AFC Champions League & AFC Cup 2014: Group Stage Review

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

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

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

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

 

AFC Cup – Group E

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

Group F

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

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

Group G

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

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

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

Group H

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

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

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

 

AFC Champions League – Group E

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

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

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

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

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

Group F

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

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

Group G

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

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

Group H

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

 

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

 

 

ACL playoff: Adelaide United 3 Persipura 0

I was going to show you the West Papuan flag but I don't want no trouble, so here's a very un-football badge of Persipura.

A post while waiting for Ajax v Manchester United (Ji-Sun on bench and Ajax has no Asian player…can you believe they feature an Armenian forward?). Tonight Adelaide United qualified to the 2012 ACL group stage to enjoy pleasant trips to Osaka, Tashkent, and either Pohang or Chonburi. Despite the current Visit Korea campaigns, Chonburi seems to be more popular for tourists, although it’s unlikely. Besides, I want to see uh, Hwang Ji-Soo and Shin Hyung-Min. Yeah, that would work. And No Byung-Jun on the bench. And uh, Derek Asamoah.

The one shot playoff between Adelaide United and Indonesian champions Persipura, shorthand for Jayapura United, was filled with dramas. You might have heard for other places (not here) that Indonesia currently has two top leagues. Last season there was a breakaway league called the Premier League. Guys from the Premier League won the FA management and so made their brand into the official league. Since it would have contained 22 teams, which is ridiculous, most teams stayed with last season’s official league, called the Super League. Some teams had also went into civil war and their sides competed in both leagues.

Persipura competed in the Super League, and thus the Indonesian FA withdrew its participation from the ACL. But then Persipura won temporary appeal in the Court of  Arbitration for Sport. The Indonesian FA surprisingly let Persipura had their way, while Adelaide United were understandably unhappy. Now sitting at the bottom of the A-League, they have to hold extra game in mid-week. As for Persipura, they had to lodge in their visa applications on Monday morning for a Thursday evening match. I heard that they arrived in Adelaide on Thursday morning.

One off match and the odds were for Adelaide. They put on the A-team, with Djite, van Dijk, Cassio, and Galekovic. Persipura were without its iconic bad boy Boaz Solossa, but still sporting formidable names in Indonesian football, like Yoo Jae-Hoon, Ricardo Salampessy, and SEA Games hero Titus Bonai.

And so the result between Australian v Southeast Asian football was clear. Outpaced, overpowered, outclassed. Adelaide scored just after the tenth minute. Persipura were too timid with its midfield and wings passing and were too panicked with their defenses. First sub was made by the half hour mark when Liberian playmaker Krangar replaced defender Padwa.

In the end, Adelaide got its goals from two defenders – Boogaard and Levchenko before van Dijk struck for the third. Djite might called the night a bad training session since he missed his chances. Star Sports concluded that the result was the best for both teams. Persipura got their reward for winning the 2011 Indonesian league and represented Indonesia – at least still better than Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore which don’t play at all :p. Adelaide got a pick me up game to return their confidence and to warm them up for the upcoming Champions League, and even one goal from Persipura might have dented their confidence.

But here’s the most important thing. Had Persipura won, they it’s back to court as AFC had to retract its earlier decision to grant qualification to Adelaide. CAS has to weight in cases from AFC, Indonesian FA, Persipura, and Adelaide United. And yes, the costs of hosting international games and to travel to Japan, Uzbekistan, and…Korea. No, Persipura will not play in the AFC Cup.

The aftermath of the game in Indonesia, however, unsettles me. While in Australia it’s another “boy aren’t we good at sports” snip, in Indonesia, as the saying goes, the silent is deafening. Yes, Indonesian press are happy (more than the audience) that Indonesia defeat South Korea in Thomas Cup qualification (that’s men badminton). Hmm…more case for the argument that Indonesians are fickle about their football. I’ve heard Papuans complaining that Indonesians are not proud enough to see Persipura represent Indonesia. No, not really.

There are hundred of comments on the few articles reporting Persipura’s defeat in Australia. Most of them are flame wars between people who support and who hate the Premier League. Persipura is taken as the poster boy of the Super League…so…can you spell that particular German word? You know what’s worse? In the growing trend of acceptance of racism in football, some commentators don’t hesitate to use racial slurs on Papuans. Just months after Papuan footballers were hailed as national heroes in the SEA Games.

That’s the first punch. The second is about West Papuan flag. Yes, there was a West Papuan flag caught on camera. Not a gigantic one. Just flown probably by some Papuan diaspora in Australia. For Australian audience, it would be just like an indigenous Australian flag, or Catalonian flag, or the People’s Republic of Cork’s flag. I was going to say that in Indonesia it was taken like how Chinese bloggers view a Tibet flag flown in Australia, but I didn’t stumble on many Indonesian blogs making issue about the flag. Indonesian news sites also didn’t report it, because they had to report on the match first.

Still, it was raised on the comments section for the wrong reason – Persipura or its supporters are accused of waving the “separatist” flag instead of Indonesian flag, and thus making their sense of nationalism questionable. Duh, they were on the pitch as the away team, and couldn’t be held responsible if someone in Australia flying a flag hated by Indonesian armchair nationalists. Hey, whatever to attack the team you don’t like, eh? There was no Indonesian flag because I supposed no Indonesian in Adelaide was really into Asian football. Heck, had I been in Adelaide, I wouldn’t come to the stadium since it’s damn hard to find another Indonesian interested to see the match, and who’s happened to have an Indonesian flag.

Finally, Sergio. Last autumn (spring in Australia) he was hoping that he can play for Indonesia for their final World Cup qualification against Bahrain in February. His name’s not on the training camp list and there’s no result on Google on whether he’s got his Indonesian passport. Probably because the strives inside Indonesian football scares him (it did scare Singaporean Noor Alam Shah) and because the FA is putting too much attention on purging players who are in the Super League. Who knows, perhaps while Sergio thought he could play in Australia and play for Indonesia, which would be very beneficial for the latter, the FA thought that the better idea is for him to play in the Premier League.

My, East Asian football. Now that Bunyodkor has to fill in the space for the east, it means there is so many wrong things about you.

2012 ACL: Still no sunshine for SE Asian football

Indonesia will not again participate in 2012 AFC Champions League. Right, so I have to make some explanation first. Long time ago, say in December 2010, a President called Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono knew a movie called Invictus. He envisaged himself as Nelson Mandela and the Indonesian national football team as the Springboks. Unfortunately, AFF dragged in the tournament into a month that strained away press interest and the teams’ morale. Indonesia failed to win the cup while underdog Malaysia proved that it full-local player league policy worked.

In 2011, Nurdin Halid, the former chief of Indonesia FA became the most hated man among Indonesian men. A power struggle brought in the fear that Indonesia could be banned by FIFA from 2014 World Cup qualifications. Fortunately, FIFA had the same power struggle, and the men who toppled Nurdin, led by businessman Arifin Panigoro and General George Toisutta, got friendly with Sepp’s men in AFC, so Indonesia could play on.

Panigoro created a rival league to IFA-sanctioned league ISL, called IPL. Because he set the English Premier League as his standard. Nobody really watched it. Then this semester, after long long delays involving fickle Indonesians’ dissatisfaction with its national team (hey, they were up against Bahrain and Iran. What did you expect?) and its overblown pride to the U-23 team (which poised to win gold in Southeast Asian Games), IPL has become the official league. Involving 24 teams. Most of these teams balked at the prospect of traveling 23 times over the vast archipelago, and that’s only for the league. Not to the mention the profit sharing and because many new teams included into the league were newbies favored enough by the new management. And some clubs’ managements were also taken over by the Panigoro-Toisutta’s men.

So 18 teams competed in the ISL, while 13 stayed in the IPL. Yeah, the math seems weird, because many clubs broke themselves up into two sides with their own outfits. So far, fans choose the ISL again.

 

That’s the domestic story. 2010 Indonesian champions Persipura compete in the ISL, which is not officially sanctioned. So they are disqualified from 2012 ACL. So do IFA’s proposed replacements – Arema and Persija (both clubs are also in the state of civil war) are turned down by AFC. So only Thailand will represent Southeast Asia (is Australia technically a Southeast Asian nation in the AFC, anyway?). Ho hum.

I know, football wise, Southeast Asians are easy fodders for Japanese and Korean clubs (and um, yeah, still beatable for Chinese and Australian clubs). But Southeast Asia often misses out on the ACL due to non-football factors. Lack of interest from the FA (i.e. Singapore). Mismanagement (esp. Indonesia and Thailand). Lack of professionalism (think Malaysia and Philippines). Corruption (Vietnam and Indonesia). So again, I urge, with a sobering thought for myself, for Southeast Asian football fans to halt their World Cup dream. Because they still can’t prevail in Asian Cup. Because their football associations and governments don’t want to take football seriously.

Anyway, if you are like me and wishing to know if Singapore are really better than Hong Kong although there’s  FIFA World Cup 2010, there’s still AFC Cup around. Featuring Tampines Rovers (Duric), Kitchee (four Spaniards), Citizen (Amaury, not Amauri), Home United (Shi Jiayi), Navibank (Phan Van TE) & SLNA (they have three Jamaicans), Arema (the IPL faction, with Noh Alam Shah), and for the first time, Malaysian sides – Terengganu & Kelantan. O yeah, and a couple of Burmese.