When Saturday Comes

Where do you go? I wanna know.

So excited I was with the Olympics that I forgot that J. League and K-League were going on. In fact, K-League was done. Regular season wise. So now, on to the playoff round where Seongnam will beat everyone before losing in the final, and with Daegu and Gangwon having a break?

Not quite. This year the afterlife of K-League season introduces several changes – first like in Russia, there’s Championship Round and Relegation Round. Yes, finally there’s something called Relegation. There’s no such thing in USA but now it’s there in Korea. The name of the hell is Korea National League, coming soon in 2013. The name of heaven is ACL Champions League. Not a name to be associated with heaven, but let’s hope Korean clubs will win it again and again.

And Seongnam will not contest an ACL spot. With Seoul and Qatari clubs poaching their Colombians, Aussies, and Brazilians, they sit at number 10 below Daegu. No, not via FA Cup either – they lost to Ulsan at the 1/8 final. So if now you’re an aspiring Korean footballer and you want to become big, you have better options than Ilhwa Chunma. Good for Korea.

While the eight clubs (two more clubs than previous editions) will contest three Asian spots (four of them – Pohang, Gyeongnam, Jeju, and Ulsan have the KFA Cup backup) have time to rest until mid-September, national coaches around Asia are already preparing for the Brazil 14 Qualifiers, also held in mid-September. Next Thursday Japan will face UAE and Australia take an away trip to Lebanon. Korea will skip the friendlies, but already making headlines in the in brief section for recruiting Park Jong-Woo, probably now the most hated South Korean in Japan, into the roster for the match against Uzbekistan.

On the other hand, Al Zaccheroni have also made up his mind. He will not include Ryo Miyaichi and Hisato Sato. The former is “not having match fitness” while the latter, now the top scorer of J. League, would mean a change to the lineup, and Al Z is not interested with any change. Surely he can at least trade his place with say, Ryoichi Maeda or at least Genki?

At least, when Saturday comes, the world will see Shinji Kagawa playing again (Sunday actually). For his third match, and last weekend all Japanese was in relief – he didn’t embarrass. In fact now he’s seen as one of the best assets for Manchester United, besides van Persie. He’s not, groan, a ‘shirt seller for Far East market’ anymore. He’s the incarnation of Tsubasa Oroza, the number 10. Since Wayne Rooney has to play for number 10 and 9 roles for both Manchester United and England.

And so, now it’s back to leagues watch for me – tracking down European clubs where Japanese and Korean players are. There are dozens of them now, ten years after the post-Korea/Japan boom launched Takahara, Shunsuke, Seol, and Ji-sung to Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Netherlands. And in the past weeks, I did lose track. Week 1 was pretty sad, seeing Kagawa failed to pass Everton’s defense and looking for Ki Sung-yeung in Celtic’s lineup.

Now here’s a summary of how Japanese and Korean players in Europe are doing:

  • Eiji Kawashima (Standard Liege) – the move upward after Lierse. He has conceded six goals, as much as Club Brugge’s Vladan Kujovic, but worse than Belgium’s national keeper Silvio Proto (just one goal gap), and Gent’s Sergio Padt. Fortunately, his team mates are apt in scoring goals.
  • Yuto Nagatomo (Inter) – He didn’t come to Indonesia few months ago, unfortunately, because he had to mark Tim Cahill and Mark Bresciano. After a gloomy season, Inter are off to a good start against Pescara, where he played 90 minutes at the left back. Since the retirement of Lee Young-pyo, Korea are yet to produce his opposite.
  • Park Jo-hoo (Basel) – finally he’s a Red Devil once more. Integral to the defense of Basel, unfortunately last year’s surprise pack of the UCL fell down to CF Cluj, so no more sightings of him on Wednesday nights.
  • Maya Yoshida (VVV Venlo) – the very manly Maya, probably a successor to Marcus Tulio in terms of being an enforcer and a corner kick bulldog, is yet to move a better club. Even in VVV he’s competing with Ismo Vostermann for right center back. At least he has better chance of being a starter than Robert Cullen. UPDATE: Now Yoshida’s with Southampton. He might face Kagawa on Sunday.
  • Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart) – yet to play for his new club.
  • Hiroki Sakai (Hannover) – ditto.
  • Makoto Hasebe (Wolfsburg) – A real tough competition in Wolfsburg, since the slots for defending midfielders are taken by Robin Knoche and international player Marcel Schafer. Iranian winger Ashkan Degajah has better chance to be in the Starting 11. Even in the subs list, Hasebe’s current rank is below Czech’s Jan Polak. Even by Christmas he could be in the transfer market.
  • Hajime Hosogai (Leverkusen) – at least this pretty German-looking guy is on the bench, covering for Simon Rolfes or Lars Bender. The bad news is on the bench there’s also Junior Fernandez from Chile.
  • Keisuke Honda (CSKA) – Back to the tough neighborhood that is the Russian League and he’s comfortable at the left midfield, already scoring two goals from six appearances.
  • Kim Bo-kyung (Cardiff) – Damn, and I had had made of fun of Cardiff :p. Has yet to play for the Red Bluebirds Dragons.
  • Koo Ja-cheol (Augsburg) – another year to survive the Bundesliga. The left wing is his. Last week he duelled against Robbie Kruse from Dusseldorf and both of them were substituted.
  • Ki Sung-yeung (Swansea) – there you are, I was looking for you in Celtic. Is expected to replace Jonathan de Guzman, and has to match Michu’s standard.
  • Lee Chung-yong (Bolton) – Welcome back Chungy. Rumors of transfer to the Premier League is counterbalanced for feeling of grateful for a club that nurtured him (and also Stuart Holden) during the long injury and comfortable starting place.
  • Shinji Okazaki (Stuttgart) – Last year he could hold the competitors – Martin Harnik and Vedad Ibisevic. This season he expects to sit on the bench much longer, next to Cacau.
  • Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United) – top of the world.
  • Mike Havenaar (Vitesse) – If Bony doesn’t deliver, then he’s off for the job, but he’s yet to save the day.
  • Park Chu-young (Celta Vigo) – That’s it, I don’t have to tune in for Arsenal anymore. Tipped to be the successor of van Persie, competing with Gervinho & Theo Walcott, Chu-young moves instead to somewhere nearer Monaco. No what? He’s Arsenal reserve no 30? Possible moves to Fulham or Norwich? But Berbatov also cancels Fiorentina for Fulham? So what’s his club now? Which one I should see? Ah well, at this rate he might play for Sangju Sangmu Phoenix.

And please keep these names in your pray:

Besides the regular intention for Takayuki Morimoto, also pray for Ryo Miyaichi, Atsuto Uchida, Michihiro Yasuda, Cha Du-ri, Tadanari Lee (esp. now he’s lost his love to pretty old man Gackt), Takashi Inui, Ji Dong-won, and Son Heung-min. Jesus loves you, said the Korean players.

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So, was it good?

Baby, you’re a star

How are you with post-Olympics withdrawal? It couldn’t come at the better time here. Friday is Independence Day holiday (how convenient, just two days after Korea’s and a week after Singapore’s) and after that, week-long Idul Fitri break.

I was going to write how I feel with the Olympics in general, but that’s the scope of my East Asian blog. Okay, focus on football.

First impression is of course disappointment. Disappointment that Japan failed to retain its supremacy in women’s football, the disappointment that Korea and Japan failed to reach the final, and while I could accept that Korea sent a better team, the disappointment that Korea had to celebrate their victory sourly.

But on second view, well, they had succeeded where others failed. Sean Carroll explains why Japanese supporters and footballers were good sports in Britain, a place like anywhere in West Europe, where football is the intermingling of fame, fortune, fouls, and yeah, fuck ups. Even in Asia, ‘gamemanship’ is an unknown concept for a Japanese footballer, compared to an Australian or a West Asian. If that ventures into naivety, then be it. They are strong enough to be naive (unless we are talking about ACL play offs :p).

And they shattered the dreams of Spain. If there are countries which are despairing with London, certainly they are not Japan or Korea. That’d be of course Austria, and then Greece (there there), and Brazil and Spain. For the latter two, because for the other weeks of the year, they are making headlines in motorsports….and football. And there’s the invincible Spain, unable to incapacitate the supposedly ‘easy’ Japan.

And then they became the only team besides Brazil – Brazil! which ensured qualification by the second match. Take that, Africa! :p. It was a bit letdown to see them failed to show their authority against Honduras, but you really have to give a credit for a team who refused a pass for United States Men National Team (#USMNT, right? One of popular Twitter tags? Not here, buddy).

The pattern is familiar. Except for Korea/Japan 2002, Japan passed the group stage better than Korea, although Korea’s sole win against Switzerland was enough to incur a Swiss’ wrath. How shocking. By the time the group stage ended, I had feared the familiar scenario – Korea would defeat Japan in the Third Place playoff. As familiar as England’s QF exit.

The news of Korea’s victory was big in Asia – boyband defeating indie band, as they said here in Indonesia. No one here remembers who’s Park Chu-young, Ki Sung-yueng, or Ji Dong-won, but everyone knows who’re Daniel Sturridge, Craig Bellamy, and of course Ryan Giggs. Unfortunately, in Britain the result was more about self-hating – the opinion that Team Great Britain suck and good riddance to them – they can’t even play Korea.

I’m really hoping, with another kill against Africa, Japan 3 Egypt 0, that football fans worldwide will stop regarding African players above Asian players. Not gonna happen. Not while in courtyards all over Europe the players are of Moroccan and Nigerian backgrounds instead of Korean and Japanese.

Of course, we’re not talking about Asian football here. We’re talking about Japanese and South Korean football. Not Chinese. Not Thai. Not even Australian. Hell, I hope not Emirate or Uzbek either. Knowledgeable British pundits and maybe even Australians envy the success of their youth development. While ten years ago young Roos were playing in English Championship or Eredivisie, now young Japanese are playing in Bundesliga and are scoring in the J. League.

These two are truly exceptions. China will not catch up with them (certainly not in Brazil 14) at this rate, and the press and the state don’t care. Why developing a sport which only result in two gold medals while you can grab four each from badminton and table tennis? Therefore China has betrayed its female footballers, the nemesis of United States in 1990s. If Chinese national team can pass the group stage of 2015 AFC Asian Cup, I’d call it an improvement.

And Australia? The Olyroos are never good in the first place, but so did Japan and Korea U23. I hope more Australian analysts would find out what’s not working for Australia, by seeing what’s working for Japan and Korea. As for Southeast Asia, well, heh. Tough luck facing Northeast Asia and West Asia at the same time. Everyone wanted Thailand to be improving (‘everyone’ refers to British, Dutch, Japanese, and Australians, but not other Southeast Asians), but with every passing year, it seems that they just won’t care. First of course, they have to rule Southeast Asia first – in this respect I think it’s necessary to support them in the Suzuki Cup.

That’s the men. For the women, there’s only one talking point – Japan. A very disappointing and concerning group stage, especially when I was kind enough to see 90 minutes of match against South Africa (it’s really hard to catch women football on TV, you know). Japanese women are of course never catching the attention of netters the way Americans do, and outside Japan (after they’ve won the World Cup), no one in Asia is interested to do a feature on them. Not even Adidas outside Japan. I wished the shock against Brazil would wake everyone up. Yeah, maybe to some degree in USA, Britain, and of course Brazil, but certainly not in Asia.

When they were up in the final, I wasn’t sure with the desired result. JFA didn’t really support them in the first place and American supports were too strong. Of course media even here were more interested to publish pictures of Hope Solo and Alex Morgan rather than Yuki Ogimi and the Best Female Footballer on Earth.

But reading the reflections upon the heartbreaking match, yeah, it was worth it. That was indeed the first time Solo had to work hard in the tournament, even when counting the semis against Canada. Of course she knew she could lose – it had happened before. Japanese crowded big screens before dawn the way Australians did in World Cup 2006. Nadeshiko Japan could go home, knowing they are still one of the best teams in the world, and they are better than the men team. They’ve got the silver medals to prove.