Asian Champions League 2013 – after Matchday 4

Since I don't post pictures of Socceroos often.

Since I don’t post pictures of Socceroos often.

North Korea. What about ’em, eh? Making Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese forget to hate each other? Imagine how dreadful it is for Japanese teams and supporters to make away trips to China and Korea. But well, in the current vicious (by 21st century standard) stadium atmosphere in Europe, thank the Lord any spat between a Korean and a Japanese on the pitch can be solved by a double yellow card. The last time Japanese players had laser beam pointed at them was in Jordan (still, no excuse for me to miss my penalty kick, said Yasuhiro Endo).

The amount of Korean and Australian…and even Japanese…players in Gulf/Red Sea clubs has attracted my attention. Kwak Tae-hwi (formerly Ulsan) in Al-Shabab Riyadh. Go Seul-ki (formerly Ulsan) in El Jaish Doha. Shin Hyung-min (formerly Pohang) in Al Jazira Abu Dhabi. Nam Tae-hee (formerly Valenciennes) in Lekhwiya Doha. Mark Bresciano and Harry Kewell in Al Gharafa Doha. Takayuki Morimoto in Al Nasr Dubai. Alex Brosque in Al Ain. And Yoo Byung-soo in Al Hilal.

Which should make watching the AFC Champions League less stressful than used to be. In the end a Korean will still lift a trophy. Of course, it’s not always painless, as experienced by Lee Jung-soo when he, uhm, disagreed with his club’s gameplay against Suwon in 2011. Now he’s still in Al Sadd since the other option was worse – Guangzhou Evergrande.

Al-Shabab Riyadh: Passed Group A. Kwak Tae-hwi is a starter and played full time in all the four matches.

El Jaish: Runner ups of Group A with Iran’s Tractor Sazi on their tails. Go Seul-Ki performed quite poorly – subbed out twice and was also receiving yellow cards twice.

Al Jazira: On the verge of going out, almost. Two draws and two losses. Shin Hyung-min played in all matches.

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Lekhwiya: Tight race with Pakhatkor. Nam Tae-hee has scored six goals in the league (his best record), but yet to score in Asia. A starter who is consistently subbed out.

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Al Gharafa: Trying to keep up with the dominating Al-Ahli, although they are blessed with the unexpected terrible performance of Sepahan. Mark Bresciano has played twice in the competition, while Harry hasn’t (can he, legally?)

Al Nasr: Already out with four losses. In the team, Morimoto faces tough competitions from Bruno Correa (ex-Sepahan and Incheon) and locals Humain Abdulla Abbas, Hassan Mohamed, and Younis Ahmad. Goes without saying that Al Nasr’s main forward is Giuseppe Mascara. Here’s the twist – Morimoto has scored three times in Asia, in the playoff against Lokomotiv Tashkent, and then in losses to Al Ahli and Al Gharafa. League-wise, his kill rate is five goals out of seven games.

Wish list: That FIFA 14 features UEA Pro League

Wish: That FIFA 14 features UEA Pro League

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Al Ain: Neck to neck to championship’s regular Al Hilal, and still can overtake Esteghlal. Alex Brosque is enjoying stable position as wingman to Asamoah Gyan and has scored two goals – but not against Esteghlal.

Al Hilal: The only reason I’m glad there’s Saudi League in FIFA 13. The only team capable to bring 50 thousand spectators into an ACL match. Yoo Byung-soo seems to be a sub option behind veteran Yasser Al Qahtani and Wesley, and he’s yet to make a mark as a super sub after coming out from the bench three times.

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FC Seoul: Top performers from Korea with patchy records (two wins, a draw, a loss). Cha Du-ri is now a seat warmer, Mauricio Molina is showing his age, and Japanese Sergio Escudero is settling quite well. The team rely on Dejan Damjanovic, Ha Dae-sung, and Adilson.

Buriram United: The rise of Southeast Asian football? They hold themselves quite well and are having a Mexican standoff with Sendai, which they held 1-1 in the cold north. Defenders Charyl Chappuis is the first half-Westerner Thai footballer and he plays well. And try to pronounce this Swiss sub – Chitchanok Xaysensourithone.

Vegalta Sendai: Qualification to playoff still not sure, but respect should always be given to these brave men. The goalscorers (three so far, same with Buriram) are the club’s most recognizable name – North Korean Ryang Yong-gi, Wilson, and 35 year old Atsushi Yanagisawa. Shingo Akamine is yet to show his magic this season.

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Guangzhou Evergrande: You know they are at it again. The big question is can they reach the semi-finals. Huang Bowen is back in China and Dario Conca is still probably the best number 10 in Asia (well he’s number 15). Muriqui is the current top scorer in Asia, while in China he is challenged by Guangzhou midfielder Elkeson (not playing in ACL). Lucas Barrios, who could become a flop in China, has scored against Urawa Reds.

Jeonbuk: One win, three draws. Bad records for Jeonbuk. Especially their defense. Choi Eun-seong doesn’t only look old – he’s 42. Central Coast alumni Alex Wilkinson is still settling in. Jeonbuk are supposedly to be scary with Eninho, Kim Jung-woo, Kevin Oris, and Lee Dong-gook. They should have been.

Urawa Reds: The most popular clubs in Japan are back, in regular shape – battered and bruised. 21 year old Genki Haraguchi is striving to graduate into Samurai Blue, while Shinzo Koroki is drifting away from chance to wear the national jersey. They will not pass the group stage. Hopefully Haraguchi can play in Europe in three years time.

Muangthong United: Well, they do what they can. And yet with a point, they still have chance to qualify, due to Jeonbuk’s disappointing form.

Genki desu ka? Hai, genki desu.

Genki desu ka? Hai, genki desu.

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Pohang Steelers: Same with Jeonbuk – one win and three draws. They are all-Korean this year, without any famous name. Surprisingly, they are doing well in the league, thanks to midfielders Cho Chan-ho, Lee Myeong-ju, and Hwang Jin-sung. Hwang Sun-hong legend in the making will depend on how they add up against Beijing, but certainly Hiroshima are no threat for them.

Beijing Gouan: They have Frederic Kanoute.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima: Turned out Hiroshima are not Asia-ready. Shusaku Nishikawa still have far to go before he can challenge Eiji Kawashima, and Mihael Mikic is never good enough. The biggest problem with Hisato Sato is that he seems to score only against Japanese keepers – a good argument against his return into the national team. And yes, I remember that he scored three goals in last year’s Club World Cup. Once against Al Ahly and twice to…Urawa. Well.

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Kashiwa Reysol: I thought that Yokohama Marinos deserved the Emperor Cup better. I take it back. Their Brazilian spice still kicks. This time it’s Cleo, who played for Evergrande, and old timer Leandro Domingues. This is also a great springtime for Masato Kudo.

Central Coast Mariners: Another bad year for Australian football, with Kewell rather be unemployed than playing in the A-League. There are, however, glimmer of hopes for the Socceroos from Matthew Ryan and Mitchell “Duke” Duke.

Suwon Bluewings: High maintenance, low returns. Three 0-0 matches. With Jung Sung-ryong, Eddy Bosnar, Kwak Hee-ju, Kim Do-heon, Oh Jang-eun, Jong Tae-se, Stevica Ristic, and Dzenan Radoncic, Suwon still don’t know how to win. A failed Samsung product.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s Classic

Hee?!

Hee?!

Cola Classic. Pope Classic (Benedict XVI). Media Player Classic. Now K-League Classic.

I believe so many people thought that there were two types of K-League. The classic one with familiar faces – Jeonbuk, Lee Dong-gook, Samsung, Dejan Damjanovic…and there’s a brand new K-League without Start button, and with goal line technology and stars like Guiza*,  Kazuyuki Toda^, and Park Chu-young.

*Darul Takzim, Malaysia.

^Warriors FC, Singapore.

Among the teams on this new K-League is Bucheon FC 1995 (hey, remember FIFA 2002 and so? Because Bucheon SK moved to Jeju in 2006), Suwon FC (Samsung-less), and Gwangju FC (hey, I think I remember you guys). So I thought that the new K-League would be more elite, they can dispatch Guangzhou Evergrande with ease. But yeah, who would represent Korea in the ACL?

And so after much embarrassment and creating writing agony for bloggers and correspondents (or I got confused with SimCity server), K-League Division 2 changed its name from K League to K League Challenge. And Division 1 is still…K League Classic. Well, catchier than J. League’s Division 1, but still, what’s with the classic thing. Gwangju  and Sangmu Sangmu Phoenix (aka the draftees) are history, there’s nothing really classic about FC Seoul and Jeju United, and classic is not a word you associate with “We try to get rid of the match fixing stink”.

Still, let’s give a cheer for the 2013 season of J. League and K-League. Three Japanese are in Korea – Yuta Baba (Daejeon), Sergio Escudero (FC Seoul), and Chikasi Masuda (Ulsan Hyundai). The rest of the Asian players are from Australia, while Server Djeparov returns to Korea and joins the Moonies. Proud North Korean Jong Tae-se is also in Seoul, where no other North Korean Seoulite would like to shake his hand and have a chat with him about the good old country.

On the other hand, there’s only an Aussie left in Japan – Josh Kennedy. Strange, since everything I learned about Japan I learned from Australians. All the Asian players are South Koreans, so Japan wins the Insular Mentality battle against against Korea. Clap clap. The only West European in Japan is Shimizu’s Calvin Jong-a-Pin, while Kevin Oris could start a taste for Belgians in Korea (heard they might make it big in Brazil 2014).

So, of course, not really flashy compared to China, but you can’t get flashy if you play without get paid. After week 3, Yokohama F Marinos and Cerezo Osaka are going strong in Japan, while Pohang, Jeonbuk, and Incheon are going okay in Korea.

The important thing for me (and less important for club managements especially in Japan) is how domestic results translate to continental results (spending certainly not a topic here) – something even complicated for English clubs. Kashiwa surprisingly do well despite my conviction that Marinos were the better club to represent Japan. Hiroshima are disappointing, Guangzhou are certainly one of the most formidable clubs in East Asia at the moment, and I’m not sure how Urawa and Sendai can hold up against FC Seoul and Jeonbuk.

Although I can say worse for the Koreans – only FC Seoul have tasted victory. That’s one match out of eight for the Koreans. Bunyodkor are certainly some annoying invaders (that space should belong to an A-League team, with only three teams from Qatar), but they are good invaders and they exposed the faults of Sanfrecce and Steelers.

Well, they have days until April to fix things up, but the attention for the rest of the month will be on the national team – Japan can secure a ticket to Brazil before the sakura flowers are in full bloom, and Korea are preparing for a major battle. Big responsibilities for Yuzo Kurihara, Kim Chang-soo, Ha Dae-sung, and Lee Dong-gook.

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.

Agony of February

Just keep doing better, man.

Just keep doing better, man.

February. 30ish days after your New Year’s Resolutions, you meet the truth that some old troubles stick. Others are popping out. That fresh start is not really fresh. People replaced their calendar with dread – O God, it’s one month already and I’m still like this?!

As for me, health problems keep dragging me down and prevented me to write on the scram from Shanghai and the Singapore fix sooner. But let’s get it on with the bleeding.

First paragraph applies to Korea. Now they are six months away from their last victory – 2-1 in friendly against Zambia back in August. Then draw with Uzbekistan, and then loss to Iran, and then…loss to Australia at home.

In February 2013 Korea attempted to be international and held friendly with Croatia in London – so Ki SY and Lee CY could take trains, Park CY, Son HM, and Koo JC could take budget flights, while Croatia could bring in the heavies.

Indeed they were. Ah, 0-2 at half-time. Well, Mario Manduzkic is certainly better than Mario Gomez, isn’t he? Let’s try second half, this time with Lee Dong-gook, Park Chu-young, and Kim Bo-kyung thrown in. Ah, 0-4. By guys who played in Everton and Fulham. For comparison, Australia also went down 2-3 to Romania in Spain…but they scored twice. Well, their defenders, anyway. And that after winger Robbie Kruse had a great weekend before the match.

If I were a Korean, I’d be so envy toward the Japanese, who enjoy the spotlight with Shinji “I’m not good enough” Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, and Shinji Okazaki. And Yuto Nagatomo, who is playing for Inter and might play for Munich or Manchester United. Granted, Latvia didn’t send its best team to Japan (i.e. no Hamburg’s Artjom Rudnevs), but see how offices were like on Thursday morning in Tokyo and Seoul. I even wore Samurai Blue scarf to work – flu-chic.

Umm, now in Shanghai people are celebrating New Year, Anelka and Drogba must be not on their minds. In mid-January I was searching the reasons why they left – Shanghai sounded supposed to be a fun place to play easy football and gaining easy money. Turned out the explanations were so simple.

Shanghai boss Zhu Jun is a bizzare character in first place. Some say that he’s more interested in self-publicity, oneupmanship, and online gaming business (The9) rather than football business. That could be the logical explanation behind the sellings of Duvier Riascos (24 goals in 39 matches) and Gao Lin (to scandal-tainted Guangzhou Evergrande, well this is back in 2010). That’s why Joel Griffiths left (he wasn’t happy in Beijing either). That’s why Tigana was sacked just after five matches.

That’s why the team went on strike in October. Zhu Jun himself was unhappy – his business partners in the Communist Party didn’t give him ‘his fair share’.

I was one of those who believed that Anelka and Drogba could flourish in China. The men themselves had pictured great lives in the great Far East metropolitan. The result was like what I wrote in the 2012 review – goals to force a draw, frustrations, and Anelka sulking on the supporters. When they left, Shanghai Shenhua supporters blamed the club – or saying that actually they were too good for Shanghai. And so greed and ignorance of several tycoons (and their cronies in the government) cancelled the rise of Chinese football.

Worse thing came out of Singapore, and also with worse reaction. The fixing of boatloads of friendlies, lower leagues, and even probably the Champions League match between Liverpool and Debrecen. For years everyone had spoken about ‘Asian gambling syndicate’. Now we have names – Dan Tan Seet Eng (Dan is his English name. His Chinese given name is Seet Eng) and his lieutenant Wilson Raj Perumal. WRP was arrested in Finland soon after he berated some players who didn’t fulfill order. There were stories that it was Tan who tipped the police because Perumal blew his budget and had too many debts to the boss.

Why it’s a worse news? Not just because it’s a major international crime. But it’s depressing how Singapore reacts to the scandal. Major media outlets (controlled by the government) did put it on headlines, but no more than that. Now it’s a forgotten story in Singapore. Several Westerners believe that Dan Tan is not really a fugitive – he’s still in Singapore. I wonder if many Singaporeans think the same – they don’t say. Even these days it’s easier for correspondents to know what the Chinese think (through anonymous interviews and lurking on microblogs) than what do the Singaporeans think.

So why does the Singaporean government seem to aloof on Tan? I don’t believe that they have the share from his profit – it’s rather the very annoying Asian concept of ‘saving face’. One explanation on why do Singaporeans control the fixing industry rather than the Chinese is because the islanders speak English and the passport has very good reputation. Being a small nation, Singaporean passport holders can travel the world effortlessly under the radar. And even after this scandal is known worldwide, they are protected from law and media scrutiny simply because of that saving face thing. Not just from ‘mere outsider’ but from the Malay minority and neighbors. Chinese and Indian Singaporeans cannot afford to live with the fact that they can be baddies too. The government cannot live with the fact that it lives from dirty money. And they are lucky again – the world pays more attention for bad news from China than from the unassuming Singapore.

And so, the result was the destruction of Southeast Asian teams in the first round of 2015 AFC qualification. Jordan – Singapore 4-0. Thailand – Kuwait 1-3. Iraq – Indonesia 1-0 (that was okay, actually). Qatar – Malaysia 2-0. Vietnam – UAE 1-2. Saying that ‘we suck’ isn’t enough. Putting too much attention on English football (only for 4-5 teams, actually) while looking down on local football is the issue. Southeast Asia and China have their asses kicked by West Asia and they are supposed to angry about that, not just merely shrugging (Hong Kong got my credit for holding Uzbekistan 0-0). And yeah, Singapore disappoint again. Big time.

At least there’s a ray of hope. Tonight Buriram United join Muangthong United in representing Thailand in the AFC Champions League, after defeated Brisbane United 3-0 on penalties. Buriram’s forwards were composed by non-Thai Asians – Japanese Kai Hirano and American Anthony Ampaipitakwong. It’s actually unfortunate that Australia only has 1.5 allocation, with Uzbekistan having a very weird arrangement – 1.5 in West and 1 in East. But that means Australia, and Southeast Asia, have to fight hard to get more spots in the Champions League. Yes you, Southeast Asia.

 

End of Part 1

To all yaoi fan in Japan and Australia.

The future is Asia. Indeed, AFC. While Euro 12 is halted by a thunderstorm, Japan are already euh, quarter way to World Cup 14. Five points above their closest rivals and nemesis. Which are Iraq. With outstanding ten goals to one. In Group A, 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar are sitting pretty for their anticipated intercontinental playoff against New Caledonia Zealand after experiencing win, draw, and loss with two goals deficit.

Good old Japan. When they were terrible for their World Cup 2010 preparation, they scored two victories against Cameroon and Denmark. When they passed the Third Round below Uzbekistan with back-to-back defeats, now they are catching up with the girls’ brand of Chiki-Chaka (Japanese don’t say ‘t’). It worked well against Oman and Jordan, although some works need to be done against the Wallabies-trained Socceroos.

Yes, Australia vs Japan match last Tuesday was painful to watch thanks to erratic referee Khalil al Ghamdi. Australia might have deserved a penalty after several harassment on Alex Brosque (I was afraid that Osieck had chosen Kennedy instead of him), but that was just bizarre. Yuzo Kurihara is really something. Well, as fate has it, if Yoshida’s made recovery he’ll guard the centre back again against Iraq on September, even if the pretty late bloomer has shown how adept he is in goalscoring. After that nerve-racking match, watching the second half of Korea – Lebanon felt so relaxing.

Japan 2012 see the glorious return of Keisuke Honda, after his injury, failure to leave Russia, and probably personal self-doubt after all the limelight moved to Shinji Kagawa. It was charming (both for Australia-Japan friendship enthusiasts and yaoi fans) to see he and Tim Cahill, all topless, sharing their love for number four and their disgust for al Ghamdi. Even Don Al and Holger were in good mood after the game, although Osieck knows fans might berate him for failing to collect three points after two games (not really. At least the press are still optimistic), at the same year with the epic failure of the Olyroos.If Australia are so confident the draws mean they’ll be alright against Iraq, good for them. See the good side – for the next time they’ll host Oman and probably give them 5 pm kick off as well, Japan have proven that Jordan’s crap, and they are likely to draw Japan again in a Tokyo satellite city.

Korea, on the other hand, have shown that they don’t need Park Chu-Young for now (given how much jeong attention I’ve given to the man, I’m surprised he hasn’t written a comment yet). No, Ji Dong-Won, the number 10, is not even on the starting lineup. No, not Lee Dong-Gook either, who hasn’t repeated his comeback against Kuwait last February. But rather, collective of players who are playing around the pond, with the exception of Koo Ja-Cheol.

I hope that the C.Y. problem can be sorted out and he can play in Brazil 14. Personally I think his decision to seek more troubles is unwise, seeing how he’s wasted in Arsenal and how he had disappointed Lille. Put it this way: as much as I’m against national service, the Republic of Korea is still at war, and many Korean men who have equally crucial priorities in their lives cannot do something such as applying permanent residency in Monaco (a Greek-Australian told me that many Greek teens are sent by their families to live with relatives in Australia and playing football while over there, in order to avoid draft. Greece, of course, would be much more lenient than Korea).

In early September, the cards would be shuffled again. Would an Olympic star win his place in the senior team? Would Chu-Young be the prodigal son? Can Japan, improbably, have a forward surplus? How’s Schwarzer going to celebrate his hundredth cap for Australia? Meanwhile, it’s all not all holiday. Kagawa has to finalize the work permit and medical check up, dealing with global press, and well, learning English. At least Cahill’s new manager won’t expect him to learn Arabic. Even today Milligan, North, Spiranovic, McKay, and Brosque all have to go to work. It seems that only Honda can enjoy his summer holiday.

Six things we learnt from AFC Champions League Group Stage

1. Qatar – numbers mean nothing

Like many things in Qatar, the Stars League can offer more than its neighbors. The payroll might not be as interesting as in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but Doha seems to be a more interesting place to live and has better football atmosphere. We’re talking about the Asian Cup and the World Cup host here (which, well, who knows, might get the fourth ticket to Brazil). Many Bahrain players move there to escape the political prosecution and complications, and supposedly, with a Qatari club as the defending champions, a Qatar club can go further than UAE’s, while the living condition is more pleasant than in Saudi.

Not so. All Qatari club, four of them, crashed. First, unlike Liverpool 2005, the champions Al-Sadd was not competing. They could be the third best club in the world after Kashiwa Reysol (okay, that’s not true), but they finished sixth in the 2010-11 Stars League season. They won’t compete in ACL next year either, finished fourth (the fourth ticket was taken by Emir Cup’s winners Al Gharafa).

So, Al Rayyan (Afonso Alves, ex-Middlesbrough) and Lehkwiya (Nam Tae-Hee) scored only two wins. Al Gharafa (Ze Roberto & ex-Urawa Edmilson) got three times draw – although facing Persepolis and Al Hilal would leave you a little chance of qualifying.  Al Arabi….certainly the worst. Six losses, four goals for against sixteen against.

I’ve said that there’s a ray of light shining for UAE since the Olympics qualification. It is, with Al Jazira topping Group A and Bani Yas overcoming Pakhtakor. Al Nasr and Al Shabab certainly crashed and ranked below their Qatari rivals, but the Emirates are still having in the game.

2. Can Saudi football redeem itself?

Certainly Saudi Pro League still have the two most fearsome clubs in Asia – Al Ittihad and Al Hilal. In the past both clubs could draw more than 30 thousands to an ACL match, although that’s not the case now. They are, however, are still powered by local players. In fact each of them has only two non-Muslim players – Paulo Jorge and Fabrice Ondama in Ittihad and Christian Wilhelmsson and Yoo Byung-Soo in Hilal, which are flourishing far away from La Coruna and Incheon.

Of course, club success can be powered by good management and national failures can be influenced by terrible FA administration, negative state intervention (including choosing a crappy or inflexible manager), and lack of motivation. It’s hard to describe nationalism in an absolute monarchy – Hegel had found it in the 1800s. Al Hilal, Al Ahli, and Al Ittihad have the good chance to go to quarter finals (and eliminating UAE clubs if they do so), and certainly they aim to reclaim the champions title, last won by a Saudi side in 2005. If they can do it, then the FA have to follow up with the Asian Cup 2015 project.

 

3. Adelaide are still the only reliable Australian club in the ACL

In A-League, they can go from top 3 to bottom 3 in alternating seasons. Adelaide qualified to this year’s ACL through playoff. But their experience and flair against the northerners count year after year, while Brisbane and Central Coast prove that unlike the national team, Aussie clubs are not first rate (league and clubs managements included). Adelaide destroyed two former champions, Pohang and Gamba, and could become the favorites against Nagoya. Bruce Djite might fit as Australia’s Emile Heskey, but Dario Vidosic has my vote to be a Socceroo regular, and Sergio van Dijk is the best forward Indonesia has never had.

 

4. These are testing times for Korean teams.

Finally, the fallout of last year’s bribe scandals is here. Only Ulsan proved the quality of a Korean team, and Seongnam were lucky they were in an equally boring group with half of the group’s games ended in draws  (hey, draws without losses is something to be proud of. Just ask New Zealand fans). The supposedly exciting Pohang lost in competition to Bunyodkor (another sign of Uzbek resilience against the Japan-Korea block), while I’m bit ashamed of praising Lee Dong-Gook in my last post, seeing how Jeonbuk fell. It seems that the life and death of Jeonbuk are decided by how he’s doing on the match day instead of the teamwork Eninho, Kim Jung-Woo, and Kim Sang-Sik. Hugo Droguett is promising, but it seems like he needs more time to be a worthy partner to D.G.

This is the first time Korea fail to qualify at least three clubs since the current format introduced in 2009. And I take it as a failure. Jeonbuk’s failure certainly influenced by the rise of Guangzhou Evergrande, which deserves its own talking point, but even Seongnam were close to fail were it faced more aggressive opponents.

 

5. Guangzhou Evergrande continue its empire building

Manchester City teach that money can build your glory, earlier than what you expect. that’s what’s happened in Guangzhou, probably the best-run metropolis in China, which scouted and nurtured South Americans who really delivered. If Chelsea rely on Africans and Arsenal on continental Europeans (and Manchester United, at one point, on the Celts), then Guangzhou can be forgiven to rely on Muriqui, Cleo, and Conca for the attack and Paulao for the defence. Still, they needed six others Chinese to hold the line – and it’s good to see Cho Won-Hee redeemed after terrible times in Wigan and Suwon.

Sadly, pride rather than ambition might influence the replacement of Lee Jang-Soo with Marcello Lippi. Evergrande RE just wants to boast that it employs the Italian legend rather than trusting a coach that can ensure its domination in China and in Asia. Just like Roberto di Matteo’s employment in Chelsea is still not ensured even if he’ll win them the UEFA Champions League tonight. Owners, after all, care more about employing famous generals than having the most suited general for the club.

 

6. Gamba aside, J. League clubs are fine

Oh the irony. Newcomers FC Tokyo, previously the West Ham of Tokyo football, did really fine. Unstable Japanese champions Kashiwa passed the test with the last day’s coup against Jeonbuk (a plus point, if you consider Japanese stage fright against Korean teams). Nagoya followed Seongnam’s policy of two wins four draws, and yet they still prevailed against the supposedly threatening Brisbane and Tianjin.

So, why do we need to speak about Gamba? Perhaps because they are the former Asian champions. Perhaps they are used to be one the most strongest teams in Japan year in and year out. And now in the J. League, their mission for the season would be to escape relegation, just one month into the completion.

I’ll leave the deeper discussion about Gamba to my good friend Ben Mabley, who’s considering himself Osakan. I counted myself as a Gamba supporter, but then again, I don’t feel the passion I have when I’m supporting Manchester United (come on, I feel bad writing this). Maybe had I lived in Japan, I chose to live in Yokohama. Yay Marinos.

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.

Nobody Respects ACL anymore. AFC included.

Boo

I used to dream that the Asian Champions League is like the European Champions League. Dramatic theme music (what’s the equivalent of the adaptation of Zadok the Priest? A martial march theme ala Red Alert‘s “Hell March“?), a non-alcohol, pan-Asian equivalent to Carlsberg (uh, Toyota?), several merchandises, build up on ESPN, and the romantic image of happy Asian blokes spilling their beers over the couch as they’re jumping merrily, anticipating the battle royale between Al Ittihad and Gamba Osaka. A post-match night of blood, sex, and barf in Doha might not be a bad idea either if everyone can make it in one piece back to Adelaide.

Instead I’m treated by Tuesday 5.30 pm broadcast from Jeonbuk or Shanghai, minus half-time analysis, which nobody else watches, including in the stadium. Perhaps the point of ACL is to decide which Korean (yes, should be Korean) team would book a place in FIFA Club World Cup in Japan. Don’t you want to see Nagoya and Suwon duke it out the day before Barcelona meet Sao Paulo?

AFC, of course, has the different dream. Let’s see…the top three men in the current administration is a Chinese president, an Australian VP, and a Malaysian general secretary. So you think it’s very unbalanced. No representation from the West. Sponsor-wise, it’s a balance of power between Japanese, Korean, and Qatari corporations.

So why the hell AFC considered the proposal to move ACL playoff schedule “in order to allow Middle Eastern nations extra time to prepare for the final round of World Cup qualifiers” ? They didn’t even bother to say “Western Asia” or “competing nations”. Japan rightfully protested. Nevermind that Japan could just rearrange its friendly fixture with Oman. ACL does have a crappy schedule – hectic group stage, then one-off Round of 16. And then nothing happens until September. And to make it even hectic, just for the sake of getting rid of it quickly, demonstrates that AFC simply does not respect the Asian Champions League.

What surprises me is that Japan is not supported by Korea and Australia. They also have their interests crossed by AFC, and to change schedule midway is just ridiculous. A cynical explanation for the puzzles is that despite the supposed balance of power, AFC seems to have a knack to make things uncomfortable for the big three of East Asia and to ensure some advantage could be taken by, in their words, Middle Eastern teams.

A little look on how the ACL could affect the Big Three. Australia is less affected – Matt Ryan is the only Central Coast player in the Socceroos, and he won’t replace Schwarzer anytime soon. The Socceroos can do without Erik Paartalu and Mitch Nichols, and only Dario Vidosic plays for Adelaide. Hm, I can see why they don’t complain.

Pohang Steelers are yet to make the backbone of Korean team – only Shin Hyung-Min represents it. Ulsan, on the other hand, can be busy. Kwak Tae-Hwi is now the national team’s captain, and Lee Keun-Ho and Kim Shin-Wook are important backup strikers (even Lee can become the second attacker besides Chu-Young). Seongnam contributes Yoon Bit-Garam. Jeonbuk. Ah. Lee Dong-Gook. Cho Sung-Hwan. Lee Seung-Hyun. And Kim Jung-Woo. They need to be successful on both fronts. They can just call it quit tomorrow and go on to their third defeat (as demonstrated by last weekend’s 2-3 loss to Daegu. DAEGU!), but that’s not Jeonbuk way.

So, ACL second stage could do harm to players playing for Jeonbuk and Ulsan, but not to Australia. Now, what about Japan?

New manager Masanobu Matsunami might propel Gamba to score its first goal in the ACL. Who knows. Definitely Japan need Endo and…euh…Konno. Yeah. As for Tokyo, only defender Kosuke Ota is on the national team, although I want to see more of their players tried out by Japan, especially Naohiro Ishikawa. As for Shuichi Gonda, it’s better for him to concentrate for the Olympics. Jungo Fujimoto from Nagoya certainly wants to make the break against the four European aces, and finally Kashiwa contribute defending pairs Naoya Kondo and Hiroki Sakai.

So, actually it’s KFA which is disadvantaged by the hectic schedule faced by their players, so they should have joined Japan in protest (yes, I need you two to try to get along sometimes. Please). Jeonbuk’s current shambles is nothing to do with the ACL, but if the AFC wants to wear and tear Korean teams on their ways to the final, this is one way to do it. Looking at the brighter side, now the Big Three is not depended anymore on players from the local league and is supposedly able to field two set of teams – a veteran team and a unit of young stars (although this is less true for Australia – ironically which never had problems with European-based champions previously).

Tomorrow I’ll still follow Tianjin v Nagoya. Because I love Asian football. But maybe the caveat should be planted on my post-it note from now on: if the quarter finals fixtures look crap, because the cup is.

oh my god what the hell was that

Welcome back, Do.G

That was the question asked all over Asia last night. In Japan after their surprise lost to Uzbekistan. In Australia after their so last decade model revived the spirit of 06 and came back from one goal down to destroy the opponent just in fifteen minutes. In UAE after supposedly bottom of the barrel Lebanon qualified despite significant defeat. In Singapore and Indonesia after sham refereeing partly responsible for their teams’ utter destruction. In Bahrain and Qatar after a nick of time shot changed everything between the two rivals.

(What I’m talking about: China-Jordan 3-1. Iraq-Singapore 7-1.  Korea-Kuwait 2-0. UAE-Lebanon 4-2. Japan-Uzbekistan 0-1. Australia-Saudi Arabia 4-2. Oman-Thailand 2-0. Bahrain-Indonesia 10-0. Iran-Qatar 2-2)

Group A: Iraq, Jordan, China, Singapore

To keep my emotion in check, I start with the group approach. Which maybe overlap with the timeline. Things went as planned in Guangzhou, where ex-Schalke midfielder Hao Junmin scored before break. Yu Dabao, who drifted in Portugal after failed to impress Benfica years ago, scored the finisher. A bold 3-1 victory of China. They have to wait until 2016 for their next chance at World Cup (are you missing them already, United States? You always be on the same pot, you know), but well, a sweet finishing for a bitter campaign. Iraq were expected to lead the table but the difference was made when Jordan were able to defeat Iraq, something that China failed to do twice.

The match between Iraq and Singapore taking place in Qatar, conducted in parallel with Bahrain v Indonesia, smelled of sham. Like the other match, the West Asian team received multiple penalty kick awards. On the other hand, while Indonesia were handicapped by a much weakened team, Singapore were supposed to have no problem. Yes, Lewis was not guarding the goal, but Sunny is supposed to be a fair keeper and the defenders were regulars like Bennett and Khaizan. And oh, all of them were yellow carded for challenging Iraqi players’ runs. And the biggest difference – Football Association of Singapore does not have a civil war going on. They don’t, do they?

I guess the lack of motivation is a big factor, but Singapore did fight back, at least for the first half. Personally I’m so worried for Singapore’s football prospect, perhaps more than Singaporeans do. Meh, sometimes I wonder how it feels like to be a Belgian or a Norwegian football fan.

Group B: Korea, Lebanon, Kuwait, UAE

Lee Dong-Gook returns to save Korea (there’s only one) after a nervous first half. He’s crazy and everything but I like him. At least he’s not Lee Chun-Soo. Lee Keun-Ho returns to Korea for real…while round top scorer Park Chu-Young is pulled back . Come on…he didn’t play enough for Arsenal, so he really needed more time up front, didn’t he? Oh right, jet lag.

And whee, although Lebanon qualified, their China resident Roda Antar was understandably angry with the national press. Jet lag. Well I had been angry too had I been a Lebanese. Last night was their first defeat in six months after a stellar streak against competitors UAE, Kuwait, and eventually Korea. And UAE were crap big time before last night, continuing their pitiful form after Asian Cup 11. And this is a country which league contains Ricardo Oliveira (remember Milan 06-07?), Asamoah Gyan, and Grafite (remember that guy from Wolfsburg?). And some scruffy Argentine guy.

So, why did Lebanon lose? Antar blamed media expectation. I blame instability. So expect this in the final round: Lebanon can pull a surprise or two, but when they are not into it, more likely on away matches, they can concede more than three goals.

Group C: Uzbekistan, Japan, North Korea, Tajikistan

Alright, this is the hardest part. Japan’s loss to Uzbekistan. Maybe it had been better had Japan fielded in its J-League team which defeated Iceland. But maybe Don Al wanted to keep the chemistry between its top players intact. In any case, the fans are not entertained at all. They were learning football the hard way against German defenders, but Okazaki (Stuttgart, 7 goals), Kagawa (Dortmund, 7 goals), and Inui (Bochum, 6 goals) reverted to type: they did not shoot at goal (sadly, I fail to find a simple stat on how many times Japan shot and how many of those were on target). Al Z singled out those three players for not shooting enough. Add that with Havenaar. Fans retorted that he should have sent in Miyaichi, and Ryo agreed that he could have changed the game. The Italian said that he felt it was not the right time to put in Miyaichi, but it was not a right time to put in Komano either.

Japanese fans have complained for decades that their forwards pass the ball around but nobody shoots. Other times, they attempt to get into the box by themselves a la Jeremy Lin rather than pass and move (what? Don’t Winning Eleven teach anyone anything? Like how difficult it is to go Ronaldo 97?). Of course, there’s second glaring inherited weakness of Japan – a high profile manager who maintains that he was right. Yes, Zaccheroni apologized, but the sign is still worrying. How would this team fare on a Melbourne night or a Teheran afternoon, or even a crucial 90 minutes trial in Saitama? Less optimistic fans might point out that Japan were only comfortable against one team – Tajikistan.

Group D: Australia, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Thailand

Right, I’ve got out Japan out of the system. Australia were supposed to be humiliated like the Olyroos were, but not. The spirit of 06 (I know, how I hated Australia back in 2006) prevailed with Harry and Emerton, as Australia scored three times in three minutes. Nevermind Zico’s Japan…how the hell Saudi could be that caught off with the turn of tide. Coming off with a mainly AFC team, Shimizu’s Alex Brosque was really shining.  As for Saudi, I can only say, enjoy the free fall. And good luck for Champions League 12.

Sadly, my dream of Thailand representing Southeast Asia crumbled as they were not up to defeat al-Habsi (with Winothai red carded), even as Australia had helped them. Yeh yeh, there goes the SE Asian dream.

Group E: Iran, Qatar, Bahrain, Indonesia

Bahrain 10 Indonesia 0? Here’s the Wikipedia entry on Lebanese referee Andre El Haddad. If you still get the “kampret” at the end of his name, that’s the Indonesian word for “dickhead”. Singaporeans call him “kayu“). Red card for Indonesian goalkeeper on first minute! Four penalties for Bahrain! Unpunished Bahrain after they kicked Indonesian keeper’s face! Justice prevailed as Qatar scored equalizer to overtake Bahrain in the ladder by one point. Peter Taylor was devastated. I just wish that the transfer for El Haddad was cancelled. You know the worst part? Although Indonesian press are angry, the fans are not and are instead continuing their ISL v IPL fight instead of condemning this mutual enemy. Perhaps the problem is that “Bahrain” is not spelled “Malaysia”.

Wait, what? Singaporean media and fans are even more muted on their trashing by Iraq? And on my suspicion that Singapore was also disadvantaged? (although the motive for this suspicion is much weaker as Iraq, unlike Bahrain, didn’t need to win big as Jordan had been checked by China hours before). What the hell was that?

Recess

This morning, at least two Asian-American footballers have been playing for their clubs in the MLS Cup Conference Final. Chinese-American Brian Ching led the strike for Houston (failed to score, while his Honduran sub Costly did) and as I’m writing Filipino-American Nick Rimando is tending (heh, classic American term) Real Salt Lake’s net. Hope they’d meet in the final, where somebody has to lose.

O yeah, the ACL Final. Jeonbuk got the home advantage. More than 40 thousands were actually care. Lee Dong-Gook was fit enough to play and there was a chance he didn’t have to intervene. AND YET THEY STILL LOST.

I don’t know what really bugs me. The poor finishes, or that Al-Sadd have the knack to beat Korean teams in their turfs, or Lee Jung-Soo is that good, and what makes him good is that he doesn’t play in the K-League (one reason for the racket scandal is that K-League players are underpaid), or Jeonbuk is neither The Losers or the A-Team (only Seo Jung-Jin is called for next week’s World Cup Qs), or that I have to root for any team against Al-Sadd next week and hoping them to do better against the perfidious African trio.

Or the worst case: The ACL is not worth it. Japanese teams (and probably fans) are once more ignoring the League some years after winning them back to back, and Korean teams and fans are probably too. Suwon didn’t chase their case against referee Malik Abdul Bashir for allowing a goal condemned worldwide (except in Qatar, the Middle East, and probably Senegal. Not really sure about Japan). Certainly non-Mad Green Boys fans of Motors showed up and showed their supports, but it didn’t happen before the finals (was it simply because the final was on the weekend?).

I’m still pondering if an Asian outfit are the elite, the all-stars, the great team of Asia. Certainly that’s not happening. Not Gamba Osaka or Kashima, not Jeonbuk or Seongnam (which is too creepy to be liked, anyway), not Adelaide United, not various teams in Saudi Arabia. I know this is not only the case in Asia – same stories are happening in South America, Africa, and CONCACAF (well MLS have attracted better names, but in the Champions League they are still struggling).

Better leave it right there. Congrats to Lee Jung-Soo and best of effort for Jeonbuk in the K-League Championship.

 

Big break for Japanese and Korean leagues. Their final rounds will resume after matchday five of WCQ, including Japanese big match against North Korea. The A-League, tho, will still be in play next weekend, since only three A-League players are on duty against Oman & Thailand: Kewell (Victory), Nichols (Brisbane), and Emerton (Sydney). Australia also have same amount of players coming from J. League – Kennedy, Brosque, and Spiranovic.

In Europe, Park Ji-Sung and Ji Dong-Won faced each other (not many times since they were both attacking) as Ji came in as early substitute to replace injured Connor Wickham. Kagawa played great part in Dortmund big 5-1 against Wolfsburg (both Koo and Hasebe were on bench) and Hajime Hosogai scored in Augsburg 1-2 defeat to Bayern Munich (Usami was again not used).