2015 AFC Asian Cup. Yay.

Nasser Al Shamrani ponders where he will go out tonight in Melbourne.

Happy New Year, Maya Yoshida. That’s a sweet victory against Arsenal, wasn’t it? You did good job in blocking Alexis Sanchez, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (a hipster favorite), and Theo Walcott for 20 minutes. You’re good to go for Australia 2015.

Asians are so diligent and hardworking, we are doing a major tournament in the first working week of 2015. Making the good use of southern hemisphere summer.

And so let’s see the teams that will compete in Asian Cup 2015.

Australia

When they won the hosting rights in 2011 (without competition), it was too easy. Only Japan could spoil their party. Four years later, everyone could tear down the house. Australia had experienced defeats by Qatar, China, Japan (in 90 minutes in 2013, breaking a 12 years record), and Jordan. They were held by Oman, North Korea, South Africa, and UAE.

As I said, while Australians tell each other that they are on transition, the world does not care. Asia enjoys the agony. [Update: Australia have stopped saying that they are on transition.]

Tim Cahill, still the most reliable goal scorer for the last ten years, survived against pretenders like John Aloisi, Scott McDonald, Brett Holman, and Joshua Kennedy. Now Australia badly need new goalscorers. Thankfully Nathan Burns is on good form, Tomi Juric is at the crossroad (his last goal came in November), while Mat Leckie is doing fine with Ingolstadt, currently topping the 2. Bundesliga.

Australians and me hope that they could be like Germany in 2006 – turning shameful slumps into a glorious, proud summer (the semi final match could be held on Australia Day). Therefore the only permissible way to begin is to win comfortably against Kuwait. If everything goes well (Korea are a major stumbling block), then it’s quarter final against China in Melbourne. That’s dream comes true for broadcasters and organizers, but expect plenty of venom coming from Chinese commentators (since Australians are, uh, Western white men). The other option is no more friendly – Spiranovic vs Al Shamrani II.

Going to semis? Iran. The ideal final, of course, pitches Australia and Japan.

Goalkeeper: Ryan

Defenders: Franjic, Sainsbury, Spiranovic, Davidson

Midfielders: Jedinak, Bresciano, McKay

Forwards: Kruse, Cahill (false 9), Oar/Leckie

Korea

Supposedly, they have put the disaster of 2013-14 behind with the leadership of Uli Stielike, the only German international to fail a penalty shootout. Their recent records are still mixed, however – wins against Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Paraguay, losses to Iran (a bloody one), Costa Rica, and Uruguay. Like Australia, they were on transition but Koreans hardly said that (at least in English).

The match against Australia is the biggest challenge, and I would say it will end in a draw, just like in 2011. A quarter final against North Korea is unlikely (some South Koreans actually fancy the idea), while Korean “netizens” hope for China so they can update Eul-Yong Ta for 2010s.

The semi final will be another heated affair whether as runner ups or group winners – either Iran or Japan. Heck, even in the final they will face either Iran or Japan and things can go nasty. Boy, Koreans do have plenty of issues, don’t they?

Goalkeeper: Kim Seung-gyu

Defenders: Kim Chang-soo, Kwak, Kim Young-gwon, Park Joo-ho

Midfielders: Lee Chung-yong, Ki, Koo

Forwards: Cho Yeung-chol, Lee Keun-ho, Son

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan, Uzbekistan. Our football team is more famous than Kazakhstan’s. We have Natasha Alam and you Kazakhstan have…you have that volleyball cutie.

No, she won’t care about Asian Cup. Maybe neither is Natasha Alam.

Remember Road to Japan and Korea? A pretty surreal qualification since Japan and Korea were not in and Australia were still in OFC. So if you remove these three nations, the final round of AFC qualification would be full of creepy countries ruled by mad dictators. Group B is a terrible put down. I blame the desert and the northern latitudes. And Stalin.

Uzbekistan feature the balanced lineups of players based in Uzbekistan (always a challenge in AFC Champions League, although not big spenders like Bunyodkor used to be). The spread of its foreign-based players is also interesting. Vitaly Denisov and Lutfulla Turaev play for Lokomotiv (spelling it “Locomotive” makes it sounds less communist) Moscow, Anzur Ismailov is with Changchun Yatai, Bahodir Nasimov plays in Iran, and captain Server Djeparov still can eat Seongnam’s best bulgogi. Not to mention those who play in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

So there’s no reason they cannot ace Group B, above Saudi Arabia and China. A quarter final against Korea will be a friendly derby, and so does semi final against Japan. For a mad dictatorship, it’s surprising that they have no personal problem with anyone.

Saudi Arabia

The ballad of Nasser Al Shamrani. Australians heckled him mercilessly in Melbourne when Saudi Arabia were humiliated 1-4 by Bahrain and in Parramatta, home of Western Sydney Wanderers. They will hunt him again in Brisbane and Melbourne. It’s still unknown if Arab-Australians will stand up for him, especially (or despite) after Al Hilal players described Sydney as the boonies.

China

Thank God you’re here, said the organizer. Otherwise Asian Cup will be devoid of the most important of all East Asians. Will Chinese-Australians care about China? Maybe they hardly care about any sport in the first place. But the Chinese students will persuade their Southeast Asian (and some Australian) friends to support China.

China did plenty of friendlies in preparation of the cup, but none of them was outside China. Why bother going to savage lands where you can invites barbarians such as Kyrgyzs (twice), Palestines, and New Zealanders to enjoy a bit of Chinese hospitality in the world-famous cities of Nanchang, Chenzhou, Shenzhen (Hong Kong’s ugly sister!), and Changsa?

Half-assed friendlies in faraway cities to tire out the visitors, local-based players since no Chinese footballer is good enough to play in Europe (and why bother playing in tiny Mainz where you can enjoy Guangzhou’s nightlife), and equally strong opponents. They won’t make it past the group stage.

North Korea

Scums of the Earth and a total waste of space. But wait, even the Hermit Kingdom has players based in Europe and Japan! Wunderbar! Ryang Yong-gi and Ri Yong-jik are Korean-Japanese who swear allegiance to North Korea. Now the nice Switzerland opens its door to the misunderstood North Koreans, from Kim Jong-un to Cha Jong-hyok and Pak Kwang-ryong, who is loaned by Basel to Vaduz. Hey, Liechtenstein is just like North Korea – the people are smiling, the mountains are beautiful, and the underground vault is shining.

Iran

Look at the champions. Asia’s best. Lack of playing time but they make the best of it, whether against Korea or Iraq. Like in 1997, they can expect full support from Iranian Australians. Their European players are so-so: Keeper Alireza Haghighi keeps picking balls from inside his net with Penafiel in Portugal, Javad Nekounam still proves his worth with four goals with Osasuna, while his team mate Karim Ansarifad is yet to score. But as a team, they can be invincible. Iranians will gleefully see the Princes of Persia slash down those pesky Arabs (they are conveniently group with Qatar, Bahrain, and UAE, who insist that it’s called Arabian Gulf).

Japan

The samurais care less that their daimyo is accused of match fixing back in 2010 – they have a cup to defend. Traditionally Japanese fans will sit on the fence – Aguirre is another foreigner whose main purpose is to lead Nippon. If he won’t resign over the allegation, he will resign over bad results. But he won’t stay forever.

Japanese footballers, the mainstay of Asian football in Europe, are again in dire need of redemption. Shinji Kagawa must be cannot believe his terrible luck, worse than his Manchester United days. Keisuke Honda could not sustain his goal scoring streaks and now Milanistas are singing for Jeremy Menez instead of him. 2015 has arrived and Eiji Kawashima is still thinking about next season – stay or leave? – as he’s sitting on Liege’s bench. His challenger, Shusaku Nishikawa, rue the days he slipped the J. League trophy – and the chance to be Japan’s number 1 – past his hands.

For some others, this is the moment of truth. Yasuhito Endo can’t believe his fairy tale story. At 34 going 35, he resurrected a disgraced team to win a Triple and is still Japan’s best holding midfielder for one and half decade. Without ever playing in Europe. Shinji Okazaki wants to match his club performance with national team performance, especially if he wants to move a bigger (and better paying) club next August. Yoshinori Muto will be thrilled to think which European scouts are watching him.

Japan will face nemeses Jordan and Iraq and have to put up with the crowds and the world who will support Palestine. They will get the job done and will face one of the Gulf nations. Then it’s Uzbekistan, who defeated them twice on the Road to Brazil. Then a final showdown against Australia or less likely, Iran.

Goalkeeper: Kawashima (my choice is as tricky as Aguerre’s. Higashiguchi can handle Palestine but first impression is everything)

Defenders: Sakai, Konno, Yoshida, Nagatomo

Midfielders: Endo, Hasebe, Kiyotake, Kagawa, Honda

Forward: Okazaki

I’m not worried about Southeast Asian Football

1200 people actually watched this! I must have missed them on TV!

1200 people actually watched this! I must have missed them on TV!

Two years ago I boycotted coverage and opinion (well I did opinions) on Singapore League as long as Dan Tan was at large. He was arrested (what’s the situation now? I’m too afraid to check. Don’t want to read another Kong Hee), and so the boycott was lifted. The next time I visit Singapore, I intend to watch an S. League match. Should be simple…go to Jalan Besar or any other stadium and pay at the box office, since the stadium must be deserted.

But that plan has been crossed. I watched two international football matches broadcasted live from Jalan Besar stadium and they were terrible. First match was AFC Champions League qualification where Tampines Rovers hosted South China. The shoves were deliberate, unsporting behaviors, tempers, overaged and overweight white players. And no spectator.

The next match was Singapore against Jordan, AFC Asian Cup qualification. Again, the match, like the previous, saw at least two red cards.

I come from a country famous for mismanagement, corruption, unpaid wages, and football as political vehicles. I idolized Singapore for several reasons – it’s the only functional state in Southeast Asia, and by no coincidence it’s the only Chinese-majority state in the region. It’s the closest and easiest place to experience the First World in transportation, security, and trade. It’s the closest and easiest place to experience East Asia in culture, entertainment, food, and fashion.

For years I’ve refused to accept the reality that football in 21st century Singapore is a Malay scene. It was a Singaporean scene, but now it’s really rare to find Chinese and Indian players on the pitch – strangely, even it’s rarer to find Singapore-born Westerners playing professional football. It’s easier to find Chinese and Indians in Malaysian teams and the half-(or more) Western locals are quite easy to find among Filipino, Hong Kong, and even Japanese teams.

Seeing how Tampines and the Lions performed, it was understandable that “footbrawl” was a quite common word in Singapore, although thankfully the worst had came past us. I only can speculate wildly on the underlying causes. The pressure of living in unhappy, perfectionist Singapore (although you don’t see the same thing in J. League and K-League)? Disparity between living in a high income country and playing in an underfunded league? The weird situation of being a league where foreign teams have to keep on participating for financial and political reasons? Proximity with the mother of match fixing cartel?

Certainly, now I think it’s better to spend two-three hours exploring parts of Singapore (besides Orchard Road) rather than watching low quality football where I won’t get what I want to see – Chinese men doing athletics and Chinese women cheering for them.

The following week watching Muang Thong and Chonburi was easier. More spectators, although yeah, Muang Thong vs Hanoi was also a rough match. Unfortunately, the next week I had to support the non Southeast Asian teams – Melbourne Victory and Beijing Guoan. Maybe at the end, Australia and China deserve more Champions League spot than Thailand.

I believe at this time I’ve given up big expectations on Southeast Asian football and be happy with it. No point in hoping they can match East Asia if they cannot match West Asia. No point in hoping for more Chinese-Singaporean footballers if there are not many Chinese-Australian, Chinese-American, and heck, capable Chinese footballers around.

These days I happily watch the Indonesian Super League from television and be thankful that my town hosts the only Chinese-Indonesian footballer, Kim Kurniawan (besides Espanyol B’s Arthur Irawan). These days I follow the A-League highlights on Australia Network and be happy that Guangzhou Evergrande has returned to Earth. These days I keep on thinking “Well it’s not Kagawa fault” when he’s not on the Manchester United lineup, expecting Honda and Nagatomo’s goals or assists, and hoping that the Bundesliga match will be something else besides Munich or Dortmund. And keeping track of Eiji Kawashima’s clean sheet (5 matches so far).

If the 2015 Asian Cup has no Southeast Asian representative (Malaysia by long shot), then be it. One day they will be able to defeat Lebanon, Oman, and China. But I won’t wait for that day.

The Dutch World Tour

I wanna be adored.

Once upon the time there was South Korea. No, first we had to go to Holland. By the way, I just understand why it’s better to refer it as Holland when talking football rather than the Netherlands after watching the POR – NED match last month. So, Leo Beenhakker coached Holland in Italy 1990 when they won nothing. In the next World Cup he found himself leading against Holland in the first half before eventually the Arabians (the players were not really related with the Sultan’s clan) fell 1-2. But what impacts have Saudi Arabia made. They became the first Asian team to pass the group stage and to score a victory in the World Cup. Against tournament’s regulars Belgium. They will seek to repeat that winning performance in Brazil 2014.

Came in Dick Advocaat. Holland did very well in USA 94, and he was wise enough to move back to the Eredivisie before he had to babysit big egos such as Patrick Kluivert and Edgar Davids in the national team. Plus someone had to help PSV to stand up against Ajax’s tyranny of Europe in the 1994-95 season. Ten years later, he was in the comfort of Dubai when Seoul called him. Korea were still looking for the image of Hiddink. Korea would not be the only nation in love with Dutch managers. Australia and Russia would follow the pattern.

Guus Hiddink, the man for Euro 96, returned law and order to the national team. Here’s the story of Dutch internal problems in England accompanied with his marvelous brown mustache and the team’s warm rugby shirts. Those who are lucky enough to grow up in the 1990s and followed Euro closely would remember that Davids was shipped back across the North Sea for dissent against the manager. Here’s a CNN gem for those of you who want to remember how exciting it was to read CNN.com through your Netscape Navigator. All for saying that he’s too deep in Danny Blind’s ass (the Dutch, of course, speak American English).

No such bad boy problem in Korea, at least compared to Holland. They did fine in the 2001 Confederations Cup with victories over Mexico and Australia, despite early beat-up by France. Hwang Sun-Hong looked promising as the forward. Of course, Koreans were disappointed to see him failing to bring Korea past the group stage, while Japan reached the final. Australia, ironically, were the chaos agent. They could bring down France and Mexico but not Korea, they lost to Japan in semi-final – last Japan’s victory in 90 minutes against Australia so far – and yet were on form again against Brazil. It was Australia who ‘took’ Korea’s second place, and it was Australia who made Japan qualified for the final.

US Gold Cup 2002 was a terrible tournament and a cause of scare in Korea. Hiddink thought that Lee Dong-Gook was a part of the problem so he was dropped from the squad. Then came in the most glorious summer in South Korean history – victories over Poland, revenge against United States in speed skating (Americans never understand what’s the connection between Apollo Ohno and Ahn Jung-Hwan’s goal celebration), the destruction of ‘Golden Generation’ Portugal, and ahem, Italy and Spain (in one breath). In the match for the third place they became the recipient of the world’s fastest goal, but overall Korea ended their match against Turkey in good spirit.

 

Guus Hiddink is officially a god of Korea. Officially he’s a honorary citizen of Republic of Korea, the first. Ever. That means that he’s taken as an equal of the Korean race. Free taxi, free air tickets, the naming rights for the Gwangju stadium, and a Guuseum in Varsseveld, painted in red. A god. He returned to PSV with Park Ji-Sung and Lee Young-Pyo in tow. Lee would struggle in Tottenham, while Park’s UCL semi-final’s goal against Milan brought him to Manchester United. The god had created the first Korean football superstar in the 21st century.

 

 

But his lasting image created banes for the next coaches. You know, like when co-workers and clients compare you with the person before you took over the job. Jo Bronfrere took Korea to qualify to Germany 2006 and that’s about it. Advocaat, the man who replaced him, did the magic with 2-1 win over Togo and Park Ji-Sung put France’s campaign in jeopardy. Ironically, by the next week Korea were ousted by Switzerland while France reached the final.

Meanwhile, Guus Hiddink had become the new hero for Australia and John Safran  took credit for banishing the curse for the Socceroos. After the glorious/horrific turn-of-table against Japan and kicking out Croatia, and to leave the tournament due to Italy’s foul play (which was greeted with glee in Asia), Hiddink had set the trend in Australia as well. Now they also loved Dutch coaches, although they didn’t deify him.

Pim Verbeek, who was famous for sitting behind Hiddink in 2001-02, replaced Advocaat. The heir to the master was the butler. Asian Cup 2007 was a mixed feeling for Korea – barely surviving the group thanks to 1-0 win over Indonesia, they went on to win the third place, sweetly breaking Osim’s Japan. Verbeek wasn’t ousted – he gave up due to exhaustion.  He needed the more relaxed atmosphere of Australia.

So in 2009, Verbeek was in Australia while Hiddink was in Russia. Russia became the strong contenders for the Euro 08 and were expected to create an impression in South Africa 2010. Australia reclaimed the top spot in Asia and were expected to go even further than in Germany. Advocaat was coaching, er, Belgium.

And theeen….Russia fell to Slovenia, controversially. But the damage’s done since they could only defeat Slovenia 2-1 at home. They couldn’t ask for easier team. Hiddink missed his first World Cup in 12 years. That’s what you get for managing two teams at once – Russia and Chelsea. Even Advocaat failed to rescue a star-studded failure that is Belgium, and Verbeek was disgraced in South Africa – despite defeating Serbia, no one expected Australia to burn badly against Germany, and the failure started the forward crisis that is still unresolved (and no, Australia don’t flourish with Spain’s 4-6-0).

By the end Asian Cup 07, Korea have gone local, utilizing the class of Mexico 86, modeled after the success story of Huh Jung-Moo. Australia still stick with German Holger Osieck, who might stick around until the conclusion of the next World Cup. Advocaat just finished his tenure with the shooting star Russia, and Verbeek is the manager of Morocco U-23 who will compete in the London Olympics.

Now we come pretty much full circle with Louis van Gaal, the coach who failed to take Holland to Korea/Japan – and who mentored Captain Tsubasa to work together in the center with Rivaldo behind Kluivert (in real life, he insisted that Rivaldo belonged to the wing). With Advocaat and Bert van Maarwijk free, it’s up for Australia and clubs in Russia (and the national team for the latter) to grab them. No, it seems that K-League and J. League clubs are not very interested.

The importance of Lee Dong-Gook

내가 제일 잘 나가

I never like a bad boy. Just the nature of a geek who plays by the book. There is, however, a bad boy who I admire. Lee Dong-Gook. On Tuesday he scored twice in injury time to defeat the Manchester City of Asia, Guangzhou Evergrande (which just recruited Lucas Barrios, former team mate of Shinji Kagawa). Now Lee stands as the top scoring Asian in the ACL, along with Al-Hilal’s duo Naif Hazazi and Mohamed Abosaban (and Iranian Arash Borhani). In the K-League, he’s the only Korean and AFC player in the top five of goal scorers. He was the MVP and top scorer of 2011 ACL and the MVP of K-League 2011.

Yet, he does better service to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors than to the national team. Lee has played for Korea since World Cup 1998, and was the top scorer of 2000 Asian Cup (which was rough enough for Korea, finishing third in the group below China and Kuwait, before taking the third place of the tournament), scoring late goals against Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China, plus a hattrick against Indonesia. He failed to flourish in Werder Bremen, but scored the winning goal against Chile in the Sydney Olympics. A deep irony since Chile, Spain, and Korea all finished group stage with two wins and one defeat, and Korea had the worst goal difference (due to 0-3 damage done by Spain) while Chile had the best.

Enter Guus Hiddink for the 2002 project and he disliked D.G. He was powerful but was not fast or long-lasting – his assessment after the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Like his Japanese counterpart Takayuki Suzuki, he was seen as a “Lazy Genius” – he had the potential but didn’t work hard for it. So he was not in and Hiddink never regretted the decision, while Troussier was in despair after he omitted Shunsuke Nakamura and Naohiro Takahara was not available. In true bad boy fashion, Dong-Gook spent the glorious Korean summer drinking and tuning out of the tournament.

He got over the bitterness with the national service (Korean celebrities answer the draft when they think they’re over their prime) and returned to Pohang Steelers afterward. He scored goals in all but one Korea’s match in the 2004 Asian Cup, but unfortunately he was out-vicioused (this is not a word) by Ali Karimi who scored three against Korea. He led South Korea to qualify for Germany 2006, but World Cup rejected him again – injury failed him and Korea had to settle for Lee Chun-Soo, Ahn Jung-Hwan, Seol Ki-Hyeon (all veteran of 2002) and the young Christian hope Park Chu-Young.  After they went down to Switzerland, it was clear that Korea needed Lee Dong-Gook.

In his ninth year of service, Lee demonstrated why he was bad. The highlight of his contribution for 2007 Asian Cup was his carousing in Jakarta with unsung K-League hero Woo Sung-Yong and the darling of Muslim fans Lee Woon-Jae. He played for Middlesbrough so he escaped the club ban, but he was so disappointing in England and was remembered as a drunkard. The downfall seemed hard enough that he had to play for Moonie club Seongnam (which is a great club, but you have to pity any sane people who seeks employment there. As for the fans, I just assume that they love the city) and was still a flop.

And yet, Jeonbuk saved him. The credit might go to coach Choi Kang-Hee who wised him up. Right of the bat, he was not only becoming the top scorer of 2009 K-League, but also took Jeonbuk to win the K-League Championship for the first time. He never looked back again in the K-League and the ACL. It was a big disappointment that he failed to win the 2011 Champions League, but then he just recovered from injury.

The question is if Lee Dong-Gook is that good. He finally got his World Cup in 2010, as a sub, and he failed to impress. Added with his bad record in Germany and England, and the answer is he’s not good enough for global competition. But for Asian competition, the 33-year old can be said as the deadliest striker residing in Asia. His closest rival would be Ali Karimi. Joshua Kennedy is yet to shine in the ACL, and J. League clubs hardly have illustrious Japanese forwards in their Asian campaigns (Gamba’s Masato Yamazaki is unemployed – the closest thing to a good Japanese striker is Tokyo’s Kazuma Watanabe).

Lee Dong-Gook flourishes in a tournament where clubs in both West and East Asia are even more depended on South American and African forwards, while their best strikers are studying in Europe. Australia tried to buck this trend with no avail. Even so, he’s successful in both the Korean and the Asian fronts. He’s more than good for both. He’s the best for both leagues. He can’t deliver anymore to the Red Devils, but he deserves to be called a legend for the Mad Green Boys.

Asian Cup and SE Asian Cup

Seems I’ve missed two trains – the AFF Suzuki Cup playoffs and finals, and the AFC Asian Cup group stage. Luckily, redemption waits. Tonight Japanese supporters felt big relief and even some pride as Japan came back from two upsets to beat hosts Qatar 3-2 before the Extra Time. They are, also, mad with the referee who red carded defender Yoshida, (correctly) deemed Qatar’s first goal was onside, and prolonged the second injury time. As it happened, the referee is Malaysian, Subkhiddin Mohd Salleh.

Indonesians still have strong opinion for Malaysia. Although I wanted to steer clear from this supposed silliness, I could not. Yes, 3 quick goals against Indonesia in Kuala Lumpur was caused by Indonesia’s own ineptitude, and Indonesia’s frustration in losing to Malaysia on aggregate was more driven by the loss of self-made dream caused by over-exposition by Indonesian press and politicians to its maturing team.

But, even as it’s unfair to say this, it’s still hard for me personally to associate Malaysian football with integrity. Yes, of course Malaysian players and coach Rajagobal are decent people, and the Football Association is still a public enemy in Indonesia, even its chair Nurdin Halid won Guardian Football’s  “Most Corrupted President of the Year” – nobody in the world is worst than him, except perhaps the homophobic Croatian FA president. But during the online debates on the laser incident in Kuala Lumpur (which also recurred earlier in QF against Vietnam), Malaysian supporters offered no coherent arguments other than “well you did it first in Jakarta!”‘ or “Indonesia should not complain too much – we are brothers and you are supposed to be happy that Malaysian football does well.” (what? Nobody thought of simple “sore losers!” ?)

So when the referee for Japan-Qatar match is from Malaysia, and Japanese supporters screamed injustice, well, I associated his performance with his nationality. Actually it made sense – Qatar is not just the host but also strives hard to prove its worthiness as World Cup host (failed). Then, let’s face it, Muslim Malaysians would have softer spot for Qatar. My love for Asian football has to do with East Asian pride and quest for identity.

Whatever the reason – because when you talk about amateur refereeing, Europeans are not happy with their refs as well – both the Asian Cup and AFF Cup shows that Southeast Asian standards are still very much low. My pet gripe is the ridiculous home-away format of the finals. It prolonged the eight nations into a month as if it is the World Cup with so much wasted money and energy. It completely null the thrill of a tournament – giving all you’ve got before the home crowd or in foreign soil, with limited resting time and the risks of injuries, suspension, and bad luck. Although it’s never the intention of the AFF, by the time of Semi Finals the cup has become a farce in Indonesia. The president made the team his trophy, under the delusion that ‘Mandela did it too in Invictus‘. The press hovered on half-European Irfan Bachdim and scores of Filipino players, who flaunted their choleric emotion on field, a by-product of survival in American and European pitches. It was ended by the picture of the young Filipino manager with an Indonesian version of Kardashian sister – which also ended his job. By the time of the home-and-away finals, it has become so ridiculous. Thank God no SE Asian team qualified for the Asian Cup. By the team they reached Qatar, they would have been out of breath.

The Asian Cup’s foremost sin is the qualification of India and North Korea through the Challenge Cup. I don’t see other reason of this path rather than forcing India to get in, thus hoping that Indians will finally watch football. That said, I worried that India could become the surprise package like NZ did in South Africa and Philippines did in Vietnam. The surprise never came because unlike the two, the Indians played in local leagues, not in UK or US. Still, goalkeeper Subrata Paul became a cult hero for Asian football geeks for letting less than he could have conceded, especially in thwarting Korea’s quest to overtake Australia’s goal margin.

Saudi Arabia and North Korea exited in shambles – even with little resistance. Saudi has nurtured its five years disease of hampering its domestic players’ development – extreme version of what’s happening in England. After its loss in first game (which also happened to Spain in South Africa), in monarch fashion the coach was sacked (100 years ago perhaps he was literally beheaded), and it went downhill from there. Hopefully the Saudi FA sees the irony of putting two clubs in the Champions League Semis. As for North Korea, well, Chong Tae-Se is not good enough – or they are still sore from last year’s torture.

Next: Japan, Korea, and Australia. Providing the last two qualify to Semi Finals.

Asia Football Update – Glory in Japan

The Sun is Rising.

Until the middle of this decade, Nagoya is seen as a mediocre team in the J. League, like the city itself is put behind Tokyo & the Kansai Triangle (Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe). If a team can make the big break in J. League, that’d be Shimizu S-Pulse. But Nagoya Grampus have won the 2010 J. League Division 1 league last Saturday after downing already-relegated Shonan Bellmare 1-0 (Tamada). Gamba Osaka also made it to the Champions League, again at the expense of Bellmare (2-1, Hashimoto and Sasaki). The other strong candidate for the Champions League tickets is Kashima Antlers, but a mistake this weekend could see Cerezo Osaka or Shimizu to slip forward.

As for the national team, it’s sunny in Japan (well not many things are looking good in Japan for the moment). The U-23 national teams shine in the Asian Games in Guangzhou. Both were unbeatable and the women team kept a clean sheet throughout the tournament. Nadeshiko Japan Junior defeated Thailand, China, and North Korea, while the boys left Malaysia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand, Iran, and UAE knocked down.

The good thing is, the male team has broken the pattern of collective, star-less team. Forward Kensuke Nagai from Fukuoka University has become the event’s top scorer with five goals. So there is one name that Zaccheroni can ponder besides Shinji Okazaki, Keiji Tamada, Shoki Hirai, and Takayuki Morimoto to become Japan’s forwards in Qatar 2011 (with Keisuke Honda & Shinji Kagawa behind them). As for the women’s team, the classic pattern emerges. Their best goalscorer is Shinobu Ohno with 2 goals, and in total only four girls scored, compared with the eight boys.

 

Korea – Good, but not best

After North Korea being an arse again this week, I’ve decided to omitting its existence. Yes, Chong Te-Se is a living man playing in 2nd Division of Bundesliga, and NK is a team that takes part in Asian Games and the Asian Cup. But it kinda insulting to refer them as ‘North Korea’ (which NK takes as insulting – its proper name is ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’. No substitution). Korea is cool country, and it kinda sad to think that it’s northern part is…the worst. So like many other people, I’ll just call South Korea as Korea. Because the other half doesn’t matter at all.

Anyway, Korean national teams have repeated the same pattern – coming with a strong squad and yet still fail to take the gold. The girls brought in phenomenon Ji So-Yun. Yet she failed to score in a fateful semi-final against NK, before back to form in Bronze Medal match against China (damn, Chinese football is really going down). The boys took in senior team’s ace Park Chu-Young and developing star Cho Young-Cheol, who did well in the J. League. Still, they lost to NK again and then, surprisingly, to UAE.  The tragedy was set to continue in the Third Place Match against Iran, when Korea played badly for 75 minutes. Then miracle struck. Park Chu-Young’s goal was followed by quick one two by Ji Dong-Won, a rookie at Chunnam Dragons.

This is a warning for Qatar 2011: Korea can bring in a solid team compared to Japan and yet still flunked at the easiest match, while can fight to the last minute against a strong rival. Get ready for a close disappointment.

Still, the K-League can proudly say it is the best league in Asia, with Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma win the Club of the Year award from AFC, and its defender, Australian Sasa Ognenovski, becoming AFC Player of the Year. I was going to say that Tim Cahill is always a more deserving Australian to get the award, but well, he flunked in South Africa and Everton is low position in the Premier League, despite of his late goals. Josh Kennedy is yet to prove his form in the continent. In this year’s ACL, only Saudi and Iranian player can truly orchestrate their teams’ attack, while again the topscorers of the Eastern Team are non-Asians. So maybe Sasa does deserve the award.