2015 AFC Asian Cup. Yay.

Nasser Al Shamrani ponders where he will go out tonight in Melbourne.

Happy New Year, Maya Yoshida. That’s a sweet victory against Arsenal, wasn’t it? You did good job in blocking Alexis Sanchez, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (a hipster favorite), and Theo Walcott for 20 minutes. You’re good to go for Australia 2015.

Asians are so diligent and hardworking, we are doing a major tournament in the first working week of 2015. Making the good use of southern hemisphere summer.

And so let’s see the teams that will compete in Asian Cup 2015.

Australia

When they won the hosting rights in 2011 (without competition), it was too easy. Only Japan could spoil their party. Four years later, everyone could tear down the house. Australia had experienced defeats by Qatar, China, Japan (in 90 minutes in 2013, breaking a 12 years record), and Jordan. They were held by Oman, North Korea, South Africa, and UAE.

As I said, while Australians tell each other that they are on transition, the world does not care. Asia enjoys the agony. [Update: Australia have stopped saying that they are on transition.]

Tim Cahill, still the most reliable goal scorer for the last ten years, survived against pretenders like John Aloisi, Scott McDonald, Brett Holman, and Joshua Kennedy. Now Australia badly need new goalscorers. Thankfully Nathan Burns is on good form, Tomi Juric is at the crossroad (his last goal came in November), while Mat Leckie is doing fine with Ingolstadt, currently topping the 2. Bundesliga.

Australians and me hope that they could be like Germany in 2006 – turning shameful slumps into a glorious, proud summer (the semi final match could be held on Australia Day). Therefore the only permissible way to begin is to win comfortably against Kuwait. If everything goes well (Korea are a major stumbling block), then it’s quarter final against China in Melbourne. That’s dream comes true for broadcasters and organizers, but expect plenty of venom coming from Chinese commentators (since Australians are, uh, Western white men). The other option is no more friendly – Spiranovic vs Al Shamrani II.

Going to semis? Iran. The ideal final, of course, pitches Australia and Japan.

Goalkeeper: Ryan

Defenders: Franjic, Sainsbury, Spiranovic, Davidson

Midfielders: Jedinak, Bresciano, McKay

Forwards: Kruse, Cahill (false 9), Oar/Leckie

Korea

Supposedly, they have put the disaster of 2013-14 behind with the leadership of Uli Stielike, the only German international to fail a penalty shootout. Their recent records are still mixed, however – wins against Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Paraguay, losses to Iran (a bloody one), Costa Rica, and Uruguay. Like Australia, they were on transition but Koreans hardly said that (at least in English).

The match against Australia is the biggest challenge, and I would say it will end in a draw, just like in 2011. A quarter final against North Korea is unlikely (some South Koreans actually fancy the idea), while Korean “netizens” hope for China so they can update Eul-Yong Ta for 2010s.

The semi final will be another heated affair whether as runner ups or group winners – either Iran or Japan. Heck, even in the final they will face either Iran or Japan and things can go nasty. Boy, Koreans do have plenty of issues, don’t they?

Goalkeeper: Kim Seung-gyu

Defenders: Kim Chang-soo, Kwak, Kim Young-gwon, Park Joo-ho

Midfielders: Lee Chung-yong, Ki, Koo

Forwards: Cho Yeung-chol, Lee Keun-ho, Son

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan, Uzbekistan. Our football team is more famous than Kazakhstan’s. We have Natasha Alam and you Kazakhstan have…you have that volleyball cutie.

No, she won’t care about Asian Cup. Maybe neither is Natasha Alam.

Remember Road to Japan and Korea? A pretty surreal qualification since Japan and Korea were not in and Australia were still in OFC. So if you remove these three nations, the final round of AFC qualification would be full of creepy countries ruled by mad dictators. Group B is a terrible put down. I blame the desert and the northern latitudes. And Stalin.

Uzbekistan feature the balanced lineups of players based in Uzbekistan (always a challenge in AFC Champions League, although not big spenders like Bunyodkor used to be). The spread of its foreign-based players is also interesting. Vitaly Denisov and Lutfulla Turaev play for Lokomotiv (spelling it “Locomotive” makes it sounds less communist) Moscow, Anzur Ismailov is with Changchun Yatai, Bahodir Nasimov plays in Iran, and captain Server Djeparov still can eat Seongnam’s best bulgogi. Not to mention those who play in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

So there’s no reason they cannot ace Group B, above Saudi Arabia and China. A quarter final against Korea will be a friendly derby, and so does semi final against Japan. For a mad dictatorship, it’s surprising that they have no personal problem with anyone.

Saudi Arabia

The ballad of Nasser Al Shamrani. Australians heckled him mercilessly in Melbourne when Saudi Arabia were humiliated 1-4 by Bahrain and in Parramatta, home of Western Sydney Wanderers. They will hunt him again in Brisbane and Melbourne. It’s still unknown if Arab-Australians will stand up for him, especially (or despite) after Al Hilal players described Sydney as the boonies.

China

Thank God you’re here, said the organizer. Otherwise Asian Cup will be devoid of the most important of all East Asians. Will Chinese-Australians care about China? Maybe they hardly care about any sport in the first place. But the Chinese students will persuade their Southeast Asian (and some Australian) friends to support China.

China did plenty of friendlies in preparation of the cup, but none of them was outside China. Why bother going to savage lands where you can invites barbarians such as Kyrgyzs (twice), Palestines, and New Zealanders to enjoy a bit of Chinese hospitality in the world-famous cities of Nanchang, Chenzhou, Shenzhen (Hong Kong’s ugly sister!), and Changsa?

Half-assed friendlies in faraway cities to tire out the visitors, local-based players since no Chinese footballer is good enough to play in Europe (and why bother playing in tiny Mainz where you can enjoy Guangzhou’s nightlife), and equally strong opponents. They won’t make it past the group stage.

North Korea

Scums of the Earth and a total waste of space. But wait, even the Hermit Kingdom has players based in Europe and Japan! Wunderbar! Ryang Yong-gi and Ri Yong-jik are Korean-Japanese who swear allegiance to North Korea. Now the nice Switzerland opens its door to the misunderstood North Koreans, from Kim Jong-un to Cha Jong-hyok and Pak Kwang-ryong, who is loaned by Basel to Vaduz. Hey, Liechtenstein is just like North Korea – the people are smiling, the mountains are beautiful, and the underground vault is shining.

Iran

Look at the champions. Asia’s best. Lack of playing time but they make the best of it, whether against Korea or Iraq. Like in 1997, they can expect full support from Iranian Australians. Their European players are so-so: Keeper Alireza Haghighi keeps picking balls from inside his net with Penafiel in Portugal, Javad Nekounam still proves his worth with four goals with Osasuna, while his team mate Karim Ansarifad is yet to score. But as a team, they can be invincible. Iranians will gleefully see the Princes of Persia slash down those pesky Arabs (they are conveniently group with Qatar, Bahrain, and UAE, who insist that it’s called Arabian Gulf).

Japan

The samurais care less that their daimyo is accused of match fixing back in 2010 – they have a cup to defend. Traditionally Japanese fans will sit on the fence – Aguirre is another foreigner whose main purpose is to lead Nippon. If he won’t resign over the allegation, he will resign over bad results. But he won’t stay forever.

Japanese footballers, the mainstay of Asian football in Europe, are again in dire need of redemption. Shinji Kagawa must be cannot believe his terrible luck, worse than his Manchester United days. Keisuke Honda could not sustain his goal scoring streaks and now Milanistas are singing for Jeremy Menez instead of him. 2015 has arrived and Eiji Kawashima is still thinking about next season – stay or leave? – as he’s sitting on Liege’s bench. His challenger, Shusaku Nishikawa, rue the days he slipped the J. League trophy – and the chance to be Japan’s number 1 – past his hands.

For some others, this is the moment of truth. Yasuhito Endo can’t believe his fairy tale story. At 34 going 35, he resurrected a disgraced team to win a Triple and is still Japan’s best holding midfielder for one and half decade. Without ever playing in Europe. Shinji Okazaki wants to match his club performance with national team performance, especially if he wants to move a bigger (and better paying) club next August. Yoshinori Muto will be thrilled to think which European scouts are watching him.

Japan will face nemeses Jordan and Iraq and have to put up with the crowds and the world who will support Palestine. They will get the job done and will face one of the Gulf nations. Then it’s Uzbekistan, who defeated them twice on the Road to Brazil. Then a final showdown against Australia or less likely, Iran.

Goalkeeper: Kawashima (my choice is as tricky as Aguerre’s. Higashiguchi can handle Palestine but first impression is everything)

Defenders: Sakai, Konno, Yoshida, Nagatomo

Midfielders: Endo, Hasebe, Kiyotake, Kagawa, Honda

Forward: Okazaki

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Evil Asian Football Clubs

Man, last night was intense, wasn’t it? I was really sure Western Sydney Wanderers would have blown it at the last minute, it’d had been 1-1 at full time, and Al Hilal would have steamrolled either in extra times (two goals) or penalty shootouts. But not. They were holding on, with Ante Covic blocked all possible shots or Al Hilal just flunked their great chances.

I was still thinking of writing from another angle, but Al Hilal’s reaction to the full time whistle confirmed my thought – instead of attacking bumbling referee Yuichi Nishimura, Nasser Al Shamrani and other Al Hilal players were attacking Western Sydney players instead.

The reason was same with the vitriolic hatred shown by Guangzhou Evergrande supporters toward Western Sydney, hatred for the ‘white men’ Australians. There was a big difference though. Al Hilal supporters showed themselves to be a good sport, in contrast to the club. At least after the end of the match, when they asked the wandering Australians to take group pictures of the men in blue jerseys. So, at the risk of walking through a painful memory lane (full of muggers and rats), I present several evil football clubs who were in the AFC Champions League final.

1. Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia)

Laurentiu from Arabia. Would Mourinho wear a bowler hat before the Champions League final? Or Pep wearing Lederhosen?

The Boss is indeed a titan of Asian football. Since Saudi players cannot play overseas, of course the best talents play in Saudi Professional League. Their Champions League matches feature full houses, which is a rarity – even their crowd counts often trump other Saudi competitors. Saudi oil, which is used for buying Ferraris instead of building better schools and creating employment for locals, was of course also used to buy football superstars (money from the oil, not the petrol itself) like Brazilians Mario Zagallo and Rivellino. And so Saudi’s orientation on Brazilian football was born, and in early 1990s they earned the “Brazil of Asia” moniker, due to their Brazilian links, individualized playing style, and since most of their footballers are African Arabs (gettit?). Not even Zico could turn Japan into¬† “Brazil of Asia”, after all.

Al Hilal won the 1991 and 2000 Asian Club Championship but surprisingly they never won the ‘new’ Champions League (wow. I thought they did. Apparently I confused them with their Jeddah rivals Al Ittihad).

My problem with Al Hilal began after I learned that the club complained about the absence of luxury in Sydney while Prince Al Waleed bin Talal promised big bonus for the club. In 2013 he made big fuss with Forbes since the magazine’s estimation of his wealth is below his (while many ethnic Chinese moguls said the magazine always overestimate their fortunes). To the point of threatening to sue Forbes, weeping on the phone, and hiring some white men to publish scathing papers against the magazine.

The club, meanwhile, complained about the hick town that was Sydney, saying that the stadium was shabby (unlike the wonderful King Fahd Stadium) and that the hotel they were staying (I assume Pullman Quay Grand Sydney Harbour) was too small (because unlike Saudi Arabia, Australia has this strange concept of wealth redistribution).

Back in Saudi Arabia, coach Laurentiu Reghecampf donned his Laurentiu of Arabia look, saying no way in hell Wanderers could defeat hims the second time, while Vice President Prince Abdulrahman bin Musaad asked Saudis to pray and do charity works, so that the pleased Allah will help Al Hilal with victory. Theeen…another VP, Mohamad al Hmaidani, called Al Hilal supporters to beat up other clubs’ supporters claiming bin Talal’s free ticket offers, added with obligatory “Yo’ Mama” expression.

At the first half, Al Hilal supporters used laser beams to intimidate the Wanderers (I expect it on the upcoming AFF Suzuki Cup. Idiots), unaware that the radiation gave Ante Covic superpower. Nassir Al Shamrani, one of Saudi’s finest strikers, became the villain of the final after repeatedly attacking substitute Matthew Spiranovic (Nishimura ignored, funny guy), then spat on him, and his club went on to win the Fair Play Award (previous winners were always Japanese and Korean clubs).

2. Guangzhou Evergrande (China)

What’s this, early football video game where the players use the same animation?

I tried to look the silver lining of Chinese football. When China were in the 2002 World Cup, I felt the great moment of Pan-Asian pride (of course, I relished the Germany 8 Saudi Arabia 0 match). But Chinese attitude in politics, environment, human rights, and its clubs attitude, made it harder for me to appreciate any bit of my ancestors’ homeland.

Again, Western Sydney Wanderers. Again, Juric scored the single goal in a night in Parramatta. Again, the richer club made several threats against the Australians. We are giants with wealth and power you can’t imagine. Evergrande even could take the brag to another notch – our coach had won the World Cup and the UEFA Champions League and our playmaker was good enough to play in the World Cup (I always insert Diamanti into my Italy 23). We are unbeatable. Our fanatical supporters will surround you in a massive dome you never seen before (again, Evergrande relied on female supporters, unlike Al Hilal who shunned them). We will show you the power of Asian football that will make you speechless. Prepare to suffer.

Essentially, both the royal Saudi and Chinese (for a communist state, they take their royalty seriously, don’t they?) can’t forgive the Australians for so many things. For setting up shop nearby. For being one of the best countries in the world without producing anything luxurious. For not being a part of thousand years imperial history. For being white and speaking English. For being a democracy.

The supporters, the Italians, and the football domination were not enough, anyway, that Evergrande supporters had to ram Western Sydney’s bus, had to terrorize their night, and yes, had to attack Covic’s eyes again with lasers. So much for their trust for Lippi, Diamanti, and the domestic players.

Tonight Evergrande has clinched another Chinese Super League title, and the league’s final top scorers tell the story – out of the top ten goal scorers, only one is Chinese. Wu Lei from Shanghai SIPG. The others might follow Evergrande’s strategy – defend and let the foreigners score.

3. Al Sadd (Qatar)

Play to win

 

When a Qatari talks about “The Boss” in football, he (hardly a she) talks about Al Sadd, winners of 2011 AFC Champions League. I saw on TV the terrible semi final match against Suwon, when Mamadou Niang (formerly a striker for Marseille and Fenerbahce) scored when Suwon thought Al Sadd would’ve waited for the on pitch treatment for Cho Sung-hwan. Well, if Jose Mourinho has not aware of the seriousness of head injury in 2014, so would Niang back in 2011. After the brawl (involving a pitch invader), Al Sadd’s Korean defender Lee Jung-soo walked out of the scene from frustration, asking to be subbed. It’s said he was censured by the management for not standing up for the club. But when he had to choose in 2012 between Al Sadd and Evergrande, he sticks with the lesser evil until today.

To my pain, Al Sadd defeated Jeonbuk to win the Champions League and defeated hosts Kashiwa Reysol in the Club World Cup.

4. Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma (Korea, 1989-2013)

A bad Korean club? Not that they did brawl in Champions League finals, but because they were owned by an evil organization – the Moonies. Or officially, the Church of Unification, who’s fond of marrying strangers based on the founder’s hunch (he’s literally the brother of Jesus, you know). After being a feeble team in the 1990s, in 1999 the club relocated from Cheonan to Seongnam, a satellite city of Seoul, and had more capital to attract top Korean players and decent foreigners. They dominated K-League in early 2000s but lost the 2004 Champions League final to Al Ittihad. In 2010 they finally won the Champions League and Sasa Ognenovski became a famous Socceroo.

Praise Jesus, in 2013 Sun Myung-moon after committing decades of crimes including asking Americans to forgive Richard Nixon, financing a terrible movie on the Battle of Inchon, creating The Washington Times, and evading tax. And oh, brainwashing people, intimidating those who want to leave his sect, and being cozy with Christian and Islamic religious nuts in United States (while waging war against Christian churches in Korea, interesting).

So with Sun bit the dust, the Moonies had little interest in running the club and sold it to the city of Ansan. After protests from club supporters, it was purchased by the government of Seongnam and now it’s a nice club. It’s unknown if Seongnam players were forced or persuaded to join Unification Church activities, but certainly many notable players from Korea and overseas used it as a stepping stone before moving to relatively saner clubs in Asia.

The four clubs I described were not necessarily evil in the sense of Dr. Evil from Evil University. Their players were professional footballers, not criminals. But they grow up in countries and societies that value wealth, ego, showmanship, and think little about social justice, communities, and ethics. In the case of Ilhwa Chunma, it grew up in the curious phenomenon that in Korea, that is industrious and impressible toward charismatic cults at the same time. I’m just glad that Sun’s death brought the end to the cult’s grip on the football club – a dark chapter in Korean history is behind us.

The same cannot be said for Saudi Arabia, China, and Qatar and many other Asian countries. I was one of Asians who deplored Australian entry into AFC, but well, the high hope that Australia can cure some diseases of Asian football is taking place, one step at a time. I’ve heard that some Australians demand AFC to drop sanction on Nasser Al Shamrani, while knowing it won’t happen. I still don’t know how did Koreans react to Niang’s unsportsmanlike behavior, besides calling Al Sadd as “Al Badd”.

But if Japanese media won’t talk (today Japanese supporters marched against racism – couldn’t find the news, sadly), then I applaud Australia’s loud call. Western Sydney Wanderers have proven that money and power cannot buy love. Let Asians take heed.