It’s not you, darling. It’s your confederation

Japan's defense makes me despaired!

Japan’s defense makes me despaired!

The worst Confed Cup. Ever. No, not you Brazil 2013. You’re great. Neymar. Julio Cesar actually having clean sheet. Torres might claim the Golden Boot. Protests.

I’m talking about Japan’s results. Discounting King Fahd’s Continental Cup (1995, Japan were owned by Nigeria and Argentina), here are Japan’s previous results: Finalists in 2001, win over Canada, Cameroon, and Australia, draw with Brazil. 2003: win over NZ. 2005: Win over Greece (we were talking about Pirate Ship Greece, the terror of Europe), draw with Brazil (in which Ronaldinho and Robinho scored).

It’s easy to pinpoint Japan’s cause of fall down this year: Terrible defense. Still, facing re-surging Brazil at home is not easy. Italy – okay, that’s very terrible defense. And with Mexico…if Japan won that one, it’s doomsday for Javier Hernandez. He would have been remembered as another failed Mexican striker like Guillermo Franco or Carlos Vela (not in their overall career, but in representing Mexico in the shadow of Hugo Sanchez).

Actually I can see while many Brits sympathize with Japan. On international stage, Scots can sympathize with Japanese ability to depress and occasionally impress (can we have a Japanese movie with a sex scene set in January 2011? Like Mark Renton remembering Archie Gemmill?). Actually for the Scots, Japan can win something and only have their star club relegated, not under administration.

While for the English, how the media treat the Japanese national team is like England. While for the ‘mainstream’ it’s full of “England expects”, “date with destiny”, and Page 3 girls in England body paint, for the comedians it’s the self-deprecating jokes unthinkable in United States and Australia. In Japan, it’s “Ganbare Nippon!”, Kirin and Asahi commercials in every window of opportunity, and cute, innocent-like girls in Adidas jersey squealing and clapping. Again, for comedians (and expats) it’s sarcasm and despair.

Actually, June 2013 is despairing time in Asia. Because Japan, Australia, and Korea qualify. My, where would we have been had Australia defeated Japan and the Agony of Doha repeated itself. If Iraq held Australia and Oman had more wins? If Uzbekistan had scored much more goals or if Iran did so? 2014 seems bleak for the Asian qualifiers. Japan need better defense, Australia need better forwards (and a stable, mature goalkeeper. Not Brad Jones, certainly). Korea need..uh…Park Chu-young? Certainly Son Heung-min is not good as he thought he was. They need more friendlies. Even Iran worry about their goalscoring ability.

What happens in Asia is that West Asia (including Uzbekistan, if you will) are catching up with the slow-moving Northeast Asia (including Australia and excluding China). Maybe it’s the physics. Maybe it’s the pride. Maybe it’s the atmosphere, the space where Amman and Beirut are macho worlds away from Urawa, Suwon, and even surprisingly, Melbourne.

On the other hand, while the power gap inside the confederation is decreasing, that’s not the case globally. The lesson from 2010 World Cup was the world belonged to Europe and South America, but CONCACAF (United States, actually) and Asia (Japan and Korea. No, not Bizarro Korea) could eclipse Africa (except Ghana, which actually defeated USA). The African World Cup demonstrated the free fall of African football, in the age of Didier Drogba, Obafemi Martins, and Benoit Assou-Ekotto.

What’s the lessons of 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup? Well, it shows that Brazil can rise up when Nike needs them and that OFC is such likeable, whether in the form of New Zealand or Tahiti (even I did, as Steevy Chong Hue is the first ethnic Chinese to play in FIFA Confederations Cup), and Japan are Japan, even when their defenders and keeper have played regularly in the Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, and the Premier League. Panicked, timid, awkward, and frustrated.

The biggest fear of Japanese fans is if Kagawa and Honda are actually not that great. Well, they are 83-81 out of 100 players, in a world where many footballers are above 85. Had not for the terrible defending, the Italy 2 Japan 3 match would have been remembered for Kagawa’s sublime volley, Okazaki’s talent as a right winger, and Balotelli’s red card out of frustration. Oh, that’s also a glaring problem. Either Japan have no functional striker since times immemorial or they needs to abandon 4-2-3-1 or its predecessor a decade ago, 4-5-1, which had made Masashi Nakayama, Masashi Oguro, Keiji Tamada, Ryoichi Maeda, and even Shinji Okazaki as unhappy as Charlie Brown. Even Australia are having the same problem. It works in Asia, but not globally.

In any case, we have witnessed that world football belong to Europe and South America and this tournament as predictable and straightforward and it can get. If Asia cannot break the domination, then the three Northeast Asian powers need to lengthen the gap with their West Asian rivals. No more defeats during trips to Oman or Jordan, and full control in home matches. The supporters have done more than enough, it’s the team who have to raise the roof.

One more thing. I don’t think anyone is happy with their confederation now. It’s all corruption, self-congratulatory, and passion for mediocrity in every confederation now. It’s certainly has done unspeakable damage for Africa and humiliated CONCACAF. It’s no surprise if Australian, Japanese, and Korean influences are kept at arm length in AFC politics. Therefore, as hard to accept it, maybe the point of supporting the Brazilian protests is to tell FIFA that it cannot live in its own corporate world (as much as I am proud of more Asian corporations featured in the stadiums, I do feel the global and continental sponsors completely kick out the local taste and business out of the picture). What Australia, Japan, and Korea can do (much better than relying on Toto and Samsung) are playing hard and playing to kill. If it’s too hard against Brazil or Italy, then do it at Qatar and Uzbekistan. Do it at each other. Because Belgium and United States won’t wait.

Drink when they're winning. Hey, is this from 2010? OK then!

Drink when they’re winning. Hey, is this from 2011? OK then!

 

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My love-hate-love feeling for Australia

Since Honda & Kagawa won't do this.

Since Honda & Kagawa won’t do this.

They were the big boys of Oceania – an artificial region composing Pacific area outside Asia. Asia itself is a broad definition – from Syria to Japan and Indonesia. In the past Oceania served as a bin for associations with political complications, like Israel and Taiwan.

In Oceania, however, Australia didn’t make it to the World Cup apart from 1974. New Zealand made in in 1982, and in other occasions they lost the playoffs against Europe (Scotland in 1985), South America (Uruguay in 2001), and even Asia (Iran in 1997). At the same time, the question of Australia’s place in Asia Pacific arose again, at it had been in 1980s and 1990s (and now). Asian students had become a part of Australia’s capitals, Asian Australians were growing in numbers (propelled by Southeast Asians from children of Vietnamese boat people to Malaysian students securing permanent residency), and Sydney stock market is comparable to Shanghai’s (after 2000s), Singapore’s, and Seoul’s.

When I arrived in Australia a decade ago, football was a messy affair of South European rivalry. South Melbourne were a Greek club as Sunshine were Croatian. Just a decade ago, football was seen as a Euro sport, although Anglo-Irish players had appeared, like Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton. Australia did really well in the 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup (the last time Japan beat them in 90 minutes, 1-0 by Hide Nakata), but the team continued a heartbreaking streak of losing the intercontinental playoffs. I remember them went down to Argentina in 1993 (Diego Maradona vs Ned Zelic), Iran in 1997 (equalized from 0-2 down in the first half), and the start of bitter rivalry with Uruguay in 2001 (total 7 yellow cards for the hosts in Montevideo). And that was before Luis Suarez.

So Australia, who held world record for 31-0 (insert verbal noun) over American Samoa, thought it’s better to work their way up against Syria, Uzbekistan, and Thailand before jostling for a ticket with Japan and Saudi Arabia (hey, this was a decade ago. OK, Iran then). Rather than steamrolling Vanuatu, knocking New Zealand on the head, and only to go down again in intercontinental.

They did get their wish in 2005 when Mark Bresciano scored against Uruguay in Sydney, equalizing the aggregate to 1-1. 35 year old Mark Schwarzer failed Dario Rodriguez (who beat him in Montevideo) and Marcelo Zalayeta (Uruguay had withdrawn Alvaro Recoba and didn’t play Diego Forlan), and the overjoyed running of John Aloisi entered the lore of Australian sports. He was seen, thanks to the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup, as a better forward to Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell (who had become a winger at this time). At the same year, the A-League was launched, to close curtains on the semi-professional quality and ethnics division of Australian football.

Luckily Konami Australia chose this over when he celebrated against Japan.

Luckily Konami Australia chose this over when he celebrated against Japan.

Then the crack came. As a representative for Oceania, they belonged to the same pot with South America and Africa in the draw – and were put in Group F with Japan. The plot was that Brazil (featuring the ‘golden square’ of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka, and Adriano) would breeze through with Croatia came second. The third place would be either Australia or Japan.

Looking back, the air of confidence between Australia and Japan were quite difference. Australia put in the air of defiance, even portraying Japan as a better favorite. But they didn’t care. Nike chose Mark Bresciano (“More than happy to be there”) while adidas promoted Harry Kewell (“+10”). Japan also had big confidence, but outside Japan only Shunsuke Nakamura was considered dangerous enough. This assumption held on the match day. Masashi Oguro played in a minor club in Serie A. Hidetoshi Nakata was seen as a has-been. I spoke to some Japanese students a week before the match and I was more optimistic on Naohiro Takahara than they were. Actually I worried that captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto raised the nation spirit by organizing a futsal match between Morning Musume vs JAL stewardesses instead of increasing his training regime.

But I felt happier living in the otaku (anime geek) world in contrast to the manly Aussie sports world. At this time I felt I had been lost in touch with the Asian part of Australian life that I enjoyed, and so Japan represented that Asian joy, while Australia represented the reality of Western civilization that I was living in. It was a classical East vs West battle.

And I hated Australia for that. And I knew that everything I counted on Japan was wrong. Cahill was better playmaker than Shunsuke. Schwarzer was a better keeper than Kawaguchi. Alex was always ineffective as an attacking forward. And that Japan’s substitutes were lack of quality. The early morning chants of Australian supporters when they passed to the Round of 16 was the worst rude awakening I ever had (my life’s pretty uneventful, huh?).

When Italy defeated Australia and Fabio Grosso became the Dirty Diego of the tournament, Chinese match commentators screamed ecstatically, cursing Australia to the point of being racist. That’s what many Asian males feel about Australia joining AFC. We have no problems with Iranians or Uzbeks, but you ‘whities’ don’t belong here in Asia.

A year later, I was back in Indonesia and Australia were favorites to win the 2007 Asian Cup. In Thailand, Australian supporters wore the bamboo farmer cone caps, something that Thais or any other Southeast Asian supporters never wear (and all the Aussies were white). Indonesia hosted Korea, who played badly against Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Korea needed to defeat Indonesia to pass and Koreans in Jakarta supported them from behind…faaar behind from the safety of gated communities and bulgogi joints. While the Australians felt comfortable in Bangkok (they also did badly against Iraq and Oman), eating rambutan and drinking Chang beer, the Koreans were too terrified to visit the stadium. Too many ‘brownies’ for their comfort. Korean expats are happy for a family outing in Doha or Dubai but not Djakarta.

Australia, in the end, counted their first Asian Cup as bad experience. Aloisi repeated his achievement in scoring against Japan, but Takahara came back with a vengeance. Kewell and Neill failed to defeat Kawaguchi, but Takahara threw away his chance. Australia did have a hope, but Nakazawa scored. With the ousting, David Carney and Nick Carle failed to become Australia’s next big stars. Japan later found out that while Australia had no desire to kill them, Korea did. The next year, Adelaide United reached the AFC Champions League final, only to be shot down 0-3, 0-2 by Gamba Osaka. 2008 proved to be the zenith point for both J-League and A-League in Asia.

My hatred for the Socceroos continued in the FIFA World Cup qualifications, but two things happened. 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup was forgettable because Asia was represented by Iraq. Secondly, watching Australia facing Bahrain, Qatar, and Uzbekistan, part of me wanted them to lose and part of me were irritated with the quarrelsome and vain West Asians and their stadiums that were devoid of women. I began to see the common point between Australia and Japan. It was in Japan’s interest that Australia went well against the West Asians. I also always want Japan to play as passionate and dominating the way Australia do (Australia scored 12 goals, two on Japan, while Japan scored 11. The big difference was Australia conceded only one – the scorer was Tulio Tanaka).

Then came the day Australia’s supremacy and defiance ended. Schwarzer was looking forward to face the country of his parents and Tim Cahill was one of the best playmaker in England. They scared Germany in the first five minutes. Three minutes later, Podolski scored. Then Klose. Then forward Cahill received red card. Then Muller scored again. Kick off, then it’s the turn of substitute Cacau.

Looking back, Australia did as well as they did in 2006 – draw with Ghana and victory over Serbia, with Brett Holman came into prominence. Problem was Ghana had the better goal aggregate. And so Pim Verbeek was deemed as a failure.

Was I happy? Absolutely. Of course, United States vs Australia would have become an ultimate soccer game. But everyone needed a lovable African team and they were Ghana.

In 2011, my dilemma of Australia vs West Asia returned. Disappointed that Korea failed to defeat them but happy that they defeated Bahrain, Iraq, and destroyed Uzbekistan. Tim Cahill, as always, could become Japan’s nemesis. He came close to score but he didn’t, and Tadanari Lee’s volley made Japan, once more, the Kings of Asia. Unfortunately, Lee’s moment failed to spark renewed respect for the Korean-Japanese. Worse, his fellow Korean-Japanese girlfriend left him for Okinawan geek girl’s god Gackt and he failed to settle in Southampton.

Two other things happened recently. The hostile nationalism gripping all Asian nations, including Japan and Korea, and their disdain for liberalism and green issues, has made me wide awake at nights. Australia has become a standard for everything right about society and politics (compared to Japan, Korea, and Singapore, my Australian friends).

Second, I’m teaching Australian cultural studies and I’m loving it. I prefer Girls’ Generation but I play Gotye and Sia. My students enjoyed Packed to the Rafters that I showed while I like Dream High and Working!! better. From advising nervous and excited teenagers how to enjoy life in Australia, I’ve come to fall in love with it again.

The cordial atmosphere between Japan and Australia last week has become a point where I’ve come to accept Australia as one of the East Asians. But not yet. Australia still have no footballer from Asian background. Australia still has almost no athlete from East Asian background (only diver Melissa Wu comes into mind, plus some badminton players). The only Asian Australian footballer I know (discounting those of Lebanese backgrounds) is Brendan Gan, who played for Sydney FC and now is with New South Wales Premier League’s Rockdale City Suns (formerly a Macedonian club). If the chance comes, he opts to play for Malaysia rather than Australia.

And so the quest for Soccer Australia’s Jeremy Lin still afar. It can be ten years from now, or it can be soon after 2015. Or much longer, the way United States still yet to find the heir to Brian Ching and Canada with Issey Nakajima-Farran (and both players are half-white). When he comes and plays for the green and gold, I’ll completely support the Socceroos.