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.

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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.

It’s Classic

Hee?!

Hee?!

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

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

*Darul Takzim, Malaysia.

^Warriors FC, Singapore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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