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.

Stop that, you’re embarassing me

Worst case scenario.

They are at it again. Less than a month after Blackburn Rovers’ demise from the English Premier League, another Asian group of owners of an English football club is toying with their new property. Cardiff City F.C., which will play in English Football Championship, are known as the Bluebirds. Despite the fact that their new crest shows a red dragon with “Fire and Passion” motto below it (which is, of course, closer to a dragon’s traits than a bluebird), and then, at the bottom, is the smaller bird. Like many people in Britain, Singapore, and Malaysia have already known, the Bluebirds’ home shirt is red. Perhaps with good results, it’s hoped that when they reach the Premier League, their nicknames would have changed to The Red Dragons.

Months ago the colour change seemed like an awful idea, especially since the Blackburn downfall showed how tragedy could befall reckless owners who take club ownership as a subsidiary which happens to be in England. Of course, if you look it from Venky’s perspective, there’s no tragedy. They are still the owners, the boards cannot think of anyone richer than them interested to buy the club, and Steve Kean is still the manager since the Indians cannot think of a British more yes-man than he is. For now.

Like Venky’s, Vincent Tan and Chan Tie Ghee want the best for the investments. That’s what do businessmen do (disclaimer: my stream in high school was Business and I was an average student). They know that Venky’s is doing something wrong. A team playing in blue-white color with red rose crest isn’t going to scare anyone, although they were the 1995 Premier League champions. If the bluebirds want to get into the Premier League, they have to channel the spirit of the red dragon. Instead Tan and Chan would ponder: “Why don’t the Welsh call for their ancestors’ guardian dragon? Instead sticking with some puny birds and black swans?”

The Desai siblings only enact Indian business perspective in handling Blackburn. Berjaya Group’s chairman Vincent Tan and Cardiff City chairman Chan Tien Ghee (what he did before is my guess as yours) apply the Chinese-Malaysian cultural perspective. Cardiff City’s drubbing by West Ham in the play offs have shown that blue shirt doesn’t work. If the fans want Cardiff to succeed, they have to have a better luck. Red, of course, is the lucky color. They must have consulted Malaysia’s leading feng shui experts who agree that Cardiff’s potential is hindered by their color of choice. Blue might work for Chelsea, but that’s because their crest features a standing lion which spits fire – a guardian spirit. And Chelsea’s crest has good amount of red icons. Hence the crest change. Successful businessmen Tan and Chan won’t let a club tradition stands in the way of Chinese tradition.

So, will Cardiff fail to reach the Premier League come May 2013? You bet. Fans are ready to boycott the game, the controversy will interfere with the players’ morale, Malky Mackay will wonder if next week is the week he’s summoned to Kuala Lumpur, and even as a Chinese I know that a good investment is not a red shirt with a dragon emblem, but better training, payroll, tactics, etc. But I don’t own McDonald’s Malaysia and I don’t have Mahatir Mohamed’s mobile number, so what do I know. What do Cardiff supporters know.

Asian ownership of English football clubs is viewed negatively by a good reason. Even the Americans still get the wrong idea that lack of trip to England, lack of in-depth knowledge of football (really, should businessmen know what they are investing on?), and the demand for instant results can ensure success for their property. Abramovich can finally get what he wants for two reasons – first, he has to stay in England since Russia is too hot for a Jewish “oligarch” like him. Second, he doesn’t saturate Chelsea with Russian sponsors. Even the Russians didn’t celebrate too hard when Chelsea won the FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League.

Malaysian owners, like QPR’s Tony Fernandes and Tan & Chan, are closely connected to the government. That’s the only way to become a tycoon in Southeast Asia. They built their business through connections with the government party UMNO, with high times in 1980s and 1990s. Getting used to the patronage and favour systems, they handle all business like they do in Malaysia, including in owning an English club. Fernandes’ years of studying and working in England and the influence of his friend Richard Branson have made him understood the Western business culture and English football culture better than other tycoons, although he often gets away with tough questions such as Joey Barton and Neil Warnock with “I’m new with this. I have to ask the panel of experts.” At least it’s better than the East European approach – “I’m the boss and you’re not a real man.”

The Malaysian tycoons, however, don’t own all the money. They work for the government’s party, but they own big fortune since donation to political party is informally mandatory, not voluntary like in United States or United Kingdom. Middle Easterners who own Manchester City and Paris St. Germain, on the other hand, are the government – thus Abu Dhabi and Doha can buy players and fast-track success the way Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok can’t.

Last question: Why do Asian tycoons buy English clubs? Simply, English Premier League is the only football eague watched in much of Asia. With every passing year, most of Asia are decreasingly interested at La Liga or Serie A, with exceptions such as in Indonesia and Japan. No tycoon expects that by owning QPR, Leicester City, or Cardiff, they can “sell shirts in Asia”. That’s not their goal. Asians will always buy shirts of Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and it will take several more seasons before Manchester City shirts sell (which can be helped if they switch to Adidas or Nike). There’s also no way they will help a Malaysian, Indian, or Thai young prospect to grow in England (except if Cardiff enrolls Nick Chan. He’s the chairman’s son).

Their goals are first and foremost, pride. Abramovich was the pioneer and everyone wants to emulate him. Of course, they can’t be like the Arabs and their allowances only permit them to buy Championship and mid-bottom Premier League clubs. But that’s more than enough. They can put in Malaysian and Thai private and governmental brands on the shirt, behind the manager at press conference, and they can call their rival on Sunday night to discuss that Djibril Cisse’s act. We play fantasy football and FIFA. They own the real Kenny Miller, Kieron Dyer, and Kasper Schmeichel. Like we hope that the more we play the more we can trade Dyer for Gareth Bale, they want the real thing. So they can be either impatient when the club can’t reach Europa League spot after three seasons, or like in the case of Blackburn, stand up for the unpopular manager who defends them uncritically.

In conclusion, like everything else in their lives, the moguls want success. They want their clubs to become a household name in the Premier League. A surprise “giant killer” in the FA Cup (giant refers to the top four clubs). If the fans dislike their ways, then be it. In their eyes, as they are told since childhood, the public is like ignorant children who don’t know better.