreigners and two naturalized Singaporeans. Yes, what a football crazy nation. Maziya from Maldives surprisingly have a Spanish, Bulgarian, and Japanese (why surprising? No man would refuse working on a resort island where there are places where the sharia doesn’t apply for them).

Group F

Kitchee: five Spanish, two Brazilians, a Nigerian, two Koreans, a Canadian, and four naturalized Hong Kongers who grew up in Ghana and China. Nice. Besides two Nigerians, East Bengal have Australian Milan Susak, who played in Serbia, Germany, Indonesia, China, Iran, and UAE. Now this is one Mr. International. And also New Zealander Leo Bertos, who played in NZ’s three draws at 2010 FIFA World Cup. Like Kashima, Johor maintain the spirit of 2005 by playing Luciano Figueroa, Argentina’s hero of Copa America 2004 and FIFA Confederations Cup 2005. Sadder than Warriors, Balestier only have 19 players.

Group G

Yadanarbon win the Club with Interesting Players’ Names award, thanks to Okpechi Happiness, Boakay Foday, and Djedje Djawa (who should have played in Java). South China prove that globalization happens with Hong Kongers Jack Sealy and Michael Campion and Irish Sean Tse. And also Daniel McBreen, 2012-13 A-League golden boot winner. Global become the first Filipino team in the championship, and you can get Japanese overload with names like Daisuke Sato, Hikaru Minegishi, and John Kanayama. And there are two actual Japanese players besides those locals. Finally, Pahang make dream comes true for Pakistani and Jamaican football fans dreaming of seeing their nationalities represented in the world-famous AFC Cup.

Group H

My hometown team, Persib Bandung, are here. Sadly nothing is really interesting from this group (group of bore? Lucky you, Persib), besides the fact that Lao Toyota’s Japanese midfielder Dan Ito has played in 16 Asian countries over the last 15 years.

Milan Susak: Friend with Dan Ito on Flickr?

What, you want group prediction? I’m too afraid to make one. It’d be so funny though if GET don’t get the first place.

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Five Things about J. League 2014

You don’t need Nike or adidas to win the league.

J. League 2014 has wrapped up this month, with Gamba Osaka resurrected from death to ascend to the top. Just like the birthday boy (yea, actually He was born around May and 25th December is actually the birthday of Roman god Invictus Sol). I was going to call J. League the ________ League of Asia but that won’t work. Premier League? Not enough international stars (more on this later). Bundesliga? Might work ten years ago, plus now the best of J. League play in Bundesliga (ten years ago it would have been Serie A), but Bundesliga is now waaay better than Premier League.

Serie A then? Let’s see…famous names who are terrible in Champions League? Yes. A shadow of their 20th century selves? Yes. Corruption and match fixings? No, that would be China. Openly racist and sexist directors? Racist and sexist yes, but not openly. International fans who never abandon them? Yes. Fertile pool for future superstars? That works for Japan but not Italy.

So J. League is not even the Serie A of Asia. Because J. League it’s better, although it’s true that Honda looks more dashing wearing adidas’ Milan shirt than Umbro’s Gamba Osaka shirt (hey, you don’t see him playing for Urawa, do you?) Now he only needs to score several more goals for Milan and everything will be alright.

So, what’s 2014 about for Asia’s most popular league?

1. Like Japan, J. League is getting insular.

Japan’s response to the rise of China and Korea? Retreat to the mountain. The corporate owners of J. League teams don’t like how the world put their brands as an option besides (even behind) their Korean and Chinese competitors. Panasonic, owner of Gamba, experienced a resurgence in the 2000s from Lumix digital cameras, but now non-Japanese smartphones have put pocket cameras out of business, and professional photographers prefer Canon and Nikon (fellow Japanese, thankfully) for the big guns. Hitachi, owner of Kashiwa, has stopped making TV.

As J-pop refuses Western influences in contrast to K-pop and Japanese fanboys cling to the infantile AKB48 (mature-looking Korean girl bands are too scary for them), Japan is also cutting ties with its traditional Korean connection. Sagan Tosu were a serious contender for the championship thanks to coach Yoon Jung-hwan and playmaker Kim Min-woo. Could not bear the idea that a Korean could bring a traditionally minnow team to lift the trophy, the club fired Yoon on August. Tosu ended up not going to Champions League 2015, but the Japanese face of Sagantus is saved. I wonder if chairman Minoru Takehara or the governor of Saga was just aware of the Korean history epic Roaring Currents that summer.

So J. League clubs decreased the number of Koreans (on the other hand, many Koreans looking for international experience seem to prefer Arabian clubs. Plus, J. League teams still prefer Koreans over Australians for their Asian Foreign Player slot) but keep the Brazilians as acceptable foreigners. Sure, there are exceptions from Europe, but no African and Argentine played in 2014 J. League Division 1. Credit though, to Shimizu, who employed a Croatian-Canadian, a Slovenian, and a dark-skinned Chinese-Dutch.

 

2. Big Name Foreigners Cannot Flourish in J. League

J. League was the first Asian leagues to feature European legends – some continued to coaching like Zico, Dragan Stojkovic, and Guido Buchwald. But Japan was out of money by 1997 and never recovered its glamor, and now China and the Gulf have it.

Cerezo Osaka tried a play from Shanghai and Guangzhou clubs and recruited Diego Forlan – best Uruguayan footballer before World Cup 2010 – and Brazilian-German striker Cacau who was also in South Africa 2010. The result? Seventeen losses. Cacau played only eleven matches and scored five goals, while Forlan scored seven goals and a couple in Asia. Still, very disappointing for a man who played in 2014 World Cup. A Manchester United fan who scoffed at him in 2004, saying he’ll only good enough for an Asian league in ten years time, couldn’t get any more accurate than that.

So, why can’t big name foreigners flourish in J. League? First, only one club tried it. Cerezo’s town rivals Gamba won the league using two forwards who were benchwarmers back in Brazil.

Second, the money. If Patric and Lins would be good enough in 2015 AFC Champions League, they will be approached by richer Arabian or Chinese clubs (the Arabs from oil and sovereign funds, the Chinese from property and trade networks) . Thanks to their disastrous responses to the rise of Korea and China (instead of studying what works), Japanese conglomerates are struggling to keep their business afloat, and thus cannot be generous with their football clubs’ budgets. On the other hand, Australians and even English envy Japan’s talent development – at least the academies are working.

 

3. Will J. League Blow Again in 2015 AFC Champions League?

This is like the English and Italian problems. The world sings their clubs’ names. Children on the farthest corners of the world wear club jerseys bearing names like Oscar, Gerrard, Totti, and Vidal. But they have the slim chance of winning the 2015 UEFA Champions League (it’s zero for Liverpool). Worse than Japan, England and Italy have the slimmer chance to win the continental cup.

So why Japan keep on losing in the ACL? Let’s blame it first on distance. Do you know that compared to the distance of St. Petersburg and Madrid, the distance between Hiroshima and Dubai is…aw, forget it. They even could not hold a night in Seoul or Guangzhou, let alone Sydney.

Actually in 2014 Japanese clubs held themselves well in the group stage. Kawasaki were better than Ulsan. Hiroshima prevailed over Beijing. Cerezo defeated not only Buriram but also Shandong. Yokohama were unlucky enough to be grouped with both Jeonbuk and Evergrande. But if they could not handle flight fatigue to Guangzhou and Sydney, how could Korean clubs and Western Sydney prepared themselves for trips across India and the Arabian Sea?

So it went down to money and motivation. I don’t think club owners ordered their teams to throw away the match. But maybe the players and the managers themselves were not that interested with Asian tours. Since the double years of 2007 and 2008, it seems that Japan saw no point of Asian adventures – just like how they treated the competition in 2004. Ironically, once more Japan let the Koreans took the glory – and now even the Australians.

 

4. Do Japanese next best things need J. League?

There is Son Heung-min and there is Ryo Miyaichi. Both skipped local competitions and tried their luck in Europe. Miyaichi is lucky to be listed for the provisional Asian Cup squad, but I don’t blame him if he enjoys the abuses against Arsene Wenger. Son, on the other hand, gets all Cristiano Ronaldo’s perks at least in Korea.

Of course parents of non-European football prodigies worry if Europe will be the nightmare of their sons’ careers. It happened to Takayuki Morimoto and Hiroshi Ibusuki. Sota Hirayama made a career suicide when the sleepiness of Almelo killed him. Now he won’t wear the three-legged crow crest again, but at least he can see the lights of Tokyo every night.

So it’s better to see if you’re good for J. League first, then for the national team. Like Okazaki or Uchida. The miracles of Kagawa and Honda won’t happen to everyone (Honda was practically unheard of outside Japan when he was playing for Nagoya). Then again, we have enough Okubos and Usamis to show that J. League might be the final frontier for the rest. The twist is that the world’s best Asian footballers (or even athletes) play outside the system. That’s why they are specials.

 

5. What will Happen to J. League in 2015?

J. League 2015 will return to the two parts system, Latin American style, topped with Korean or Australian style championship play-offs, in an attempt to draw back spectators and sponsors. British commentators are skeptical and football hipsters mourn the loss of its volatile nature. Maybe that’s what actually the suits want to settle. Maybe they want two Kanto clubs to act like Chelsea and Arsenal and two Kansai clubs (hmm…bit difficult now, eh?) to act like Manchester United and Manchester City. Nagoya can play Liverpool.

How it will effect Japanese football quality remains to be seen. I mean, look at Australia. Where have they gone wrong? To market their clubs well, however, club owners have to market their corporate brands better. I love Panasonic earphones, but of course they are jokes for Beat and Audio Technica wearing students. Pajero drivers are increasingly seen as dicks (female drivers included) in Southeast Asia, and uh, Sumitomo, what are you selling again?

The Chosen 23 – who will be there Part 1

A dog doing his guard

A dog doing his guard

Thanks to my nephew who asked who Spain’s forwards will be for World Cup 2014 – and if Fernando Torres is among them*.

So with the World Cup coming in one and half months, it’s time to check and speculate on the top 23 picks for Japan, Korea, and Australia (but not Iran, sorry). And who should be on waiting lists.

*My takes: Pedro, Diego Costa, Negredo, Soldado, and David Villa. Torres is a possibility backup along with Llorente.

 

Japan

Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima is Japan’s biggest improver for this season. Already the safest pair of hands in Belgium, he has the good chance to lift the Belgian Pro League trophy. Behind him would be the safest hands in Japan (but not so in Asia, at least last year) Shusaku Nishikawa, who had moved from Hiroshima to Urawa. Number three is trickier. Usually they are Tokyo’s Shuichi Gonda and Hiroshima’s Takuto Hayashi, but Hayashi is crap in Asia and so is Gonda in Japan this season. If Al Z is interested in archeology, he could pick Kashima Antlers’ 34 year old Hitoshi Sogahata, who had deserved a decade worth of international appearance.

Defenders: Atsuto Uchida (Schalke), Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), and Hiroshi Sakai (Hannover). Japan’s four backs are covered. The reserves would be…all from J. League. I’d pick Kobe’s Takahiro Masukawa, Kashima’s Gen Shoji, and Sagan Tosu’s Michihiro Yasuda. Wild card: Tsukasa Shiotani (Hiroshima) and Wataru Hashimoto (Kashiwa).

Midfielders: Besides Kagawa (recovering) and Honda (falling), we have Nagatomo (who can be either left back or midfielder), we have Hajime Hosogai (Berlin), Hiroshi Kiyotake (Nurnberg), his compatriot at the club Makoto Hasebe, Takashi Inui (Frankfurt). Outside Germany, I reckon 33 year old Shinji Ono, leaving Western Sydney as a hero, deserves a place. Finally, Bochum’s Yusuke Tasaka. J. League picks would be Shoma Doi and Yasushi Endo (Kashima), Akihiro Ienaga (Omiya) and of course, Yoichiro Kakitani, who performs better in Asia than in Japan so far with Cerezo.

Forwards: Shinji Okazaki (Mainz) deserves the top bill. As I want Japan to try to have two forwards instead of one, we should go with Mike Havenaar (Vitesse) as the tandem. Yuya Osako (1860 Munich) shows great potential and should be included in with four goals from six appearances. The local dudes I’d pick are among Yohei Toyoda (Tosu), Yoshito Okubo (Kawasaki), and Yuu Kobayashi (Kawasaki). Still uncertain about Hiroshima’s Hisato Sato.

 

Korea

Goalkeepers: Gosh, going all locals. Okay, play safe and go with Kim Yong-dae (Seoul), and his lifelong rival Kim Young-kwang (Gyeongnam). Actually, for Yong-dae’s rival I pick Cerezo’s Kim Jin-hyeon, one of few Korean top players who are still playing in Japan. In fact, I might replace Young-kwang with Ulsan’s Kim Seung-gyu or Pohang’s Shin Hwa-yong, seeing how good Pohang are in both Korea and Asia.

Defenders: Okazaki’s mate at Mainz Park Joo-hoKwak Tae-hwi (Al Hilal), Hong Jeong-ho (Augsburg), Kim Jin-kyu (Seoul), Kim Young-kwon (Evergrande), Hong Chul (Suwon), and Yun Suk-young (Queen Park Rangers). Can’t think of any good reserve at the moment. 

Midfielders: Park Ji-sung? The Guard Dog has little desire to return to the national team, although at 32, he’s still the greatest footballing Korean in the world. If he refuses the spot, then it’s up to Koo Ja-cheol (Mainz), Lee Chung-yong (Bolton), Ki Sung-yong (Sunderland), Kim Do-heon (Suwon), Kim Nam-il (Jeonbuk), Kim Bo-kyung (Cardiff), Ji Dong-won (Augsburg), Ha Dae-sung (Beijing Guoan), and Lee Seung-gi (Jeonbuk). Reserves are Jung Hyuk (Jeonbuk) and Kim Jae-sung and Lee Myeong-ju (Pohang).

Forwards: Lee Dong-gook, obviously. And obviously he has to stay smart this time. Then Son Heung-min (Leverkusen), Kim Shin-wook (Ulsan), and Yeom Ki-hun (Suwon). I’m not sure about 34 year old Seol Ki-hyeon, so I’d go for Kim Seung-dae (Pohang), and Lee Keun-ho (Sangju, as he’s in the Army at the moment). And there’s always Park Chu-young :p.

 

Australia

Oh Socceroos, what has happened to you. At this rate you won’t cut it for the World Cup, trailing behind Uzbekistan.

Goalkeepers: Luckily there’s Mathew “Mat, not Matt” Ryan (Club Brugge), Kawashima’s nemesis in Belgian Pro League. Since we have to cross Mark Schwarzer, then Ryan’s deputies would be Adam Federici (Reading), and two bench warmers in great clubs, Brad Jones (Liverpool) and Mitchell Langerak (Dortmund).

Defenders: Luke Wilkshire (Dynamo Moscow), Rhys Williams (Middlesbrough), Lucas Neill (Doncaster), Chris Herd (Aston Villa), Ryan McGowan (Shandong Luneng), Matt Smith (Brisbane Roar), and Matthew Spiranovic (Western Sydney). Reserves are Sasa Ognenovski (Sydney), Alex Wilkinson (Jeonbuk), and Jason Davidson (Heracles).

Midfielders: Cahill of course, then Brett Holman (Al Nasr), Mile Jedinak (Crystal Palace), Robbie Kruse (Bayer Leverkusen), Matt McKay (Brisbane Roar), Thomas Oar (Utrecht), Mark Milligan (Melbourne Victory), Dario Vidosic (Sion), and Adam Sarota (Utrecht). Harry Kewell has just retired so the wild card is James Holland (Austria Vienna).

Forwards: How can you tell Australia is an Asian team? When they are out of strikers. The best we can recruit are Mathew Leckie (FSV Frankfurt…what’s with Australian parents and Mat(t)hew for a son’s name? Just like Japanese with Shinji), Scott McDonald (Millwall. Yes, him, please), Adam Taggart (Newcastle Jets), and James Troisi (Melbourne Victory). Well, none of them is a household name in Europe so far. I also consider Ivan Franjic (Brisbane Roar), Joel Griffiths (Newcastle Jets..but he’s 33), and David Williams (Melbourne Heart).

Those are the names that if, they are fit and healthy enough, might play in Brazil this June. Let’s see how the Australians are doing with the final matches of A-League, and the Japanese and Koreans (and Australians too, great showing this season) with the group stage of AFC Champions League coming to an end.

Whoops, sorry….

I haven’t updated this blog for a while. And to think that The Economist said that Indonesia is a world leader in terms of dead blogs…

Some old transfer news: Cerezo Osaka’s top scorer Shinji Kagawa moved to Borussia Dortmund while it is said that Mark Schwarzer received player-coach offer from Arsenal.

So J & K leagues have returned, with Kashima overtaken Shimizu after victories against Kawasaki Frontale and recently against Jubilo Iwata (3-2, Gilton, Koji Nakata, and Marquinhos against Nasu and Naruoka). The highlight of the week, however, is 3-3 slugfest between Shimizu & Nagoya. Tamada scores 2 while Okazaki strikes one.

In Korea, Jeju Utd. maintains its sensation (and league table lead) with away victory against Incheon United (2-1, Kim Eun-Jun and Santos Jr. against Song Yoo-Geol). Seongnam & Seoul are trailing one point behind Jeju with their respective wins against Daejeon and Gwangju.

Small improvement: blogrolls. :p.