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.

 

AFC Champions League & AFC Cup 2014: Group Stage Review

Note to Nguyen Rodrigo: If you have to grab a man, make sure to see him eye to eye.

Note to Nguyen Rodrigo: If you have to grab a man, make sure to see him eye to eye.

There it is. Europe is yet to crown its best club while Asia has cut down its candidates to sixteen. Predictably, I care more about eight East Asian clubs. Maybe to West Asian clubs which have East Asian players – Koreans, Australians, and even an Indonesian.

But oh, there’s something closer to home – AFC Cup, where the action is for most of Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. There are also eight East Asian clubs surviving here…okay, so much to talk about. Start from the least interesting bits.

 

AFC Cup – Group E

Indonesian heavyweights Persipura, acronym of Jayapura United, ace the group. Papuans are indeed the workhorses of modern Indonesian football, and local boy Boas Solossa again proved himself as one of Indonesia’s best forwards with four goals. Behind Persipura are Churchill Brothers. Not named after the British Prime Minister, but after Goan big man Churchill Alemao who bought the Brothers Sporting Club. The Indians ended the group stage above Singapore’s police and customs team Home United by a single goal margin (head-to-head wise, Churchill also won their home match 3-1 compared to Home United’s 2-1).

Group F

I’m wondering what does “T&T” in Hanoi T&T stands for. Either telecommunication and telegraphs or tourism group T&T, which is based in Ho Chi Minh City (their website is inaccessible). The Vietnamese dominated the group thanks to 22 year old winger Nguyen Van Quyet, who had scored three times for the national team and wears number 10 for club and country. Indonesia does well this year by passing its second club to the Round of 16, Arema Cronus/Malang/Indonesia. So the team is based in the city of Malang, they were bought in 2012 from tobacco corporation Bentoel by conglomerate Bakrie Group, who put in the Cronus name (and which is never popular. I don’t know if Cronus here refers to the evil Greek god). Their star player is Uruguayan-Indonesian Cristian Gonzales.

This tournament, meanwhile, is forgettable for Malaysia. Selangor go out of the tournament with two draws and two losses, despite the seven goals of Brazilian Paulo Rangel. O yeah, Maladewan teams, despite their gallantries, were hopeless with five losses each for New Radiant and Maziya.

Group G

Just like FIFA suspended the transfer ban for Barcelona, AFC does not automatically ban Vissai Ninh Binh for match fixing – although it has suspended itself from the V-League. So nine Ninh Binh players bet $48 thousands on the outcome of their match against Kelantan  (four goals minimum) and threw away the first half 1-2, before scoring two in second half. What astonished me was their plan didn’t go wrong – what if they failed to score any goal in second half?

More astonishingly, no Malaysian media covered the scandal except for small piece in Malaysian Digest and a belated small question from New Straits Times. Predictably, nobody commented both articles. So uh, Malaysian football fans, are you OK with this? Are Kelantan that bad?

Of course, the ones who have some hope (or not at all) that they could go on if Ninh Binh are crossed from the competition are Hong Kong’s South China. At this point I’m beginning to wonder if anyone here cares about playing football and standing up for their club or not.

Group H

Moving away from that horror – Kitchee proudly represent Hong Kong with four wins, thanks to group stage’s top scorer Juan Belencoso (another nobody in Europe, somebody in Asia). Myanmar also qualifies its second club besides Yangon United, Nay Pyi Taw (based in that hideous new capital city). Less flashy than Yangon, but they got the job done.

Besides Malaysia, S-League also proves its overrated-ness as Tampines Rovers failed to qualify (hey look, there’s something Singapore’s bad at!) as they kept on losing. Their defense was really hideous with sixteen against goals. So much for two Japanese defenders. Counted by head to head, they were better than India’s Pune (beat them both home and away). By goal aggregates, though, Tampines were unbelievable*.

*Once I talked about the Rovers to a Tampines local and she replied “Dude, what are you talking about? What’s this Rovers thing?”

 

AFC Champions League – Group E

Pohang Steelers, owned by steel corporation POSCO, have the tradition of having non-fancy players (and kits) and stable performances both in Korea and Asia. They have done it again this year. Have you heard of Kim Seung-dae? Neither am I, but he had scored four goals and Pohang passed the group stage unbeatable. Sadly, very few of the steelers would make it into the Korean national team for Brazil 14, Seung-dae included.

It appears that you're searching for Kim Dae-seung.

It appears that you’re searching for Kim Dae-seung.

Cerezo Osaka’s investment with Diego Forlan paid off although the team experienced heavy damage on their effort to pass. The star of the group stage, however, was Yoichiro Kakitani, tipped as Japan’s next big thing.

Buriram United, Southeast Asia’s single representative, had the fond memory of beating Shandong Luneng 1-0 at home, but that’s about it. Vagner Love, former team mate of Keisuke Honda and once one of the best strikers in Russia, could not help Shandong despite five goals.

Group F

FC Seoul, owned by LG Corporation (more successful with TV, AC, and washing machine than mobile phone), did not emerge unscathed, but they scored more win than others. They certainly missed striker Dejan Damjanovic who moved to China (and Spanish-Japanese Sergio Escudero is a poor substitute), and it’s doubtful they could go very far with their current domestic form.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima, which did very terribly last year, tried again with very much the same composition (minus goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa who moved to Urawa). They also had the terrible luck of being subjected to two penalties in the last minutes of away match against Seoul. Still less than four penalties imposed at Kashiwa Reysol in 2013 when facing Suwon. Yes, the popular conspiracy theory in 2002 World Cup (on Korea vs Italy and Spain) might be true, and West Asian referees could feel intimated by the home crowd had the 90 minutes ended and Korea lost to Japan. Although I’m not sure how scary it was to persuade a man to award four penalties.

Group G

You know Guangzhou Evergrande will make it. You know they are still the favorites. Dario Conca has been replaced by Alessandro Diamanti and the Brazilians are still there – Muriqui, Elkeson, plus Rene Junior. But this year’s Evergrande is less scary. They are beatable. They scored only ten goals and conceded eight, much worse than Western Asian heavyweights. They are still the champions and they are still the only good Chinese team. But others are catching up fast.

Their big rival, Jeonbuk, also made it past this group of hell – due to narrow goal difference over Melbourne Victory. Of course, Victory’s coach Kevin Muscat also cried for penalty in the dying moments of the final match against Jeonbuk. Victory supporters shrugged that the referee was too scare to award it. One thing for sure – Korean stadiums are more fearsome for regional referees than Japanese, Australian, and even Chinese.

Group H

Well the Australian team I shouldn’t have supported topped the group. Western Sydney quickly eclipse its older and more beautiful sister Sydney FC and did very well for their first season in Asia. Kawasaki, arguably Japan’s best for this season, couldn’t even match their tally of eleven goals. Ulsan are the only failed Korean team, a letdown for the team with the supposedly best attacking formation in Korea. Another bottom of the barrel Chinese team, Guizhou, prove that Guangzhou Evergrande are on the different league with other CSL teams. Others have the money but not the results.

 

Stay tuned for the Round of 16 playoffs in early May. At least this time AFC makes it home and away.

 

 

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.

Taking good look at Southeast Asian football

Yesterday I was writing a draft on the upsets in Champions League and what it meant for Japanese clubs, Australian teams, and the hosts. But then something came out. Brunei won the Hassanal Bolkiah Trophy (I shouldn’t have surprised, really). They bettered Malaysia and Timor at the group stage and defeated Myanmar in the semi. Yesterday they defeated Indonesia. O yeah, the tournament is supposed to be a U-21 tournament, but Brunei enlisted its U-23 team which played in last year’s SEA Games. Luckily they didn’t employ their naturalized players from Eastern Europe, but watching Indonesia them last night was like watching Jeonbuk v Guangzhou. Or Buriram v Kashiwa, except that Indonesia couldn’t bite back.

The result of the tournament concerns me in several levels. First, again Indonesia sent a weakened team since only players who are in the Premier League clubs could go in. But even this weakened team did alright again Vietnam and yeah, Singapore. Defending champions Thailand skipped out of the competition, citing “unforeseen circumstance” (whatever that means. I always hate that excuse). Malaysia, which U-23 team won the SEA Games gold medal and the senior team are defending champs of AFF Cup, played a U-21 team which ranked below East Timor.

In short, the problem is national consistency. Even since five years ago, you cannot rely on Thailand to represent football power in the region. And nothing could really fill in the vacuum – not Malaysia, nor Vietnam. Granted, Buriram were impressive in defeating the J. League champions and it was refreshing to see that their Thai playmaker, Jirawat Makarom, shone. The White Elephants were also close to qualify to the Brazil 14 qualification’s final stage. But still, it means nothing if they cannot even ace the region or employing their full strength to achieve that aim. Perhaps the political turmoil in the past five years was an important cause to the decline of Thai football, and one only hopes that they could climb up again. They should not accept the fact that they are five levels behind Vietnam in Asia.

Vietnamese football is certainly on the rise, but they also have the lack of will to win. Both Song Lam Nghe An and Sai Gon failed to overcome their Malaysian opponents in the AFC Cup. In regional tournaments, they are simply a semi-finals team. Yes, corruption, match fixing, and the reluctance of the government to promote football are the main cause of a wingless Vietnam.

It’s a good sign that Malaysia and Singapore decide to renew their cooperation, again; this time by exchanging their junior national teams in their national leagues. As Chinese and Indian Singaporeans and Malaysians point out every now and then, there are really no difference between their countries. Again, Malaysian clubs and teams have average more Indian and Chinese players than Singapore’s. The funny thing every time Singapore face Indonesia is that Indonesia always have more players with Christian given names.

I was hoping that Malaysia could complete the regional treble by winning the HB Trophy, but it was impossible. Worse, their only Chinese player, Gan Jay Han, scored an own goal. Singapore, on the other hand, complete the bizzaro treble by not winning anything. I dream a day when Radjoko Avramovic is replaced. Simply because he has been with the Lions too long – nine years. No foreign coach is ever with that a national team that long.

Avramovic doesn’t stick with Singapore that long because he’s good. He’s still on the job because FAS can’t bother to appoint a new, better coach. No personal grudge again the man (Singaporean fans are more suited for that emotion), but his employment security is a proof that Singapore have given up its football project. Perhaps they won’t bother anymore to naturalize Mendy or Jordan Webb and just let the aspiring Malays to play football, whatever the result is. What’s matter is that retired English footballers are working as pundits (and punters) in Singapore.

Yes, I appreciate the fact that Star Sports run the highlights of the S. League. I watch the show. It’s the only Asian football show I can enjoy in Indonesia besides J. League live coverage and Singapore-produced Football Asia magazine show (which is unbelievably drab). Even watching S. League highlights is hardly a happy experience as I can’t get over the fact that I hear no chant and see no supporters.

Whether they play for Premier League or Super League team, I don’t care. An Indonesian team is an Indonesian team, and I support the Red and White players as long they don’t play South Korea or Japan. I hate Indonesians who are delighted with the current national teams are defeated simply because they hate the FA (me too), while I also hate commentators who make tiring nationalistic remarks in matches. Shut your slogans and analyze what happens. Yes, the schism is holding back Indonesian football, which is never good in the first place. But certainly Indonesia are still one the best teams in the region.

As for Brunei…eh.