I’m Excited about AFF 2014. Really.

Gee, I wonder where I can get all these Indonesian stuff on any Nike store in Indonesia…because I have checked stores in Jakarta and all they have are Barcelona and Manchester United.

Tonight, Southeast Asian football will look at itself. For the next one month.

The ASEAN Football Federation (ASEAN is Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Championship begins tonight with Philippines vs Laos. Of course, nobody will actually see that, so we move on to the proper opening match featuring co-host Vietnam taking on my country Indonesia. Tomorrow Malaysia will face Myanmar while the real match of the day would be between Singapore and Thailand. All the way to the second leg final on 20 December 2014, five day before Christmas and at the same day with the 2014 FIFA Club World Cup Championship final. So it’s a double treat for the winning nation (I really can’t think of anyone, really). Philippines and then Real Madrid.

That one-month long tournament idea it’s just stupid. I blame Nike. And Suzuki. And Fox Sports Asia. We can have the whole championship wrapped up just in two weeks but this is as long as the World Cup. In 2010, the prolonged tournament was a recipe for disaster for Indonesia. Indonesia did well, then president Susilo B. Yudhoyono watched Invictus and thought of himself as Nelson Mandela (Irfan Bachdim became Matt Damon) and showed up to the playoffs, effectively ruining Indonesia’s morale and integrity.

I apologize, though, for blaming Nike. Even Nike Indonesia does not take this tournament seriously. Yesterday I went to the mall and saw a display of #RiskEverything with Irfan Bachdim and his tattoos (2014 appearance for Ventforet Kofu: 0) but the Nike store had only few away shirts, probably leftover from last season. No polo or jacket or cap. In contrast, from the same mall’s Adidas outlet I have collected Japan’s jersey, t-shirt, jacket, cap, and backpack. All I have to do is wear them all and be like Joey Tribbiani.

This picture has nothing to do with Asian football.

How could the “football crazy” Indonesia cares little about the Red and White? That’s because Nike Indonesia cares little about it. That’s because the football crazy Indonesians care more about Germany, Manchester United, Barcelona, and Juventus (and Japan, in my case). That’s because we don’t think we’d win the championship, even as we are crying war. Then again, maybe so our neighbors.

So I assure you, not just Nike Indonesia (and their customers) cares about the lack of availability of Indonesia merchandises, we also don’t care about the other teams. Enemies. Opponents. Foreigners. Sports tabloids and newspapers can write a little about “players to watch” and predicted lineups, but don’t expect too much from television.

So, I take the responsibility to educate my fellow Indonesians a little about teams that Indonesia will defeat and that will defeat Indonesia, and to give an introduction to the world on Indonesia and other Southeast Asian teams.

Vietnam

Surprisingly, the ones with Japanese touch. Maybe Vietnam have taken its rivalry with China to a new level. Coach Toshiya Miura had experiences with Omiya, Sapporo, and Kobe in the 2000s. Their female supporters can be the most visible and enthusiastic ones, and the host advantage can be with them.

Foreign-based player? No.

The Ace: Le Chong Vinh, number nine. Experienced unsuccessful stints with Leixoes in 2009-10 Primeira Liga (they were the worst team) and Consadole Sapporo in 2013. Did not score in 2012 championship, though.

The Foreigner: Mac Hong Quan. Born in Czech, he was with Sparta Prague B before moving to Vietnam in 2013. Still an underachiever.

Problem Child: Dinh Thanh Trung. Left Hanoi over dispute, he played in Division 2 last season.

Philippines

The perpetual dark horses, Philippines grew from one of the worst teams in the region (and Asia) into a feared one, thanks to half-Filipino players recruited from Europe and United States. They became fine footballers and decided to play in the United Football League and dating models rather than busting their asses in European lower leagues (they still can date models there, right?). If they still can’t reach the final, blame UFL.

O yeah, their coach is Tom Dooley, one of my heroes when I supported United States in early 1990s.

Foreign-based players? Several. Goalkeeper Ronald Muller in Servette, captain Rob Gier in Ascot United, Jerry Lucena in Esbjerg, and Martin Steuble in Sporting Kansas City. Until they will play in UFL and get cozy.

The Ace: Mark Hartmann, who scored 27 goals this season with Global. Might overshadow old favorites like the Younghusband brothers.

The Foreigner: Most of the team, but the peculiar ones would be defender Daisuke Sato and midfielder Misagh Bahadoran.

The Problem Child: Surprisingly nothing, but expect them to argue with the referees and challenge other players with combative gestures.

Indonesia

Indonesia can’t let go of the big country syndrome – since we have so many people and have the biggest area, we have to be the biggest bully of the block, right? I hope new president Joko Widodo can help the team concentrate now and let publicity takes the back seat. Austrian coach Alfred Riedl worked for Vietnam again and again from late 1990s to mid 2000s.

If Indonesia makes a rip-off of Cantabile, he’s very suitable to play Franz Stresemann.

Foreign based player? Sergio van Dijk, once an attraction of A-League, plays for Suphanburi in Thailand.

The Ace: Uruguay-born Cristian Gonzales, consistently one of top scorers in Indonesian Premier League and has good record with Indonesia. At 38, however, he’s getting fatter and fatter.

The Foreigner: Besides those two, there’s the Nigeria-born defender Victor Igbonefo.

Problem Child: Being a stereotypical stern Austrian, Riedl omits Irfan Bachdim and night club regular Diego Michiels from this team. Unfortunately, he also omits IPL 2014 MVP Ferdinand Sinaga, who I believe deserves a forward spot better over van Dijk.

Laos

The Poland/Greece of Southeast Asia – you’ll need to copy and paste their names rather than typing. The lovable losers who survived the qualification run. Coached by English Dave Booth, a veteran of Indian football (and Grimsby Town’s 1973 Player of the Year).

Foreign-based player: Soukaphone Vongchiengkham (pasted) plays for Thai Division 1 club Saraburi.

The Ace: Him, maybe.

The Foreigner: None.

The Problem Child: None as far I know.

Singapore

The defending champions and eternally an annoying shrimp for its larger neighbors, at least in football. They are expected to reach semi finals, at the expense of neighbors and rivals Malaysia. They are now the only team to have an ethnic Chinese footballer.

Foreign-based players: LionsXII, where most of the players work for, compete in Malaysia Super League. Other than that, Hariss Harun plays for Johor and captain Shahril Ishak, 2012 Championship MVP, is in Johor II. Baffling, no?

The Ace: Khairul Amri, on his tenth year with the Lions and scored four goals in the 2012 Championship. This year he’s the top scorer in the Malaysia Super League who is not a Brazilian or Argentine.

The Foreigner: For the last ten years, Singapore had been powered by naturalized players from England, Nigeria, China, and former Yugoslavia. Not anymore. Gabriel Quak, on the other hand, becomes the first Singapore-born ethnic Chinese who’s good enough for the national team since Goh Tat Chuan played in early 2000s. Ironically, in Chinese-majority Singapore, his name and feature are unique for Singaporean football. Maybe just like Hugo Lloris in France.

The Problem Child: Khairul Nizam, brother to Khairul Amri, served eight matches ban in 2010 for brawl against Beijing Guoan Talent players.

Malaysia

Another favorite for the championship and have to decide who they hate most – Singapore, Thailand, or Indonesia. Coached by Dollah Salleh, the legend of late 20th century’s Asian football. If Singapore are the team to feature a Chinese player, this is the one to support if you’re into Indian footballers.

Foreign-based players: None.

The Ace: Indra Putra Mahayuddin. A favorite of 2000s, he disappeared from international football scene and stages a comeback this month.

The Foreigner: Malaysia has never naturalized any foreign star or a foreigner with Malaysian background, although they had accepted few Muslim Burmese in the past. The Indian Malaysians I talked about are Gary Steven Robbat and Kunanlan.

The Problem Child: Safee Sali. He’s a nice guy who’s got into some troubles several times. The first Malaysian who played in Indonesian Super League, he was promised number 10 shirt at Persija Jakarta but got number 55 instead. A somewhat working analogy of his time in Indonesia is like a Japanese star who plays in K-League – both Indonesians and Malaysians are okay with it and he was not heckled, but both parties saw him as tainted. In 2014 Johor almost handed him over to Selangor, but eventually he stayed with Johor.

Thailand

Difficult spellings too, but hey, it’s essential to remember their names. Traditionally seen as the big boss of Southeast Asia, they are in crazy and unstable forms in this century. This week they defeated New Zealand 2-0 but lost all their qualifications matches for Australia 2015. Like Malaysia, they entrust the national team to a national hero, Kiatisuk Senamuang – who scored 70 goals for Thailand from 1993 to 2006.

Foreign-based player: None.

The Ace: Kawin Thammasatchanan, best goalkeeper of the 2012 edition and one of the most formidable goalkeepers in Southeast Asia, standing at 185 meters (6 feet 1 inch).

The Foreigner: Charyl Chappuis, formerly a reserve player in Grasshopper Zurich and a member of Switzerland winning team at the 2009 U-17 World Cup. He graduated from Thailand U-23 last year and scored his first senior goal this year against Kuwait.

The Problem Child: Thai generals. I really want to support Thailand but if they do good, the generals will take credit for the “happiness”.

Myanmar

Who cares.

So, that’s the preview of eight teams competing in AFF Suzuki Cup 2014. As I’m writing this conclusion, Philippines have overturned a 0-1 shock from Laos into a 2-1 lead. Please enjoy this feat of Southeast Asian football since there won’t be any at the Asian Cup.

 

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A History of Southeast Asia and the World Cup: 1993-2013

These stories happen most likely when you’re around.

1993: Hunger Games III

How the world had changed. West Germany, the champions of 1990 World Cup, were no longer there. Klinsmann, Matthaus, and Illgner were still around, added by some not so notable easterners like Thomas Doll and Andreas Kopke (who might be the only easterner in the German team for World Cup 94). Hipsters’ choices Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia did not exist anymore, while AFC experienced an explosion of new species.

In school I learned that Southeast Asia was essentially Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, and I only had to learn about these six countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Philippines, and Brunei) because the rest were dirty commies. But now Indonesia and Japan trumpeted their roles in building new Cambodia and United States welcomed the opening of Vietnam.

Sour Myanmar, however, still refused to join the pool party and withdrew from Group B of First Round AFC qualification, leaving Taiwan to be bullied around by Iran, Syria, and Oman. Congratulations to three unimportant Taiwanese who managed to score a single goal. You made life less painful for the goalkeeper(s).

Group C had three Southeast Asian teams including newcomers Vietnam. 1994 was a high time for Indonesian economy with buzzwords such as globalization, cyberspace, and Asian values. No such joys for the national team, who went down to group hosts Qatar 1-3 on first match. North Korea then did a one-two on Vietnam and Singapore before doing Indonesia 4-0, all just in five days. Sheez.

Singapore had their first win against Vietnam with legends Fandi Ahmad and V. Sundramoorthy, only to be smashed down again by Qatar in three days. Life got worse for Indonesia after losing 0-1 to Vietnam (Ha Vuong Ngau Nai scored). Do you want more, Indonesia? 0-2 to Singapore then, Mohammad Rafi Ali and Sundramoorthy. Trust me, Indonesia know better “Agony of Doha” than Japan. Yes, Qatar. 1-4. Both them and North Korea really had fun with the Southeast Asians, before Singapore registered 1-0 wins against Vietnam and Qatar (Ali and Ahmad). Indonesia had its only victory, a 2-1 to Vietnam, before lost by the same score to Singapore.

North Korea won this bloody group, with Singapore coming third with five wins. Singapore Lions attacking midfielder Varadaraju the Dazzler (kids, there was no S. League and Singapore played in Malaysian league) scored four goals, officially one of the best footballers in Southeast Asia this year. Indonesian press were so unhappy with the seven defeats.

In Group E, Malaysia were lucky enough to be put with Macau and to host the group. Azman Adnan equalized against Kuwait and Malaysia had their second draws to Saudi Arabia. Sexy time came against Macau with Adnan scored a hattrick while both Azizol Abu Haniffah and Abdul Mokhtar scored two goals. 9-0. Then the matches were moved to Riyadh and bad times came with both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia scored five on Malaysia between them. At least there were Macau. 5-0 this time with two more goals from Adnan and Paramasivan Ravindran. So we had Sundramoorthy from Singapore and now Adnan (who played in Selangor) from Malaysia. What about Thailand?

Too bad for Thailand, they were grouped with Japan and UAE. The 1992 champions of Asia, so eager to travel to United States, kicked off with 1-0 win to Thailand. Three days later in Tokyo, Thailand won 1-0 to Sri Lanka (Kiatisuk Senamuang) – and lost with the same score to UAE. Thailand then defeated its nemesis (this is a nerdy trivia question: “Who were Thailand’s World Cup qualification rivals in 1980s and early 1990s?”) Bangladesh again, 4-1, with a hattrick by Piyapong Pue-on.

In Dubai, Thailand lost to Japan and UAE before defeating the South Asians with five goals scored by Piyapong Pue-on, the Royal Thai Air Force striker. A bittersweet but promising year for Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, and a completely forgettable year for Indonesia.

"Why 1990's Singapore rocks". I agree.

“Why 1990’s Singapore rocks”. I agree.

1997: Football in the Time of Cholera

1997 ended the roaring 1990s for Asia abruptly – Thai Bath collapsed and with it Thai, Malaysian, Korean, and Indonesian economies (all built upon weak and corrupt foundations). Japan, who had struggled with recession since 1991, experienced mounting social problems evident in manga Great Teacher Onizuka.

Of course, no one knew what was coming in March, when Azman Adnan scored again against Bangladesh, held Saudi Arabia goalless, and took it easy against Taiwan. Things went sour as usual away from Kuala Lumpur – Taiwan held Malaysia 0-0 and Saudi scored three. Naturally Malaysia defeated Bangladesh again but that’s all about it.

In Jakarta, Indonesia had fun 8-0 against Cambodia before disappointingly held by Yemen – and by Cambodia in Phnom Penh. Bad memories of 1993 reappeared and came true. After two draws with Uzbekistan and Yemen, Uzbekistan killed off Indonesia 3-0 in Tashkent, two weeks before the deluge of 2 July.

Thailand braced themselves against South Korea and Hong Kong, appearing for the last time with its British colonial flag (before flying its Chinese colonial flag next semester). Piyapong Pue-on equalized early in second half before Ha Seok-ju and Choi Moon-sik put down Thai resistance. Thailand defeated Hong Kong 2-0 at home, before it was revealed in November that four Hong Kong players bet their losses for two goals. Such low lives. Hong Kong defeated Thailand 3-2 at home, and so their defensive play in the last match against South Korea were meaningless. Looking from their World Cup records, it’s astonishing that Thailand were seen as the big boys of Southeast Asia in the 20th century.

It was worse for Singapore…were the signs of the fall down actually visible early in the year? Asians intoxicated with Spice Girls, David Beckham, and Netscape Navigator certainly didn’t see it coming. Singapore simply had no chance against Kuwait and Lebanon, two easy opponents they should have overcome. Singapore would stand tall during the financial crisis thanks to steady influx of Indonesian, Malaysian, and Thai money.

Finally, the Philippines. After decades, they finally got their hands on football and lost to Qatar, Sri Lanka, and India. The end.

 

2001: Without Japan and South Korea

Japan and Republic of Korea hosted the 2002 World Cup, everyone had recovered from the financial crisis and enjoyed the new millennium. Laos and Philippines were grouped together so they could see which one were worse: the Philippines, who Laos defeated 2-0 and held 1-1. Other than that, they were both shooting practices for Oman and Syria.

Malaysia had the honor of playing football with Palestine, the rallying point of the Muslim world. But first they had to endure 5-1 beating by Qatar before Akmal Rakhli scored two past Hong Kong. Unfortunately, they lost both to Palestine and Hong Kong before defeating Palestine 4-3 in a battle royal before lucky 400 people in Doha on 25 March 2001. I need the footage of this match uploaded on YouTube, please. Rakhli from amateur French club FCSR Haguenau (a reject of Strasbourg) scored two goals again.

Singapore football was still in slump. Draws with Kuwait and Kyrgyzstan and losses against everyone else.

Thailand, meanwhile, became the first Southeast Asians since Indonesia in 1985 to pass the first stage. They got an easy group consisted of Lebanon, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan and they took the chance well with goals from Seksan Piturat (Sinthana), Kiatisuk Senamuang (Raj Pracha), and Sakesan Pituratna. Oh wait, this is actually Piturat. So did he change his name or different spelling or what?

There was this group where Brunei met India, Yemen, and UAE. Humiliation ensued.

Finally, Indonesia kicked off its campaign with five past Maldives. Then six past Cambodia. Two again to Cambodia. Two to Maldives. Wonderful. And theeeen…they met China. China won twice. Close but no cigars. But nothing to shame of. Except for the unrealistic Indonesian press.

Vietnam also did well against Bangladesh and Mongolia, but not against Saudi Arabia.

Because of Thailand, I have to continue my story instead of moving on. Without Japan and South Korea (sourpuss North Korea didn’t participate as they didn’t want to visit both nice places),  there were these seven Arab states, Iran, Uzbekistan, and Thailand. Thailand were slammed 0-4 on first day by Iraq before held Iran 0-0 in Bangkok. The pattern continued – drew and losses with five goals scored by Piturat, Senamuang, Sutee Suksomsit (Thai Farmers Bank. Remember them?), and Worrawoot Srimaka (BEC Tero Sasana). OK Thailand, you have done what Malaysia cannot.

Nobody dyed their hair blond. I'm disappointed.

Nobody dyed their hair blond. I’m disappointed.

2004: No Second Place

Either other nations got better in football or Southeast Asia got worse in football. Both then. Laos lost to Sri Lanka but something happened: Guam and Nepal both withdrew and FIFA picked a lucky loser – Laos whose loss less severe compared to Bangladesh, Macau, and such. Iran, Jordan, and Qatar thanked them.

Singapore’s woes continued by losing 0-1 to India, 1-2 to Japan, and then 0-7 to Oman. D’oh. 3600 people who kept their hope high watched Singapore defeated India 2-0 at Jalan Besar Stadium with goals from Indra Sahdan and Khairul Mohammad.

You should see Malaysia tho. After decades of coming close to the next round, this time they were utterly simply verily destroyed by Kuwait, China, and unbelievably, Hong Kong. Twice.

Things seemed predictable first for Thailand – lost to UAE, won against Yemen, lost to North Korea, lost to North Korea again. Whoops. They got their act together and superbly defeated UAE 3-0 (Anon Nanok, Thredsak Chaiman, and Jiensathawong Jakapong – now known as Nontapan Jeansatawong…I don’t create bad luck for him for writing his old name, do I?) before held 1-1 by Yemen.

Vietnam did well against Maldives, but not against Lebanon and South Korea.

Ditto for Indonesia. Losing to Turkmenistan (start of a rivalry forgotten by Indonesians) 1-3, they didn’t convince anyone with narrow win and a draw against Sri Lanka, lost again to Saudi Arabia, before Ilham Jaya Kesuma (Tangerang) scored three past Turkmenistan.

No second place, because all Southeast Asia were in third and fourth places.

 

2007-2008: Three-Stages Vetting

Let’s try something new – Asian countries except Japan, South Korea, and prodigal sons Australia must prove their worth first. So Thailand put 13 past Macau, Myanmar received 11 from China, Vietnam were destroyed by UAE, Malaysia lost to Bahrain, newcomers Timor Leste lost to Hong Kong (playing their home match in Indonesia), Singapore defeated Palestine 4-0 in Doha and were awarded 3-0 victory when Israel prevented Palestine players from leaving Gaza Strip and denied them the chance of admiring the Changi Airport. Indonesia got it easy against Guam.

Next, Thailand and Singapore defeated Yemen and Tajikistan respectively while Indonesia, after lost 1-4 to Syria at home, threw the game away by immersing themselves in a series of demotivational seminars and book discussion. The result? Syria 7 Indonesia 0. That’s the spirit.

So Thailand were grouped with Japan, Bahrain, and Oman while Singapore were with Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. By June 2008 Thailand had known where they were heading – losses to Japan and Bahrain and draw with Oman. No, they did not score any win.

Singapore, meanwhile, defeated Lebanon 2-0. After a decade of agony, Singapore decided to ask foreigners playing in the S. League who were charmed with the clean and safe streets, the lavish malls, the beautiful women and the impossibility to play for England, Nigeria, China, and Australia to play for the Lions instead. The results: Awesomeness and increased jealousy from neighbors. They heroically lost 3-7 to Uzbekistan, then got foolish and fielded Qiu Li, whose transfer of citizenship from China to Singapore had not cleared. Uzbekistan won 1-0 but FIFA awarded the 3-0 result. Qiu Li played again when Singapore lost to Saudi Arabia 0-2. In the end, Singapore defeated Lebanon 2-1 with Baihakki Khaizan and Ramez Dayoub scored own goals for both teams. Never mind the FIFA sanction – the naturalization model worked. How else you would defeat Lebanon?

 

2011-2012: Never mind the World Cup. Let’s try being good in football first.

So here we are. Oh okay, 2011 happened three years ago. Right. Mohammad Safiq Rahim (Selangor) and Aidil Zafuan Abdul Radzak (Negeri Sembilan/ATM FA) scored against Taiwan, with a twist. Taiwan heroically won their home match 3-2 and thus lost to Malaysia by away goal rule.

Philippines, playing the naturalization game by recruiting half-Filipinos boys in Europe and United States who played football (there were plenty of them!) defeated Sri Lanka. Without naturalization (well) Vietnam put 13 past Macau while Timor Leste, sporting Brazilian names and Australian grass root spirit, conceded seven Nepalese goals instead.

In the second round, Thailand defeated Palestine 1-0 and passed the round in dramatic fashion – Murad Alyan scored in the injury time only for Datsakorn Thonglao to equalize at the last chance. Laos managed to score three past China, which was good enough for a team receiving 13. Indonesia-Turkmenistan showdown happened again, and at least now Indonesia fighting properly – after a 1-1 draw in Asghabat, they gave all before 88 thousand crowds in Jakarta and Uruguay-born Cristian Gonzalez (who met his Indonesian wife in Uruguay instead of Indonesia) scored a brace. Actually Indonesia led 4-1 before the lapse defense gave supporters double heart attacks in the last 10 minutes.

No such luck for the German and English Filipinos as Kuwait put five against them and FIFA awarded Oman two 3-0 wins over Myanmar due to crowd trouble (they hurled objects to Oman’s goal while singing the national anthem) in Yangon. Qatar defeated Vietnam and here’s the real deal: Singapore v Malaysia.

Apparently only 6000 Singaporeans (maybe a good number of them were actually Malaysians) interested to see this “Causeway Derby” (come on, we need a scarier name. Singapore is the only nation in history to be expelled from a union. Imagine the Scots insisted to stay in union with the English, but the English could not take it anymore and declared instead of granted the independence of Scotland). In this battle royale, Safee Sali (Pelita Jaya) scored directly from kick off while Aleks Duric (Tampines) equalized in seven minutes. Singapore led 4-1 at half time, but on the second half Abdul Hadi (Terengganu) and Safee scored, before Duric sealed the victory for Singapore. Here are the highlights and all videos I found on YouTube on this match supported Malaysia.

90 thousand Malaysians crowded Bukit Jalil Stadium on 28 July 2011 and Safee scored to make the aggregate 5-4. Chinese born Shi Jiayi equalized and Singapore won the derby, kicking out Malaysia from the competition. Securities cordoned Singaporean supporters and they were permitted to leave only after the stadium was cleared from Malaysian supporters.

So once more, Singapore and Thailand represented Southeast Asia for the third round. Singapore lost all matches against China, Jordan, and Iraq while Thailand defeated Oman 3-0 (Sompong Soleb from Bangkok United, Teerasil Dangda from Muangthong United, and own goal from Rashid al Farsi) and held Saudi Arabia 0-0. Other than that, they lost to Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Australia.

One last thing: Indonesia.

 

Epilogue

There’s the cruel parody of Lightning Seeds’ “Three Lions” which I remember goes like “Three Lions on a shirt/Luiz Scolari still grinning/Thirty(forty? fifty?) years of horror/never stops me from screaming”. It’s the same way in Southeast Asia. We’ve recruited Europeans with blood relations, we’ve naturalized foreigners playing in our leagues, we’ve partnered with European clubs, we’ve hired big has-beens as coaches, and Southeast Asia still couldn’t defeat the Arabs who seemed didn’t have to try. At least now we’ve been good against South Asians although FIFA ranks them higher than us.

Both Southeast Asians and West Asians glue themselves to couch clad in Real Madrid jerseys, play wicked Winning Eleven, and making online comments about how crap Cristiano is. Then after despairing about the national team, both of us admire Japan, their bushido spirit and Captain Tsubasa and all, sparing no positive thought for South Korea and Australia.

We have our hometown heroes, our childhood memories, and it’s good that in this age of Twitter and Instagram, we feel we are too rich and royal to support the local club but we are so proud of our national players who are either half-white or coming from the same ethnicity with us. We buy their jerseys from the Nike store in our favorite malls.

But you know one thing we lack of? Unlike the Japanese, we don’t bust our asses playing football. We are nations of DIFM (Do It For Me), not DIY (Do It Yourself). I don’t know how the Saudis got their World Cups, but that’s how Japan, Australia, and Republic of Korea qualify again and again.

Great stuff. How's the football?

Great stuff. How’s the football?

A History of Southeast Asia & the World Cup: 1934-1989

These days with World Cup 2014 video game I’m playing around the Southeast Asian teams. Hm, Singapore do have some Singapore-born Chinese, like Joey Sim and Andrew Tan (actually there are only two of them). I wish I could enjoy Indonesia better but nah, although I’m happy that EA still rates them stronger than Malaysia and Vietnam (that’s weird.)

So, rather than previewing Australia, Japan, and Korea in the World Cup (ready for the mess?), I want to tell you stories on how did Southeast Asia keep failing in their World Cup campaigns.

1934-1954: One and Only Dutch East Indies

Asia, 1934. The whole continent was under European, American, and Japanese rules with the exception of fractured China. The Europeans and Americans had introduced football in Philippines, Southeast Asia, and Western Asia. Some ethnic-based clubs had been formed for identity bonding and nationalism, just like migrants in Canada, Australia, Brazil, and United States formed their sporting clubs. The Japanese, meanwhile, were more into baseball and lovingly taught that sport to the Taiwanese.

Since no one in East Asia wanted to sail all the way to Italy, no country or territory was interested with the 1934 World Cup. Three Middle Eastern (now only one of them is in AFC) countries were in Group 12 – Egypt, Palestine (consisted of nine British, six Jews, and an Arab), and Turkey who withdrew. So Palestine might be the first Asian team in the World Cup, and this Palestine was the precursor to modern Israeli and Palestine national teams.

Indonesian media love to point out that Indonesia were the first Asian team in the World Cup. With the caveat that it competed under the name Dutch East Indies back in 1938 and they lost to Hungary 0-6 in first round. That’s all. No more story.

Indeed there was no Indonesia back in 1938, there were Dutch East Indies. Only them and Japan were available in the Asian group – I wonder what had happened to French Indochina (while France hosted the World Cup) and the Philippines (United States were regulars at 1930s World Cup). The British Empire naturally were too arrogant to join the continental tournament. So Japan withdrew since they were too busy killing the Chinese and preparing for the invasion of Asia, leaving Dutch East Indies sailing across the Indian Ocean to France.

Here is the roster of the Dutch East Indies squad against Hungary and their supposed ethnicity:

Goalkeeper: Tan Mo Heng (Chinese, HTCNH)

Defenders: Frans Hu Kon (Chinese, Sparta), Jack Kolle (Dutch/Eurasian…maybe even Jew, Excelsior)

M: Sutan Anwar (Minang, VIOS), Frans Meeng (Chinese, probably, SVVB) (captain), Achmad Nawir (Javanese, probably, HBS)

F: Frans Taihuttu (Moluccan, Jong Ambon), Henk Zomers (Dutch/Eurasian, Hercules), Tan Hong Djien (Chinese, Tiong Hoa), Suvarte Soedarmadji (Javanese, HBS), Tjaak Pattiwael (Moluccan, Jong Ambon)

Coach: Johan Mastenbroek

And introducing the plushie.

And introducing the plushie.

Some 2-3-5 it was. You can see why modern Indonesia is not too proud of them – too many Dutch and Chinese for modern Indonesian liking (supposedly Muslim Indonesians have no problem with the Christian South Mollucans/Ambonese, which still contributed many players to the national team until 1980s). 9000 people watched the match in Reims on 5 June 1938 where Hungary took 4-0 lead by half time.

Fast forward to 1950 and Asia was wrecked by Second World War. The communists took power in China, independence wars raged over Vietnam and Indonesia, pro-American governments were busily snuffing communism out in Japan and South Korea, India still mourned the loss of Gandhi, and communist rebellion took place in Malaya. Philippines seemed to be the only orderly place in Asia.

Philippines, however, could not afford sailing to Brazil and so they withdrew, along with Indonesia and Burma. India withdrew for one of two reasons – either because they could not play barefoot, or because they also could not afford the trip. Maybe both of them. FIFA gave up looking for a replacement.

In 1954 only East Asians contested the qualification. Republic of China withdrew so the South Koreans began the long tradition of kicking Japanese asses with a satisfying 5-1 match in Tokyo.

 

1957-1969: Withdraw, Withdraw!

Indonesia were back as the muscle of Southeast Asia (pretty much because no one else competed). Anti-communist Republic of China withdrew, knowing that if they won, they must face something more repulsive than Indonesia – the People’s Republic. The 2-0 victory against China in Jakarta is still a legend of Indonesian football history, along with 0-0 draw against Soviet Union in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Gowan (in South Sulawesi) Ramang, who grew up playing foot volley and thus a master of volleys and scissor kicks, scored both goals. He would score two more goals in the away match in Beijing, in which Indonesia lost 3-4, and Indonesia passed by better goal average (after a pointless 0-0 third match in Burma).

In the Second Round, Indonesia and Egypt spectacularly withdrew because there were Israel. Sudan agreed to move on only to change their minds in the final round. FIFA, however, could not let Israel go to Sweden without winning any match, but even Belgium refused to play them (did Belgium have any interest in Muslim world at this time?) so Wales grabbed the ticket after defeating Israel 2-0 twice. Indonesia threw away its big chance because of religious and quasi-communist politics. Ramang himself would be disgraced in 1960 with accusation of bribery, which was more likely a slander related to political struggles between communists, Islamists, and the Army.

Indonesia blew another chance in 1961 as it withdrew from a three way competition against South Korea and Japan. Certainly Sukarno’s quixotic “revolution” has alienated Indonesia in the region and apparently Indonesia did not like South Korea enough, although Sukarno loved Japan – his new wife was a geisha provided by Toyota, Naoko Nemoto. Korea kicked out Japan again before going down to Yugoslavia in intercontinental playoff. By this time I believe it’s safe to say that Filipinos didn’t care about football.

1965 was an even weirder time. All African teams withdrew and only two Asian teams were available (keywords: Southeast Asia. Domino Theory). Both of them were from the Korean peninsula. Australia finally went into the picture while South Africa, grouped in the Oceania Confederation of Football, were banned. North Korea refused to play in the imperialist land of Japan (which had lost interest in football, thanks to South Korea) and South Korea refused to play in Cambodia, so South Korea said anyong. North Korea gleefully kicked out Australia 6-1 and 3-1, with German-Australian Les Scheinflug scored both goals (I don’t really care about North Korea).

Apparently 1969 was still not a good time for Southeast Asia to compete, although Indonesia had joined the anti-communist bandwagon, securing peace in the region south of South China Sea. South Korea met its foil Australia while still taking the pleasure of beating Japan. In the end, Israel qualified to Mexico.

Everybody hated us.

Everybody hated us.

 

1973-1989: I Couldn’t Believe Thailand were that Bad

In 1973, South Vietnam, which was on the verge of collapse, competed. Surprisingly, they defeated Thailand 1-0 in Seoul while Malaysia went down to Hong Kong 0-1. In the next round South Vietnam were eliminated by both Hong Kong and Japan. Israel and South Korea aced Group 2 while finally the first match between Southeast Asian teams took place: Malaysia defeated Thailand 2-0 on 23 May 1973 in Seoul thanks to Rahim Abdullah and Harun Jusoh. South Korea naturally topped the group.

Indonesia, meanwhile, were grouped together with Iraq, Australia, and New Zealand. A bit weird arrangement. Maybe AFC and FIFA wanted to prevent another walk out by separating Indonesia and Iraq as far as possible from Israel (curiously, Muslim Malaysia had no trouble playing Israel – they lost 0-3). In a tiring six matches marathon over twenty days in Melbourne and Sydney, Indonesia scored only a victory over New Zealand, thanks to Maurice Tillotson’s own goal. So Australia went on to defeat Iran and then South Korea.

AFC and FIFA played a little sadistic hunger game in 1977 – grouped all Southeast Asian teams in one block. Over 15 days in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore (first appearance), and Hong Kong were beating each other (Sri Lanka withdrew early). The hosts looked strong before being trumped 0-4 by Indonesia at the last day, and so Hong Kong walked away as the winners. From these four Southeast Asian countries, only Singapore, powered by Quah Kim Song, managed to score two wins in this group. In the final round, Hong Kong would lose all their matches against Iran, South Korea, Kuwait, and Australia.

In 1981, the Southeast Asians were spread into different groups and there was no assigned host for Group 1. So the Indonesians traveled to Suva, Auckland, Melbourne, and Taipei, to the joy of PSSI suits and their wives. Indonesia scored two home victories, 1-0s against Taiwan (officially called Chinese Taipei now) and Australia. New Zealand, instead of Australia, topped the group.

Malaysia and Thailand found themselves on the same group again over a week in Kuwait City. 2-2 and another shock – South Korea failed to top the group.

Finally, the Singaporeans spent a Christmas in Hong Kong, drew with Hong Kong and lost to North Korea (North Korea didn’t have problem playing in an imperialist British colony. That’s also new).

Malaysia tripped South Korean’s start on 10 March 1985 with a 1-0 victory in Kuala Lumpur (Dollah Saleh). The next week, they defeated Nepal 2-0 (Hassan Sani and James Wong) and looked like South Korea’s campaign would be killed off soon. Zainal Hassan scored a hattrick against Nepal in Kuala Lumpur (5-0) and the last match in Seoul was the decider. The Koreans scored early and Malaysia were kicked out despite three wins – Korea passed through goal average – 7 to Malaysia’s 6. That was really hurt.

Indonesia also rampaged early with victories against Thailand, India, and Bangladesh and Bambang Nurdiansyah and Dede Sulaiman became the stars. After first away victory to Thailand, Indonesia petered out and lost to Bangladesh and drew with India, but enough to top the group. Thailand were only able to defeat Bangladesh 3-0 at home.

Brunei, recently independent from United Kingdom, started off by receiving goals from Macau, Hong Kong, and China. End of story. Singapore were also unfortunate enough to be grouped with Japan and North Korea, although they managed to draw North Korea 1-1 at home.

In the next round, Indonesia lost to South Korea. Thus ended the legend of Sundanese Dede Sulaiman.

The hair. The shorts. The moustaches.

The hair. The shorts. The mustache.

The hunger games returned in 1989: South Korea were grouped together with Malaysia and Singapore. Korea won EVERY match without letting anyone scored against them, while Malaysia and Singapore scored victories against Nepal. Singapore and Malaysia drew 2-2, anyway.

Thailand, meanwhile, delighted with 1-0 victory against Bangladesh before going down repeatedly to China, Iran, and yes, Bangladesh. How humiliating it was.

Finally, Indonesia became the champions of draws by holding both North Korea and Japan 0-0 in Jakarta and Hong Kong 1-1. Their only victory was only 3-2 win against Hong Kong which supposedly was a good spectacle: trailing 0-1 for one hour, Mustaqim equalized only for Nang Yan Leung to score again at the 64th minute. Then Herry Kiswanto scored ten minutes later and one minute before full time to turn the table, denying Hong Kong its only victory in the group.

 

(*Look, I hope somebody has the television footage of this match and kindly uploads it to YouTube. 250 million Indonesians will thank you*)

Those are the stories of qualification for now. Since the Cold War was ending, over the next four years more countries would join in the Asian qualification. Part 2, 1993-2013, is coming up.

6 Things from Asian Cup qualification final day…and friendlies

Still the boss.

Still the boss.

My gosh, a new post in less than a month! It’s just that yesterday’s international orgy frenzy was so awesome I had to make some notes. Here they are.

1. Cahill: Still the Boss of Asia.

When he ruined Japan back in World Cup 2006, coming in for Mark Bresciano at the 53th minute, Tim Cahill still represented Oceania Football Confederation. Indeed, he had the choice to represent Samoa (like his brother Chris does).  I could not hate Tiny Tim – he did his job, and he did it better than Shunsuke Nakamura and the forgettable Hidetoshi Nakata.

One year later, Australia joined the AFC Asian Cup and many Asians – Arabs, Chinese, Indians, and Malays – did not welcome the white ‘intruders’ well. Oman were close to welcome Australia into the barrack, but Tim saved Australia’s face on injury time. Iraq did the job (3-1), before Australia defeated Thailand soundly 4-0.

Australia came into the knockout rounds as favorites against Japan, and this time Japan prevailed in the penalty shootouts (Cahill scored). Japan’s victory, however, felt hollow after Iraq took all the glory. Seasons afterward, Cahill became a cult player in the Premier League – goals after goals with the football hipster’s (if you can say so) club Everton. Then he thought that’s that and ‘retired’ to United States, where again he used heads and feet to score for NY Red Bulls.

Meanwhile, Australia had no other player like him while Japan produced Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda and Korea released Son Heung-min and Ki Sung-yong. No Australian player took the center stage of European leagues in the past two years.

Not everyone in Australia takes well the news that the 34 year old is still Australia’s prime goal scorer and best player. But with his reliability and relatively lack of drama (compared to Kagawa in Europe and Ki in Korea), how come you don’t love someone who keeps scoring for your team?

Australia 3 Ecuador 4 (Cahill 2 goals. Ryan was subbed for Langerak at second half, who then was replaced with Jones after Langerak was red carded).

2. Who’s Asia’s best goalkeeper? Kawashima or Ryan?

It was Mark Schwarzer. He had mixed records with Middlesbrough and Fulham, but any Asian goalkeeper is lucky enough to be trusted by a European club. Maybe the impression that they are “too short”. Maybe the sense that they are either not aggressive and commanding enough, or too panicked and erratic to guard the posts. Schwarzer, Federici, Jones, and Petkovic were recruited by European clubs because they are European Australians.

Then Eiji Kawashima became the first Japanese goalkeeper to play in Europe since Kawaguchi was booed in England and Denmark in early 2000s. It was not easy – he had to contend with the “Fukushima Kawashima” jeers in 2011 and Standard Liege benched him several times before he survived loan consideration and saw rivals Anthony Moris and Yohann Thuram-Ulien loaned out instead.

Schwarzer still wants to play for Brazil 14, but Australian coaches wanted a younger face. They might have found it in Mathew Ryan. Kawashima might be the safest hands in Belgian Pro League with streaks of clean sheets, but Ryan prevailed over him when Club Brugge defeated Standard Liege 1-0 last Sunday.

Kawashima played for 90 minutes against New Zealand and how he missed Liege’s defense on the second half. Meanwhile, Ryan logged off when it was Australia 3 Ecuador 0 and partly bemused, partly amused, by the sight of his rivals Langerak and Jones messed things up.

O yeah, Jung Sung-ryong restarts the competition with Kim Seung-gyu for Korea’s number one, but one of them has to be able to play in Europe eventually. And that’s a tall order. On Iran? Daniel Davari is just terrible for club and country.

Japan 4 New Zealand 2. Japan scored four goals in 20 minutes then let New Zealand pulled back two in the next 70 minutes.

3. Korea can do better.

Poor, poor Greeks. Losing 0-2 to Korea twice – on neutral and home grounds. Park Chu-young has redeemed himself much sooner than the Greek economy and football have. Korean football is still an anomaly after the 2011 match fixing scandals – plenty of promising stars in Britain and Germany, hidden gems in Japan and the Gulf, and clubs with strong performance in Asia. But put them against Uzbekistan and Iran and I’ll be very stressed out for 90 minutes.

At least now Hong Myung-bo knows that Korea can win without Park Ji-sung. This is not a totally good news, as now there’s a dilemma to call him for Brazil 14 or not. And if he’s called and he heeds the call, should he be a marquee sub or a starter? Is it wise to gamble eternity for the decision, knowing every movement and final result of a World Cup match are remembered forever?

Actually, Korea have nothing to lose. They know they will not win the World Cup and the best possibility is to pass the group stage. Nobody expects Son Heung-min, Koo Ja-cheol, Ki Sung-yong and Kim Young-gwon to become global brands (they even aren’t hipsters’ favorites). The goal of the Class of 2011 is to win the 2015 Asian Cup.

But the expectation and demand of the people of Korea can be overwhelming and burdensome. Forever they’ll curse a player who makes a mistake and make a catchphrase out of a missed opportunity. Korea can do better if only their fans lower the expectation and let things go easier, but no. They will want Korea to win gold.

Greece 0 Korea 2. Park Chu-young returned from disgrace with the first goal.

4. China must stop relying on luck.

Lucky losers China are. Had Zhang Xizhe missed the penalty kick against Iraq, it would have been Lebanon who qualified, leaving no East Asian team to qualify via proper process. China go to Australia 2015 as lucky losers, the best of all third place teams. During the qualification process, China won twice, two 1-0s at home to Indonesia and Iraq. This is not good enough for the country with the supposedly most exciting league in Asia (well, more foreigners will agree with that claim than most Chinese do). Not good enough for players who play week in week out for Guangzhou Evergrande.

In Australia 2015, China might have bit of luck on their side. But that’s not enough. It’s about time they have some players good enough to play Europe by their own merits.

Iraq 3 China 1. China qualify to Asian Cup 2015 as the best third-place team, above Lebanon.

5. Southeast Asia: Some Try, Some Don’t.

One terrible thing for Australia, host to the next Asian Cup, is that no Southeast Asia country coming. Southeast Asians make up a great part of Asian-Australians: Chinese and Indian Malaysians, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Thais, and Chinese and non-Chinese Indonesians. These Asian residents and citizens might not have flocked the stadiums had their teams qualified, but there would be spotlights on both Australia and Southeast Asia. Some European Australians might even support Thailand or Vietnam out of family or social relations.

Malaysia and Vietnam were Southeast Asians who tried hard. Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia did not try hard. Thailand are a puzzling case. I just praised Buriram United, and yet the national team lost all their matches – against Lebanon, Iran, and Kuwait. Lest they could have done were putting a fight against Lebanon and Kuwait. Instead they conceded at least two goals in each match – three goals was the norm. No way the political crisis is a valid excuse.

African stars in Europe have lamented on how corruption, football as political tools, petty rivalries, elites’ obsession for watching European football, and ignoring grassroot development destroy the supposedly promising national sides. It’s the same story in Southeast Asia.

Thailand 2 Lebanon 5. Saudi Arabia 1 Indonesia 0. Yemen 1 Malaysia 2. Vietnam 3 Hong Kong 1. Oman 3 Singapore 1. Only Malaysia finish the group at the third place.

6. Stop AFC Challenge Cup, please.

Ironically, Philippines have the good chance of being the sole Southeast Asian representative in Australia 2015, if they win the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup. The Challenge cup is supposedly a medium for the weakest teams in Asia to get something to care about. But it’s never that. It’s a sneaky ploy to get India and North Korea to play in the Asian Cup although they don’t deserve it. It’s a device to jump the queue.

I get the point if AFC wants India to love football. I get the point if AFC wants Philippines to love football. What I never understand is why AFC loves North Korea (qualified to Asian Cup via Challenge Cup). If money is the answer, then we have a very disturbing situation, because North Korea gets its money through crimes.

Even according to the current FIFA ranking, Philippines do not belong in the Challenge Cup. Now they are the strongest team in Southeast Asia, and I believe it. Indonesia and Singapore (and Malaysia, actually) fit in better to be put into the Challenge Cup, although it won’t be done. It’d be too humiliating for both these football crazy countries and for the AFC. But if the Challenge Cup’s category is “for countries where football is not the primary sport and/or whose national leagues are in um, developing stages” then North Korea do not fit the first category and India don’t fit the second. AFC Challenge Cup is a big fat junk and it should be kicked out.

Otherwise, the winner of the challenge cups must face lucky losers of the proper Asian Cup qualifications – if North Korea or Philippines want to play in the Asian Cup (India, mercifully, were eliminated by Bangladesh), then they have to prove that they are better than China and Lebanon first.

AFC Challenge Cup 2014 is set to begin on May 2014. The winner will qualify to the Asian Cup. “Favorites” are Turkmenistan, Philippines, and Myanmar.

5 Things About AFC Champions League Match Day 1

Are they Japanese? Are they Koreans? No, they are Chinese!

Are they Japanese? Are they Koreans? No, they are Chinese!

1. So much for Japan’s determination

“Japan looks to wrest Asian club crown from China”. For China, read Guangzhou Evergrande. Sure, Evergrande are not the only strong team in China – there’s also Guizhou Renhe, who defeated Guangzhou both in the 2013 Chinese FA Cup, and then the Community Shield, er, Super Cup.

Japanese clubs’ terrible records in the continent baffle even the Japanese. Then again, you can say the same thing for the English clubs. Well-funded teams? Check, although no flamboyant foreign billionaire owns a J. League club. Well known teams? Check. Yokohama F Marinos. Urawa Red Diamonds. Gamba Osaka. Just checking. Guess you might have heard of them compared to say oh, er, Pohang Steelers or Central Coast Mariners. Strong national sides? Check. Although continental wise, this applies better to Japan than to England. An island(s) nation who seems, at times, detached with the rest of the continental family and others love to make fun of its occasional troubles although secretly deep inside they love it and want to have its babies? Check. Ah.

Cerezo can try to Evergrande and bought Diego Forlan. But Diamanti he was not. Not when he played only for 27 minutes to replace Takumi Minamino (yes, I haven’t heard of him either). Yoichiro Kakitani, Japan’s next best thing, does not move to Bundesliga for a reason – he could not unlock a Korean defense twice. Besides those two, Aria Hasegawa, and Kim Jin-hyeon, I didn’t register any other cherry boy.

Sanfrecce look set to repeat 2013 – wonderful in Japan, terrible in Asia. Heck, they played the same team like in 2013 – minus Nishikawa, who moved to Urawa. Yokohama, oh, just marvelous.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the only Japanese team to win match day 1, Kawasaki Frontale, featured three foreign players. AFC and perhaps, perhaps fans, worry that an Asian club would field 10 Brazilians, Argentinians, Serbs, and Nigerians (and Koreans, perhaps) just like they do in Europe had there was no cap on foreign players. Of course all of us are for the development of home growth talents, but Japan is in the danger of not pairing its homegrowns with foreigners who come from different backgrounds, football culture, and mindset. A Diego Forlan is not enough. Sato and Saito had weak wingmen. Kawasaki delivered because Okubo, Renatinho, Kobayashi, and Paulinho could work together.

Lately Japan has reacted to its decline in business, entertainment, and international influences by resorting to isolationism. I don’t want Japanese football to follow the same path.

 

2. A-League is a different world to Australian national team

The Socceroos still can take on any team in Asia and CONCACAF, and maybe half of Europe, any given day. But A-League teams are still the jokes of the East side. By this time I believe it’s completely unfair that most of Asians, by different degrees of honesty, dislike Australian football simply because it’s…white. I was also guilty of this false mindset. Hopefully, most supporters of Ulsan, Guangzhou, and Seoul satisfied because their teams won and not because their teams won against ‘Westerners’ (although they would feel similarly if their teams defeat a Japanese team later on).

A-League teams, of course, have to step up their game and represent Australian football, made of the mixture of Irish, British, Italian, Greek, Balkan, Turkish, Latin American, and indigenous Australian sporting cultures. And they have to demonstrate it for the full 90 minutes, not just for the first minute or the first half.

 

3. It’s another season for the Koreans

The victory of Guangzhou Evergrande last season caused worse shock for Korean teams than the Japanese (who hardly reached the final anymore). Worse, more Chinese teams were attracting Korean and Korea-based foreigners to move into the Chinese Super League. Match day 1, however, showed the Koreans that they are still the heavyweights. Japanese Sergio Escudero might not able to replace Dejan Damjanovic, but Osmar can be greater than Adilson. Yun Il-lok looks bound to Brazil 14. It’s astonishing that Jeonbuk owned Marinos without Lee Dong-gook and Eninho at all, and Ulsan maintain the most exciting attacking duo in Korea – Rafinha and Kim Shin-wook. At the end, no Korean team lost match day 1. Expect one to make it to the final.

 

4. Guangzhou Evergrande is not a super team yet, but they are becoming an East Asian team.

Now for a something different – an East Asian team plays to a sold out crowd in the AFC Champions League. Almost 40 thousands, mostly youth, many were women, came to Tianhe Stadium with all sorts of big banners, compared to 11 thousands who went to Parramatta Stadium and 6000 to Seoul World Cup Stadium. The Chinese are used to make fun of their own football but it’s a great time to be a Guangzhou resident and a football fan. It’s good thing that the stadium and the environment are safe and attractive enough for women to come, despite the terrible pitch.

Guangzhou Evergrande set themselves on a different level with other Chinese teams and so do their fans. They look like, even better than, a hyper reality version of, a Korean team.

 

5. Buriram United may be the best team in Southeast Asia

AFC was kind enough to give a chance (“a fair go”, as Australians say) to assorted East Asian champions to qualify for the group stage. So we had chances to see how did champions of Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Vietnam held up against runner ups of China, Thailand, and Australia.

So by default, Thai Premier League is the best league in Southeast Asia, then? Maybe. Obviously other leagues are worse. Even you’d think a country as good as Singapore would have made a decent football league, seeing how they’ve made excellent universities, airport, and public transport system. So Thailand is, er, the best of the worst.

In the end, Thailand had to fight for extra spots against Australian and Chinese clubs, and unlike last year, they lost. But Buriram, sporting more multinational side than Japanese and Korean teams (two Spanish, an English, a Japanese, and a Thai-Norwegian), held themselves well against Vagner Love’s Shandong. If I’ve been searching for a Southeast Asian team to support besides my hometown teams, I think my search is over. Vote Buriram.

The Header Picture Post

Look at the small picture to your left. What do you see? People – Asians – sitting on football skinned bean bag chairs. Clever, eh? I decided on the image when browsing for pictures of Asians enjoying football or something like that. It comes from a Christian Science Monitor story asking a big question after Japan 3 Denmark 1 in 2010 World Cup: Africans are enthusiastically supporting all African teams. Why can’t Asians support Asian teams? 0628-OASIANOT-asian-solidarity-soccer_full_600

That summer I joined Guardian Football’s Fan Network, where supporters of the 32 teams duked it out on Twitter. Three Asians joined. I, a Chinese-Indonesian who supported Republic of Korea. An Indian woman who supported England. And an Indian man who supported Germany. There were five supporters of Japan, all British blokes. Two other supporters of Korea, two British blokes. And a supporter of North Korea, an aging British bloke. And oh, Aussies who supported Australia. Supporters of African nations outside South Africa (all white South Africans) were African students in Britain.

So, maybe it’s just no Korean or Japanese student read Guardian Football. During the Japan v Denmark match, an infuriated Indonesian felt that the MBM’s host was belittling Japan. I wanted to ask him to chill, but I was busy following tweet feeds and tweeting on the match, plus I thought somebody did need to stand up for Japan – I warned indirectly a Brazilian who kept saying that Japanese matches were ‘boring and (were) the worst.’

My experiences were in accordance to the CSM article, that said that Africans – plagued in recent times by the largest and most brutal proxy wars after the end of Cold War – believed in a thing called pan-Africanism. They see African nations standing together against more favored South American and European rivals. Whatever the language and religion, the feeling of African unity was more than Coca-Cola marketing ploy.

On the other hand, Koreans and Chinese like to see Japan go down. Some Australians put great interest and respect on Japanese football, but many still believe that the default tactic against Japan is to ‘use long balls and force corners’. The Chinese and Arabs have been applauding Australia’s downfall ever since 2006. I was invited to a football-theme party right after the final, and so I wore a Korean shirt. Many people were bemused and asking why I didn’t wear red and yellow Spanish color. My answer was “I don’t support Spain. South Korea is my team”. Nor they did, but Spain were the champions.

The guy in the center wears a Spanish replica jersey. The picture was taken in Beijing during the 2010 World Cup. It’s taken inside a shopping mall and men and women in the picture had their attentions fixed on several different things – kids, smartphones, the ceiling. Most Asians supported Spain, Brazil, Germany, Argentina, England, and Netherlands during the tournament. Because they had famous players, because they won often, because they were big. Some hip people went for Japan (still respected in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, partly thanks to Captain Tsubasa and PES) or Ghana. But no one supported Korea outside Korean expats (and me. And I had not enough guts to visit a Korean BBQ joint during the match day. I’m not an English blogger, you know). Some weirdos rooted for North Korea because it’s a ‘cool country’ (and many South Koreans did, of course) but they couldn’t name a player (I could name half the team who play in J-League & Europe).

Indonesian pundits are also very ignorant of Indonesia’s football rivals. Who’s number 10 for Thailand? Euh, “A Thai player”. And number 4 for Hong Kong? “Hong Kong player”. All they needed was a team sheet and trying to spot the number, in case the name is not printed on the shirt. But never mind Ampaipitakwong (the Texan has decided to represent Thailand), they were too lazy to say Mohd Amri Yahyah. It’s the ‘why should I bother humanizing a foreigner?’ mindset. All rivals are supposed to lay down and die for Irfan Bachdim, Andik Vermansyah, and Boaz Solossa.

Therefore, the idea for a Southeast Asian super league is not feasible. Never mind Indonesia, I was surprised to know that Thailand has the only functional league in Southeast Asia. Vietnam – No money. Singapore – nobody sees. Philippines – amateurish. Indonesia – two rival leagues who agree to come clean next year so let’s hope so. Reuters did say about match fixing in Malaysia but I couldn’t find any article on that.

Selangor vs Tampines! Booya! I'm so watching this! But Fox said "Scheduled program preempted. Sorry"!

Selangor vs Tampines! Booya! I’m so watching this! But Fox said “Scheduled program preempted. Sorry”!

And so Thailand is the only association playing the Champions League and they hold themselves well, compared to past performances of Singaporean and Indonesian clubs (okay, I was talking about Buriram). Semen Padang have been so good in the AFC Cup, and oh, about Persibo Bojonegoro. They were in the tournament after winning the Indonesian Cup, but the financial troubles and low morale persisted. And so, when they went to Tsing Yi to face Sun Hei with 12 players, that’s really everyone they had.

8-0 for Sun Hei and match abandoned after 65 minutes after Persibo players literally rolled over and died (well, not died). Reactions from both sides illustrated the disconnection of Asia. Sun Hei’s coach said “We know that Indonesians are dirty at sports, but this is a new low.” Persibo’s fans said the match was fixed since “The Hong Kong side were supposedly much weaker than Persibo,” (yeah? How do you know? Because they are Chinese from Hong Kong they are not supposed to know how to play football, you think?)

And then, this month two Malaysian owners of British clubs made headlines for different reasons. Vincent Tan’s Cardiff City go up, with still mixed feelings from both fans and the press, while Tony Fernandes’ QPR go down, and many say that they’ll find life in the Championship will not be easy. A terrible finale for Park Ji-sung’s career. And I agree with those who say that QPR is not a diversification – it’s a very expensive promotion vehicle for Air Asia. So, Malaysians have the money but they don’t use it for home renovation (with respect, Malaysia and Malaysia U23 have shown some passion, but well, the state of the league), and same goes for the Qataris and Emirates.

Nice plane.

Nice plane.

And so the header picture is about how Asia treats football. A commodity to watch and buy, not to play and develop. Except in Australia, Japan, and Korea.

Agony of February

Just keep doing better, man.

Just keep doing better, man.

February. 30ish days after your New Year’s Resolutions, you meet the truth that some old troubles stick. Others are popping out. That fresh start is not really fresh. People replaced their calendar with dread – O God, it’s one month already and I’m still like this?!

As for me, health problems keep dragging me down and prevented me to write on the scram from Shanghai and the Singapore fix sooner. But let’s get it on with the bleeding.

First paragraph applies to Korea. Now they are six months away from their last victory – 2-1 in friendly against Zambia back in August. Then draw with Uzbekistan, and then loss to Iran, and then…loss to Australia at home.

In February 2013 Korea attempted to be international and held friendly with Croatia in London – so Ki SY and Lee CY could take trains, Park CY, Son HM, and Koo JC could take budget flights, while Croatia could bring in the heavies.

Indeed they were. Ah, 0-2 at half-time. Well, Mario Manduzkic is certainly better than Mario Gomez, isn’t he? Let’s try second half, this time with Lee Dong-gook, Park Chu-young, and Kim Bo-kyung thrown in. Ah, 0-4. By guys who played in Everton and Fulham. For comparison, Australia also went down 2-3 to Romania in Spain…but they scored twice. Well, their defenders, anyway. And that after winger Robbie Kruse had a great weekend before the match.

If I were a Korean, I’d be so envy toward the Japanese, who enjoy the spotlight with Shinji “I’m not good enough” Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, and Shinji Okazaki. And Yuto Nagatomo, who is playing for Inter and might play for Munich or Manchester United. Granted, Latvia didn’t send its best team to Japan (i.e. no Hamburg’s Artjom Rudnevs), but see how offices were like on Thursday morning in Tokyo and Seoul. I even wore Samurai Blue scarf to work – flu-chic.

Umm, now in Shanghai people are celebrating New Year, Anelka and Drogba must be not on their minds. In mid-January I was searching the reasons why they left – Shanghai sounded supposed to be a fun place to play easy football and gaining easy money. Turned out the explanations were so simple.

Shanghai boss Zhu Jun is a bizzare character in first place. Some say that he’s more interested in self-publicity, oneupmanship, and online gaming business (The9) rather than football business. That could be the logical explanation behind the sellings of Duvier Riascos (24 goals in 39 matches) and Gao Lin (to scandal-tainted Guangzhou Evergrande, well this is back in 2010). That’s why Joel Griffiths left (he wasn’t happy in Beijing either). That’s why Tigana was sacked just after five matches.

That’s why the team went on strike in October. Zhu Jun himself was unhappy – his business partners in the Communist Party didn’t give him ‘his fair share’.

I was one of those who believed that Anelka and Drogba could flourish in China. The men themselves had pictured great lives in the great Far East metropolitan. The result was like what I wrote in the 2012 review – goals to force a draw, frustrations, and Anelka sulking on the supporters. When they left, Shanghai Shenhua supporters blamed the club – or saying that actually they were too good for Shanghai. And so greed and ignorance of several tycoons (and their cronies in the government) cancelled the rise of Chinese football.

Worse thing came out of Singapore, and also with worse reaction. The fixing of boatloads of friendlies, lower leagues, and even probably the Champions League match between Liverpool and Debrecen. For years everyone had spoken about ‘Asian gambling syndicate’. Now we have names – Dan Tan Seet Eng (Dan is his English name. His Chinese given name is Seet Eng) and his lieutenant Wilson Raj Perumal. WRP was arrested in Finland soon after he berated some players who didn’t fulfill order. There were stories that it was Tan who tipped the police because Perumal blew his budget and had too many debts to the boss.

Why it’s a worse news? Not just because it’s a major international crime. But it’s depressing how Singapore reacts to the scandal. Major media outlets (controlled by the government) did put it on headlines, but no more than that. Now it’s a forgotten story in Singapore. Several Westerners believe that Dan Tan is not really a fugitive – he’s still in Singapore. I wonder if many Singaporeans think the same – they don’t say. Even these days it’s easier for correspondents to know what the Chinese think (through anonymous interviews and lurking on microblogs) than what do the Singaporeans think.

So why does the Singaporean government seem to aloof on Tan? I don’t believe that they have the share from his profit – it’s rather the very annoying Asian concept of ‘saving face’. One explanation on why do Singaporeans control the fixing industry rather than the Chinese is because the islanders speak English and the passport has very good reputation. Being a small nation, Singaporean passport holders can travel the world effortlessly under the radar. And even after this scandal is known worldwide, they are protected from law and media scrutiny simply because of that saving face thing. Not just from ‘mere outsider’ but from the Malay minority and neighbors. Chinese and Indian Singaporeans cannot afford to live with the fact that they can be baddies too. The government cannot live with the fact that it lives from dirty money. And they are lucky again – the world pays more attention for bad news from China than from the unassuming Singapore.

And so, the result was the destruction of Southeast Asian teams in the first round of 2015 AFC qualification. Jordan – Singapore 4-0. Thailand – Kuwait 1-3. Iraq – Indonesia 1-0 (that was okay, actually). Qatar – Malaysia 2-0. Vietnam – UAE 1-2. Saying that ‘we suck’ isn’t enough. Putting too much attention on English football (only for 4-5 teams, actually) while looking down on local football is the issue. Southeast Asia and China have their asses kicked by West Asia and they are supposed to angry about that, not just merely shrugging (Hong Kong got my credit for holding Uzbekistan 0-0). And yeah, Singapore disappoint again. Big time.

At least there’s a ray of hope. Tonight Buriram United join Muangthong United in representing Thailand in the AFC Champions League, after defeated Brisbane United 3-0 on penalties. Buriram’s forwards were composed by non-Thai Asians – Japanese Kai Hirano and American Anthony Ampaipitakwong. It’s actually unfortunate that Australia only has 1.5 allocation, with Uzbekistan having a very weird arrangement – 1.5 in West and 1 in East. But that means Australia, and Southeast Asia, have to fight hard to get more spots in the Champions League. Yes you, Southeast Asia.

 

Aren’t You Entertained?!

I might rue the premature usage of that holy phrase. It might be more fitting for the night of the ugly and highly controversial 2-2 overtime match between Ulsan and Hiroshima in December (although nasty Japan v Korea matches are probably strictly for the national teams), or when Japan go down 3-4 to Brazil after 0-3 half time deficit in 2013 Confederations Cup.

But my god will you look at that.

His name is Andik Vermansyah. 21 years old, 162 cm tall, attacking midfielder. In the dying minutes of last night’s ASEAN Football Fed Cup match against Singapore, he passed Daniel Bennett and unfortunately failed to unsettle goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud – but he was on that Ronaldo’s (as opposed to Cristiano Ronaldo’s) Barcelona routine. Couldn’t blame the boy for practicing.

And to be frank, I’m still not that excited about the AFF Cup. When the keywords in UEFA is ‘bloated’ (like in the World Cup qualification and the Europea League), the keyword here is ‘overlong’. Group stage will end on 1st December. Nice. But two legs semi finals on 8-13 December, and TWO LEGS FINAL on 19 and 22 December, as if they really want to see what’s it’s like on 22 December 2012.

In comparison, THE regional tournament of Asia, the East Asian Championship (Gulf? Meh) takes place in a week each two years. Yeah, there was preliminary rounds involving for example Macao and Guam, and then Hong Kong and Taiwan, and thankfully there was also qualification round in AFF involving countries like East Timor and Brunei (Myanmar and Laos survived).

But still, no need for two legs semi finals and finals – it’s a mini tournament that only deserves two weeks duration at most. By 13 December everyone wants to see Lee Keun-ho nutmegs John Terry. Three days later, Emerson will become the first Asian player representing South American champions in the Toyota Cup – the future is Asia (it’s a good guess whether number 200 Chen Zhizhao will join the team). Actually, they won’t. Chen is not included and Emerson is Brazilian, not Qatari. He said that pressure is about avoiding stray bullets, not playing Boca Juniors. Surely he’s not talking about Qatar because there are not stray bullets in Qatar.

Back to home. So yeah, Corinthians v Chelsea has been ended by the time Thailand gear up against…uh…Indonesia? Singapore? Malaysia? What an anticlimax.

There are great number of reasons to not get excited with Southeast Asian football. I’ve praised Malaysia U-23 willingness to qualify to the Olympics, only to see the Tigers eaten by the Lions. I’ve tweeted that I’m boycotting S. League after it announces punishment for the bottom of the league (Woodlands Wellington, I guess). Then, after Singaporeans somewhat got excited, the balloon was popped out by Indonesia. Did I happy with Andik’s goal? Of course.

Many Indonesians are skeptical with this team, thanks to the prolonged struggle in the Indonesian FA and terrible results in World Cup qualifications, 2008 or 2011 alike. And there’s AFF Cup 2010, when winning Indonesia attracted genuine from the middle class who usually don’t watch local football, not least thanks to half-Dutch Irfan Bachdim. Then the president started to compared himself with Nelson Mandela in Invictus – using the national team to unify the nation. The difference is Mandela wanted the blacks and whites to unite as South Africans, while Yudhoyono was just seeking personal vanity. Because of the overlong tournament, the hype had ended, Indonesia was unconvincing in dirty matches against Philippines (many of its half-white players were, and still are, as quarrelsome as West Asians – they are certainly not respectful Aussies) and then the downfall to Malaysia in the final legs.

So Indonesia did not have its best players and those who joined the national team, like venerated senior Bambang Pamungkas have fair share of new haters, although to simplify, the conflict in Indonesia football is essentially about this politician and that general. As Philippines enlisted more half-white from Europe and United States, Indonesia did the same.

Reading the squad list and I found no Chinese name in Malaysia and with the exception of Joey Sim (reserve goalkeeper), Singapore have no Singapore-born Chinese – both Qiu Li and Shi Jiayi grew up and played football in China. Indonesia raised hope in the name of Arthur Irawan, who played in Espanyol B. Like Kim Kurniawan, he hailed from Europe instead of the Chinese enclaves of Surabaya, Pontianak, or Medan, but still he’s Chinese-Indonesian.

Then Arthur Irawan was replaced at the last minute with Rafael Maitimo, who secured his Indonesian passport one day before the opening match (and scored against Laos. But then everyone should be able scoring against Laos). Hearing the news, I became convinced that like Kim Kurniawan, Irawan was not left out from the national team strictly by form, skill, or performance. He’s not chosen because he’s Chinese. The Garudas are fine with Malukus, Papuans, Timorese, Batakese, but not Chinese. Instantly I lost interest in Indonesia, and also take Singapore with great reserve.

As I had posted months ago, I want the renaissance of Thailand football. I want Thailand to win the AFF Cup. They must lead Southeast Asian football again, they must be able to challenge Oman and Jordan again. They must be able to easily overcome Philippines (2-1 recently) and Tajikistan. Because in Southeast Asia, they are the ones with the tradition and vision. Not only to entertain the local politicians and working class, but also to preserve the relevance of Southeast Asia in Asian football. To take on the continent. Now it’s their time.

Continental Drift

Picture this, Schaefer.

Yo, finally I’m doing something with my layout. Ah, the first step toward professional attitude.

The 2015 AFC Asian Cup certainly looks professional. It is hosted by Australia. It has Japan and Republic of Korea. And North Korea. Since uh, it won something called The Challenge Cup, defeating Turkmenistan. Philippines came close, winning third place against Palestine. So, maybe that’s a key for success in Asia – aim low and you can get the ticket while the mediocre cannot.

Ah, the mediocre. You know, minnows like Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia (well…). They have to fight to death throughout 2013 and 14, as if Iran and Uzbekistan are not preoccupied with Rio, um, Brazil 2014. Travel to Tashkent. Sodden pitch. The humidity. Uglier prostitutes. At least in Asia crowd riot is hardly a problem, unlike in Africa.

And yeah, it’s unfair that Japan and Korea, and North Korea, do not join the qualification. According to Thai coach Winfried Schaefer, his team deserve Japan. Or Korea. They deserve Kagawa and Ki Sung-yueng. Because Iran, Kuwait, and Lebanon are not enough for him. Here, even Spain had to qualify for Euro 2012. He said that even Italy and England had to qualify, even if England didn’t play at all in Euro 2008. But I missed the point. The point is Thailand demand to see Japan. How else they will improve if Honda and Endo do not give them sick free kicks? Why on earth Niweat Siriwong should fly to Teheran instead of Seoul?

Well, Schaefer has a point, hasn’t he? It was ridiculous when India, Iraq 2008 (the crappy model, not the sleek 2007 model), Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Korea already qualified to Qatar 2011, right? True. But to say that the qualification ‘leaves the minnows to fight for themselves while the heavyweights qualify’ is wrong. Australia are the host. Okay. But how many heavyweights are there? Japan, one. Korea, two. Why nobody protests about AFC Challenge Cup? If they are nice enough to make comparison with UEFA, would UEFA make a Challenge Cup, where Cyprus or Armenia could qualify after defeating Malta in an extra time thriller, while Wales and Israel languish once more. Actually, I might have given Michel Platini a brilliant idea.

If the automatic qualifications of the winners and runner ups of a previous Asian Cup is weird, so does the bloated European qualifications. European press are asking why UEFA still do not apply first and second round qualifications for the weakest teams before going to group stage – a system widely used in club championships. Why can’t San Marino have a playoff or group stage first against Andorra and Faroe Islands? Because, of course, UEFA believes that kids in Belarus deserve to see David Silva and Xavi in action, even if kids in Spain cannot watch them on television. More cynically, because Gazprom, McDonald’s, Sony, and Adidas deserve to be presented ten times by a single favorite team, compared to probably six times had Spain and Germany played third round qualification. But again, UEFA does not have this concern in the Champions League.

So first – when it comes to football governance, Europe cannot even serve as a role model. Second, the questions asked to AFC should not about whether Japan and Korea deserve automatic qualification. First, it’s if North Korea deserve automatic qualification. They don’t even eligible to enter the Challenge Cup anymore. Then, if the qualification process should follow the already decent 2014 World Cup qualification scheme – first round and second round playoffs, and then group stages involving Japan and Korea.

If the purpose of AFC Challenge Cup is to challenge the proficiency of Nepal and Taiwan in football, then be it. But the prize of winning the Challenge Cup should be a place in the qualification group stage, not the final tournament. If there’s should be a playoff between the winners of the CC with Asia’s no. 19 or 20, then be it, like the playoff for promotion and relegation in Dutch and German leagues.

Still, I cannot help from thinking that the sole purpose of AFC Challenge Cup is to pass India into the final tournament. Maybe North Korea too, but I do not see the financial logic of giving a free pass to North Korea.

What now for Japan and Korea? Of course, friendlies against the big boys. Before World Cup 2010, Japan still had to handle Yemen and Hong Kong. Now they have arranged friendlies against France and Brazil. Great. Korea should follow suit. Play with guys such as Mexico, Egypt, Sweden, and Australia. If Thailand want to test themselves against Japan, then pick up the phone and call JFA to arrange a friendly. But make sure you know first how to handle Iran and Lebanon. Heck, make sure first you win the AFF Cup.

Five things we learnt from AFC Olympics qualifications

Football at the Olympics

1. Japan have plenty of talents

What do you know. There was a chance that Japan would bottle the group and have to qualify to London through intercontinental playoff. Instead they top the group with the best goal aggregate and the best point. Past that fumble against Syria, Japan are simply the best U-23 team in Asia. Well, they are officially, after the gold medal at the Asian Games.

The biggest headache for Japan now is to choose their forwards. There are so many choices – All-European Otsu, Ibusuki, and Usami? Or tried and true J. Leaguers Nagai and Yamazaki? (Sorry, I still have some reserve on Yuya Osako). They certainly don’t want to be like Senegal which came with six forwards for the African Cup of Nations and lost all matches.

Certainly everybody has learned to stop calling a team “the Golden Generation”. Certainly pessimistic Japanese fans can recite these names: Shoji Jo, Yanagisawa, Robert Cullen, and sigh, Sota Hirayama. But the Japanese are happy to know that they are not Australians. Or Italians.

2. South Korea and Japan can alternately being unstable

Should I start call them Tweedledee and Tweedledum? Certainly they fight alot in many issues, they have host World Cup together and many Koreans grind themselves in the J. League. And like magnets, they often move to opposite direction (disclaimer: I suck at sciences). Korea played Qatar in Seoul National Stadium. Japan played Bahrain in Tokyo National Stadium. Qatar and Bahrain, are of course, the dee and dum of the Gulf. Certainly when you play in Seoul National Stadium you give your all and you don’t play half-ass, even if your club needs you for weekend K-League. Even when your rival for that position is arrested (sorry, can’t resist). And yet, Korea let 20 thousand supporters down. They come to see a goal. On the other hand, it was the turn for the Japanese to make the 30 thousands Tokyo residents proud. The lesson: Never, never assume that South Korea are more solid than Japan.

3. What shall we do with Australia?

Jesus. Four draws out of six games, which includes, of course, all home games. And here’s the now famous punch line. No goal. Even Malaysia could score three, all of them at Bahrain. The agony of the Olyroos would be too cruel and only could come from the fantasy of a Socceroos hater (there are many of them in Asia). I wonder if Australia couldn’t score a goal because they faced West Asian (including Uzbekistan) teams. No myth about physical advantage. Hostile and unfamiliar away matches, not to mention tiring. But how they could go down 0-2 at Tashkent is beyond my Acomprehension.

Australian media, luckily for the Olyroos, are both too optimistic and aloof about youth football to scream in panic. The women team also failed to qualify, ranked below Japan and North Korea at the final group stage. Now, the Australia U-23 team for the match against Iraq was drawn totally from A-League teams. Certainly, as a non-fan, I think Australian fans need to be somewhat panic with the state of their leagues and young talents. No one can deny that the Socceroos are still formidable, but I’m somewhat puzzled that young Aussies don’t play in Europe while young Japanese and Koreans are. Heck, if Europe’s too far, then play in Japan or Korea or China.

4. There’s still hope for UAE football

You cannot blame Star Sports to skip on Japan’s match yesterday. Of course the priority was for Malaysia, which match ran at the same time with Japan’s and Korea’s. The Uzbekistan v UAE match ran immediately after that, and it was really and dead or alive match. UAE’s senior team have taken severe batterings lately, and the junior team looked to be disappointed as well as Uzbekistan played before, er, 7500, are having a rising senior team, and led 1-0 at halftime. Made that 2-0 two minutes later. Theeen….Ahmad Khalil scored two goals in the space of two minutes. UAE held on for a draw…no, for a win, their fourth win in the group. The emirates achieved what their Gulf rivals failed to do, heck, even what Saudi failed to do, and condemned Uzbekistan to the torture of Play-off round. UAE have a decent league and AFC rules might check their clubs’ dependencies on Brazilian and aging European imports. Although, don’t expect the crowds to come. They are too beautiful to watch open air local football.

5. Malaysia are not Southeast Asia’s finest, but they have the flair.

Malaysia finished their group with total defeats and sixteen goals. But they often punched above their weights. Their national team were not supposed to win the AFF Cup. The Young Tigers were not supposed to win gold medal at the Southeast Asian Games. They were not supposed to aim for London. But they defeated Lebanon and braved long trips to Bahrain and Jordan and the prospect of being bullied by Japan (which happened well, in Kuala Lumpur). But they were not afraid.

Because apparently other Southeast Asian teams couldn’t bother with qualifying. Thailand carelessly fielded ineligible player for a narrow 1-0 win over Palestine. Singapore lost twice to Yemen when they should have won. Indonesia threw away games against Turkmenistan. Well, it was Vietnam’s bad luck to be pitted against Saudi Arabia. In short, lack of motivation and skills from the players, and more importantly, self-defeatism from their NOCs and football federations, disguised as realism. “We wouldn’t get a gold medal so why bother.” Ugh.

Malaysian national pride and willingness to improve and to compete, fortunately, trumped the apathy. They represented Southeast Asia, they lost badly, but they had tried with all their hearts.