Where the Players are Coming from

May he prosper in Singapore

May he prosper in Singapore

Around two years ago I had discussed naturalization, and this year’s AFF (ASEAN Football Federation) Cup features three teams with plenty of naturalized players – Singapore, Philippines, and Indonesia.

The Singaporeans are leftovers from a decade long project, but they are in the final. Shi Jiayi and Qiu Li, born in China, are 29 and 31 years old respectively. So does Sarajevo native Fahrudin Mustafic, and Daniel Bennett (34) came from England. One of the deadliest strikers in Southeast Asia, Aleksandar Duric, is 42. I wouldn’t be surprised if a fan put on their heads over the bodies of The Expendables.

Philippines and Indonesia invested in young bloods from Europe with different results. Philippines remain the dark horses of Southeast Asian football and no SE Asian team now can be confident they can secure win against the Street Dogs (yep, the nickname itself is quiet un-Asian). Indonesia received little support with the FA civil war lingers on and fans greeted the 0-2 defeat to Malaysia with little emotion. The prevailing mood was “I’ve told you so.”

Actually, naturalization is hardly the business of Asian nations too lazy to develop homegrown players. Both England and Australia are recruiting migrants from Africa, like Wilfried Zaha and Emmanuel Frimpong (England) or Kofi Danning and Bernie Ibini-isei (Australia). In the case of England (less likely with Australia), the FA is aware that some players can still opt to play for their countries of birth.

When the naturalization debate began in Indonesia five years ago, many commentators erroneously cited the example of France – they said that Zinedine Zidane and Marcel Desailly were also naturalized. I wouldn’t be surprised if several Indonesians believe that Mario Balotelli is naturalized (heck, even some Italians refuse to accept that he is Italian). My definition for a player who is naturalized is someone who had spent a good deal of his life in a country and played football there (i.e. joining a football club) before moving somewhere else. This definition sticks for most players in Asia (e.g. Singapore, Qatar, and Indonesia).

That is because you hardly have people from elsewhere migrating to Asia and raising kids there. Japan makes an exception. Until last year I thought that Mike Havenaar was a son of a Dutch and Japanese, rather than a Dutch who was born in Japan. In early 1990s Japan did naturalize adult Brazilians such as Ruy Ramos and Wagner Lopes, but in the last ten years Japan features one of the most multicultural national teams in Asia, and they are made in Japan – Havenaar, Tadanari Lee, Ariajusuru Hasegawa, and Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Alex Santos in the past (well, Santos finished his school in Japan). I’m still waiting for an Asian Socceroo. Their closest counterparts in Asia might be English Hong Kongers like Michael Campion and Jaimes McKee (a midnight child – his family came to Hong Kong in 1997).

Filipinos can be defensive about their footballers, worried that outsiders accusing them of playing cheap. Of course, it’s fair for them to recruit half-Filipinos, rather than arranging a Brazilian or Nigerian to switch citizenship (did Emerson wave the flag of Qatar yesterday?). Actually, that what Singapore did, and it was bit lazy – rather than owing to the virtue of immigration. I’d be happier (and no doubt many Singaporeans would be) if they look for Western footballers with a Singaporean parent (isn’t that wonderful that many half-Filipino kids in Europe and USA are boys who choose footballing as a career?) or develop migrant kids in Singapore to become footballers, the way Japan does. While there could be, could be, not enough white French footballers in France, definitely there is not enough Chinese and non-Muslim Indian footballers in Singapore.

What’s the outlook of the future of Singapore’s football? Well, the naturalization program is still living, seeing that Jonathan Toto and Sirina Camara (France) and Sherif El-Masri (Canada) are in the Young Lions. There are certainly more Chinese names, like Emeric Ong, Gary Lee, and even Benjamin Lee, whose mother is Danish. Certainly it’s quite fair to say that in Singapore, footballing (playing professionally, that is) is a Muslim affair. But seems Chinese Singaporeans are able to live with it like white French supporters do with Les Blues.

Advertisements

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.

College Boys

At this hour, Malaysia U23 just won the final match in the Southeast Asian Games against Indonesia U23. It was the Young Tigers’ second victory against Indonesia in a week in Jakarta.

So, Malaysian senior and U23 teams have become Southeast Asia’s best, in both occasions, in Jakarta. Oh, I very much appreciate the great dedication and skills possessed by the Young Garudas.  But I am not down with their defeat for several reasons, some of them are subjective.

First, Malaysia are willing to employ ethnic minorities as coaches – Indian Krishnasamy Rajagopal in the senior team and Chinese Ong Kim Swee in the U23 team. I’m not for local coach by default. I’m against over-reliance on Western coaches. You get geniuses like Guus Hiddink (in both counts) and Alberto Zaccheroni and flops like Zico (well, he did very well with Kashima, I’m still unsure about Iraq), Ivica Osim (aah, this is undisputed), and assorted Middle Eastern coaches. The list includes current Indonesian coach Wim Rijsbergen.

Second, Indonesia does not include Chinese-German Kim Kurniawan, on the ground of fitness. But rumors have it that he was ousted because he plays for Persema Malang, a club that has disagreement with the Indonesian FA. On fairness, big credits for Indonesia are due for its shining Papuan forwards, Titus Bonai and Patrich Wanggai.  Ironically, in the match against Singapore, half of Indonesian players are Christians while almost all playing Singaporeans are Muslims. Still, it might be quite a while before Indonesia have its first Chinese player since 1970s. I don’t know if Malaysian Yong Kuong Yong and Singaporean Eugene Luo played even as substitutes, anyway. Singaporean chosen keeper was, er, Izwan Mahbud instead of Jasper Chan.

Third, the jingoism in Indonesian media was so annoying. All kinds of media jumped on it, to the point of launching racist and childish attacks on Malaysia simply because it sells. I just felt strongly that Harimau Muda are the better team and it’s nice to see that you’re right.

This week it’s the turn of the big boys of East Asia in the pre-Olympic tournament. Japan U23 will face Bahrain, South Korea and Australia take away trips to Qatar & Iraq respectively, and my, Malaysia to face Syria on Wednesday. Would they use this same team again?