2015 AFC Asian Cup. Yay.

Nasser Al Shamrani ponders where he will go out tonight in Melbourne.

Happy New Year, Maya Yoshida. That’s a sweet victory against Arsenal, wasn’t it? You did good job in blocking Alexis Sanchez, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (a hipster favorite), and Theo Walcott for 20 minutes. You’re good to go for Australia 2015.

Asians are so diligent and hardworking, we are doing a major tournament in the first working week of 2015. Making the good use of southern hemisphere summer.

And so let’s see the teams that will compete in Asian Cup 2015.

Australia

When they won the hosting rights in 2011 (without competition), it was too easy. Only Japan could spoil their party. Four years later, everyone could tear down the house. Australia had experienced defeats by Qatar, China, Japan (in 90 minutes in 2013, breaking a 12 years record), and Jordan. They were held by Oman, North Korea, South Africa, and UAE.

As I said, while Australians tell each other that they are on transition, the world does not care. Asia enjoys the agony. [Update: Australia have stopped saying that they are on transition.]

Tim Cahill, still the most reliable goal scorer for the last ten years, survived against pretenders like John Aloisi, Scott McDonald, Brett Holman, and Joshua Kennedy. Now Australia badly need new goalscorers. Thankfully Nathan Burns is on good form, Tomi Juric is at the crossroad (his last goal came in November), while Mat Leckie is doing fine with Ingolstadt, currently topping the 2. Bundesliga.

Australians and me hope that they could be like Germany in 2006 – turning shameful slumps into a glorious, proud summer (the semi final match could be held on Australia Day). Therefore the only permissible way to begin is to win comfortably against Kuwait. If everything goes well (Korea are a major stumbling block), then it’s quarter final against China in Melbourne. That’s dream comes true for broadcasters and organizers, but expect plenty of venom coming from Chinese commentators (since Australians are, uh, Western white men). The other option is no more friendly – Spiranovic vs Al Shamrani II.

Going to semis? Iran. The ideal final, of course, pitches Australia and Japan.

Goalkeeper: Ryan

Defenders: Franjic, Sainsbury, Spiranovic, Davidson

Midfielders: Jedinak, Bresciano, McKay

Forwards: Kruse, Cahill (false 9), Oar/Leckie

Korea

Supposedly, they have put the disaster of 2013-14 behind with the leadership of Uli Stielike, the only German international to fail a penalty shootout. Their recent records are still mixed, however – wins against Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Paraguay, losses to Iran (a bloody one), Costa Rica, and Uruguay. Like Australia, they were on transition but Koreans hardly said that (at least in English).

The match against Australia is the biggest challenge, and I would say it will end in a draw, just like in 2011. A quarter final against North Korea is unlikely (some South Koreans actually fancy the idea), while Korean “netizens” hope for China so they can update Eul-Yong Ta for 2010s.

The semi final will be another heated affair whether as runner ups or group winners – either Iran or Japan. Heck, even in the final they will face either Iran or Japan and things can go nasty. Boy, Koreans do have plenty of issues, don’t they?

Goalkeeper: Kim Seung-gyu

Defenders: Kim Chang-soo, Kwak, Kim Young-gwon, Park Joo-ho

Midfielders: Lee Chung-yong, Ki, Koo

Forwards: Cho Yeung-chol, Lee Keun-ho, Son

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan, Uzbekistan. Our football team is more famous than Kazakhstan’s. We have Natasha Alam and you Kazakhstan have…you have that volleyball cutie.

No, she won’t care about Asian Cup. Maybe neither is Natasha Alam.

Remember Road to Japan and Korea? A pretty surreal qualification since Japan and Korea were not in and Australia were still in OFC. So if you remove these three nations, the final round of AFC qualification would be full of creepy countries ruled by mad dictators. Group B is a terrible put down. I blame the desert and the northern latitudes. And Stalin.

Uzbekistan feature the balanced lineups of players based in Uzbekistan (always a challenge in AFC Champions League, although not big spenders like Bunyodkor used to be). The spread of its foreign-based players is also interesting. Vitaly Denisov and Lutfulla Turaev play for Lokomotiv (spelling it “Locomotive” makes it sounds less communist) Moscow, Anzur Ismailov is with Changchun Yatai, Bahodir Nasimov plays in Iran, and captain Server Djeparov still can eat Seongnam’s best bulgogi. Not to mention those who play in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

So there’s no reason they cannot ace Group B, above Saudi Arabia and China. A quarter final against Korea will be a friendly derby, and so does semi final against Japan. For a mad dictatorship, it’s surprising that they have no personal problem with anyone.

Saudi Arabia

The ballad of Nasser Al Shamrani. Australians heckled him mercilessly in Melbourne when Saudi Arabia were humiliated 1-4 by Bahrain and in Parramatta, home of Western Sydney Wanderers. They will hunt him again in Brisbane and Melbourne. It’s still unknown if Arab-Australians will stand up for him, especially (or despite) after Al Hilal players described Sydney as the boonies.

China

Thank God you’re here, said the organizer. Otherwise Asian Cup will be devoid of the most important of all East Asians. Will Chinese-Australians care about China? Maybe they hardly care about any sport in the first place. But the Chinese students will persuade their Southeast Asian (and some Australian) friends to support China.

China did plenty of friendlies in preparation of the cup, but none of them was outside China. Why bother going to savage lands where you can invites barbarians such as Kyrgyzs (twice), Palestines, and New Zealanders to enjoy a bit of Chinese hospitality in the world-famous cities of Nanchang, Chenzhou, Shenzhen (Hong Kong’s ugly sister!), and Changsa?

Half-assed friendlies in faraway cities to tire out the visitors, local-based players since no Chinese footballer is good enough to play in Europe (and why bother playing in tiny Mainz where you can enjoy Guangzhou’s nightlife), and equally strong opponents. They won’t make it past the group stage.

North Korea

Scums of the Earth and a total waste of space. But wait, even the Hermit Kingdom has players based in Europe and Japan! Wunderbar! Ryang Yong-gi and Ri Yong-jik are Korean-Japanese who swear allegiance to North Korea. Now the nice Switzerland opens its door to the misunderstood North Koreans, from Kim Jong-un to Cha Jong-hyok and Pak Kwang-ryong, who is loaned by Basel to Vaduz. Hey, Liechtenstein is just like North Korea – the people are smiling, the mountains are beautiful, and the underground vault is shining.

Iran

Look at the champions. Asia’s best. Lack of playing time but they make the best of it, whether against Korea or Iraq. Like in 1997, they can expect full support from Iranian Australians. Their European players are so-so: Keeper Alireza Haghighi keeps picking balls from inside his net with Penafiel in Portugal, Javad Nekounam still proves his worth with four goals with Osasuna, while his team mate Karim Ansarifad is yet to score. But as a team, they can be invincible. Iranians will gleefully see the Princes of Persia slash down those pesky Arabs (they are conveniently group with Qatar, Bahrain, and UAE, who insist that it’s called Arabian Gulf).

Japan

The samurais care less that their daimyo is accused of match fixing back in 2010 – they have a cup to defend. Traditionally Japanese fans will sit on the fence – Aguirre is another foreigner whose main purpose is to lead Nippon. If he won’t resign over the allegation, he will resign over bad results. But he won’t stay forever.

Japanese footballers, the mainstay of Asian football in Europe, are again in dire need of redemption. Shinji Kagawa must be cannot believe his terrible luck, worse than his Manchester United days. Keisuke Honda could not sustain his goal scoring streaks and now Milanistas are singing for Jeremy Menez instead of him. 2015 has arrived and Eiji Kawashima is still thinking about next season – stay or leave? – as he’s sitting on Liege’s bench. His challenger, Shusaku Nishikawa, rue the days he slipped the J. League trophy – and the chance to be Japan’s number 1 – past his hands.

For some others, this is the moment of truth. Yasuhito Endo can’t believe his fairy tale story. At 34 going 35, he resurrected a disgraced team to win a Triple and is still Japan’s best holding midfielder for one and half decade. Without ever playing in Europe. Shinji Okazaki wants to match his club performance with national team performance, especially if he wants to move a bigger (and better paying) club next August. Yoshinori Muto will be thrilled to think which European scouts are watching him.

Japan will face nemeses Jordan and Iraq and have to put up with the crowds and the world who will support Palestine. They will get the job done and will face one of the Gulf nations. Then it’s Uzbekistan, who defeated them twice on the Road to Brazil. Then a final showdown against Australia or less likely, Iran.

Goalkeeper: Kawashima (my choice is as tricky as Aguerre’s. Higashiguchi can handle Palestine but first impression is everything)

Defenders: Sakai, Konno, Yoshida, Nagatomo

Midfielders: Endo, Hasebe, Kiyotake, Kagawa, Honda

Forward: Okazaki

It’s Classic

Hee?!

Hee?!

Cola Classic. Pope Classic (Benedict XVI). Media Player Classic. Now K-League Classic.

I believe so many people thought that there were two types of K-League. The classic one with familiar faces – Jeonbuk, Lee Dong-gook, Samsung, Dejan Damjanovic…and there’s a brand new K-League without Start button, and with goal line technology and stars like Guiza*,  Kazuyuki Toda^, and Park Chu-young.

*Darul Takzim, Malaysia.

^Warriors FC, Singapore.

Among the teams on this new K-League is Bucheon FC 1995 (hey, remember FIFA 2002 and so? Because Bucheon SK moved to Jeju in 2006), Suwon FC (Samsung-less), and Gwangju FC (hey, I think I remember you guys). So I thought that the new K-League would be more elite, they can dispatch Guangzhou Evergrande with ease. But yeah, who would represent Korea in the ACL?

And so after much embarrassment and creating writing agony for bloggers and correspondents (or I got confused with SimCity server), K-League Division 2 changed its name from K League to K League Challenge. And Division 1 is still…K League Classic. Well, catchier than J. League’s Division 1, but still, what’s with the classic thing. Gwangju  and Sangmu Sangmu Phoenix (aka the draftees) are history, there’s nothing really classic about FC Seoul and Jeju United, and classic is not a word you associate with “We try to get rid of the match fixing stink”.

Still, let’s give a cheer for the 2013 season of J. League and K-League. Three Japanese are in Korea – Yuta Baba (Daejeon), Sergio Escudero (FC Seoul), and Chikasi Masuda (Ulsan Hyundai). The rest of the Asian players are from Australia, while Server Djeparov returns to Korea and joins the Moonies. Proud North Korean Jong Tae-se is also in Seoul, where no other North Korean Seoulite would like to shake his hand and have a chat with him about the good old country.

On the other hand, there’s only an Aussie left in Japan – Josh Kennedy. Strange, since everything I learned about Japan I learned from Australians. All the Asian players are South Koreans, so Japan wins the Insular Mentality battle against against Korea. Clap clap. The only West European in Japan is Shimizu’s Calvin Jong-a-Pin, while Kevin Oris could start a taste for Belgians in Korea (heard they might make it big in Brazil 2014).

So, of course, not really flashy compared to China, but you can’t get flashy if you play without get paid. After week 3, Yokohama F Marinos and Cerezo Osaka are going strong in Japan, while Pohang, Jeonbuk, and Incheon are going okay in Korea.

The important thing for me (and less important for club managements especially in Japan) is how domestic results translate to continental results (spending certainly not a topic here) – something even complicated for English clubs. Kashiwa surprisingly do well despite my conviction that Marinos were the better club to represent Japan. Hiroshima are disappointing, Guangzhou are certainly one of the most formidable clubs in East Asia at the moment, and I’m not sure how Urawa and Sendai can hold up against FC Seoul and Jeonbuk.

Although I can say worse for the Koreans – only FC Seoul have tasted victory. That’s one match out of eight for the Koreans. Bunyodkor are certainly some annoying invaders (that space should belong to an A-League team, with only three teams from Qatar), but they are good invaders and they exposed the faults of Sanfrecce and Steelers.

Well, they have days until April to fix things up, but the attention for the rest of the month will be on the national team – Japan can secure a ticket to Brazil before the sakura flowers are in full bloom, and Korea are preparing for a major battle. Big responsibilities for Yuzo Kurihara, Kim Chang-soo, Ha Dae-sung, and Lee Dong-gook.

Why I shouldn’t take Asian football seriously

When he was with FC Seoul
You make FC Seoul proud

 

Because AFC still doesn’t take Asian football seriously. Server Djeparov is again the best male footballer in Asia because he can come to the award night in Kuala Lumpur on a Thursday night in November. Nevermind that Shinji Kagawa just scored against Arsenal on the same night – despite a tooth injury. Nevermind that South Korea prove that they cannot live without Park Chu-Young, who wasn’t even on the bench for Arsenal last night. The point is, Djeparov earned 110 points while Keisuke Honda had 87 points.

The justice was that Aya Miyama wins the best women footballer award ahead of Homare Sawa and Ayumi Kaihori. Miyama scored in the 2011 World Cup Final (big apologies for not blogging that great tournament) and hugged Hope Solo afterward. Then the availability of Japanese players in the ceremonies, instead of competing in United States, brought in a sad fact – even United States cannot organize a decent women football league, and women football is still not properly appreciated worldwide.

In Southeast Asia, the Southeast Asian Games (Jesus people, it wasn’t even AFF Cup. How long you do you think Argentina and Nigeria will dwell over Olympics football?) left several nasty impressions for Indonesian and Malaysian football. For Indonesia, mixture of admiration for the successful Young Garudas and the bitter sadness of going down to Malaysia twice. For Malaysia, big relief of defending the title from the previous SEA Games, following the footsteps of the seniors, and the distress on how do the Indonesian supporters express their hatred and anger for Malaysian flag, Malaysian national anthem, Malaysian athletes, and the existence of Malaysia itself.

Malaysia were happy to win twice against Indonesia, going home with coach Ong Kim Swee as a hero, and moving on to the next business for pre-Olympics tournament. Indonesians coped with the loss with various reactions. Some blamed referee Toru Minoru for disallowing two Indonesian goals (nobody pointed out that he also disallowed one Malaysian goal), some did the right thing and applauded the young footballers and the manager, and some even said that the players are not real Indonesians since many of them are Christians.

PSSI, the Indonesian FA, has taken two worse decisions. First, it says no more naturalization. Because it fell out with golden boy Irfan Bachdim (born in Netherlands), it is disappointed with Cristian Gonzalez (spent most of life as an Uruguayan) although he had scored twice against Qatar, it doesn’t need Kim J. Kurniawan (Chinese-Indonesian father, German mother, sister is pregnant with Bachdim’s baby), and is angry with dashing U-23 defender Diego Michiel (born in Netherlands). But most importantly, it is angry with two Nigerians, Greg Nkwolo and Victor Igbonefo. First, they are playing for the wrong club, one of clubs that refuse to play in PSSI’s proposed 24-clubs league. Second, because the Nigerian football association is said to fail to reply on the inquiry if both players had played for Nigeria. So, for PSSI, naturalization gives no quick benefit.

Second, because of the league dispute, PSSI just declared that they will not pick U-23 players who are with the dissenting clubs (well, the majority of top-tier clubs are dissenting), many of them are playing in high-performance club Persipura which reached the 2011 AFC Cup quarter finals. So if Indonesians loved those dashing Papuans in the SEA Games, they won’t be seen again in the already doomed AFC Asian Cup 2015 qualifications.

One thing about naturalization. Yes, Indonesia is much populous than Singapore and football is a sport that everyone follows, unlike Philippines. So naturalization was unnecessary in the first place. I understand that several European players with Indonesian heritage are not that gifted as Nigel de Jong, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, and Johnny Heitinga. They were stuck in the 3rd division and so before Indonesia offers them hope of wearing the national jersey. Sergio van Dijk leads a good life in Australia but he knows he won’t be called by the Oranges. Others fall in love in and with Indonesia and have built their families here.

The naturalization scheme of 2010 was a quick-rich scheme, exploiting Gonzalez’s desire to become the best striker and to make the local football sexier with youth like Irfan. Philippines called in the Younghusband brothers and hired the 30s something McEnemy for the same reason. When the scheme failed in the last moment, everyone, both PSSI and the press blame the players. It’s not they demand excellence. It’s more like they were really suckered by that quick-rich scheme.

Matches of interest lately: Suwon – Ulsan 1-3 p (both Seoul and Suwon are out of the 2011 K-League Championship. I know I made a wrong decision by supporting Seoul while I should choose Jeonbuk). Arsenal – Dortmund 2-1 (Kagawa was mercifully not subbed to the end so he could score). Tampines – Home United 1-0 (all the good Etoile 2010 players are now in Tampines). Bahrain U-23 – Japan U-23 0-2 (yeah Higashi & Otsu).