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.

5 Things from Asian Football this week

It’s Euro qualifying week so it’s friendly week in Asia. By tradition, it never runs well for both Korea and Japan (Kirin [Challenge] Cup was hardly fun), and for a change of pace, Australia still had not won an international this year (to the joy of some Asian media). Basically, it’s about how Asia moves beyond Brazil 2014. Here are five things I took note.

Work sucks.

Work sucks.

1. Keeper

Eiji Kawashima. 2014 caps with Japan: 8. Goals conceded: 13. 2014-15 appearances in Belgian Pro League: 7. Goals conceded: 16. He’s terrible in club and country. Last semester he was close to win the trophy (Liege were the top of the regular league, but lost in the final group by two points) and was the second safest hands in Belgium, together with Australian Mat Ryan (Anderlecht’s Silvio Proto was the top goalkeeper).

Last night he conceded five, his second time this season – to round up a terrible week after he was blamed for Venezuela’s second goal in the 2-2 friendly. He passed August without a clean sheet, and Liege’s sub goalkeeper Yoann Thuram is itching to take over his place. He has a great chance to be a benchwarmer before Christmas. Lucky for him, in Japan no one is able yet to replace him. Shusaku Nishikawa let three goals past him the last time he guarded Japan’s goal for 90 minutes (against Zambia), but things may change if Liege’s coach Guy Luzon has enough with Kawashima and if Nishikawa brings Urawa to win the J. League title.

Australia experienced a serious bout of Europe-based keeper disappointments. Adam Federici. Brad Jones. Nathan Coe. Mitch Langerak. Mat Ryan seemed to be answer, but just like Kawashima, he had conceded 13 goals this year, out of 8 games. Ironically, Australia’s first victory came when Langerak was on duty – considering that Ryan let no goal past him against Ecuador in the first half while Langerak missed four in 45 minutes.

Club wise, the rivalry between Ryan and Kawashima was one thing that made me keeping track of Belgian Pro League (not much news is in English), and often Ryan seemed like winning. He’s not doing that bad, compared to Kawashima, conceded seven goals out of six matches, but his mates did not do very well in scoring. Maybe just like in Australia. Langerak, meanwhile, experiences the benefits of training with Dortmund without the perk of playing. No one is sure who will stand for Australia in the AFC Asian Cup.

Now to Korea, which never exports a goalkeeper to Europe. Lee Woon-jae was much better than Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, but he stayed in Suwon. Jung Sung-ryong, a rival of Kawashima, seems to be having the same path (lucky for him, things are looking up for Suwon). New coach Uli Stielike tries new options with Kim Jin-hyeon (who I picked into my Korea 23 to Brazil) and Busan’s Lee Beom-yeong. They did well in their matches – both conceded only one goal against Venezuela and Uruguay respectively. But I still don’t understand why does Korea never look at keepers from the two best clubs: Jeonbuk and Pohang. It’s been like this throughout this century. Do KFA and POSCO and Hyundai Motors have some sort of unresolved issues? I’m asking this because both Kim and Lee are playing for clubs who are in the relegation zone.

2. The world does not really care about Australian transitional period.

Australian bloggers and pundit remind fans and readers that the Socceroos are in a transitional period. Results should be seen in perspective. Cahill scored one of the best goals of Brazil 14. Ange believes in the quality of A-League. Western Sydney are on the verge of making a big bang in Asia. The “Dad’s Army” of Bresciano, Emerton, and Kennedy were changing into one of the youngest squad to appear in a World Cup, and they did fine.

Unfortunately, no one outside Oceania cares. England is just happy that Australia fails to catch up in football, unlike in uh, rugby or cricket or basketball. Asia loves seeing Australia’s gradual decline with different kind of degrees – even if their footballs are not better either.

For one thing, Australia still cannot live without Tim Cahill, who is very likely to be in for AFC Asian Cup. He is still Australia’s best striker, with Mat Leckie and Tommy Oar are now employed as wingers. It won’t be all good for Mark Bresciano, but it seems that Socceroos can go on without him (he played 13 minutes against Saudi Arabia). Tomi Juric is on the card, but again, Americans and British (English+Scottish by next week) are more likely to follow news on him than Asians do.

3. Japan: The parts are better than its sum

“Don’t blame me, I wasn’t playing with Manchester United.” That was last year. That was last month. “Don’t blame me, I wasn’t playing with Japan.” That was this month. So Shinji Kagawa left Manchester and returned to Dortmund, got number 7, and was put behind Adrian Ramos. It took him 40 minutes to score. 40 minutes. After 30 scoreless matches with Manchester United.

Meanwhile, Shinji Okazaki is now improbably Bundesliga’s top scorer, together with Julian Schieber. Above Son Heung-min. Above Thomas Muller. Above Ivica Olic. Above Pierre Aubameyang. It’s a big question that Javier Aguerre does not put him as the striker – insisting that he’s a right winger.

One of my joys of life is holding an affordable official Blue Samurai merchandise. The three legged crow, the JFA letters, the beautiful blue. Now it feels like it’s a brand of disappointment, of poor quality, of being clueless. But maybe it goes the same for England. Or Manchester United.

4. China tries. Not too hard.

One of the things you can say to make me laugh is saying that China can win the World Cup (so do Japan. Logically, any nation can win the World Cup). A proud Chinese and admirers of China say nothing is impossible – China had sent people to outer space, has won the Olympics (gathering the most gold medals, actually), made great laptops and mobile phones, and won tennis Grand Slams.

The World Cup, football, of course is different. It’s not related with economic progress or growing political power. It’s related with football culture. United States, the richest country in the world, was terrible with football in the second part of 20th century because it didn’t like soccer. Same went with Japan and Australia. Then in early 1990s, USA and Japan made professional leagues and invested in grass root football. Australia followed suit in early 2000s. Three of them had different catalysts. For USA, it was the successful World Cup. For Japan, it was winning AFC Asian Cup 1992 followed by the Agony of Doha (Iraq-Japan 2-2). For Australia, it was defeating American Samoa 31-0 followed by inter-ethnic riots that marred the semi-pro National Soccer League in early 2000s.

What’s supposed to be the catalyst for China? The Beijing Olympics failed to do so. Would it be Evergrande’s AFC Champions League title? Still not quite. China has to send players to Europe first, busting their arses and feet like Hide Nakata, Viduka, and Park Ji-sung did. Like Okazaki, Jedinak, and Son Heung-min do. Chinese Super League won’t be enough.

At least this month China did friendlies not for the show. They challenged Asian teams who are as strong as them – Kuwait and Jordan. China should push further. Arrange friendlies OUTSIDE China. Travel to the Middle East, to Europe, to North America, to Oceania. Export players to Asia like other Asians do – Japanese in India, Koreans in Qatar, Australians in Malaysia. Any self help guru says you have to break through your comfort zone. Japan, USA, and Australia have done it. Now it’s China’s turn.

#WeAreHK. Dozens of us.

#WeAreHK. Dozens of us.

5. Hong Kong national team is more important than ever

Asia used to sneer Hong Kong as a mercenary team. Some Chinese with a number of Westerners and Africans thrown in to increase the winning odd. Maybe in this modern Carthage, it’s hard to find local who’s willing to become professional athlete, although every boy wants to play football and their dads bet for Barcelona.

As Hong Kongers believe it is under heavy pressure from China to abandon its freedom and way of life, the national team becomes a symbol of hope and independence. It’s no wonder that the history of Hong Kong 2 China 1 of 1985 is revived (All Hong Kong players were Cantonese in that match, saved for sub Phillip Reis, who might be half or full blooded Portuguese). #WeAreHK appeared during the match against Singapore.

Hong Kong footballers who were lost to Vietnam (twice) and held Singapore (they would meet Singapore again next month) consisted of local Cantonese, Chinese who were born in China, naturalized Africans, and Westerners who were born in Hong Kong. Such is the multiculturalism that Hong Kong holds as its identity, and which China takes as a relic of British colonialism. On the other hand, I agree that Hong Kongers should start accepting Chinese citizens as humans, not “locusts”. The problem is the People’s Republic of China, not the Chinese people.

Better yet for Hong Kong, China is out of the AFC Champions League, but a Hong Kong club makes it into the semi finals of the AFC Cup. Worse for China, Kitchee’s opponents would be Erbil, the Kurdish club whose hometown is not only much older than Xian, but which autonomy has been impregnable by Saddam’s regime, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State.

AFC Champions League & AFC Cup 2014: Group Stage Review

Note to Nguyen Rodrigo: If you have to grab a man, make sure to see him eye to eye.

Note to Nguyen Rodrigo: If you have to grab a man, make sure to see him eye to eye.

There it is. Europe is yet to crown its best club while Asia has cut down its candidates to sixteen. Predictably, I care more about eight East Asian clubs. Maybe to West Asian clubs which have East Asian players – Koreans, Australians, and even an Indonesian.

But oh, there’s something closer to home – AFC Cup, where the action is for most of Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. There are also eight East Asian clubs surviving here…okay, so much to talk about. Start from the least interesting bits.

 

AFC Cup – Group E

Indonesian heavyweights Persipura, acronym of Jayapura United, ace the group. Papuans are indeed the workhorses of modern Indonesian football, and local boy Boas Solossa again proved himself as one of Indonesia’s best forwards with four goals. Behind Persipura are Churchill Brothers. Not named after the British Prime Minister, but after Goan big man Churchill Alemao who bought the Brothers Sporting Club. The Indians ended the group stage above Singapore’s police and customs team Home United by a single goal margin (head-to-head wise, Churchill also won their home match 3-1 compared to Home United’s 2-1).

Group F

I’m wondering what does “T&T” in Hanoi T&T stands for. Either telecommunication and telegraphs or tourism group T&T, which is based in Ho Chi Minh City (their website is inaccessible). The Vietnamese dominated the group thanks to 22 year old winger Nguyen Van Quyet, who had scored three times for the national team and wears number 10 for club and country. Indonesia does well this year by passing its second club to the Round of 16, Arema Cronus/Malang/Indonesia. So the team is based in the city of Malang, they were bought in 2012 from tobacco corporation Bentoel by conglomerate Bakrie Group, who put in the Cronus name (and which is never popular. I don’t know if Cronus here refers to the evil Greek god). Their star player is Uruguayan-Indonesian Cristian Gonzales.

This tournament, meanwhile, is forgettable for Malaysia. Selangor go out of the tournament with two draws and two losses, despite the seven goals of Brazilian Paulo Rangel. O yeah, Maladewan teams, despite their gallantries, were hopeless with five losses each for New Radiant and Maziya.

Group G

Just like FIFA suspended the transfer ban for Barcelona, AFC does not automatically ban Vissai Ninh Binh for match fixing – although it has suspended itself from the V-League. So nine Ninh Binh players bet $48 thousands on the outcome of their match against Kelantan¬† (four goals minimum) and threw away the first half 1-2, before scoring two in second half. What astonished me was their plan didn’t go wrong – what if they failed to score any goal in second half?

More astonishingly, no Malaysian media covered the scandal except for small piece in Malaysian Digest and a belated small question from New Straits Times. Predictably, nobody commented both articles. So uh, Malaysian football fans, are you OK with this? Are Kelantan that bad?

Of course, the ones who have some hope (or not at all) that they could go on if Ninh Binh are crossed from the competition are Hong Kong’s South China. At this point I’m beginning to wonder if anyone here cares about playing football and standing up for their club or not.

Group H

Moving away from that horror – Kitchee proudly represent Hong Kong with four wins, thanks to group stage’s top scorer Juan Belencoso (another nobody in Europe, somebody in Asia). Myanmar also qualifies its second club besides Yangon United, Nay Pyi Taw (based in that hideous new capital city). Less flashy than Yangon, but they got the job done.

Besides Malaysia, S-League also proves its overrated-ness as Tampines Rovers failed to qualify (hey look, there’s something Singapore’s bad at!) as they kept on losing. Their defense was really hideous with sixteen against goals. So much for two Japanese defenders. Counted by head to head, they were better than India’s Pune (beat them both home and away). By goal aggregates, though, Tampines were unbelievable*.

*Once I talked about the Rovers to a Tampines local and she replied “Dude, what are you talking about? What’s this Rovers thing?”

 

AFC Champions League – Group E

Pohang Steelers, owned by steel corporation POSCO, have the tradition of having non-fancy players (and kits) and stable performances both in Korea and Asia. They have done it again this year. Have you heard of Kim Seung-dae? Neither am I, but he had scored four goals and Pohang passed the group stage unbeatable. Sadly, very few of the steelers would make it into the Korean national team for Brazil 14, Seung-dae included.

It appears that you're searching for Kim Dae-seung.

It appears that you’re searching for Kim Dae-seung.

Cerezo Osaka’s investment with Diego Forlan paid off although the team experienced heavy damage on their effort to pass. The star of the group stage, however, was Yoichiro Kakitani, tipped as Japan’s next big thing.

Buriram United, Southeast Asia’s single representative, had the fond memory of beating Shandong Luneng 1-0 at home, but that’s about it. Vagner Love, former team mate of Keisuke Honda and once one of the best strikers in Russia, could not help Shandong despite five goals.

Group F

FC Seoul, owned by LG Corporation (more successful with TV, AC, and washing machine than mobile phone), did not emerge unscathed, but they scored more win than others. They certainly missed striker Dejan Damjanovic who moved to China (and Spanish-Japanese Sergio Escudero is a poor substitute), and it’s doubtful they could go very far with their current domestic form.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima, which did very terribly last year, tried again with very much the same composition (minus goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa who moved to Urawa). They also had the terrible luck of being subjected to two penalties in the last minutes of away match against Seoul. Still less than four penalties imposed at Kashiwa Reysol in 2013 when facing Suwon. Yes, the popular conspiracy theory in 2002 World Cup (on Korea vs Italy and Spain) might be true, and West Asian referees could feel intimated by the home crowd had the 90 minutes ended and Korea lost to Japan. Although I’m not sure how scary it was to persuade a man to award four penalties.

Group G

You know Guangzhou Evergrande will make it. You know they are still the favorites. Dario Conca has been replaced by Alessandro Diamanti and the Brazilians are still there – Muriqui, Elkeson, plus Rene Junior. But this year’s Evergrande is less scary. They are beatable. They scored only ten goals and conceded eight, much worse than Western Asian heavyweights. They are still the champions and they are still the only good Chinese team. But others are catching up fast.

Their big rival, Jeonbuk, also made it past this group of hell – due to narrow goal difference over Melbourne Victory. Of course, Victory’s coach Kevin Muscat also cried for penalty in the dying moments of the final match against Jeonbuk. Victory supporters shrugged that the referee was too scare to award it. One thing for sure – Korean stadiums are more fearsome for regional referees than Japanese, Australian, and even Chinese.

Group H

Well the Australian team I shouldn’t have supported topped the group. Western Sydney quickly eclipse its older and more beautiful sister Sydney FC and did very well for their first season in Asia. Kawasaki, arguably Japan’s best for this season, couldn’t even match their tally of eleven goals. Ulsan are the only failed Korean team, a letdown for the team with the supposedly best attacking formation in Korea. Another bottom of the barrel Chinese team, Guizhou, prove that Guangzhou Evergrande are on the different league with other CSL teams. Others have the money but not the results.

 

Stay tuned for the Round of 16 playoffs in early May. At least this time AFC makes it home and away.