Alex & Arsene’s Asian Boys

Thank you, Obi-wan

Thank you, Obi-wan

One is a socialist Glaswegian. The other is an Alsatian who grew up speaking German and became successful managers in Monaco and Nagoya. Choose which one will be responsible for making some Asian footballers known worldwide.

Arsene Wenger was naturally well-liked in Japan. First, he’s French. He gave Nagoya Grampus the Emperor’s Cup and became the manager of the year in 1995. He brought over Dragan Stojkovic from Marseille and almost 20 years later, Doragan-sama is still the hero of Nagoya. Another Nagoya’s star was Yasuyuki Moriyama, who played in Slovenia in 1998-99 before enjoyed an Indian summer with Nagoya again in 2001.

The English press was skeptical when he went to Arsenal – a Frenchman whose previous football experience was in Japan. His economics lecturer look felt excellent in Japan – a typical sophisticated Frenchman – but felt bit poofy for the English. Hey, this was the dawn of both the Premier League and Cool Britannia. Still years before Chelsea became Italian…and actually roughly the same year when Middlesboro became Brazilian.

 

World Cup 1998 was a bad advertisement for South Korea and Japan, but nonetheless an advertisement. There must be some good young players among the 2002 World Cup hosts, someone like Hidetoshi Nakata. There were so many promises from the U-20 squad that went to the 1999 World Youth Championship final (where they failed to defeat Iker Casillas).

Wenger chose Junichi Inamoto, a 1.8 meter baby faced blonde who was impressive in the 2001 Confederations Cup. Unfortunately, Inamoto found it harder even to secure the subs bench, competing with so many dashing trailblazers (pecking order: Vieira – Pires – Ljungberg – Gio – Edu – Lauren – Parlour – Pennant – Inamoto) He made no appearance in the Premier League and the FA Cup and was released before the 2002 World Cup, where he scored against Belgium and Russia.

After the 2002 World Cup, clubs around Europe were drafting Japanese and Korean players. Ferguson was still not interested. Inamoto went to Fulham, still in London so he could save his flat, and scored four goals in Europe (all against Bologna) and also against Manchester United when Fulham defeated Ferguson’s men in October 2003.

Still, Japanese and Korean footballers struggled to win trust, consistency, and reputation. They could last in Europe for years, but as journeymen, cult favorites, and loans. Hidetoshi Nakata experienced steady decline (by his own design, many Japanese fans said) and ended his experiments with soccer, style, and sex with Hollywood stars (Milla Jovovich and Maggie Q were two names that I knew) in Bolton, Inamoto failed to win the trust of mid-table managers, and long-term injuries seriously impaired their chances to stay beyond the second season (not for the last time).

Now I’m thinking about a pattern. Like Borussia Dortmund, PSV Eindhoven was a hip club, a mini iPod. When the hyped Arjen Robben left for Chelsea (and touted as a killer app for both Arsenal and Manchester United), the midfielders of PSV became a quintet of likeable and better-sum-than-its-part men from three continents – Mark van Bommel, Phillip Cocu, Johann Vogel, DaMarcus Beasley, and Park Ji-sung. Park started as the uglier brother for the Korean duo Guus Hiddink brought to Netherlands, compared to Lee Young-pyo (although Park was the one who shattered Portugal in the 2002 World Cup). He caught global attention (i.e. Manchester United noticed him) when he scored against Milan.

So why did Ferguson choose him? He was seen as a cover for Ryan Giggs. Since Japan and Korea hosted the 2002 World Cup and the aftermath, already cynics said that Asian players were recruited ‘to sell shirts’. Unfortunately, some Asians subscribe to this racist concept, as if Asians cannot be decent footballers. Park Ji-sung had also to refute that kind of accusation – even when you think about it, he’s not worse than many other Africans, British, and Europeans that Manchester United or any other big European clubs had signed.

In Manchester United Park was not a stellar player – hard to do so when you’re playing with Michael Carrick, Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani…and well, Ryan Giggs. Some Koreans saw him as overrated, but they had to admit even after the 2006 World Cup, where he jeopardized France’s chance of survival (they survived, Korea didn’t), he would still be Korea’s best player. Lee Chun-soo was too problematic, Park Chu-young was untested in Europe, Seol Ki-hyeon struggled, and Lee Dong-gook slaved himself to alcohol. In 2008, he lifted the Club World Cup and a year later, he became the only Asian player to play in Champions League final, after scoring against Arsenal in the semi. He survived Alex Ferguson while Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Owen, and Owen Hargreaves didn’t. He laid the first goal for the Aviva Stadium in Dublin as MU pounced League of Ireland XI in 2010, and made life worse for Greeks in the 2010 World Cup.

His departure and fall from grace in the Queens’ Park Rangers is most unfortunate and I agree that perhaps, America or Australia is a place to be for him now (Shinji Ono’s renaissance in Western Sydney is astonishing). QPR wanted him to become the playmaker, which is not his role in Europe (yes, in Korea he was the playmaker since as I said, he was the best). I understand the frustration of QPR fans, but they should have (they could not have) remembered him as a successful MU alumni with 200 appearances for the Red Devils, again, he is not a shirt seller (really, why nobody accuses Junior Holliett or Julio Cesar as a ‘shirt seller’?).

The second part of the story is a study of comparison. Shinji Kagawa, a 172 cm attacking midfielder, was the top scorer of J. League Division 2 in 2009, and as the story went, moved to Borussia Dortmund for 350 thousand euros, and made Dortmund fell in love with him after scoring two against archrivals Schalke 04. By the end of the 2010-11 season, he became one of Bundesliga XI. He scored 13 goals the next season, the club’s second best below Robert Lewandowski. His sweetest moment was defeating Bayern Munich in the DFB Pokal final.

Now in Manchester United, he has defeated Asia’s best keeper Mark Schwarzer (stand by for Schwarzer vs Kawashima coming soon), scored a hattrick against Norwich, and became the man of the match in Fergie’s farewell match. Dortmund made him a footballer. Ferguson made him a star.

Hate to write the good news first. Arsene Wenger recruited 19 year old Ryo Miyaichi into Arsenal – his first senior club. He entered Arsenal and picked up a Dutch dictionary and Rotterdam’s apartments listing. He scored three goals and earned nickname Ryodinho. Then he scored against Wigan. Reserves. As a part of Arsenal Reserves. In 2012 Miyaichi couldn’t see the lights of London at nights and had to settle for Bolton. After that, Wigan Athletic. So, nothing related to Arsenal then.

A more tragic story is Park Chu-young. Korea’s great hope for 2006 World Cup, he had the number 10 but suffered from inconsistency. During his time in the K-League with Seoul, he scored more than 10 goals only in 2005 and failed to take Seoul to compete in Asia.

Nevertheless, Park moved to Monaco and played regularly. In Monaco he scored more consistently than he did in Korea, although he still no chance to play continental competition. Monaco was relegated, but with 12 goals, champions Lille were interested to sign him.

And then Park got greedy, heard about the interest from Arsenal, and bailed out of the medical checkup. Wenger, confident with the dozen goals in Monaco, entrusted him with number 9 and entrusted him with no playtime (while kept saying “Park is ready,”). His only league match with Arsenal was against Manchester United. While Kagawa was soaring, Park joined Miyaichi as a loaned out player, with the Korean going to Spain. Again, his club is relegated.

At first I thought it’d be tricky to explain why Ferguson’s players went well while Wenger’s didn’t. Ferguson picked out players that already earned their scalps in Germany and Holland – the indicator is that they were already fan’s favorites. Key performances in the Champions League was a crucial indicator, since Ferguson wanted them to be ready for Champions League playoffs. Wenger bought on impulses, believing that he could develop a talent, while forgetting the development part.

And then, when Ferguson signed both Park Ji-sung and Kagawa, he meant it. He wanted them to be in the first team. Wenger seemed to share a sin of mine – buying a thing and never opened it. Worse, his a human being, not an imported CD or an easy Mandarin book+DVD set – and then lending out the unpacked item to a friend (just lending). It’s not farming, it’s destroying career (I bet Kagawa will wear number 22 next season. Park Chu-young went the other way around, going down from number 9 to 30).

And so, the Red Sir becomes the greatest sensei in England. But first he needed a great resume. He’s not the one making chump into champ – he was making chaps into champs. Wenger believed he could do the same – and then not doing his craft.

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.

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.

J. League & K-League are over. What’s else to watch?

Dad's happy he bought that bargain Hitachi LCD over the more expensive Viera.

JAPAN

Okay, Kashiwa get the title they deserve. Kashiwa teach us that lemon yellow (well, it’s ain’t as cool as Brazil’s canary yellow) deserves some respect besides the boring blue and red. Even the boring orange. The good news is Urawa, still the most watched team in Japan, survive the year (apparently I did some horrific miscalculation last week) despite Nobuhiro Kato’s terrible terrible mishaps. I wouldn’t be surprised if yesterday morning he had to carry around the execs’ golf kits on his shoulders and back. Certainly this has been a bad year for both Tatsuya Tanaka and Genki Haraguchi.

Can Kashiwa outdo Auckland City? Yes they can, all despite Auckland’s Spanish quartet. What about Monterrey? That’s when the test comes from. That’s when we would see if Sakai, Dong-Hyuk, Kitajima, Junya, and even Young-Hak (*I* consider him to be a Japanese) are really better than Kennedy, Tamada, Keun-Ho, and Endo. If they can bet Monterrey, they can go a long way in 2012 ACL.

The Emperor’s Cup is still on the roll this month. Sadly it’s not covered by my satellite network that covers J.League (thanks!) so I can only follow the news online and from Singaporean wrap-up programs. Nagoya v Kashiwa is certainly the one to watch (bit harsh for Kashiwa just week after their campaign to represent Japan, eh?), there are still Corinthians around like Matsumoto Yamaga, and personally I want to see Masashi Oguro & Shunsuke Nakamura playing in the ACL for once.

KOREA

Jeonbuk’s Eninho & Luiz Henrique’s performances against Al-Sadd have certainly made the Club World Cup less exciting that it should be. Yes, I’m still blaming them. Especially after seeing how excellent was Eninho performing during the finals of the Championship against the lesser Hyundai. And remembering how bad did Luiz play during the ACL final rounds. Ulsan have been impressive and it’s worth a wait to see how Seol Ki-Hyeon, Lee Ho, Kang Min-Soo, and Kwak Tae-Hwi (which have been a true tiger during  the play-offs) fare next year.

 

The next things to watch without J. League and K-League (and even S-League. And even more CSL) are certainly the A-League, the two Indonesian leagues, and of course Asian players in Europe. The latter is an agony lately. Park Ji-Sung played full-time in Manchester United’s unexpected, unplanned loss to Crystal Palace (my friend never heard of it and she thought it sounds like a Chinese restaurant); Ji Dong-Won, Ko Ja-Cheol, and Son Heung-Min played from the start and were subbed out halfway, Makoto Hasebe was red-carded, Park Chu-Young and  Takashi Usami weren’t even on the bench throughout the week, and Shinji Kagawa didn’t score again. (My god, that litany took four lines to write).

Again, is it genetics? Physical skills? Mentality? Or is it easier to spot a non-performing Asian than a non-performing Argentine, Swede, or Nigerian? Or in the end they actually played well but it was me who got too obsessed with my quest for Asian Goalscoring Superstar Hero so I spend Mondays worrying that they wouldn’t start the game next weekend? Like what’s happening to Park Chu-Young?

Who will represent Japan and Korea?

Crest for Nagoya Grampus

I'm impartial

Ah, the final week. Everyone in teams contesting J. League and K-League championships have to be sure they are healthy up to the kick off time. That’s including minding where is the aftershave bottle and make sure that the meals they were eating have positive agreement with their bowels.

Start with the easier, Korea. Jeonbuk, Pohang, and Seongnam have got the tickets to next year’s ACL. Just like a good K-League season should be: leave nothing to Suwon & Seoul. Meanwhile, Ulsan…well, Ulsan have beaten both aforementioned team, plus Pohang for good measure, and will face Jeonbuk this Sunday in the K-League Championship. So it’s decided: Lee Dong-Gook, Kim Jung-Woo (welcome back, soldier), Mota, Kim Dong-Chan, Eninho, and Seol Ki-Hyeon will fight for the Korean revival (this year’s loss to Al-Sadd is too much) in 2012. Unless they are transferred out. Except if they are transferred out to another ACL competitor from Japan or Saudi Arabia. Or Qatar.

What matters most for me in this year’s FIFA World is for the Japanese champions to reach semi-final match against Santos and to win the Third Place match against Al-Sadd  ES Tunis. Who are the most fitting firm to pounce Auckland City 5-0 before handing down a devastating 2-1 defeat to Monterey and to prove that CONCACAF is ALWAYS below AFC?

Three clubs answer the call and they are only one point separated between them. Kashiwa Reysol have 68. Nagoya Grampus have 67. Gamba Osaka have 66. Marinos, having a good year, are 12 points below Gamba. So three out of Japanese representatives for ACL 12 are already determined. Fourth place goes to Emperor Cup’s winners, which will have its fourth round next month after Club World Cup 11 is over.

Kashiwa have it tough – they will face Urawa, the former Asian Champions now in the danger of going down to J. League Division 2. Which means that the good people of Chiba will be happy to ensure that the good people of Saitama will see  Tatsuya Tanaka becoming the top scorer of D2 in 2012.

Nagoya will also face Albirex Niigata in the northern country. Bruno Lopes is not Josh Kennedy nor Keiji Tamada, so Nagoya will also be victorious.

What about Gamba? They have the toughest matches of all the championship hopefuls – away trip to Shimizu. Even as Korean Lee Keun-Ho can save the day, both Gamba and Nagoya have to rely on a simple fact: That Urawa will defeat Kashiwa. Urawa will do it for sure so that they will survive in the Division One.

Which team has the right to represent Japan in the Club World Cup? I choose Nagoya. I want to see all the hottest Japanese representatives in Toyota and Yokohama: Fujimoto, Tamada, and Nagai. And of course, one of the best striker in Asia this year: Josh Kennedy. Or maybe that I always had soft spot for Nagoya, the city often forgotten behind the Kanto-Kansai duopoly.

 

Anyway, India just got pummeled 0-5 by Zambia in Goa.