Three Stories+

It’s been a month. Let’s say that I’m experiencing the Kagawa Situation (it’s the title of a Robert Ludlum novel). Well, he’s back into action last Wednesday, so I expect to be like him soon (Kagawa, not Ludlum).

O yeah, unfortunately I don’t think I can do better than Kagawa in helping Japan winning the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup. That’s because I heard that Pro Evo Soccer 14 is terrible. Good points: it has Japan and AFC Champions League. Bad points: As always, JFA and J. League and Konami refuse to release J. League Division 1 outside Japan. The presentation always makes me wonder what has gone wrong with Japanese aesthetic. The chance to play ACL is tempting, but PES has let me down too many times before.
What really pisses me off is it’s licensing Argentine and Chilean leagues but not Japanese. At least with FIFA I can play K-League Classic, A-League, Kagawa, Honda, and Son.

Which brings me to the main topic and the supposed sole topic of this entry: Asian-European footballers. I had noticed that FIFA rated Nagatomo at the same score with Austrian and Munich sideback David Alaba. Just few days ago, after he kept Austria’s hope for Brazil 14 alive by scoring against Ireland, that I knew that his mother is Filipina.

The next day, I learned that a Hamburger SV player named Lam scored. I thought “OK, a German like Phillip Lahm.” German alright, but his surname is Cantonese, a variation of Lin/Lim. Zhi Gin Lam joined the first team squad since 2011 and this week’s goal against Dortmund was his first.

And of course, Indonesians are really proud of Belgian midfielder Radja Nainggolan. Both Alaba and Nainggolan have already played for their European national teams – otherwise you can bet the Philippines’ and Indonesian football associations will ask them to migrate to Southeast Asia (Nainggolan has appeared in an Indonesian cigarette advertisement with the Becks. But of course, it’s football media ad, not cigarette).

As for Lam, well, at this point I think the competition to be in the German national team is tough, so let’s see if the Hong Kong FA approaches him like they have with English-born Sean Tse (er, actually he hasn’t played for Hong Kong) and James Ha (for HK U-23).

Anyway, none of the name I mentioned has Asian father and mother. Alaba’s father is Nigerian while the other names have European mothers. Just wondering if it’s really helping to be half-white/black when you are becoming an athlete – and why don’t more fully Asian men don’t/can’t/won’t become athletes.

That’s all about Europe. I certainly have neglected Japanese and Korean leagues for sometime, in which is a promising year for my supported team Yokohama Marinos (and another meh for Busan. At least, again, they are better than Jeju and Seongnam). Even I was just aware of the Asian Champions League’s results tonight, because of Lekhwiya’s crappy shooting skills (1. they hit the bar accurately and 2. they have Nam Tae-hee). And to my surprise, it was a great arrangement – Korea, China, and Japan all go to the semi finals. Feisty semi finals, in which a Korea team (Seoul) must travel to Iran and Japan (Kashiwa) meet China (Guangzhou). Hopefully they won’t be too ugly.

Maybe I’m just happy that Qatar again learns the lesson that money doesn’t equal to wins if they don’t invest it to grassroot football and local players the way Japan and Korea do.

Of course, Qatar has no history of land reform, heavy industry, and indigenous population holding professional skills and experiences. That’s why the government has more money than Japan and even Australia do.

O yeah, the Singaporean police has arrested Dan Tan. Hooray.

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My love-hate-love feeling for Australia

Since Honda & Kagawa won't do this.

Since Honda & Kagawa won’t do this.

They were the big boys of Oceania – an artificial region composing Pacific area outside Asia. Asia itself is a broad definition – from Syria to Japan and Indonesia. In the past Oceania served as a bin for associations with political complications, like Israel and Taiwan.

In Oceania, however, Australia didn’t make it to the World Cup apart from 1974. New Zealand made in in 1982, and in other occasions they lost the playoffs against Europe (Scotland in 1985), South America (Uruguay in 2001), and even Asia (Iran in 1997). At the same time, the question of Australia’s place in Asia Pacific arose again, at it had been in 1980s and 1990s (and now). Asian students had become a part of Australia’s capitals, Asian Australians were growing in numbers (propelled by Southeast Asians from children of Vietnamese boat people to Malaysian students securing permanent residency), and Sydney stock market is comparable to Shanghai’s (after 2000s), Singapore’s, and Seoul’s.

When I arrived in Australia a decade ago, football was a messy affair of South European rivalry. South Melbourne were a Greek club as Sunshine were Croatian. Just a decade ago, football was seen as a Euro sport, although Anglo-Irish players had appeared, like Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton. Australia did really well in the 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup (the last time Japan beat them in 90 minutes, 1-0 by Hide Nakata), but the team continued a heartbreaking streak of losing the intercontinental playoffs. I remember them went down to Argentina in 1993 (Diego Maradona vs Ned Zelic), Iran in 1997 (equalized from 0-2 down in the first half), and the start of bitter rivalry with Uruguay in 2001 (total 7 yellow cards for the hosts in Montevideo). And that was before Luis Suarez.

So Australia, who held world record for 31-0 (insert verbal noun) over American Samoa, thought it’s better to work their way up against Syria, Uzbekistan, and Thailand before jostling for a ticket with Japan and Saudi Arabia (hey, this was a decade ago. OK, Iran then). Rather than steamrolling Vanuatu, knocking New Zealand on the head, and only to go down again in intercontinental.

They did get their wish in 2005 when Mark Bresciano scored against Uruguay in Sydney, equalizing the aggregate to 1-1. 35 year old Mark Schwarzer failed Dario Rodriguez (who beat him in Montevideo) and Marcelo Zalayeta (Uruguay had withdrawn Alvaro Recoba and didn’t play Diego Forlan), and the overjoyed running of John Aloisi entered the lore of Australian sports. He was seen, thanks to the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup, as a better forward to Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell (who had become a winger at this time). At the same year, the A-League was launched, to close curtains on the semi-professional quality and ethnics division of Australian football.

Luckily Konami Australia chose this over when he celebrated against Japan.

Luckily Konami Australia chose this over when he celebrated against Japan.

Then the crack came. As a representative for Oceania, they belonged to the same pot with South America and Africa in the draw – and were put in Group F with Japan. The plot was that Brazil (featuring the ‘golden square’ of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka, and Adriano) would breeze through with Croatia came second. The third place would be either Australia or Japan.

Looking back, the air of confidence between Australia and Japan were quite difference. Australia put in the air of defiance, even portraying Japan as a better favorite. But they didn’t care. Nike chose Mark Bresciano (“More than happy to be there”) while adidas promoted Harry Kewell (“+10”). Japan also had big confidence, but outside Japan only Shunsuke Nakamura was considered dangerous enough. This assumption held on the match day. Masashi Oguro played in a minor club in Serie A. Hidetoshi Nakata was seen as a has-been. I spoke to some Japanese students a week before the match and I was more optimistic on Naohiro Takahara than they were. Actually I worried that captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto raised the nation spirit by organizing a futsal match between Morning Musume vs JAL stewardesses instead of increasing his training regime.

But I felt happier living in the otaku (anime geek) world in contrast to the manly Aussie sports world. At this time I felt I had been lost in touch with the Asian part of Australian life that I enjoyed, and so Japan represented that Asian joy, while Australia represented the reality of Western civilization that I was living in. It was a classical East vs West battle.

And I hated Australia for that. And I knew that everything I counted on Japan was wrong. Cahill was better playmaker than Shunsuke. Schwarzer was a better keeper than Kawaguchi. Alex was always ineffective as an attacking forward. And that Japan’s substitutes were lack of quality. The early morning chants of Australian supporters when they passed to the Round of 16 was the worst rude awakening I ever had (my life’s pretty uneventful, huh?).

When Italy defeated Australia and Fabio Grosso became the Dirty Diego of the tournament, Chinese match commentators screamed ecstatically, cursing Australia to the point of being racist. That’s what many Asian males feel about Australia joining AFC. We have no problems with Iranians or Uzbeks, but you ‘whities’ don’t belong here in Asia.

A year later, I was back in Indonesia and Australia were favorites to win the 2007 Asian Cup. In Thailand, Australian supporters wore the bamboo farmer cone caps, something that Thais or any other Southeast Asian supporters never wear (and all the Aussies were white). Indonesia hosted Korea, who played badly against Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Korea needed to defeat Indonesia to pass and Koreans in Jakarta supported them from behind…faaar behind from the safety of gated communities and bulgogi joints. While the Australians felt comfortable in Bangkok (they also did badly against Iraq and Oman), eating rambutan and drinking Chang beer, the Koreans were too terrified to visit the stadium. Too many ‘brownies’ for their comfort. Korean expats are happy for a family outing in Doha or Dubai but not Djakarta.

Australia, in the end, counted their first Asian Cup as bad experience. Aloisi repeated his achievement in scoring against Japan, but Takahara came back with a vengeance. Kewell and Neill failed to defeat Kawaguchi, but Takahara threw away his chance. Australia did have a hope, but Nakazawa scored. With the ousting, David Carney and Nick Carle failed to become Australia’s next big stars. Japan later found out that while Australia had no desire to kill them, Korea did. The next year, Adelaide United reached the AFC Champions League final, only to be shot down 0-3, 0-2 by Gamba Osaka. 2008 proved to be the zenith point for both J-League and A-League in Asia.

My hatred for the Socceroos continued in the FIFA World Cup qualifications, but two things happened. 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup was forgettable because Asia was represented by Iraq. Secondly, watching Australia facing Bahrain, Qatar, and Uzbekistan, part of me wanted them to lose and part of me were irritated with the quarrelsome and vain West Asians and their stadiums that were devoid of women. I began to see the common point between Australia and Japan. It was in Japan’s interest that Australia went well against the West Asians. I also always want Japan to play as passionate and dominating the way Australia do (Australia scored 12 goals, two on Japan, while Japan scored 11. The big difference was Australia conceded only one – the scorer was Tulio Tanaka).

Then came the day Australia’s supremacy and defiance ended. Schwarzer was looking forward to face the country of his parents and Tim Cahill was one of the best playmaker in England. They scared Germany in the first five minutes. Three minutes later, Podolski scored. Then Klose. Then forward Cahill received red card. Then Muller scored again. Kick off, then it’s the turn of substitute Cacau.

Looking back, Australia did as well as they did in 2006 – draw with Ghana and victory over Serbia, with Brett Holman came into prominence. Problem was Ghana had the better goal aggregate. And so Pim Verbeek was deemed as a failure.

Was I happy? Absolutely. Of course, United States vs Australia would have become an ultimate soccer game. But everyone needed a lovable African team and they were Ghana.

In 2011, my dilemma of Australia vs West Asia returned. Disappointed that Korea failed to defeat them but happy that they defeated Bahrain, Iraq, and destroyed Uzbekistan. Tim Cahill, as always, could become Japan’s nemesis. He came close to score but he didn’t, and Tadanari Lee’s volley made Japan, once more, the Kings of Asia. Unfortunately, Lee’s moment failed to spark renewed respect for the Korean-Japanese. Worse, his fellow Korean-Japanese girlfriend left him for Okinawan geek girl’s god Gackt and he failed to settle in Southampton.

Two other things happened recently. The hostile nationalism gripping all Asian nations, including Japan and Korea, and their disdain for liberalism and green issues, has made me wide awake at nights. Australia has become a standard for everything right about society and politics (compared to Japan, Korea, and Singapore, my Australian friends).

Second, I’m teaching Australian cultural studies and I’m loving it. I prefer Girls’ Generation but I play Gotye and Sia. My students enjoyed Packed to the Rafters that I showed while I like Dream High and Working!! better. From advising nervous and excited teenagers how to enjoy life in Australia, I’ve come to fall in love with it again.

The cordial atmosphere between Japan and Australia last week has become a point where I’ve come to accept Australia as one of the East Asians. But not yet. Australia still have no footballer from Asian background. Australia still has almost no athlete from East Asian background (only diver Melissa Wu comes into mind, plus some badminton players). The only Asian Australian footballer I know (discounting those of Lebanese backgrounds) is Brendan Gan, who played for Sydney FC and now is with New South Wales Premier League’s Rockdale City Suns (formerly a Macedonian club). If the chance comes, he opts to play for Malaysia rather than Australia.

And so the quest for Soccer Australia’s Jeremy Lin still afar. It can be ten years from now, or it can be soon after 2015. Or much longer, the way United States still yet to find the heir to Brian Ching and Canada with Issey Nakajima-Farran (and both players are half-white). When he comes and plays for the green and gold, I’ll completely support the Socceroos.

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.

Where the Players are Coming from

May he prosper in Singapore

May he prosper in Singapore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six best Japan’s victories

Pele is my Homie

Yes, this is after a Guardian Football article. On the greatest victories of United States, written after the 1-0 upset against Italy in last week’s friendly, just when Japan surprisingly went down to Uzbekistan by the same score. So, as United States have their moments, and after seeing how Japanese forwards soon back at scoring goals and providing assists for their clubs in Europe*, I want to look at the Samurai Blue’s finest hours and halves. Unfortunately I won’t do the same for Korea since they have not won the Asian Cup for fifty years, and they have never been in Confederations Cup.

*Dortmund-Mainz 2-1 (Kagawa 77), Vitesse-de Graafschap 2-0 (Havenaar 73), VVV-NAC 2-1 (Cullen 85, Yoshida 87), Stuttgart-Hamburg 4-0 (Okazaki won a penalty kick for Kuzmanovic), Lierse-Leuven 0-0 (…okay, clean sheet for Kawashima)

1. Japan 15-0 Philippines, 1967 Olympics qualification

This is not in for the sheer brutality. Fifty years before, Philippines inflicted the worst defeat ever for Japan, 2-15, also in Tokyo during the Far Eastern Championship (see? Japan’s always crap when it comes to EAFF). That 1917 humiliation came the day after the Republic of China put five without reply against Japan – and might be responsible for the lack of interest of soccer (yes, Americans are not the only ones who call it soccer). Philippines, on the other hand, were one of the pioneers of football in Asia, especially since the Americans were keener to share the love for the sport, compared to the British in Singapore and Hong Kong.

After World War 2, however, Philippines lost interest at football just like the Americans did (despite the 1950 World Cup). In Japan, football was also behind rugby union, although the richest and advanced nation in Asia was keen to participate in any kind of international tournament, especially after hosting the 1964 Olympics, where the host defeated Argentina 3-2 before succumbed 0-4 to Czechoslovakia in QF.

The carnage against Philippines came in the first matchday of Group 1 qualification in Japan. Had the JFA received more funds and better training, names like Kunishige Kamamoto and Teruyuki Miyamoto could become the legends of Asia. You never heard of them unless you were Japanese (or an Asian football geek), since Japan didn’t come to 1964 Asian Cup and lost to Taiwan in the 1968 qualification. That’s right, Taiwan cared about football back in 1960s, continuing its Republic of China tradition. Even, Philippines’ lineup for the fateful day featured many ethnic Chinese. How the times have changed.

Japan had led two nil by five minutes, and 23 year old Kamamoto, who played for Yanmar Diesel (now Cerezo Osaka), scored his first at the 16th minute. He gained his third goal by the half hour mark. 27 year old Miyamoto (Yawata Steel, folded in 1999) had opened his account four minutes before. In total, Kamamoto scored six (including the last one one minute before time), while Miyamoto had four. Other scorers were Ryuichi Sugiyama, substitute Yasuyuki Kuwahara, and Masashi Watanabe. Poor goalkeeper Fertes was not substituted.

Japan continued its rampage the next days by beating Taiwan and Lebanon, before being held 3-3 by Korea despite 2-0 lead at half time. In Mexico City (Puebla, actually), Kamamoto scored hattrick against Nigeria (3-1), while Japan survived draws against Brazil and Spain (Watanabe, who also played for Yawata, scored against Brazil). Hungary humiliated them 0-5 but in the fight for bronze medal, Kumamoto scored two to upset the hosts. Had only he was born forty years later.

2. Japan 3-2 China, 1992 Asian Cup

It was the cruel irony for Korea. They had established themselves as the East Asian representatives for World Cup, twice. Japan had nothing against them (even well, to this day?). They even just hosted the Olympics to boot. Yet Japan, which just created a professional league, won the rights to host the Asian Cup, something that Korea has never done (really, this is a gap in the checklist for a country which has hosted a World Cup and will host the Winter Olympics). Yet, the Tigers didn’t have to visit Japan – they were knocked out in the qualification by…Thailand.

Japan won the Group A unconvincingly, earning narrow victory against Iran while played draws against North Korea and 1990’s West Asian representatives/whipboys UAE. And Japan consisted of J.League celebrities such as Ruy Ramos, Kazuyoshi Miura, and Masashi Nakayama. Were they overhyped? (in Japan there’s no such thing as ‘overhyped’ and ‘overrated’) Could they really qualify to USA 1994?

So they faced China in semi-final, which had good knack for coming back from one goal deficit, both against favorite Saudi Arabia and Qatar (Thailand failed to live up their credibility as the dark horses). China’s mistake was that they scored earlier. Xie Yuxin, first Chinese player to play in Europe (PEC Zwolle, which ceased business in 1990) scored right off the bat. The score stayed for 45 minutes, looked like Japan would blow it. Then, Masahiro Fukada (Urawa) scored three minutes into the second half, and Tsuyoshi Kitazawa (Verdy Kawasaki) turned over the game ten minutes later. But! China kept the drama alive through Li Xiao, before Masahi Nakayama (Jubilo, in case you forget) won it for the host six minutes from time.

So Japan defeated their best available East Asian rivals, which came close from creating an upset. They improved the defence and won the final match against Saudi Arabia through Takuya Takagi (Hiroshima)’s single goal. China have never been against a scary threat for Japan (at least the footballers) while Koreans only could see in envy when MVP Kazu Miura lifted the trophy. They would have the last laugh the following year.

3. Japan 8-1 Uzbekistan, 2000 Asian Cup

You could say that Japan flunked it. After winning the Asian Cup, they failed to qualify to the World Cup, J. League clubs were languishing in Asian Championship, they experienced that foreign coaches (who were also subjected into overexposure) could take the team into implosion rather than glory, while local coach Shu Kamo survived despite losses in 1995 King Fahd’s Cup and 1996 Asian Cup. They qualified to France in ugly manners and lost to Jamaica despite honorable 0-1 losses to Argentina and Croatia.

So – Japan would become the co-host of 2002 World Cup, and the leadership fell into Phillipe Troussier, who spent his managing career in Africa. While the senior team became a disappointing guest at the Copa America, the U-20 team reached the final of World Youth Championship. The young players were believed to be the great hope – figures such as Naohiro Takahara, Shinji Ono, and Atsushi Yanagisawa.

And Japan opened the West Asian campaign with a bang by humiliating Saudi Arabia 4-1, where young boys Takahara and Yanagisawa shined. Then came the humiliation of Uzbekistan. Both Takahara (Jubilo) and Akinori Nishizawa (Cerezo) scored hattricks. The scoreline was already 5-1 in the first half. It was a quiet silent atmosphere at Sidon, where only 2 thousands watched the game. Japan failed to impress in the third game against Qatar (some might say that they conserved energy). The semi final against China was a repeat of 1992 – China led by 2-1 with 50 minutes of play, and Japan’s goal came courtesy of Fan Zhiyi’s own goal. Nishizawa and Tomozaku Myojin (Kashiwa) saved the day, and the final was also a repeat of 1992 – Japan defeated Saudi Arabia 1-0. How the development had come a long way for Uzbekistan (other Central Asian countries couldn’t follow and Kazakhstan defected to UEFA two years later), and how Japan could be really irresistible in a big tournament.

4. Japan 1-0 Russia, 2002 World Cup

It’s never nice to draw analogy between football and military history, but coincidentally, Japan usually graduated by beating Russia. It seemed that the co-host had better draw than Korea which got Portugal and United States, but it was not that easy. Russia were top of the group in the qualification and banished the chances of Yugoslavia and Switzerland. Belgium were better than Scotland, and after all, qualified while their bigger, more handsome brother Netherlands failed. In short, Japan’s best hope was to defeat Tunisia, but the same thing could be said for Jamaica in 1998.

Korea won their first World Cup match by convincing 2-0 victory against Poland, so Japan felt the emotional pressure to do the same against Belgium. It was not to happen. Naohiro Takahara sadly had to miss the tournament to injury, while fans were outraged that Shunsuke Nakamura was not chosen by Troussier. Japan featured household names of Hide Nakata, Junichi Inamoto, and Shinji Ono in the midfield, and Nakamura would have completed the circle, with Myojin if necessary. As for forward, Japan relied on Yanagisawa and Takayuki Suzuki, who was impressive during the 2001 Confederations Cup where he scored a brace against Cameroon.

Suzuki did deliver to counter Marc Wilmots’ goal, and Japan were on path of victory after Inamoto scored (lesson: dyed blondes win). But van der Heyden equalized and Japan failed to match Korean achievement. Russia, meanwhile, had defeated Tunisia and were leading the group.

Troussier replaced Daisuke Ichikawa on the starting lineup with Myojin while retaining Kazuyuki Toda. Russia, however, switched from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1 and reserved Beschastnykh, supposedly to face on Japan’s 3-5-2 formation. First half came tough. The sign of the crack up came in the second half when forward Pimenov (why not Vladimir B from the start?) was replaced by Sychev. Five minutes later, Inamoto scored. Beschastnykh came as Russia’s third sub before the hour mark, and you can smell fear behind Oleg Romantsev’s neck. Not Tsushima again. Suzuki failed to endanger Russia and was replaced by Nakayama – the curtain call for his hours of fame. Japan celebrated its first World Cup win after five attempts, compared to Korea’s 15. Although Tunisia held Belgium, Japan knew Round 2 was on the bag. And so they proceed with 2-0 victory. The unfortunate casualties were Japanese nationals who were beaten up by angry Russian fans. Tsushima indeed.

5. Japan 3-1 Denmark, 2010 World Cup

2000s were a game of two halves for Japan. While Korea eternally remembered 2002 with a smile despite later controversies, Japan retained the Asian Cup and won the honor of defeating Greece, the bane of Europe, in 2005 Confederations Cup.You could say the overconfidence ruled before the 2006 World Cup, as the media put too much trust on Zico (understandable for Kashima fans) and captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto even had the time to organize girls’ futsal match. When Germany 2006 came, Japan went in for rude awakening that only Shunsuke Nakamura and Keiji Tamada could actually play.

2007 Asian Cup were not supposed to be that bad for Japan – until they lost to Saudi – and then to Korea. Ivica Osim and his JEF United team were disgraced, and the victory against Australia was soon forgotten. The pessimism prevailed just before the 2010 World Cup as accountant/system engineer Takeshi Okada returned. Japan lost four friendly matches throughout April-May 2010, conceded at least two goals each time.

Blonde Keisuke Honda, however, prevailed over Samuel Eto’o. But when Netherlands prevailed and Japan had to win against Denmark, the analogy with the fate of Korea in 2006 appeared. Korea then defeated Togo, held France, but failed to go on after lost soundly to Switzerland. Denmark had the same points with Japan after defeated Cameroon.

Fans and players complained about the difficulty of employing free kick using the adidas Jabulani ball. Japan proved that it was not a big deal. Both Keisuke Honda and Yasuhito Endo outwitted Denmark’s wall and Thomas Sorensen. Denmark returned through a penalty kick’s rebound, but then Honda rampaged and passed the ball beyond Sorensen to Shinji Okazaki. Usually only teams like Germany, Brazil, or Netherlands could beat Denmark with two goals margin like that. Japan failed to conquer Paraguay, which was motivated by model Larissa Riquelme who promised she would go nude in front of the team had they won the World Cup. But Japan, and also Korea, had proved that in the 21st century, Asian teams were no longer pushovers.

6. Japan 1-0 (0-0) Australia, 2011 Asian Cup

Australia want a friendly rivalry with Japan over the mastery of Asia. Japan might have taken the challenge after the outrage at Germany 06, although its real derby is against Republic of Korea. In any case, Japan and Australia were the top favorites to win, although the championship was held in West Asia. Japan started roughly, equalized in injury time against Jordan and defeated Syria through Honda’s penalty kick. They eventually ousted Saudi Arabia, which already lost to Syria and Jordan. 5-0, as Okazaki scored hattrick and Ryoichi Maeda gained two goals.

In quarter finals, Japan defeated the hosts 3-2 with twenty minutes remaining – Qatar’s goals came from its naturalized players, Sebastian Soria and Fabio Cesar. Semi final was a battle royale affair against Korea, and Korea were favored based on derby’s history. Both teams scored in extra time, but something very unexpected happened – Korea could not put a single goal in penalty shootout.

Came the dream final against Australia, where the Soceroos were again favored. The scourge of Japan, Tim Cahill was there, but he had only scored two goals against India. More dangerous were Mile Jedinak and Harry Kewell, and six different players scored in the 6-0 demolition of Uzbekistan. And Cahill came that close in early second half, but his header and its wild impact failed to cross the line.

Penalty shootout loomed and Mark Schwarzer was invincible as ever, but Yuto Nagatomo, the Cesena’s short side back that was much underestimated by Western punters in the World Cup, crossed to Tadanari Lee. He scored with a volley. Australians argue that Japan have not defeated Australia in 90 minutes. The last time Japan did was in 2001, 1-0 in Confederations Cup and 3-0 in AFC v OFC match. Incidentally, as rivals, both teams have not held friendly match since 1998, despite of ease of travel between Tokyo and Sydney and the presence of expatriates in both countries.

Sadly, Lee’s heroic achievement failed to raise the profile of Korean-Japanese in Japan and Korea (Tadanari was rejected by his team mates in Korea U-20 and he dates Korean-Japanese singer Iconiq, who is also shunned in both countries as ‘too foreign’). But Japan have defeated Korea in football multiculturalism, as now its national team features a Dutch and a Korean, both are made in Japan.

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?

And they scored!

The sad thing was Manchester United lost. Because they were lost, nobody really remembered Park Ji-Sung equalizer. In the same night, my wish from the previous post came true – Shinji Kagawa scored two goals against Hoffenheim, and Mike Havenaar scored for Vitesse before PSV put an end to their hope of a comeback. Hajime Hosogai also helped Ausburg scoring equalizer against Kaiserslautern. The only dent was Koo and Hasebe’s inability to fight Bayern Munich.

Kagawa and Havenaar’s performance both grabbed modest attention in Japanese media on Sunday, as well as assorted sports site. Unfortunately, they play in Germany instead of England. In the rest of Southeast Asia there are raging debates every day on EPL clubs, while in Indonesia people abuse each other over Madrid v Barcelona, but no one watches Bundesliga, let alone Eredivisie.

On Sunday, however, the fortunes of the Koreans and the Japanese turned over. Nagatomo played full time in Inter’s suprise defeat to Lecce, Okazaki came in at the start of the second half but Stuttgart were badly damaged in the last ten minutes, Uchida played only for the first half and got a yellow card to boot (and Schalke was able to turn the table once he was gone), and Yoshida was helpless as RKC  mistreated VVV. Ji and Chu-Young spent the whole match again on the bench. Still, credit to Kawashima for clean sheet in away victory against Westerlo.

What’s the lesson? First, at least watching Japanese and Korean attackers are much less depressing than five years ago, when you got Takahara and Ahn and Seol and Lee Dong-Gook attempting to make a break in England and Germany. No, please don’t remind me on the last day of the Japanese in Serie A (I’m not talking about Yuto. I’m talking about Ogasawara, Yanagisawa, Oguro. And Morimoto). But as expected, their defensive sides, while have secured their names in starting XI, are still shaky. Even my favorite Lee Jung-Soo lapsed in the second half and almost letting go a three goals advantage as Al Sadd registered narrow 3-2 against Al Ahli in Qatar.

 

I think that’s all about Japan and Korea. Anyway, yesterday I found two names – first is Hiroshi Ibusuki, the current top scorer of Spain’s Segunda B Group 4. He plays for Sevilla B. A former youth player for Kashiwa, he has lived in Spain for three years and scored 35 goals. How about that, scoring 35 goals in Spain before you are 21 year old. In Japan U-23, however, he is still ranked behind Yamazaki, Nagai, Osako and Usami, just to name a few.

The second name is Xavier Chen, playing for Mechelen. I was wondering how could a Taiwanese playing in the Belgian Premier League, seeing that no Taiwanese plays even in Hong Kong First Division or J.League Division 2. Turned out he’s half-Belgian, the Taiwanese football federation claimed to know him when playing FIFA 12 (talking about scouting), and said that they had to race China which was also approaching Chen. I don’t think China is one of federations which are keen to naturalize foreign-born players, but let’s just leave the story like that.

On the other hand, Indonesians are in love with Radja Nainggolan, half-Indonesian Belgian midfielder playing for Cagliari, who was linked with Juventus, which is still a popular club in Indonesia. I’m glad that he has played twice for Belgium so Indonesian football federation cannot approach him for *sigh* naturalization. FYI, in FIFA 12 Chen is rated 67 while Nainggolan’s rating is 76, making him one of the top Asian players in the game, ethnically.

A sad day for North Korean football. The post is actually about Qatar.

North Korean footballer An Young Hak

Don't cry. That thing did nothing good for you (can't find his photo wearing Kashiwa jersey :().

Of course they will be sad. From their childhood they have been taught that that beer-belly freak is the Juche equivalent of God. Perhaps even in the North Korean schools in Japan. Its (Yes, I doubt that it’s a male human) death could mean that the unofficial boxing-style world champions title is in jeopardy. No way Tajikistan would defeat North Korea next February and God knows when NK will have its next friendly match against what. On the other hand, South Korea’s preparation for that deciding home match against Kuwait could be hindered by security concern. Could Dzenan Radoncic be the player-manager for the Taegeuk Warriors?

That news comes as a little relief after the passing of great playwright, humanitarian, and president Vaclav Havel. And after another East Asian team’s inability to unlock Al-Sadd’s defense. Tanaka, Kitajima, and Jorge Wagner played very well, but my fears were realized – like Jeonbuk, Kashiwa might have relied too much on its Brazilian playmaker. Second, Nelsinho’s….unconventional substitution policy (kinda like Zico’s actually) could not sustain Kashiwa’s campaign. I’m truly hoping that he could be wiser for next year’s Champions League, or Kashiwa would be eliminated from the group stage, or from Round of 16 at the best. Masakatsu Sawa is not the best attacking midfielder or winger out there. I still don’t understand why both Park Dong-Hyuk and An Yong-Hak were not played at all. I hope the best explanation is that they were injured.

How on Earth did Al-Sadd gain its third victory against an East Asian champions who were playing in front of their crowds? First, Al-Sadd are a good team, despite a bad season in the Stars League (only 4 wins out of 8 games). If they are not that good Jeonbuk , Suwon, Kashiwa, and ES Tunis would have no hard time against them. Second, I wonder if various elements in Al-Sadd, especially its defense squad, perform better against East Asian sides. Lee Jung-Soo seems to be highly motivated to stop his Korean rivals, the bloody Japanese, and even with Algerian bad boy Belhadj he had no qualm to break David Villa’s foot, something he might not able to do if he’s playing for Korea. Goalkeeper Saqr proves that he’s a howler for Barcelona but is a stonewall for East Asian teams, whose offenders gives him too much respect.

Al-Sadd is a good news for Qatar Football Association, which will continue its campaign for Brazil 14 (come on, they will lose to Iran but no way the Shiites-less Bahrain could own the Indonesia’s Reserve squad*). In a way they are Qatar’s middle finger to Japan and Australia who question the 2022 hosting rights. Will they last long in the 2012 ACL season?

….no, they will not play at all. They ranked 6th in 2011 Stars League. Maybe they can be called the Liverpool of Asia. Even Niang and Ibrahim can’t score for #### in the League.

Jesus, now I’m starting to get more worried about how Kashiwa and Jeonbuk will go next year.

*Indonesian national team are now barred from players who playing for Indonesian Super League. The regular internationals.

 

“International Break”

I’m yet to discover how do Asian football fans in Japan and Korea think about “international breaks”, where league fixtures are interrupted by back-to-back international matches. For nations such as Portugal and Turkey it was still the first half of nervous minutes, while for teams like England and Wales it was pessimism turned into joy. Unless if the next encounter next Tuesday brings another disappointment.

It was also a tour of duty for both teams – a stay in Western Asia for South Korea and the wonderful trek of Stalinist (well, you can argue that about Uzbekistan – they still have hideous statues don’t they?) Asia for Japan. But the mission to qualify for the fourth round has been accomplished, at least for Japan. It was good to see Lee Keun-Ho scoring again, while Havenaar was still so so.

As for Australia, well, Oman are really the pebbles in their shoes, aren’t they? It was just like Bangkok 07 again, and back then there was Cahill to save the day. Kennedy (and Holman) weren’t that heroic. I’m looking forward for Singapore v China, while Jordan needs another test against their newfound awesomeness – 9 goals to 1.

Regarding Group E, I’m not sure which I hate more – Iran (obvious), Qatar (because of 2022 and Al-Sadd), Bahrain (where Peter Taylor said he’s never heard of anyone called A’ala Hubail), or my own country Indonesia, where the new idiotic regime that is running the football association (even much worse than the previous one) arranged 38 year old Hendro Kartiko (no offence to Mr. Kartiko, but he’s ain’t van der Sar) to guard the box. To my surprise, last weekend I supported Qatar just so that that new arrangement could be proven ********.

The current name is in A-League is Albanian Besart Berisha from Brisbane Roar. Regarding the continuing A-League, anyway, I wonder if Nick Carle and Archie Thompson still deserve a place in the Socceroos – and if Ryan Griffiths is worth it. Anyway, Australia don’t need to replace Osieck yet. Such is the reality of Asian football – you’re not everything. Something that Japan ought to remember at every match.

 

Asian Cup and SE Asian Cup

Seems I’ve missed two trains – the AFF Suzuki Cup playoffs and finals, and the AFC Asian Cup group stage. Luckily, redemption waits. Tonight Japanese supporters felt big relief and even some pride as Japan came back from two upsets to beat hosts Qatar 3-2 before the Extra Time. They are, also, mad with the referee who red carded defender Yoshida, (correctly) deemed Qatar’s first goal was onside, and prolonged the second injury time. As it happened, the referee is Malaysian, Subkhiddin Mohd Salleh.

Indonesians still have strong opinion for Malaysia. Although I wanted to steer clear from this supposed silliness, I could not. Yes, 3 quick goals against Indonesia in Kuala Lumpur was caused by Indonesia’s own ineptitude, and Indonesia’s frustration in losing to Malaysia on aggregate was more driven by the loss of self-made dream caused by over-exposition by Indonesian press and politicians to its maturing team.

But, even as it’s unfair to say this, it’s still hard for me personally to associate Malaysian football with integrity. Yes, of course Malaysian players and coach Rajagobal are decent people, and the Football Association is still a public enemy in Indonesia, even its chair Nurdin Halid won Guardian Football’s  “Most Corrupted President of the Year” – nobody in the world is worst than him, except perhaps the homophobic Croatian FA president. But during the online debates on the laser incident in Kuala Lumpur (which also recurred earlier in QF against Vietnam), Malaysian supporters offered no coherent arguments other than “well you did it first in Jakarta!”‘ or “Indonesia should not complain too much – we are brothers and you are supposed to be happy that Malaysian football does well.” (what? Nobody thought of simple “sore losers!” ?)

So when the referee for Japan-Qatar match is from Malaysia, and Japanese supporters screamed injustice, well, I associated his performance with his nationality. Actually it made sense – Qatar is not just the host but also strives hard to prove its worthiness as World Cup host (failed). Then, let’s face it, Muslim Malaysians would have softer spot for Qatar. My love for Asian football has to do with East Asian pride and quest for identity.

Whatever the reason – because when you talk about amateur refereeing, Europeans are not happy with their refs as well – both the Asian Cup and AFF Cup shows that Southeast Asian standards are still very much low. My pet gripe is the ridiculous home-away format of the finals. It prolonged the eight nations into a month as if it is the World Cup with so much wasted money and energy. It completely null the thrill of a tournament – giving all you’ve got before the home crowd or in foreign soil, with limited resting time and the risks of injuries, suspension, and bad luck. Although it’s never the intention of the AFF, by the time of Semi Finals the cup has become a farce in Indonesia. The president made the team his trophy, under the delusion that ‘Mandela did it too in Invictus‘. The press hovered on half-European Irfan Bachdim and scores of Filipino players, who flaunted their choleric emotion on field, a by-product of survival in American and European pitches. It was ended by the picture of the young Filipino manager with an Indonesian version of Kardashian sister – which also ended his job. By the time of the home-and-away finals, it has become so ridiculous. Thank God no SE Asian team qualified for the Asian Cup. By the team they reached Qatar, they would have been out of breath.

The Asian Cup’s foremost sin is the qualification of India and North Korea through the Challenge Cup. I don’t see other reason of this path rather than forcing India to get in, thus hoping that Indians will finally watch football. That said, I worried that India could become the surprise package like NZ did in South Africa and Philippines did in Vietnam. The surprise never came because unlike the two, the Indians played in local leagues, not in UK or US. Still, goalkeeper Subrata Paul became a cult hero for Asian football geeks for letting less than he could have conceded, especially in thwarting Korea’s quest to overtake Australia’s goal margin.

Saudi Arabia and North Korea exited in shambles – even with little resistance. Saudi has nurtured its five years disease of hampering its domestic players’ development – extreme version of what’s happening in England. After its loss in first game (which also happened to Spain in South Africa), in monarch fashion the coach was sacked (100 years ago perhaps he was literally beheaded), and it went downhill from there. Hopefully the Saudi FA sees the irony of putting two clubs in the Champions League Semis. As for North Korea, well, Chong Tae-Se is not good enough – or they are still sore from last year’s torture.

Next: Japan, Korea, and Australia. Providing the last two qualify to Semi Finals.