Where the Players are Coming from

May he prosper in Singapore

May he prosper in Singapore

Around two years ago I had discussed naturalization, and this year’s AFF (ASEAN Football Federation) Cup features three teams with plenty of naturalized players – Singapore, Philippines, and Indonesia.

The Singaporeans are leftovers from a decade long project, but they are in the final. Shi Jiayi and Qiu Li, born in China, are 29 and 31 years old respectively. So does Sarajevo native Fahrudin Mustafic, and Daniel Bennett (34) came from England. One of the deadliest strikers in Southeast Asia, Aleksandar Duric, is 42. I wouldn’t be surprised if a fan put on their heads over the bodies of The Expendables.

Philippines and Indonesia invested in young bloods from Europe with different results. Philippines remain the dark horses of Southeast Asian football and no SE Asian team now can be confident they can secure win against the Street Dogs (yep, the nickname itself is quiet un-Asian). Indonesia received little support with the FA civil war lingers on and fans greeted the 0-2 defeat to Malaysia with little emotion. The prevailing mood was “I’ve told you so.”

Actually, naturalization is hardly the business of Asian nations too lazy to develop homegrown players. Both England and Australia are recruiting migrants from Africa, like Wilfried Zaha and Emmanuel Frimpong (England) or Kofi Danning and Bernie Ibini-isei (Australia). In the case of England (less likely with Australia), the FA is aware that some players can still opt to play for their countries of birth.

When the naturalization debate began in Indonesia five years ago, many commentators erroneously cited the example of France – they said that Zinedine Zidane and Marcel Desailly were also naturalized. I wouldn’t be surprised if several Indonesians believe that Mario Balotelli is naturalized (heck, even some Italians refuse to accept that he is Italian). My definition for a player who is naturalized is someone who had spent a good deal of his life in a country and played football there (i.e. joining a football club) before moving somewhere else. This definition sticks for most players in Asia (e.g. Singapore, Qatar, and Indonesia).

That is because you hardly have people from elsewhere migrating to Asia and raising kids there. Japan makes an exception. Until last year I thought that Mike Havenaar was a son of a Dutch and Japanese, rather than a Dutch who was born in Japan. In early 1990s Japan did naturalize adult Brazilians such as Ruy Ramos and Wagner Lopes, but in the last ten years Japan features one of the most multicultural national teams in Asia, and they are made in Japan – Havenaar, Tadanari Lee, Ariajusuru Hasegawa, and Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Alex Santos in the past (well, Santos finished his school in Japan). I’m still waiting for an Asian Socceroo. Their closest counterparts in Asia might be English Hong Kongers like Michael Campion and Jaimes McKee (a midnight child – his family came to Hong Kong in 1997).

Filipinos can be defensive about their footballers, worried that outsiders accusing them of playing cheap. Of course, it’s fair for them to recruit half-Filipinos, rather than arranging a Brazilian or Nigerian to switch citizenship (did Emerson wave the flag of Qatar yesterday?). Actually, that what Singapore did, and it was bit lazy – rather than owing to the virtue of immigration. I’d be happier (and no doubt many Singaporeans would be) if they look for Western footballers with a Singaporean parent (isn’t that wonderful that many half-Filipino kids in Europe and USA are boys who choose footballing as a career?) or develop migrant kids in Singapore to become footballers, the way Japan does. While there could be, could be, not enough white French footballers in France, definitely there is not enough Chinese and non-Muslim Indian footballers in Singapore.

What’s the outlook of the future of Singapore’s football? Well, the naturalization program is still living, seeing that Jonathan Toto and Sirina Camara (France) and Sherif El-Masri (Canada) are in the Young Lions. There are certainly more Chinese names, like Emeric Ong, Gary Lee, and even Benjamin Lee, whose mother is Danish. Certainly it’s quite fair to say that in Singapore, footballing (playing professionally, that is) is a Muslim affair. But seems Chinese Singaporeans are able to live with it like white French supporters do with Les Blues.

Chill down

Never mind Kagawa, here’s your Asian striker.

In other words, because Kagawa isn’t around.
Well, that’s not very fair, is it? Ulsan Hyundai qualify to the AFC Champions League final, the fourth in the row for K-League teams, Keisuke Honda’s kicking around in Russia, and Manchester City is interested to give Hideki Ishige a training run.

But it’s another calm weekend for Asian football. Certainly Shinji Kagawa is the focal point of Asian representation in world football, just like Jeremy Lin does in basketball. And yeah, it’s making me nervous if he does play – worried that he would play badly. Again, that’s not very fair considering that he has scored two goals and several assists in England and Europe, better than Rooney and Welbeck. But while many in Japan overhype him (as usual with any Asian sporting star), many others want to see him fails to make impression in Manchester United, and not only in Europe. Perhaps some of them are also in Asia. They have no problem with a Turk, or Barbadian, or an Congolese, but many people in this world still think that an East Asian doesn’t belong on the pitch. Of course, no one thinks that Ali al-Habsi or Sanharib Malki is doing what he’s not supposed to do.

Sadly, there’s not much replacement could stand in for Kagawa. Whether he plays or not, these days it’s hard to admire Park Ji-sung as the captain of Queen’s Park Rangers (although QPR is probably the only team in Europe to feature players from all confederations, thanks to him, Ryan Nelsen, and Junior Hoillet). The worse thing I can do is to watch Southampton – Maya Yoshida is tumbling and fumbling once more week after week, and Tadanari Lee is never around, not even on the bench (please choose him over Emmanuel Mayuka. Please).

Of course, I am envious of the Belgians – five years ago they were the jokes of Europe, now their players are sought after even perhaps more than the Dutch. Five years ago, Japan and South Korea could handle them. A fate that Kagawa has is that he’s seen as the poor replacement to Eden Hazard. Of course, if you think about it, at least the Japanese and the Koreans are not Australians. Yeah I know, I’m thinking about Koo Ja-cheol rather than Ryo Miyaichi when trying to compare them with Kofi Danning.

…and another thing

First, of course the best news this week is Ulsan Hyundai. I’ve taken the fact that a Korean team will play in the ACL final for granted and it happens again. Yeah it’s good luck, but in any year there’s must be one Korean team that have the guts, the tradition, the determination, and the skill to get forward. Japan qualified three teams to the playoff round and none of them had enough of those requirements. Seongnam, in short, was just out money just like Bunyodkor were, but even the glamour-less Uzbeks still could overcome Adelaide United.

The ACL 2012 were full of unfulfilled fairy tales, it wasn’t UEFA Champions League 2003-04 (final: Porto versus Monaco). No Guangzhou, no ‘wild card’ Adelaide, and Ulsan dispatched Al Hilal too easily. In the end, it was the battle of giants (also Al Ahli were also supposed the third rank team behind Hilal and Ittihad). So what makes Ulsan great? Simply Kim Young-kwang, a cultish goalkeeper, and the ex Gamba Osaka duo of Rafinha and Lee Keun-ho. There’s one in the list of reasons of Gamba’s sudden decline.

Their midfielders are not famous, while defenders Kang Min-soo and Kwak Tae-hwi can be as clumsy as Manchester United defenders (evident in the first half of last mid-week match against Bunyodkor). But I’ve taken another assumption for granted – AFC representatives will become the third best team in the FIFA Club World Cup. They can still take on African and CONCACAF champions anytime.

….suddenly I wonder if J. League disinterest with the ACL is also related to the fact that it only needs to win the J. League to qualify for the Club World Cup. Then again, I don’t want the CWC to be hosted in the Gulf.