Five Things about J. League 2014

You don’t need Nike or adidas to win the league.

J. League 2014 has wrapped up this month, with Gamba Osaka resurrected from death to ascend to the top. Just like the birthday boy (yea, actually He was born around May and 25th December is actually the birthday of Roman god Invictus Sol). I was going to call J. League the ________ League of Asia but that won’t work. Premier League? Not enough international stars (more on this later). Bundesliga? Might work ten years ago, plus now the best of J. League play in Bundesliga (ten years ago it would have been Serie A), but Bundesliga is now waaay better than Premier League.

Serie A then? Let’s see…famous names who are terrible in Champions League? Yes. A shadow of their 20th century selves? Yes. Corruption and match fixings? No, that would be China. Openly racist and sexist directors? Racist and sexist yes, but not openly. International fans who never abandon them? Yes. Fertile pool for future superstars? That works for Japan but not Italy.

So J. League is not even the Serie A of Asia. Because J. League it’s better, although it’s true that Honda looks more dashing wearing adidas’ Milan shirt than Umbro’s Gamba Osaka shirt (hey, you don’t see him playing for Urawa, do you?) Now he only needs to score several more goals for Milan and everything will be alright.

So, what’s 2014 about for Asia’s most popular league?

1. Like Japan, J. League is getting insular.

Japan’s response to the rise of China and Korea? Retreat to the mountain. The corporate owners of J. League teams don’t like how the world put their brands as an option besides (even behind) their Korean and Chinese competitors. Panasonic, owner of Gamba, experienced a resurgence in the 2000s from Lumix digital cameras, but now non-Japanese smartphones have put pocket cameras out of business, and professional photographers prefer Canon and Nikon (fellow Japanese, thankfully) for the big guns. Hitachi, owner of Kashiwa, has stopped making TV.

As J-pop refuses Western influences in contrast to K-pop and Japanese fanboys cling to the infantile AKB48 (mature-looking Korean girl bands are too scary for them), Japan is also cutting ties with its traditional Korean connection. Sagan Tosu were a serious contender for the championship thanks to coach Yoon Jung-hwan and playmaker Kim Min-woo. Could not bear the idea that a Korean could bring a traditionally minnow team to lift the trophy, the club fired Yoon on August. Tosu ended up not going to Champions League 2015, but the Japanese face of Sagantus is saved. I wonder if chairman Minoru Takehara or the governor of Saga was just aware of the Korean history epic Roaring Currents that summer.

So J. League clubs decreased the number of Koreans (on the other hand, many Koreans looking for international experience seem to prefer Arabian clubs. Plus, J. League teams still prefer Koreans over Australians for their Asian Foreign Player slot) but keep the Brazilians as acceptable foreigners. Sure, there are exceptions from Europe, but no African and Argentine played in 2014 J. League Division 1. Credit though, to Shimizu, who employed a Croatian-Canadian, a Slovenian, and a dark-skinned Chinese-Dutch.

 

2. Big Name Foreigners Cannot Flourish in J. League

J. League was the first Asian leagues to feature European legends – some continued to coaching like Zico, Dragan Stojkovic, and Guido Buchwald. But Japan was out of money by 1997 and never recovered its glamor, and now China and the Gulf have it.

Cerezo Osaka tried a play from Shanghai and Guangzhou clubs and recruited Diego Forlan – best Uruguayan footballer before World Cup 2010 – and Brazilian-German striker Cacau who was also in South Africa 2010. The result? Seventeen losses. Cacau played only eleven matches and scored five goals, while Forlan scored seven goals and a couple in Asia. Still, very disappointing for a man who played in 2014 World Cup. A Manchester United fan who scoffed at him in 2004, saying he’ll only good enough for an Asian league in ten years time, couldn’t get any more accurate than that.

So, why can’t big name foreigners flourish in J. League? First, only one club tried it. Cerezo’s town rivals Gamba won the league using two forwards who were benchwarmers back in Brazil.

Second, the money. If Patric and Lins would be good enough in 2015 AFC Champions League, they will be approached by richer Arabian or Chinese clubs (the Arabs from oil and sovereign funds, the Chinese from property and trade networks) . Thanks to their disastrous responses to the rise of Korea and China (instead of studying what works), Japanese conglomerates are struggling to keep their business afloat, and thus cannot be generous with their football clubs’ budgets. On the other hand, Australians and even English envy Japan’s talent development – at least the academies are working.

 

3. Will J. League Blow Again in 2015 AFC Champions League?

This is like the English and Italian problems. The world sings their clubs’ names. Children on the farthest corners of the world wear club jerseys bearing names like Oscar, Gerrard, Totti, and Vidal. But they have the slim chance of winning the 2015 UEFA Champions League (it’s zero for Liverpool). Worse than Japan, England and Italy have the slimmer chance to win the continental cup.

So why Japan keep on losing in the ACL? Let’s blame it first on distance. Do you know that compared to the distance of St. Petersburg and Madrid, the distance between Hiroshima and Dubai is…aw, forget it. They even could not hold a night in Seoul or Guangzhou, let alone Sydney.

Actually in 2014 Japanese clubs held themselves well in the group stage. Kawasaki were better than Ulsan. Hiroshima prevailed over Beijing. Cerezo defeated not only Buriram but also Shandong. Yokohama were unlucky enough to be grouped with both Jeonbuk and Evergrande. But if they could not handle flight fatigue to Guangzhou and Sydney, how could Korean clubs and Western Sydney prepared themselves for trips across India and the Arabian Sea?

So it went down to money and motivation. I don’t think club owners ordered their teams to throw away the match. But maybe the players and the managers themselves were not that interested with Asian tours. Since the double years of 2007 and 2008, it seems that Japan saw no point of Asian adventures – just like how they treated the competition in 2004. Ironically, once more Japan let the Koreans took the glory – and now even the Australians.

 

4. Do Japanese next best things need J. League?

There is Son Heung-min and there is Ryo Miyaichi. Both skipped local competitions and tried their luck in Europe. Miyaichi is lucky to be listed for the provisional Asian Cup squad, but I don’t blame him if he enjoys the abuses against Arsene Wenger. Son, on the other hand, gets all Cristiano Ronaldo’s perks at least in Korea.

Of course parents of non-European football prodigies worry if Europe will be the nightmare of their sons’ careers. It happened to Takayuki Morimoto and Hiroshi Ibusuki. Sota Hirayama made a career suicide when the sleepiness of Almelo killed him. Now he won’t wear the three-legged crow crest again, but at least he can see the lights of Tokyo every night.

So it’s better to see if you’re good for J. League first, then for the national team. Like Okazaki or Uchida. The miracles of Kagawa and Honda won’t happen to everyone (Honda was practically unheard of outside Japan when he was playing for Nagoya). Then again, we have enough Okubos and Usamis to show that J. League might be the final frontier for the rest. The twist is that the world’s best Asian footballers (or even athletes) play outside the system. That’s why they are specials.

 

5. What will Happen to J. League in 2015?

J. League 2015 will return to the two parts system, Latin American style, topped with Korean or Australian style championship play-offs, in an attempt to draw back spectators and sponsors. British commentators are skeptical and football hipsters mourn the loss of its volatile nature. Maybe that’s what actually the suits want to settle. Maybe they want two Kanto clubs to act like Chelsea and Arsenal and two Kansai clubs (hmm…bit difficult now, eh?) to act like Manchester United and Manchester City. Nagoya can play Liverpool.

How it will effect Japanese football quality remains to be seen. I mean, look at Australia. Where have they gone wrong? To market their clubs well, however, club owners have to market their corporate brands better. I love Panasonic earphones, but of course they are jokes for Beat and Audio Technica wearing students. Pajero drivers are increasingly seen as dicks (female drivers included) in Southeast Asia, and uh, Sumitomo, what are you selling again?

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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.

Dreams and Realities

SY couldn't contain his joy.

SY couldn’t contain his joy.

Ah January. The snow is…piling. Great time to return to the pitch to play some football.

December was pretty a bummer time to watch football. There were only several things around – the FIFA Club World Cup, final stages of Japan’s Emperor’s Cup, a couple of football matches every week during the Christmas holiday, the A-League…that’s all. But comes January, and you have great football playing in Germany and Netherlands, not to mention the unofficial Indonesian league. Yippie, football returns!

And the (English) transfer window news has been characteristically silent, since it’s not 31st January yet. I heard that Japanese tabloids were excited about Keisuke Honda moving to Liverpool or La Liga or Serie A. I’m still conflicted by the moral question of it is ethical to wish that by 1st February he wears a red Warrior shirt.

The biggest problem is, suddenly England seems not to be a great place for East Asian players anymore. And yeah, that’s because of Kagawa factor. He’s not under the scrutiny of Red Devils fans in the way that de Gea, Valencia, Nani, or even Young does. But his return in December did not mean that he’s become Diet Rooney. He passed and created chances, but I think it’s fair to ask him to score goals. Seeing how it’s fashionable especially in the last decade to make fun of English defenders, I’m wondering what makes mid-table English defenders and holding midfielders seem to be tougher than the supposedly bigger German defenders who Kagawa outwitted in the last season.

Are EPL defenders are simply not English? Are they faster, smarter, quicker and more disciplined? Are the goalkeepers swifter and have better reactions? After several occasions starting behind van Persie or manning the wing, tonight he returns to the bench. So does van Persie, but certainly, he is still an expendable player.

My worry about Kagawa is influenced by three Koreans. First is Ki Sung-yong/Sung-yueng. He fits in as Swansea’s center and saw them into the League Cup Final. But yeah, he’s too slow. Both Ki and Kagawa make great passes and you can see them trying hard to avoid mistakes. But here – when it comes to Team Korea and Team Japan, who will score? Who will penetrate the box and leave the defenders behind?

The second Korean is Park Ji-sung. He also returned in December and as you can see tonight, QPR is also in deep crisis. And throughout this season he’s been a disappointment as an EPL veteran, it’s an uproar that cable channel Arirang put him as one of 2012 Newsmakers just so they could put in Park Jong-woo (Korean footballer who should be mentioned, of course, was Jung Sung-ryong).

Third Korean is Ji Dong-won. He’s quit England and is now helping Augsburg in Germany trying to avoid relegation, playing with Koo Ja-cheol. The hero of Asian Cup and Olympics failed to fit in England.

And the Japanese is Ryo Miyaichi. Heck, even one can also put in Tadanari Lee.

Compared to them, Shinji Kagawa still makes it in England. And now ironically so does Maya Yoshida. But as I’m watching various Japanese players in Bundesliga and Eredivisie, I’m less optimistic that they could play in England, and wondering if Germany is the best spot they could achieve. Actually the most promising one is Takashi Inui. With his five goals for Frankfurt, now the supposedly plucky team are fighting for a 2013-14 UCL spot. Hajime Hosogai is also okay at Leverkusen, although he’s also cannot compete in the EPL at this level.

2013 is already marked with an irony – the supposed setting of J. League is countered with the abundance of Japanese players in Bundesliga (Kim Bo-kyung, one of the best midfielders in English Championship, is also a J. League graduate), while the supposed rise of Chinese Super League still doesn’t mean anything for Chinese footballers. It even doesn’t mean anything for both Drogba and Anelka.

2012 in Asian Football

I want love in a peaceful world.

I want love in a peaceful world.

January

  • The earliest (and latest) cup in global football is lifted every 1st January in Japan. FC Tokyo win the 201..1 Emperor’s Cup by defeating Kyoto Sanga FC 4-2. Second Division FC Tokyo win a spot in the 2012 AFC Champions League.
  • Tim Cahill ends his goal drought after 34 matches (he passed 2011 without any goal, including in Asian Cup) by scoring for Everton against Blackburn Rovers. The match ends 1-1.
  • Arsenal teenage winger Ryo Miyaichi is loaned to Bolton.

February

  • Adelaide United and Pohang Steelers qualify to 2012 AFC Champions League by defeating two Southeast Asian hopefuls – Persipura of Indonesia and Chonburi of Thailand. Buriram of Thailand is the sole SE Asian representative in the ACL. With SE Asian federations underperforming or in legal problems, Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan fill a spot in the East Asian division.
  • Shinji Okazaki scores with a bicycle kick for Stuttgart against Hannover 96.
  • China end hope to qualify to Brazil 2014 despite defeating Jordan 3-1 at home. Its doom had been pronounced in Autumn 2011 thanks to back to back defeats against Iraq and Jordan. The Economist‘s Christmas 2011 edition runs special article on why Chinese football sucks.
  • On the other hand, Asian champions Japan qualify as runner ups without able to defeat Uzbekistan and lost the away match in North Korea, where coach Al Zaccheroni complains that the custom seizes his soy sauce.
  • Still on road to Brazil: demoralized Indonesia are torn apart 0-10 by Bahrain. Bahrain, however, fail to qualify as rival Qatar fight to the end to hold Iran 2-2 and pass the group undefeated. While Indonesia field players only from the official Premier League (leaving veterans playing in the Super League), Bahrain also ban Shiite players from the team.

March

  • North Korea qualify automatically to 2015 AFC Asian Cup after defeating other minnows such as Philippines, Tajikistan, India, and Turkmenistan. At that time NK are ranked 15th in Asia, far above non-Challenge Cup participants such as UAE and Thailand.
  • Woeful year for Japanese powerhouse Gamba Osaka begins as they go down in the ACL to Pohang Steelers 0-3 and to Adelaide United 0-2.
  • Australia end its quest for Olympics gold finishing bottom of Group B without scoring any goal and ended four matches 0-0. The Matildas had failed to qualify in 2011 after falling one point short below North Korea. The duel between Japan and Korea U-23 in London is anticipated.

April

  • Brisbane win the A-League Grand Final due to 90+7th minute penalty kick by Albanian Besart Berisha into Perth Glory’s goal. Man of the match award for Perth’s Jacob Burns is for a while incorrectly awarded to Brisbane winger Thomas Broich.
  • Japan and Korea begin their 2012 league season in the familiar manners – taking in Australians and few Japanese players for the Asian Player spot in Korea, and taking in Koreans and few Australians for the AP spot in Japan – along with South and North Koreans who were born in Japan. Both leagues also use Brazilian players extensively and are still reluctant to draw big names from Europe.
  • No such qualm in China, where Nicolas Anelka, fresh from enjoying a late summer period in Chelsea, moved to Shanghai. In February he scored 40 seconds in the friendly against Hunan. In April the club is in crisis and he becomes player-manager.
  • Meanwhile, Guangzhou Evergrande ace the ACL group stage by defeating ex-champions Jeonbuk Hyundai 5-1 and Kashiwa Reysol 3-1. Except for Gao Lin, however, all the goalscorers are South Americans Cleo, Muriqui, and Dario Conca. Still, credit for their defense team.

May

  • Shinji Kagawa completes his glory in Germany by scoring against Bayern Munich in the DFB Pokal final. He scores 13 goals in Bundesliga, 3 in DFB Pokal, and 1 in the Champions League – against Arsenal.
  • Kagawa’s rival Keisuke Honda scores consolation goal against Rubin Kazan. After missing much of the season to injury, Honda fails to help CSKA to qualify for the Champions League as rival Spartak take them over with two points.
  • Tim Cahill ends his career in Everton with a sour note after being sent off for fighting with Yohan Cabaye, who pushed an Everton ball boy.
  • Internazionale signs a loaned player from Cesena, Yuto Nagatomo. Smaller than average (compared to other Japanese players) Nagatomo becomes the most successful player in Serie A in the last five years. He is also the first Japanese player to play in the city of Milan.
  • J. League lose all representatives in the ACL with Nagoya, Kashiwa, and Tokyo all shot down. K-League also only spare Ulsan Hyundai alive, while Guangzhou and Adelaide United stay on course.

June

  • Keisuke Honda returns to Samurai Blue with the goal against Oman and hattrick against Jordan.
  • Big moves for Asian players – Kagawa to Manchester United (where porn star Ameri Ichinose is mistakenly identified as his girlfriend), Hiroshi Kiyotake to Nuremberg, Kim Bo-kyung to Cardiff City, Ki Sung-yueng to Swansea, Maya Yoshida to Southampton, and Eiji Kawashima to Standard Liege.
  • The transfer headline is on Didier Drogba. Fresh after taking Chelsea to become the kings of Europe, money and Anelka lure him to Shanghai. The French star fights with a fan after he refuses to follow the customary bow toward Shanghai’s supporters.

July

  • Controversy in Cardiff after its Malaysian owners change the crest and the home shirt color to conform more with feng shui – from blue and Blue Birds into red and the Welsh red dragon.
  • Another Malaysian-owned team, Queens Park Rangers, also looks forward for a better EPL season. They sign Park Ji-sung (Korea) from Manchester United, Julio Cesar (Brazil) from Internazionale, and Ryan Nelsen (New Zealand) and Junior Hoillet (Canada) from Blackburn Rovers, distinctively becoming probably the only team in the world with players from all confederations. The shirt sponsor is changed from Malaysia Airlines to owner Tony Fernandes’ own Air Asia.
  • Unfortunately, by the end of this year Asians who love Air Asia for their travels are too embarrassed to wear the jersey.
  • More than they wear the MU’s red tartan jersey.
  • Korea and Japan pass Olympics’ group stage in minimalist manners – Korea with 2-1 victory over Switzerland and 0-0s against Gabon and Mexico, while Japan steal headline after defeating gold medal favorite Spain 1-0. The rest is unconvincing – 1-0 to Honduras and 0-0 to Morocco. The women team also draw 0-0 with Sweden and Africa after defeating Canada 2-1.
  • Swiss player Michel Morganella is sent home after sending racist tweets against Koreans. North Korea is also angry as organizer shows their future flag of Taegeukgi in the match against Colombia. Heck, even they complained that there was the flag of Korea in the stadium along with the flag of Cameroon and Sweden. Are they Koreans or not?

August

  • Shinji Kagawa scores his first goal for Manchester United past Asia’s best goalkeeper – Fulham’s Mark Schwarzer.
  • Anelka and Drogba’s partnership in Shanghai result in astonishing 3-3 draw with Shandong Luneng.
  • Arsenal loans number nine forward Park Chu-young to Celta Vigo, sparing him the horror of wearing number 30 after 9 is given to Lukas Podolski.
  • Nadeshiko Japan defeat favorite Brazil 2-0 and France 2-1. Unfortunately they go down to United States 1-2 and get silver medal. Turbine Postdam’s Yuki Ogimi scores three goals.
  • Project Team Great Britain go down in typical English manner – lose penalty shootout in the quarter finals, this time to Korea. Chelsea’s Dean Sturridge fails to score while Korea put five past Jack Butland.
  • Korea win the bronze medal after Park Chu-young and Koo Ja-cheol score against Japan. Defender Park Jong-woo sport a banner written “Dokdo is Ours!” after the match, winning critics outside Korea and praises from Koreans. Since then Korean TVs have gone too hard in putting Dokdo in every context and criticizing celebrities who refuse to join the chorus, especially those who are being popular in Japan.

September

  • Both Korea and Australia are in crisis mode for their World Cup qualification as Uzbekistan hold Korea and Australia’s defeat to Jordan condemn them to zero win from three matches.
  • Park Chu-young becomes the first Korean to score in La Liga against Getafe. Lee Chun-soo was the last Korean to play in La Liga a decade ago.
  • Korean Army team Sangju Sangmu Phoenix walk out from the Relegation round of K-League after AFC requires professional contracts for players in every club. The club serves as a host for players serving their military draft. Even without the drama, SSP are already relegated. Recently some other players prefer to join the Korean Police FC for their national service.
  • The Championship round in K-League is switched from playoff rounds between the top six (Australian style) to the mini league involving top eight teams (Russian style).
  • Both Guangzhou and Adelaide fail their first tests against West Asian teams. Ulsan pass through favorite Al-Hilal 5-0.
  • Consadole Sapporo secure relegation from J-League Division 1 with two months to go.

October

  • Keisuke Honda scores his fifth goal from eleven Russian Premier League matches. He failed to move to Lazio, probably for the better. He might be play in Liverpool next month.
  • Alessandro del Piero moves to Sydney FC, while Western Sydney Wanderers recruit Shinji Ono. Sydney also sign Chinese-Panaman Yairo Yau.
  • Shinji Kagawa provides his second assist in the Champions League and then twists his knee. The injury lasts for two months.
  • For second year in the row, a Hyundai-owned team is in the ACL final after Ulsan defeat glamour-less Bunyodkor. The national team of Uzbekistan keep their hope alive by defeating Qatar 1-0. Korea end 2012 in sour note with 0-1 defeat to Iran.
  • S-League authority announces that in 2013, the team that finishes last will have to pay heavy fine for being a loser, continuing the fine tradition of the fine city.

November

  • A drop of Asian players’ presence in the English Premier League with Kagawa injured, and so does Park Ji-sung, and Southampton’s Tadanari Lee and Sunderland’s Ji Dong-won nowhere in sight. Maya Yoshida passes every match day painfully with Southampton. In Bundesliga, on the other hand, Son Heung-min, Koo Ja-cheol, Shinji Okazaki, Hiroshi Kiyotake, and Takashi Inui provide goals and assists now and then.
  • Korea recovers the AFC Champions League trophy as Ulsan defeat Al-Ahli 3-0. Japan defeat Oman 2-1 and need to wait for March 2013 to defeat Jordan to secure a ticket to Brazil 14.
  • Hiroshima win J-League title, breaking the hearts of Sendai. Hisato Sato hopes that he can return to the national team. Al Z’s favorite Ryoichi Maeda continues his Maeda’s Curse by condemning Gamba Osaka to the Second Division, ironically despite Gamba’s 67 goals for compared to Hiroshima’s 63. Gamba’s best hope is to flourish in Division 2 in 2013 and return in 2014.
  • Ian Crook resigns from Sydney FC management. Club’s and fans’ expectation for del Piero is cited as the main reason. Sydney languish at the bottom while uglier sister Western Sydney are in the top four.

December

  • Substitute Brian Ching fails to save Houston Dynamo in the 2012 MLS Cup, a fitting farewell for David Beckham. American soccer is still waiting for its Jeremy Lin.
  • FC Seoul win the 2012 K-League, with Colombian Mauricio Molina providing 18 goals and 19 assists.
  • Australia qualify for 2013 East Asia Football Federation Championship by destroying Taiwan 8-0, scoring five goals in 30 minutes. They win aggregate goals against North Korea.
  • Indonesia, Philippines, and Singapore field teams composed of naturalized players in the ASEAN Football Federation Cup. Indonesia lose to Malaysia 0-2 and draw with Laos 1-1, and Indonesian fans treat the news apathetically.
  • FIFA extends its deadline for Indonesian FA to settle its internal dispute for three months, Sepp Blatter gleefully says that he’s giving a holiday gift to Indonesia.
  • The resurgence of Thai football is annulled by Singapore, whose 30+ years old foreigners help the Lions to win the AFF Cup. Singapore’s best players, however, are Shahril Ishkak and Khairul Amri. Both of them play for Singapore LionsXII, a guest team in the Malaysian Super League (and the runner ups of the 2012 season).
  • Ulsan Hyundai become the first Asian team to fail to qualify to FIFA Club World Cup Semi Finals after lost 1-3 to Monterrey. In the fifth place match against Hiroshima, Hisato Sato proves that he’s the better striker than Lee Keun-ho and Kim Shin-wook.
  • Shinji Kagawa win AFC’s first ever “International Player” award, effectively the award for the best Asian player in the world. His competitors are forty years old Mark Schwarzer and Yuto Nagatomo. In Asia, the best player is Lee Keun-ho, and below him are Ali Karimi and Zheng Zhi.
Happy Holidays everyone. Thank you for reading.

Chill down

Never mind Kagawa, here’s your Asian striker.

In other words, because Kagawa isn’t around.
Well, that’s not very fair, is it? Ulsan Hyundai qualify to the AFC Champions League final, the fourth in the row for K-League teams, Keisuke Honda’s kicking around in Russia, and Manchester City is interested to give Hideki Ishige a training run.

But it’s another calm weekend for Asian football. Certainly Shinji Kagawa is the focal point of Asian representation in world football, just like Jeremy Lin does in basketball. And yeah, it’s making me nervous if he does play – worried that he would play badly. Again, that’s not very fair considering that he has scored two goals and several assists in England and Europe, better than Rooney and Welbeck. But while many in Japan overhype him (as usual with any Asian sporting star), many others want to see him fails to make impression in Manchester United, and not only in Europe. Perhaps some of them are also in Asia. They have no problem with a Turk, or Barbadian, or an Congolese, but many people in this world still think that an East Asian doesn’t belong on the pitch. Of course, no one thinks that Ali al-Habsi or Sanharib Malki is doing what he’s not supposed to do.

Sadly, there’s not much replacement could stand in for Kagawa. Whether he plays or not, these days it’s hard to admire Park Ji-sung as the captain of Queen’s Park Rangers (although QPR is probably the only team in Europe to feature players from all confederations, thanks to him, Ryan Nelsen, and Junior Hoillet). The worse thing I can do is to watch Southampton – Maya Yoshida is tumbling and fumbling once more week after week, and Tadanari Lee is never around, not even on the bench (please choose him over Emmanuel Mayuka. Please).

Of course, I am envious of the Belgians – five years ago they were the jokes of Europe, now their players are sought after even perhaps more than the Dutch. Five years ago, Japan and South Korea could handle them. A fate that Kagawa has is that he’s seen as the poor replacement to Eden Hazard. Of course, if you think about it, at least the Japanese and the Koreans are not Australians. Yeah I know, I’m thinking about Koo Ja-cheol rather than Ryo Miyaichi when trying to compare them with Kofi Danning.

…and another thing

First, of course the best news this week is Ulsan Hyundai. I’ve taken the fact that a Korean team will play in the ACL final for granted and it happens again. Yeah it’s good luck, but in any year there’s must be one Korean team that have the guts, the tradition, the determination, and the skill to get forward. Japan qualified three teams to the playoff round and none of them had enough of those requirements. Seongnam, in short, was just out money just like Bunyodkor were, but even the glamour-less Uzbeks still could overcome Adelaide United.

The ACL 2012 were full of unfulfilled fairy tales, it wasn’t UEFA Champions League 2003-04 (final: Porto versus Monaco). No Guangzhou, no ‘wild card’ Adelaide, and Ulsan dispatched Al Hilal too easily. In the end, it was the battle of giants (also Al Ahli were also supposed the third rank team behind Hilal and Ittihad). So what makes Ulsan great? Simply Kim Young-kwang, a cultish goalkeeper, and the ex Gamba Osaka duo of Rafinha and Lee Keun-ho. There’s one in the list of reasons of Gamba’s sudden decline.

Their midfielders are not famous, while defenders Kang Min-soo and Kwak Tae-hwi can be as clumsy as Manchester United defenders (evident in the first half of last mid-week match against Bunyodkor). But I’ve taken another assumption for granted – AFC representatives will become the third best team in the FIFA Club World Cup. They can still take on African and CONCACAF champions anytime.

….suddenly I wonder if J. League disinterest with the ACL is also related to the fact that it only needs to win the J. League to qualify for the Club World Cup. Then again, I don’t want the CWC to be hosted in the Gulf.

When Saturday Comes

Where do you go? I wanna know.

So excited I was with the Olympics that I forgot that J. League and K-League were going on. In fact, K-League was done. Regular season wise. So now, on to the playoff round where Seongnam will beat everyone before losing in the final, and with Daegu and Gangwon having a break?

Not quite. This year the afterlife of K-League season introduces several changes – first like in Russia, there’s Championship Round and Relegation Round. Yes, finally there’s something called Relegation. There’s no such thing in USA but now it’s there in Korea. The name of the hell is Korea National League, coming soon in 2013. The name of heaven is ACL Champions League. Not a name to be associated with heaven, but let’s hope Korean clubs will win it again and again.

And Seongnam will not contest an ACL spot. With Seoul and Qatari clubs poaching their Colombians, Aussies, and Brazilians, they sit at number 10 below Daegu. No, not via FA Cup either – they lost to Ulsan at the 1/8 final. So if now you’re an aspiring Korean footballer and you want to become big, you have better options than Ilhwa Chunma. Good for Korea.

While the eight clubs (two more clubs than previous editions) will contest three Asian spots (four of them – Pohang, Gyeongnam, Jeju, and Ulsan have the KFA Cup backup) have time to rest until mid-September, national coaches around Asia are already preparing for the Brazil 14 Qualifiers, also held in mid-September. Next Thursday Japan will face UAE and Australia take an away trip to Lebanon. Korea will skip the friendlies, but already making headlines in the in brief section for recruiting Park Jong-Woo, probably now the most hated South Korean in Japan, into the roster for the match against Uzbekistan.

On the other hand, Al Zaccheroni have also made up his mind. He will not include Ryo Miyaichi and Hisato Sato. The former is “not having match fitness” while the latter, now the top scorer of J. League, would mean a change to the lineup, and Al Z is not interested with any change. Surely he can at least trade his place with say, Ryoichi Maeda or at least Genki?

At least, when Saturday comes, the world will see Shinji Kagawa playing again (Sunday actually). For his third match, and last weekend all Japanese was in relief – he didn’t embarrass. In fact now he’s seen as one of the best assets for Manchester United, besides van Persie. He’s not, groan, a ‘shirt seller for Far East market’ anymore. He’s the incarnation of Tsubasa Oroza, the number 10. Since Wayne Rooney has to play for number 10 and 9 roles for both Manchester United and England.

And so, now it’s back to leagues watch for me – tracking down European clubs where Japanese and Korean players are. There are dozens of them now, ten years after the post-Korea/Japan boom launched Takahara, Shunsuke, Seol, and Ji-sung to Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Netherlands. And in the past weeks, I did lose track. Week 1 was pretty sad, seeing Kagawa failed to pass Everton’s defense and looking for Ki Sung-yeung in Celtic’s lineup.

Now here’s a summary of how Japanese and Korean players in Europe are doing:

  • Eiji Kawashima (Standard Liege) – the move upward after Lierse. He has conceded six goals, as much as Club Brugge’s Vladan Kujovic, but worse than Belgium’s national keeper Silvio Proto (just one goal gap), and Gent’s Sergio Padt. Fortunately, his team mates are apt in scoring goals.
  • Yuto Nagatomo (Inter) – He didn’t come to Indonesia few months ago, unfortunately, because he had to mark Tim Cahill and Mark Bresciano. After a gloomy season, Inter are off to a good start against Pescara, where he played 90 minutes at the left back. Since the retirement of Lee Young-pyo, Korea are yet to produce his opposite.
  • Park Jo-hoo (Basel) – finally he’s a Red Devil once more. Integral to the defense of Basel, unfortunately last year’s surprise pack of the UCL fell down to CF Cluj, so no more sightings of him on Wednesday nights.
  • Maya Yoshida (VVV Venlo) – the very manly Maya, probably a successor to Marcus Tulio in terms of being an enforcer and a corner kick bulldog, is yet to move a better club. Even in VVV he’s competing with Ismo Vostermann for right center back. At least he has better chance of being a starter than Robert Cullen. UPDATE: Now Yoshida’s with Southampton. He might face Kagawa on Sunday.
  • Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart) – yet to play for his new club.
  • Hiroki Sakai (Hannover) – ditto.
  • Makoto Hasebe (Wolfsburg) – A real tough competition in Wolfsburg, since the slots for defending midfielders are taken by Robin Knoche and international player Marcel Schafer. Iranian winger Ashkan Degajah has better chance to be in the Starting 11. Even in the subs list, Hasebe’s current rank is below Czech’s Jan Polak. Even by Christmas he could be in the transfer market.
  • Hajime Hosogai (Leverkusen) – at least this pretty German-looking guy is on the bench, covering for Simon Rolfes or Lars Bender. The bad news is on the bench there’s also Junior Fernandez from Chile.
  • Keisuke Honda (CSKA) – Back to the tough neighborhood that is the Russian League and he’s comfortable at the left midfield, already scoring two goals from six appearances.
  • Kim Bo-kyung (Cardiff) – Damn, and I had had made of fun of Cardiff :p. Has yet to play for the Red Bluebirds Dragons.
  • Koo Ja-cheol (Augsburg) – another year to survive the Bundesliga. The left wing is his. Last week he duelled against Robbie Kruse from Dusseldorf and both of them were substituted.
  • Ki Sung-yeung (Swansea) – there you are, I was looking for you in Celtic. Is expected to replace Jonathan de Guzman, and has to match Michu’s standard.
  • Lee Chung-yong (Bolton) – Welcome back Chungy. Rumors of transfer to the Premier League is counterbalanced for feeling of grateful for a club that nurtured him (and also Stuart Holden) during the long injury and comfortable starting place.
  • Shinji Okazaki (Stuttgart) – Last year he could hold the competitors – Martin Harnik and Vedad Ibisevic. This season he expects to sit on the bench much longer, next to Cacau.
  • Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United) – top of the world.
  • Mike Havenaar (Vitesse) – If Bony doesn’t deliver, then he’s off for the job, but he’s yet to save the day.
  • Park Chu-young (Celta Vigo) – That’s it, I don’t have to tune in for Arsenal anymore. Tipped to be the successor of van Persie, competing with Gervinho & Theo Walcott, Chu-young moves instead to somewhere nearer Monaco. No what? He’s Arsenal reserve no 30? Possible moves to Fulham or Norwich? But Berbatov also cancels Fiorentina for Fulham? So what’s his club now? Which one I should see? Ah well, at this rate he might play for Sangju Sangmu Phoenix.

And please keep these names in your pray:

Besides the regular intention for Takayuki Morimoto, also pray for Ryo Miyaichi, Atsuto Uchida, Michihiro Yasuda, Cha Du-ri, Tadanari Lee (esp. now he’s lost his love to pretty old man Gackt), Takashi Inui, Ji Dong-won, and Son Heung-min. Jesus loves you, said the Korean players.

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?

Get Ready

Please qualify. Please.

Asian football federations have announced their squads for upcoming World Cup qualification, and the preceding friendly match. Well, most of them. As Australia has no friendly schedule, they are yet to announce the 23 men sent in to face Saudi Arabia. Australia can get easy, but they don’t want to disappoint the good people of Melbourne and Thailand. And Oman.

Thailand. If they win against Oman in Muscat (not easy. But in Bangkok they really psyched out Oman which scored an own goal to complete a 3-0 win for the home team), and Saudi Arabia lose to Australia, then they will become the only Southeast Asian team to enter the final round. The last Southeast Asian team to do so were Indonesia in 1985, which lost to South Korea in the semi finals of Zone B, which determined the qualifier from East Asia. After defeated Indonesia, South Korea defeated Japan and went to Mexico.

So that  was 27 years ago (I just remembered that although Thailand lost intercontinental playoff round against England in 2001, that was in my version of FIFA 2002 rather than actual history). As a Southeast Asian, I really hope that Thailand can make a miracle and join the last ten teams, since Singapore and Indonesia are eliminated already. Thailand will face Maldives in friendly match on Friday (not sure on the venue). They should prevail. Here’s my Thailand XI:

G: Hathairattanakool (Chonburi) D: Phanrit (Muangthong), Samana (Chonburi), Siriwong (Pattaya), Sukha (Chonburi). M: Thonglao (Muangthong),  Choeichiu (Muangthong), Nutnum (Buriram), Kaewprom (Buriram). F: Winothai (BEC), Dangda (Muangthong).

No dashing name, and none of them plays overseas (Hathairattanakool played in my hometown Bandung, and Sukha played in second hometown Melbourne. Nice, eh?). Winothai and Dangda must give all they have to outwit al-Habsi.

Japan will employ 100% local stars to face Iceland in Osaka. Their European players are scoring, although not always winning. Havenaar scored again as a sub, although that was Vitesse’s goal when they went down 1-4 to Twente. Okazaki’s goal also was not enough to save Stuttgart from 2-4 loss to Hannover. He’s only one goal short from matching Kagawa’s tally, mind. On the other hand, Yoshida hit one when VVV put down de Graafschap (unfortunately, Bob Cullen failed to grab this easy opportunity). Miyaichi could become a new hero for Bolton as he led them to FA Cup’s Quarter Finals. And yeah, Kagawa is injured for two weeks :p. So he might be not playing against Uzbekistan. Nor is Honda, as CSKA still can’t include him for Champions League showdown against Madrid.

Anyway, here’s my Japan XI against Iceland.

G: Nishikawa (Hiroshima). D: Komano (Iwata), Konno (Gamba), Inoha (Kobe), Iwamasa (Kashima). M: Endo (Gamba), Kengo (Kawasaki), Abe (Urawa). F: Okubo (Kobe), Maeda (Iwata), Fujimoto (Nagoya).

Sorry, no Cerezo recruit :(.

Korea (there’s only one) is supposedly on good mood. Quite. Ajax reject Suk Hyun-Jun did good service for his old club by scoring two past PSV’s defense. Two! At the week when Hiddink decides that he’s tough enough to live in Dagestan Moscow!  Ki Sung-Yueng scored as Celtic demolished fellow Catholics Hibernian of Edinburgh. Martin O’ Neill was too nervous that he forgot to send in Ji as Sunderland handed Arsenal another humiliation. Park Chu-Young, as usual, was spared from the humiliation as he wasn’t on the list.

They should be pumped up enough to face Uzbekistan at noon in Jeonju, yes? They should be. Show Uzbekistan what kind of storm they will experience against Japan. And show Kuwait that they deserve to top the group, even if now they have the same amount of point with Lebanon. Sheesh.

My Korea XI against Uzbekistan & Kuwait:

G: Sung-Ryong (Suwon). D: Bom-Seok (Suwon), Jung-Soo (Al-Sadd), Tae-Hwi (Ulsan), Hyo-Jin (Phoenix). M: Sang-Sik (Jeonbuk), Sung-Yueng (Celtic), Do-Heon (Police), Keun-Ho (Ulsan). F: Chu-Young (Arsenal), Dong-Gook (Jeonbuk).

I’m yet to find the Singapore‘s roster for Friday night friendly with Azerbaijan in Dubai. They will hang around the Gulf before next week’s match against Iraq in Qatar. They are as hopeless as Next World Leader China, which will host Jordan in Guangzhou. Maybe because the Chinese think that it’s pointless too, so that I’m also yet to find the roster for friendly match against Kuwait in Hangzhou for….Wednesday.

Finally, Indonesia, in the spirit of purging players who are not in the Premier League employing the glorious U-23 team, will face Bahrain with completely newbies who are never playing for the national team! And expecting to draw a point! Qatar certainly not happy as they have to play Iran in Teheran, while Bahrain will demonstrate A-level football to the Indonesian boys at home in Riffa.

Here’s my Indonesia XI, which is the hardest one to make.

G: Samsidar (Semen Padang. Yes, I put in the Indonesian word for ‘cement’ for your amusement). D: Wijiastanto (Bantul), Michiels (Jakarta), Dwi Cahyo (Arema), Rahman (Semen. Alright, Padang). M: Taufiq (Surabaya 1927), Irawan (Surabaya 1927), Nurcahyo (Bantul). F:  Bahcdim (Malang), Sinaga (Padang), Arif (Bojonegoro).

God be with you, young men. God be with you.

Comparing Asian and African progresses: Now and next

Waiting for moments like this.

The African Cup of Nations is rolling in in Gabon and Equator Guinea. Last week British journalist Jonathan Wilson argued that the absence of Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, and Cameroon in the tournament does not mean that the continental balance of power is reached. Rather, it signals that things have gone wrong with African football. With respects to Niger and Guinea, Egyptian, South African and Cameroon federations, managements, and players had made life more difficult for them than it supposed to be.

Put it this way – an Asian Cup without Australia, China, and Saudi Arabia. I should have put in Japan or South Korea in the example, but comparing continental ranking of September 2010, when the qualification phase started, I just noticed that Nigeria’s and Cameroon’s ranks did not match their reputation, partly caused by poor performance in the World Cup. South Africa, a successful host and an admired team, ranked 10th in Africa, the position occupied by Syria at that time in Asia. It’s true that the revolution unbalanced the Pharaohs, but even with civil war Libya went on with their campaign and qualified for the first time since 1982.

Wilson outlined three stereotypes beloved by Western (and indeed, global) media regarding African football. “Painted faces, drummers and horns, and muscular forward play”. Asian football have the first two, at least in the World Cup. Of course, in Australia 2015 I expect that Japanese, South Korean, and Australian supporters will crowd the stadiums with painted faces as well. Yes, there will be drums as well. There will be Vietnamese conical hat worn by Australians instead of Vietnamese (how come Vietnamese supporters never dress up as Vietcongs?). But muscular forward play? Hmm, that’s something else. Twenty years ago “Australian soccer” was an oxymoron. Ten years ago it was still a joke even in Japan, despite 2001 Confeds Cup.  Even now the lingering stereotype is that the Socceroos are rough and persistent big men (plus Tiny Tim), but their strengths lie in midfield and goalkeeping, not forward. There is still no replacement yet for Viduka and Kewell.

It is true that one glaring difference between Asian and African football is that European scouts don’t go deep to Asian villages and streets to pouch young Japanese or Korean talents. Now and then there’s stories about Manchester United or Milan signing up an Australian toddler, but the result is yet to be seen on the next decade. The only exception that I can think of are Son Heung-Min and Ryo Miyaichi. Wilson mentioned the “Pape Bouba Diop template”, the preference for big enforcer instead of speedy winger and creative attacking midfielder. Certainly big enforcers could come from Australia and probably Iran. East Asian players have still to struggle with the annoying stereotype that they are small, something that is never brought up when discussing Argentinians or Italians.

Quick test on the small stereotype. If the category of ‘small’ meaning shorter than 180 cm, then yeah, only a handful of European-based Japanese players fulfill this category. Among them are Maya Yoshida, Mike Havenaar, Tadanari Lee (6 feet and yet is still called ‘pint-sized’), Honda, and Takayuki Morimoto. Kawashima, standing at 185 cm, is said to be “short for goalkeeper standard”, although he is taller than both Iker Casillas and Victor Valdes.

What about South Koreans? There are plenty of 6 feet tall players trading in Europe, such as Ki Sung-Yeung, Koo Ja-Cheol, Park Chu-Young, Ji Dong-Won, Son Heung-Min, and Jung Jo-Gook. So in average, Japanese and Korean players stand around 175 cm, but they are anything but little. And expect the assumption to be uttered again by both media and fans in 2014.

Both football federations in Asia and Africa have plenty of troubles. The A-League constantly struggles with attendance, interest from sponsors and prime talents, consistency (I’m thinking of Adelaide United and Sydney FC), and of course the Champions League. I’m still wondering about JFA’s seriousness in handling the Champions League. KFA is waiting nervously for February to see if they can continue the road to Brazil, and there was the muted and swept-under-the carpet scandal of match fixing in the K-League, as well as the attendance problem. And those are the best.

Nobody in Singapore concerns loudly that naturalization doesn’t work, sponsors don’t come up, and the Chinese-Singaporean youth are not into footballing (similar statement can be said on white Frenchmen). The Chinese say that it’s easier for property price to go down (already happened) than for the national team to win any cup (excluding East Asian Football Championship). Bahrain gets away with torturing and imprisoning Shiite players. Indian football disrespects itself with the creation of the Silly League, despite the I-League. Indonesia has a rogue league which is more popular, and Thai national team and league are going in circles.

I have pointed out in previous post that Asia always, always defeats Africa in World Cup encounters, and Africa is also yet to defeat Asia in Confederations Cup. Same thing happens in Club World Cup – Asia is yet to reach the final round, but consistently wins the third place. Yet African teams are always favored even by Asian punters and pundits for a simple reason – they are Africans. They are black footballers. People all over the world are thrilled to see Ivory Coast because they have Drogba and Kalou. Ghana because they have Muntari and Essien. Cameroon because they have…uh, Eto’o. Nigeria because uh…they have…Nigerians. But except for East Asian fanboys such as me, nobody is thrilled to watch Shinji Okazaki or Ji Dong-Won. At least Australians love their Holman and Kennedy.

The expectation is both unfair and fair. It’s unfair because it relies on the generalization that Africans are fun and lively while Asians are clumsy and boring. It’s also fair because in Europe, Africans are consistently scoring goals while Asians don’t. There are dozens of African players in Europe playing as both substitutes and starters, as stars and flops. There are only about a dozen of Asian players in Europe, some of them are lucky to become regular starters (Honda, Nagatomo, Kagawa), or at least regular subs such as Park Ji-Sung and Ki. Many others are rarely played and are pressured when they are lucky enough to be selected, especially if they are forwards like Okazaki and Morimoto. Park Chu-Young was bit lucky that it was Arshavin instead of him who was chosen to replace Oxlade-Chamberlain, otherwise all the blame for Arsenal’s loss to Manchester United would have fallen on him.

I feel that in this transfer window, Japanese and Korean players are very prudent and conservative with offers. It’s unclear if Tadanari and Maeda will eventually play for the English Championship of if they will stick to J. League. Kagawa wants to stay in Dortmund, and we have to wait until June if Honda is moving away from CSKA. Maybe they are worried that they are not good enough for Europe. Kagawa still deliver assists, but he does not score as much as he likes. Havenaar finds that Eredivisie is not easy, a fact that Robert Cullen has to contend with week in week out. Usami is pessimistic on his future with Bayern, and so should Miyaichi feel in Arsenal. Many African players are also warming up the bench or taunted online for their mishaps, but Demba Ba (Newcastle), Papa Diawara (Maritimo), and Emmanuel Emenike (Spartak Moscow) know that they are good. The only Asian player in Europe who knows that he is winning is Iranian Reza Ghoochannejhad (St. Truiden).