Their love is for Manchester United, really

James come from Manchester. "Just Like Fred Astaire" was a soundtrack of my high school romance.

James come from Manchester. “Just Like Fred Astaire” was a soundtrack of my high school romance.

Few days ago I was surprised to know that Quinton Fortune is now an assistant coach to Cardiff City U-21. Hmm…Ole Gunnar Solksjaer…Quinton Fortune…Cardiff City.

Then, Salford City, which plays in…um…Northern Premier League Division One North is half-bought (50% shares, you see) by Singaporean Peter Lim. So that’s why the other owners – Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, and the Neville brothers (and yeah, Nicky Butt, he played for MU didn’t he?) were often spotted in Singapore in recent years. I thought they were just paying a visit to Paul Parker, who is now a Singaporean pundit.

I fell in love with Manchester United after borrowed Manchester United: The Double (often mistranslated by Asian pirates as Manchester United 2) in 1994. A serious bug (or deliberate design?) made Andy Cole always, always injured for 99 days even when benched. It is hectic as Sensible World of Soccer, but at least I could win the FA Cup and the EPL, unlike in Sensi.

Anyway, then Britpop came and I followed the EPL when everyone else in Indonesia was following Serie A (we always prefer Continental Europe than UK, unlike Malaysia-Singapore and Thailand). So there you go, from Giggs, the left midfielder in The Double, to Fortune, the sub midfielder in FIFA 2003 (I played Pro Evo Soccer/Winning Eleven since then, until returned to FIFA in 2009). Now they are working or partnering with a Southeast Asian Chinese.

Was Rio Ferdinand in MU back in FIFA 2003? Because he’s in Queens Park Rangers now. Well, he’s the only link between QPR and MU now. O yeah, there was Park Ji-sung.

Like Cardiff and Salford (and Valencia, probably), QPR is owned by a Southeast Asian. Not Chinese, but Indian. Tony Fernandes, perfectly the Southeast Asian version of Richard Branson (he was indeed a protege) operates Air Asia, Southeast Asia’s hippest airline (when my plane to Singapore was airborne, Girls’ Generation was played over the PA. I screamed in orgasm although sitting next to a Malay old man). He was also the Southeast Asian Donald Trump, being the boss of the regional version of The Apprentice. Actually there are more qualified of candidates here (being a nutty conservative/conspiracy theorist) but they are too camera shy.

You might remember that QPR sported the Malaysian Airlines logo in 2011-12 season. One year later, it changed to Fernandes’ own Air Asia. Coincidentally, in 2012 Cardiff City stole the headlines with the red dragon makeover. And theeen, Cardiff players were the one who wore the “Malaysia” word on their red shirts. Fernandes moved to Jakarta, to the heckles of who he described as “right wing bloggers”.

My Australian professors offered a wisdom – never, never believe rich Asians who said they were born poor. They were always born rich. Fernandes at least acknowledged his childhood of learning business from her mother’s Tupperware tea parties and his love for piano, while Tan’s family background is mysterious. All stories about him begins in 1985, when the 33-year old acquired the Sports Toto lottery from his good friend, then Prime Minister Mahatir Mohammed.

Peter Lim followed my professors’ rule by declaring that he is the son of a fishmonger…before saying that he’s an alumni of the Raffles Institution – Singapore’s most elite secondary school. In Australia, as an accounting student, he worked as a waiter, cook, and cab driver, although I’m not sure international students are permitted to become a taxi driver there. He built his fortune back in Singapore by becoming a real estate broker for Indonesian clients.

The second rule to be a Southeast Asian tycoon is to be close with the center of power, i.e. the ruling party. Australian and American tycoons can donate billions to the opposition party and criticize the government, but Malaysia and Singapore have not seen any change of government since their foundations. So Malaysian tycoons are friendly with the National Front coalition (the Chinese through Malaysian Chinese Association, the Indians through Malaysian Indian Congress), while Singaporean tycoons keep good relations with the People’s Action Party.

Make the movie. Make the movie. Make the movie.

Make the movie. Make the movie. Make the movie.

Peter Lim was known outside Singapore when he courted every club in Europe – Liverpool. Rangers. Valencia. Milan. Finally this year he settled with Valencia. Has he? Valencia did receive considerable coverage this year in Singapore, which is bit weird for a region that cares only about La Liga because of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

The third rule applies to Singapore – no one is permitted to be a famous tycoon in Singapore. No one is permitted to be more famed than the Lee family who runs the government. Peter Lim is probably the first tycoon of the 21st century that many people outside Singapore have heard of, and it’s precisely because of the Liverpool proposal and the Valencia purchase.

So we have the abrupt switch from “Malaysia’ sponsorship from Fernandes’ QPR to Tan’s Cardiff, Manchester United Class of 92’s visits to Singapore, and the excitement of Valencia purchase. My guess is that Tan and Lim work for the government.

The real owners of Cardiff City and of Valencia (and Salford) are the Malaysian and Singaporean governments, respectively. Just like Manchester City is owned by the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and Paris St. Germain is owned by Qatar. They are not Glazer brothers or John Henry, who can contribute billions to American political parties but do not work on behalf of Washington.

Still, they are unhappy with what they have. Because their (the billionaires and the governments) main prize is Manchester United. So far they have to be content with faux-MU – Salford, red Cardiff City, Rio Ferdinand, and Valencia. Valencia? Yes, when they have got Mata back. Too bad about Solskjaer.

A Southeast Asian explains the Cardiff situation

See all the ads behind? Except for Puma, all of these in Malaysia are His.

See all the ads behind? Except for Puma, all of these brands in Malaysia are His. Except the Visit Malaysia bit.

It’s 2014 and F Marinos win the Emperor’s Cup. Woohoo.

Well, 2013 ended in some sobering, bit pessimistic note for Asian football. Kagawa didn’t do well in Manchester United (he has not scored any goal in the league this season). Korea qualified – barely. Australia have no one to take over Cahill and Bresciano. And Southeast Asian football is sleeping. Yet, by the end of the year Japan defeated Belgium – both teams are now popular with hipsters, Son Heung-min is promising and Kim Bo-kyung and Ki Sung-yong had their 15 minutes of fame (they did cancel each other when Sunderland met Cardiff), and Australia…is optimistic as ever. Americans groaned at the World Cup draw. Australians grinned.

I regretted saying that Malky Mackay would be fired due to erratic judgment (i.e. perceived insubordination) instead of bad results. Last season, when Cardiff was still in the Championship, I made the analogy based on the case of Steve Kean (who resigned on September 2012). Turned out the same thing happened with Mackay, even when Cardiff was not on the serious danger of relegation (consider what happened to QPR last season. Harry Redknapp is still coaching them).

So, Cardiff and QPR are both owned by Malaysian tycoons. One Chinese, the other Indian. Football fans outside Asia talk about Vincent Tan on weekly basis, while Southeast Asians are more familiar with Tony Fernandes and his delightful airline deals. The way Tan and Fernandes manage their image in UK are same with the way they manage their business in Malaysia.

Like in any other Southeast Asian country, the economy in Malaysia is run by the patronage system. The Malay elites, many of them aristocrats, look after Chinese and Indian businessmen. After a big anti-Chinese riot in 1969, a half-Indian half-Malaysian MP called Mahatir Mohammed argued for affirmative action for Malays, who he saw as victims to British classical colonialism and Chinese economical colonialism. A non aristocrat, he was seen as an outsider. But he became the Prime Minister a decade later and like other governments in Southeast Asia, pushed for privatization and entrance of American and Japanese franchises.

“Vincent” Tan Chee Yioun was a young businessman with right friends – Mahatir’s nephew and brother in law. Starting from car trade deals and access to company boards, his big break came in 1985 when the government permitted sports lottery (betting) for non-Muslims.Tan got Sports Toto without any tender (auction and proposal from competing bidders) process. This video is a portfolio of Tan’s holdings in Malaysia, which includes Wendy’s and 7-Eleven. As an Asian, I’m horrified with this North Korean style Glee. But it’s normal in parts of Asia.

Tony Fernandes, on the other hand, presented a more British image. A protege of Richard Branson, he worked in the music industry in Britain and Malaysia (including Virgin and Warner) before buying AirAsia and turned it into Asia’s first successful budget airline in the image of Virgin airways (attractive and casual stewardess, hip and youthful ads, ala carte flight amenities). Fernandes is not a taipan in the fashion of Tan, but like every other rich guy in Malaysia, he has to have good relationship with the government – the Barisan National coalition and its core, the UMNO Malay supremacist party.

John Duerden went to Malaysia to talk with football people about Tan. He found English coaches who said Malaysian football bosses are all like Tan, Malay ministers who said he’s alright, and Malay journalists who said they just relayed stories from UK instead of writing their own.

So where’s the Chinese Malaysian voice in this story? First, Malaysian football is like that – the clubs are owned by state governments or government bodies. Most of the domestic players are Malays, with some Indians and very few Chinese thrown in (Arabs by default are seen as Malays or Muslim Indians). Urban Malaysians have little interest in domestic football and Chinese Malaysians certainly watch Barcelona and Manchester…City..United? instead of Selangor. The best teams in Malaysia are from eastern and northeastern states with big Malay population, anyway.

In short, Tan’s cake in Malaysia is Wendys – his football business has to be outside Malaysia. His ambition in owning Cardiff is to make profit, while hoping that some Malaysians and Singaporeans would support it like some Asians support Tottenham, Manchester City, or Everton. More importantly, the Malaysian government needs him to fund the BIG ad which you can find on a red Cardiff shirt. So Tan gets the money and the Malaysian government gets the pride. Nevermind the boos from Bluebirds fans, as they don’t get reported in Malaysia. First the newspapers still need 7-11 ads. Second, Malaysians really cannot care about Cardiff the way they cannot care about QPR.

Along the way, of course, Tan’s big ego causes him greater exposure than he wants in Britain (Cardiff, of course, is a Welsh team). He could just let Mackay got the applause. But that’s the way he (and other tycoons) lives in Malaysia – he has to become God just like Kim Jong-un and the other dead Kims. If you could stomach the video above, you could see that he’s so used to hear other people saying they cannot live without him. I really cannot believe he expected the Cardiff supporters to cheer him – did Mancunians ever cheer for the emirs or the Glazers? Did Chelsea supporters ever say thank you to Abramovich? No, and the owner needs no thank – it’s the players, the manager, and the staff who need to be thanked.

So I guess what’s wrong with Vincent Tan is that he has this dream that Cardiff has to be like Kuala Lumpur. His part of Kuala Lumpur (not UMNO’s) where staff bow down to him. There have been comparisons between him and Carson Yeung, and as a Chinese I wonder if they are both awful like that because they are both Chinese tycoons. Little emperors of China who think they own the world. While in Hong Kong and Malaysia there are a dozen more like them. Again, I believe the decision to buy Cardiff City does not come only from Tan who wants profit, but also from the Malaysian government who wants advertisement and prestige (just like Qatar with Barcelona and Azerbaijan with Atletico Madrid). Asian. Football. Bloody hell.

There you have it folks. I believe some Malaysians take Vincent Tan as a shame of the nation, but most Malaysians, or any other Asians, don’t care. There are dozens like him in the region, Cardiff is not a big team, and no matter how much Malay elites privately despise Chinese – let alone a tycoon – they do not say anything bad about him. After all, he’s doing his job for the country (not).

Phew, all this writing saved me the pain of watching Kagawa playing terribly. He really has lost it.

UPDATE: Turns out Tan owns Kedah FA and also changes its color to red. If blue was the color chosen by Cardiff City more than a century ago, then green and yellow reflects Kedah’s strongly Islamic heritage. And mind bogglingly, it can be changed into the very Chinese red. More interestingly, the chairman of Kedah FA (playing in second tier Malaysian Premier League) is the son of Mahatir.

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.

Stop that, you’re embarassing me

Worst case scenario.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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