Asian Champions League 2013 – after Matchday 4

Since I don't post pictures of Socceroos often.

Since I don’t post pictures of Socceroos often.

North Korea. What about ’em, eh? Making Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese forget to hate each other? Imagine how dreadful it is for Japanese teams and supporters to make away trips to China and Korea. But well, in the current vicious (by 21st century standard) stadium atmosphere in Europe, thank the Lord any spat between a Korean and a Japanese on the pitch can be solved by a double yellow card. The last time Japanese players had laser beam pointed at them was in Jordan (still, no excuse for me to miss my penalty kick, said Yasuhiro Endo).

The amount of Korean and Australian…and even Japanese…players in Gulf/Red Sea clubs has attracted my attention. Kwak Tae-hwi (formerly Ulsan) in Al-Shabab Riyadh. Go Seul-ki (formerly Ulsan) in El Jaish Doha. Shin Hyung-min (formerly Pohang) in Al Jazira Abu Dhabi. Nam Tae-hee (formerly Valenciennes) in Lekhwiya Doha. Mark Bresciano and Harry Kewell in Al Gharafa Doha. Takayuki Morimoto in Al Nasr Dubai. Alex Brosque in Al Ain. And Yoo Byung-soo in Al Hilal.

Which should make watching the AFC Champions League less stressful than used to be. In the end a Korean will still lift a trophy. Of course, it’s not always painless, as experienced by Lee Jung-soo when he, uhm, disagreed with his club’s gameplay against Suwon in 2011. Now he’s still in Al Sadd since the other option was worse – Guangzhou Evergrande.

Al-Shabab Riyadh: Passed Group A. Kwak Tae-hwi is a starter and played full time in all the four matches.

El Jaish: Runner ups of Group A with Iran’s Tractor Sazi on their tails. Go Seul-Ki performed quite poorly – subbed out twice and was also receiving yellow cards twice.

Al Jazira: On the verge of going out, almost. Two draws and two losses. Shin Hyung-min played in all matches.

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Lekhwiya: Tight race with Pakhatkor. Nam Tae-hee has scored six goals in the league (his best record), but yet to score in Asia. A starter who is consistently subbed out.

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Al Gharafa: Trying to keep up with the dominating Al-Ahli, although they are blessed with the unexpected terrible performance of Sepahan. Mark Bresciano has played twice in the competition, while Harry hasn’t (can he, legally?)

Al Nasr: Already out with four losses. In the team, Morimoto faces tough competitions from Bruno Correa (ex-Sepahan and Incheon) and locals Humain Abdulla Abbas, Hassan Mohamed, and Younis Ahmad. Goes without saying that Al Nasr’s main forward is Giuseppe Mascara. Here’s the twist – Morimoto has scored three times in Asia, in the playoff against Lokomotiv Tashkent, and then in losses to Al Ahli and Al Gharafa. League-wise, his kill rate is five goals out of seven games.

Wish list: That FIFA 14 features UEA Pro League

Wish: That FIFA 14 features UEA Pro League

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Al Ain: Neck to neck to championship’s regular Al Hilal, and still can overtake Esteghlal. Alex Brosque is enjoying stable position as wingman to Asamoah Gyan and has scored two goals – but not against Esteghlal.

Al Hilal: The only reason I’m glad there’s Saudi League in FIFA 13. The only team capable to bring 50 thousand spectators into an ACL match. Yoo Byung-soo seems to be a sub option behind veteran Yasser Al Qahtani and Wesley, and he’s yet to make a mark as a super sub after coming out from the bench three times.

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FC Seoul: Top performers from Korea with patchy records (two wins, a draw, a loss). Cha Du-ri is now a seat warmer, Mauricio Molina is showing his age, and Japanese Sergio Escudero is settling quite well. The team rely on Dejan Damjanovic, Ha Dae-sung, and Adilson.

Buriram United: The rise of Southeast Asian football? They hold themselves quite well and are having a Mexican standoff with Sendai, which they held 1-1 in the cold north. Defenders Charyl Chappuis is the first half-Westerner Thai footballer and he plays well. And try to pronounce this Swiss sub – Chitchanok Xaysensourithone.

Vegalta Sendai: Qualification to playoff still not sure, but respect should always be given to these brave men. The goalscorers (three so far, same with Buriram) are the club’s most recognizable name – North Korean Ryang Yong-gi, Wilson, and 35 year old Atsushi Yanagisawa. Shingo Akamine is yet to show his magic this season.

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Guangzhou Evergrande: You know they are at it again. The big question is can they reach the semi-finals. Huang Bowen is back in China and Dario Conca is still probably the best number 10 in Asia (well he’s number 15). Muriqui is the current top scorer in Asia, while in China he is challenged by Guangzhou midfielder Elkeson (not playing in ACL). Lucas Barrios, who could become a flop in China, has scored against Urawa Reds.

Jeonbuk: One win, three draws. Bad records for Jeonbuk. Especially their defense. Choi Eun-seong doesn’t only look old – he’s 42. Central Coast alumni Alex Wilkinson is still settling in. Jeonbuk are supposedly to be scary with Eninho, Kim Jung-woo, Kevin Oris, and Lee Dong-gook. They should have been.

Urawa Reds: The most popular clubs in Japan are back, in regular shape – battered and bruised. 21 year old Genki Haraguchi is striving to graduate into Samurai Blue, while Shinzo Koroki is drifting away from chance to wear the national jersey. They will not pass the group stage. Hopefully Haraguchi can play in Europe in three years time.

Muangthong United: Well, they do what they can. And yet with a point, they still have chance to qualify, due to Jeonbuk’s disappointing form.

Genki desu ka? Hai, genki desu.

Genki desu ka? Hai, genki desu.

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Pohang Steelers: Same with Jeonbuk – one win and three draws. They are all-Korean this year, without any famous name. Surprisingly, they are doing well in the league, thanks to midfielders Cho Chan-ho, Lee Myeong-ju, and Hwang Jin-sung. Hwang Sun-hong legend in the making will depend on how they add up against Beijing, but certainly Hiroshima are no threat for them.

Beijing Gouan: They have Frederic Kanoute.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima: Turned out Hiroshima are not Asia-ready. Shusaku Nishikawa still have far to go before he can challenge Eiji Kawashima, and Mihael Mikic is never good enough. The biggest problem with Hisato Sato is that he seems to score only against Japanese keepers – a good argument against his return into the national team. And yes, I remember that he scored three goals in last year’s Club World Cup. Once against Al Ahly and twice to…Urawa. Well.

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Kashiwa Reysol: I thought that Yokohama Marinos deserved the Emperor Cup better. I take it back. Their Brazilian spice still kicks. This time it’s Cleo, who played for Evergrande, and old timer Leandro Domingues. This is also a great springtime for Masato Kudo.

Central Coast Mariners: Another bad year for Australian football, with Kewell rather be unemployed than playing in the A-League. There are, however, glimmer of hopes for the Socceroos from Matthew Ryan and Mitchell “Duke” Duke.

Suwon Bluewings: High maintenance, low returns. Three 0-0 matches. With Jung Sung-ryong, Eddy Bosnar, Kwak Hee-ju, Kim Do-heon, Oh Jang-eun, Jong Tae-se, Stevica Ristic, and Dzenan Radoncic, Suwon still don’t know how to win. A failed Samsung product.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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FIFA vs PES – a long history on everything. Okay, on gaming.

Ah, it’s that time of the year. What will you spend your pocket money/spare cash/textbook fee on? EA’s FIFA 13 or Konami’s PES 13? It’s no-brainer for Americans (the former) and Indonesians (the latter). For the rest of us, it’s no longer the question that the former is actually having some evolution while Pro Evolution Soccer is still yet stuck in 2005 – yet Indonesians (and probably Japanese) will keep telling you that “PES/Winning Eleven is about strategy and build-up. FIFA is just pass and shoot”. Or is it about the customization? Third world gaming market is full of hacked (um, patched) PES featuring local leagues (Indonesian, Malaysian, Tunisian, even Chinese perhaps with deliberate crest and shirts designs) and national teams. Those brewers are also offering ‘corrected’ team names (Merseyside Reds have become something of an affection for Liverpool fans) and updated transfers for a price cheaper than chips.

This is an easy one for PC version.

Like my old lecturers were 1970s Marxists who turned conservatives after the 80s and then turned into socialists or whatever moderate left after 9/11, I was also a FIFA man, then a PES guy, and now FIFA follower again. Of course, being a flip flop has its own history.

Electronic Arts was the American pioneer of soccer/football games. Yea, there might be Microsoft Soccer or whatever you remembered in the 80s, if you happen to be a North American. My parents thought that 8-bit console was a waste of money, while with PC, of course, you can use it for school and study. Yay. So I played Italy 90 by US Gold, which was actually a British software. Yeah. It featured real roster for World Cup Italy 90. At this time my favorite team was United States. Meola. Des Armstrong. John Harkes. Tab Ramos. Hmm…Eric Wynalda?


It’s easy to win the game. Counter slide tackle if a defender gets you, as the foul system is fickle (just like in real life). Approach the goal diagonally, hold space bar and release. You’ll score again and again. But it does not work with crap team like South Korea (I tried). Of course, that time I wouldn’t know about the official game for Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, which people say as weird since it has teams like Poland, Peru, and of course Japan.

Then Dad bought me Super Nintendo with FIFA International Soccer as the marquee. My first match, was, I still cannot believe it, Japan v Nigeria. Nigeria was the WEAKEST team in the game. I won 7-5. Played it on 29 inch tv in 16-bit glory was orgasmic, especially since I just knew the concept. The players were fictitious, some of the best stats were owned by players sporting the names of Extended Play Productions (now EA Canada) staff, a tradition that goes on to FIFA 97.  The next year, my first English conversation with a native speaker was with a Gold Coast, Queensland, game shop staff on why didn’t EA make FIFA 95 for Super Nintendo.

Then, FIFA 96 for PC, still regarded as a classic. Featuring Malaysian League (I played Singapore because it’s my favorite holiday spot). Then the blocky and lifeless FIFA 97, when it’s easier to score with pass button when you’re facing the keeper as he’ll catch your shot. By this time Konami has released Winning Eleven, and the illegal copy of the Japanese/Asian version was widely available (we never, ever, have original PlayStation & PS2 discs here). So other guys in school played it since it’s Japanese and they liked Japanese stuff while I was into American stuff.

FIFA 98 had a good market here, because you can play Indonesia. Kurniawan Dwi Yulianto. Widodo C. Putro. Rocky Putiray. And on easy setting, you can make Indonesia to be the world champions. Being an obsessive compulsive at this point, I made the universal Road to France campaign, playing EVERY TEAM. Of course I couldn’t finish it. Still, Japan and South Korea ruled the competition. Maezono and Miura. Kim Byung-ji and Noh Jung-yoon. I didn’t care about your WE2. Don’t care about Jon Kabira screaming “Shuuto! and “Churuugoh!” That crap didn’t have Manchester United.

Then of course I bought World Cup 98, with the darndest AI that really wanted to fuck you up. You had to play dirty. Tackle, slide, shoot shoot from outside the goal. A game that can make you screaming “In your face, Iranian **********!” (yeah, I am deliberate with the example). O yeah, that’s the PS version. I played the PC version few years back and it wasn’t that hard. But strangely, I found Winning Eleven 3 Final Version in my vault. This is the ‘World Cup’ edition, featuring the official roster for France 98, while the licensed World Cup 98 naturally used the rosters of pre-June 1998, with EA’s own stats. So Japan’s deadliest forwards were Maezono and Okano instead of Miura and Lopes (hehe, Jo. Yeah, he’s really great in the game as well). Finally I finalized WE3 Final in college, where Japan was the Third Place, defeating Norway 2-0 (was that possible? Pedants alert).

FIFA 99. Check it out now. No, Winning Eleven doesn’t have that shit. Fatboy Slim and Crystal Method. It doesn’t have Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Juventus. Then FIFA 2000. No, I don’t care that some kids in Britain liked International Soccer Superstar much better than 2000. Coz 2000 has Major League Soccer. And Reel Big Fish’s
“Sell Out”. Gameplay wise, they were such frantic button mashers.

Then I went to Australia and bought FIFA 2001, now with K-League and the easiness of performing bicycle kicks. The next year, FIFA 2002. Played Indonesia again in road to Korea/Japan, with the tunes of Ministry of Sound. I made a multicultural Indonesian team (being in college, in Australia, with now Chinese New Year and anything Chinese legal in Indonesia) composed of several Chinese players and they went to Korea/Japan after a dramatic 3-2 ET victory over Portugal.

But the next year, with the Asian World Cup itself in place, I went after everything Japanese and shunned the American crap. Maybe it’s W. Maybe it’s Utada Hikaru on the cover of Time. Maybe it’s Chemistry at the opening of World Cup 2002 with “Let’s Get Together Now”. Maybe, maybe it’s FIFA 2003 that does not feature Japan – although it has a.mia (I still don’t know who she is). So it’s Pro Evolution Soccer 2, with again, official roster of World Cup 2002. Yes, you cannot choose a side when two player-controlled teams meet each other, but it’s much better than the dramatic World Cup 2002 where you can only control one team and has minimalist user interface, compared to the website outlook of FIFA 2002.

I enjoyed FIFA 2003 as Seol Ki-hyeon had a good season in Manchester United as the second striker behind Ruud van Nistelrooy, and Lee Young-pyo was an able holding midfielder in Barcelona. But FIFA 2004 felt too distant for me, while at the same time club league is still not an item with PES 3/Winning Eleven 7 International.

That changed in 2004. Pro Evolution Soccer 4 has Japan, leagues, and Adidas Roteiro. Screw the EPL, let’s play PSV Eindhoven! And Kubo in Bayern Munich! Next year, I ignored the lauded FIFA 06 and went for Henry v Terry in Pro Evolution Soccer 5. Let’s recreate FIFA Confederations Cup 2005! Actually I was surprised by the minimalist opening video, compared to the dramatic, anime-esque openings of PES 4 & 3.

Then, World Cup 2006. I bought World Cup 2006 – disappointed that Asia only had final group stage so Japan only faced North Korea, Iran, and Bahrain, not India and Singapore. Went through the final tournament with random teams, and Seiichiro Maki became the hero as he scored the tournament-winning goal against Holland. That’s all. Before leaving Australia, I bought the Australian edition of PES 6 with John Aloisi on the cover, mercifully celebrating his goal against Uruguay in 2005 rather than against Japan in 2006, and I played the proper Germany 06 tournament.

Still, I didn’t keep in touch with FIFA. Because with Winning Eleven 2008 I could play the 2007 AFC Asian Cup. But Jesus the presentation has become unbearably sucks. And it’s depressing that J. League is never featured outside the Japanese market, while one can play K-League and A-League with any edition of FIFA.

Then after swearing off football games for the next year, I bought FIFA 10 with PlayStation 3. Because the hacking off of PES in PS2 really put me off. It doesn’t feel Japanese anymore. It’s so…third world. I was back in groove with Shunsuke Nakamura replacing Cristiano Ronaldo as Manchester United’s right midfielder, in rivalry with Bayern Munich’s sub Park Ji-sung. And yeah, there’s K-League, A-League, and MLS.

I really craved for WE 10: Samurai Blue. But then EA gave me a better thing – World Cup 2010, with all the teams, all the players. Republic of Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Canada. All the players – Choi Tae-uk, Shinji Kagawa, Chan Siu Ki, Brian Ching, and Issey Nakajima-Farran. And in the final tournament, there’s the fans – Japanese and Korean girls showing their midriffs, although as not that hot as the legendary Korean chick.

You know, this one

Then FIFA 11 with customizable soundtrack. Goodbye weird Euro electronica and Aussie indie-hip hop collaboration, hello 2NE1 and Tokyo Jihen! Yep, I loaded FIFA 11 with “Try to Follow Me” and Kaela Kimura’s “Ring a Ding Dong”.

Then for the first time since…2003? I bought the two games. FIFA 12 and Pro Evolution Soccer 12. Because with the latter, I could play 2011 AFC Asian Cup. And I was lucky to get the one with Japanese commentary by Jon Kabira and Hiroshi Nanami. Still, strangely I could not play when two of my controlled teams meet each other, like in PES 4. No such problem with FIFA 12 (the theme song, as you can guess, is 2NE1’s “I am the Best”).

FIFA 13 is said as FIFA 12 with terrible Nike & Umbro jerseys (Lotto is never good in the first place) and slightly improved Kagawa. That’s all. On the other hand, PES 13 looks like zombie and is another testimony of the decline of Japanese gaming industry – and of Japan in general (except football). And no J. League outside Japanese edition, while FIFA now includes Saudi Pro League (yay, Yoo Byung-soo!). Really Konami, why with all this stupidity? In this age of Gangnam Style, can Japanese business still making excuse “We don’t think it will sell well in the overseas market?”

Six things we learnt from AFC Champions League Group Stage

1. Qatar – numbers mean nothing

Like many things in Qatar, the Stars League can offer more than its neighbors. The payroll might not be as interesting as in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but Doha seems to be a more interesting place to live and has better football atmosphere. We’re talking about the Asian Cup and the World Cup host here (which, well, who knows, might get the fourth ticket to Brazil). Many Bahrain players move there to escape the political prosecution and complications, and supposedly, with a Qatari club as the defending champions, a Qatar club can go further than UAE’s, while the living condition is more pleasant than in Saudi.

Not so. All Qatari club, four of them, crashed. First, unlike Liverpool 2005, the champions Al-Sadd was not competing. They could be the third best club in the world after Kashiwa Reysol (okay, that’s not true), but they finished sixth in the 2010-11 Stars League season. They won’t compete in ACL next year either, finished fourth (the fourth ticket was taken by Emir Cup’s winners Al Gharafa).

So, Al Rayyan (Afonso Alves, ex-Middlesbrough) and Lehkwiya (Nam Tae-Hee) scored only two wins. Al Gharafa (Ze Roberto & ex-Urawa Edmilson) got three times draw – although facing Persepolis and Al Hilal would leave you a little chance of qualifying.  Al Arabi….certainly the worst. Six losses, four goals for against sixteen against.

I’ve said that there’s a ray of light shining for UAE since the Olympics qualification. It is, with Al Jazira topping Group A and Bani Yas overcoming Pakhtakor. Al Nasr and Al Shabab certainly crashed and ranked below their Qatari rivals, but the Emirates are still having in the game.

2. Can Saudi football redeem itself?

Certainly Saudi Pro League still have the two most fearsome clubs in Asia – Al Ittihad and Al Hilal. In the past both clubs could draw more than 30 thousands to an ACL match, although that’s not the case now. They are, however, are still powered by local players. In fact each of them has only two non-Muslim players – Paulo Jorge and Fabrice Ondama in Ittihad and Christian Wilhelmsson and Yoo Byung-Soo in Hilal, which are flourishing far away from La Coruna and Incheon.

Of course, club success can be powered by good management and national failures can be influenced by terrible FA administration, negative state intervention (including choosing a crappy or inflexible manager), and lack of motivation. It’s hard to describe nationalism in an absolute monarchy – Hegel had found it in the 1800s. Al Hilal, Al Ahli, and Al Ittihad have the good chance to go to quarter finals (and eliminating UAE clubs if they do so), and certainly they aim to reclaim the champions title, last won by a Saudi side in 2005. If they can do it, then the FA have to follow up with the Asian Cup 2015 project.

 

3. Adelaide are still the only reliable Australian club in the ACL

In A-League, they can go from top 3 to bottom 3 in alternating seasons. Adelaide qualified to this year’s ACL through playoff. But their experience and flair against the northerners count year after year, while Brisbane and Central Coast prove that unlike the national team, Aussie clubs are not first rate (league and clubs managements included). Adelaide destroyed two former champions, Pohang and Gamba, and could become the favorites against Nagoya. Bruce Djite might fit as Australia’s Emile Heskey, but Dario Vidosic has my vote to be a Socceroo regular, and Sergio van Dijk is the best forward Indonesia has never had.

 

4. These are testing times for Korean teams.

Finally, the fallout of last year’s bribe scandals is here. Only Ulsan proved the quality of a Korean team, and Seongnam were lucky they were in an equally boring group with half of the group’s games ended in draws  (hey, draws without losses is something to be proud of. Just ask New Zealand fans). The supposedly exciting Pohang lost in competition to Bunyodkor (another sign of Uzbek resilience against the Japan-Korea block), while I’m bit ashamed of praising Lee Dong-Gook in my last post, seeing how Jeonbuk fell. It seems that the life and death of Jeonbuk are decided by how he’s doing on the match day instead of the teamwork Eninho, Kim Jung-Woo, and Kim Sang-Sik. Hugo Droguett is promising, but it seems like he needs more time to be a worthy partner to D.G.

This is the first time Korea fail to qualify at least three clubs since the current format introduced in 2009. And I take it as a failure. Jeonbuk’s failure certainly influenced by the rise of Guangzhou Evergrande, which deserves its own talking point, but even Seongnam were close to fail were it faced more aggressive opponents.

 

5. Guangzhou Evergrande continue its empire building

Manchester City teach that money can build your glory, earlier than what you expect. that’s what’s happened in Guangzhou, probably the best-run metropolis in China, which scouted and nurtured South Americans who really delivered. If Chelsea rely on Africans and Arsenal on continental Europeans (and Manchester United, at one point, on the Celts), then Guangzhou can be forgiven to rely on Muriqui, Cleo, and Conca for the attack and Paulao for the defence. Still, they needed six others Chinese to hold the line – and it’s good to see Cho Won-Hee redeemed after terrible times in Wigan and Suwon.

Sadly, pride rather than ambition might influence the replacement of Lee Jang-Soo with Marcello Lippi. Evergrande RE just wants to boast that it employs the Italian legend rather than trusting a coach that can ensure its domination in China and in Asia. Just like Roberto di Matteo’s employment in Chelsea is still not ensured even if he’ll win them the UEFA Champions League tonight. Owners, after all, care more about employing famous generals than having the most suited general for the club.

 

6. Gamba aside, J. League clubs are fine

Oh the irony. Newcomers FC Tokyo, previously the West Ham of Tokyo football, did really fine. Unstable Japanese champions Kashiwa passed the test with the last day’s coup against Jeonbuk (a plus point, if you consider Japanese stage fright against Korean teams). Nagoya followed Seongnam’s policy of two wins four draws, and yet they still prevailed against the supposedly threatening Brisbane and Tianjin.

So, why do we need to speak about Gamba? Perhaps because they are the former Asian champions. Perhaps they are used to be one the most strongest teams in Japan year in and year out. And now in the J. League, their mission for the season would be to escape relegation, just one month into the completion.

I’ll leave the deeper discussion about Gamba to my good friend Ben Mabley, who’s considering himself Osakan. I counted myself as a Gamba supporter, but then again, I don’t feel the passion I have when I’m supporting Manchester United (come on, I feel bad writing this). Maybe had I lived in Japan, I chose to live in Yokohama. Yay Marinos.