5 Things We Learned from Road to Brazil 14’s Matchday Five

Yes, in the style of Guardian Football’s favorite dish. At this point three matches are still running in West Asia but I only look at East and Southeast Asian teams. The AFC qualifications to Brazil 14 take a three months break after tonight, with cliffhangers still abound.

1. South Korea can’t function without Park Chu-Young

So Park Chu-Young got his second yellow against UAE. Big deal. They got other emerging names trading in England and Germany, not to mention Japan and Western Asia. To replace his position there would be Son Heung-Min (Hamburg), Ji Dong-Won (Sunderland), and Lee Keun-Ho (Gamba Osaka). And those were just the forwards. And South Korea are in an easy group.

Not quite. With 2011 ending and Park Chu-Young is still the region’s top scorer, South Korea have to give all they’ve got next February. After starting the campaign with owning Lebanon 6-0 at home, the Cedars hit back with a 2-1 surprise. Even with a surging Lebanon and a South Korea that went easy with its starting lineup, the Reds should have done better. Their supposedly solid defense, consisting of Cha Duri and ACL winner Lee Jung-Soo broke down in the first five minutes, as if the Lebanese were Nigerians in Durban. The golden boys of Qatar, Yoon Bit-Garam and Koo Ja-Cheol struggled  badly as if they were playing for Gyeongnam and Wolfsburg instead of South Korea, and yeah, thanks Koo for that penalty kick.

If South Korean press and fans are worried, they should be. Ji had a full 45 minutes to save the day, Nam Tae-Hee is an investment made in France, and Lebanon was just a small taste on what an away fixture to Iran or Jordan could taste like.

2. Even a giveaway game for Japan  raises the alarm.

Japan was expected to throw away the Pyongyang fixture. Why risk sending in the A-team to the Bizzaro planet of Republic of Korea? Similar quality, same hatred to Japan, only with worse pitch, ruder opponents, and very hostile laws. The expectation, however, that Zaccheroni Japan could hold a draw. Perhaps a header from Konno in the dying minutes to payback Jong Tae-Se’s screamer. Perhaps a bland 0-0 where the Japanese endured boos and everything for one and half hour. Or perhaps, North Korea had been that bad that Mike Havenaar could score the winning goal through a deflected shot.

Actually Zaccheroni did well in composing his team. Okazaki paired with Maeda, just like in the Asian Cup. Solid A- midfield line with Hasebe, Hosogai, Kengo and Kiyotake. Giving experience point to Nishikawa. The defense is bit dubious but no need to make Yoshida and Uchida working hard.

And so they lost to the Stalinists. While Jong Tae-Se had left the field early. What worrying was both Lee and Havenaar needed more that 15 minutes to score a hypothetical goal. Uzbekistan could do the better job, but then again they were not detained for four hours upon arrival, had no their national anthem booed (and who knew if someone made a tsunami reference? Even Belgians did it to Kawashima), and had no  the spirit  living and ever-present embodiment of Kim Il-Sung fighting against them.

Japan’s alarm is called Uzbekistan. A small mistake next February could cost them the group’s leader position. And that could go a long way in the fourth round.

3. Australia can survive when they have to

The impatient press and fans were at it again, when the Socceroos were still locked down with fifteen minutes to go. A winless back to back matches would be unacceptable. Then Holman headed the ball in. Rather than the single goal, it was the three points that count. Australia go to the next round, again later than Japan but earlier than South Korea (and while Saudi Arabia are still struggling). The surprise loss to Oman had raised calls to replace Osieck with a more high-profile manager with stronger record, a Hiddink Mark II if you like (so what’s Turkey’s Hiddink is called?). But now Osieck is safe, at least until the next surprise defeat. Don’t hold your breath, it won’t be against Japan.

4. Naturalization in Southeast Asia doesn’t work

Singapore began the craze about four-five years ago, following Hong Kong’s habit in the 20th century. The squad that fought in the group stage of Road to South Africa were romantic tragic warriors, composed of Africans, Englishmen, Balkans, and Chinese that had become the new bullies in Southeast Asia. They fought hard and fought well even thought Uzbekistan hit them eight times, they could hit back three. Even though they won by walkout and lost twice because nobody in the highly-disciplined Singaporean bureaucrats checked if Qiu Li was eligible to play.

Fast forward to 2010. Indonesia naturalized senior Uruguayan forward Cristian Gonzalez and recruited an array of half-Dutch and half-German kids. Philippines went further, miraculously found dozens of half-American and half-European boys who have Filipino mothers and are playing soccball (what’s the odd of them to be male on young age, and playing football instead of acting or being nerds?).

November 11. Philippines are nowhere to be found (actually they went down to Kuwait. Better result than in 2008, when they weren’t bother to join at all). Singapore fielded in only two naturalized players, both are above 30 years old. Duric made good impression in the narrow loss in China, but that was all he had done in this campaign.

Indonesia stuck to Gonzalez, but it wasn’t him who scored (yes, I asked for him instead of Boaz. Huh). Indonesia fast-tracked citizenship for a pair of Nigerians but their whereabouts are unknown (either they are in Nigeria for family reasons or they were clubbing in Jakarta). Irfan Bachdim quickly fell out of grace with the FA and the fans and won’t play football for the rest of this year. Not that he was playing in Indonesia’s first matchdays.

So if you want a half-Westerner player, follow Japan’s example. Hope that a son of a foreign parent is good at football and wants to be a footballer. In Indonesia and Thailand that is unlikely since all the half-Western boys are recruited to be actors (well I have a half-English friend who played cricket in school…he’s an engineer). As for Singapore, see how its U-15 team will shape up four years later. If Philippines want its investment to yield, then it’s better for its half-Western players to aim to play in the A-League, the S-League, or lower leagues in Europe. Neil Etheridge can train with Fulham, but he really needs to play 90 minutes under the post.

5. East Asia is still composed of three countries.

That’s the depressing side of watching Asian Football and being a proud East Asian. If you want your Captain Tsubasa, your Asian Goalscoring Superstar Hero, then actually there are only two instead of three teams that wear the jersey: Japan and South Korea. Australia, as always, are the white and big and muscular and rough Asians that occasionally eat pad thai and hit on Asian girls, but they are not Chinese. The only Asian-Australian player (in the East/Southeast Asian sense) I know was Brendan Gan, and he’s not in the A-League anymore. I’m not sure if in the next ten years the Socceroos will have a player from East Asian heritage.

Essentially, the Fourth Round will be a West Asian affair. Most of the East Asian teams have been eliminated ever since the first round. Southeast Asia did pretty well, slipping in three out of ten. And Thailand, although are likely to lose to Saudi Arabia (it’s still 0-0 against Oman, anyway), have done well to bounce back after the Suzuki Cup 10 disaster. But while three West Asian teams, namely Jordan, Lebanon, and Uzbekistan are getting stronger, East Asia shows that it cannot and does not want to catch up. I still believe in Japan, South Korea, and Australia, but I worry that other teams like China, Singapore, and Indonesia are content to watch English Premier League clubs and hosting their Asian tours in summer. As for North Korea, well, you can’t reason with Bizzaros.

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