The Header Picture Post

Look at the small picture to your left. What do you see? People – Asians – sitting on football skinned bean bag chairs. Clever, eh? I decided on the image when browsing for pictures of Asians enjoying football or something like that. It comes from a Christian Science Monitor story asking a big question after Japan 3 Denmark 1 in 2010 World Cup: Africans are enthusiastically supporting all African teams. Why can’t Asians support Asian teams? 0628-OASIANOT-asian-solidarity-soccer_full_600

That summer I joined Guardian Football’s Fan Network, where supporters of the 32 teams duked it out on Twitter. Three Asians joined. I, a Chinese-Indonesian who supported Republic of Korea. An Indian woman who supported England. And an Indian man who supported Germany. There were five supporters of Japan, all British blokes. Two other supporters of Korea, two British blokes. And a supporter of North Korea, an aging British bloke. And oh, Aussies who supported Australia. Supporters of African nations outside South Africa (all white South Africans) were African students in Britain.

So, maybe it’s just no Korean or Japanese student read Guardian Football. During the Japan v Denmark match, an infuriated Indonesian felt that the MBM’s host was belittling Japan. I wanted to ask him to chill, but I was busy following tweet feeds and tweeting on the match, plus I thought somebody did need to stand up for Japan – I warned indirectly a Brazilian who kept saying that Japanese matches were ‘boring and (were) the worst.’

My experiences were in accordance to the CSM article, that said that Africans – plagued in recent times by the largest and most brutal proxy wars after the end of Cold War – believed in a thing called pan-Africanism. They see African nations standing together against more favored South American and European rivals. Whatever the language and religion, the feeling of African unity was more than Coca-Cola marketing ploy.

On the other hand, Koreans and Chinese like to see Japan go down. Some Australians put great interest and respect on Japanese football, but many still believe that the default tactic against Japan is to ‘use long balls and force corners’. The Chinese and Arabs have been applauding Australia’s downfall ever since 2006. I was invited to a football-theme party right after the final, and so I wore a Korean shirt. Many people were bemused and asking why I didn’t wear red and yellow Spanish color. My answer was “I don’t support Spain. South Korea is my team”. Nor they did, but Spain were the champions.

The guy in the center wears a Spanish replica jersey. The picture was taken in Beijing during the 2010 World Cup. It’s taken inside a shopping mall and men and women in the picture had their attentions fixed on several different things – kids, smartphones, the ceiling. Most Asians supported Spain, Brazil, Germany, Argentina, England, and Netherlands during the tournament. Because they had famous players, because they won often, because they were big. Some hip people went for Japan (still respected in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, partly thanks to Captain Tsubasa and PES) or Ghana. But no one supported Korea outside Korean expats (and me. And I had not enough guts to visit a Korean BBQ joint during the match day. I’m not an English blogger, you know). Some weirdos rooted for North Korea because it’s a ‘cool country’ (and many South Koreans did, of course) but they couldn’t name a player (I could name half the team who play in J-League & Europe).

Indonesian pundits are also very ignorant of Indonesia’s football rivals. Who’s number 10 for Thailand? Euh, “A Thai player”. And number 4 for Hong Kong? “Hong Kong player”. All they needed was a team sheet and trying to spot the number, in case the name is not printed on the shirt. But never mind Ampaipitakwong (the Texan has decided to represent Thailand), they were too lazy to say Mohd Amri Yahyah. It’s the ‘why should I bother humanizing a foreigner?’ mindset. All rivals are supposed to lay down and die for Irfan Bachdim, Andik Vermansyah, and Boaz Solossa.

Therefore, the idea for a Southeast Asian super league is not feasible. Never mind Indonesia, I was surprised to know that Thailand has the only functional league in Southeast Asia. Vietnam – No money. Singapore – nobody sees. Philippines – amateurish. Indonesia – two rival leagues who agree to come clean next year so let’s hope so. Reuters did say about match fixing in Malaysia but I couldn’t find any article on that.

Selangor vs Tampines! Booya! I'm so watching this! But Fox said "Scheduled program preempted. Sorry"!

Selangor vs Tampines! Booya! I’m so watching this! But Fox said “Scheduled program preempted. Sorry”!

And so Thailand is the only association playing the Champions League and they hold themselves well, compared to past performances of Singaporean and Indonesian clubs (okay, I was talking about Buriram). Semen Padang have been so good in the AFC Cup, and oh, about Persibo Bojonegoro. They were in the tournament after winning the Indonesian Cup, but the financial troubles and low morale persisted. And so, when they went to Tsing Yi to face Sun Hei with 12 players, that’s really everyone they had.

8-0 for Sun Hei and match abandoned after 65 minutes after Persibo players literally rolled over and died (well, not died). Reactions from both sides illustrated the disconnection of Asia. Sun Hei’s coach said “We know that Indonesians are dirty at sports, but this is a new low.” Persibo’s fans said the match was fixed since “The Hong Kong side were supposedly much weaker than Persibo,” (yeah? How do you know? Because they are Chinese from Hong Kong they are not supposed to know how to play football, you think?)

And then, this month two Malaysian owners of British clubs made headlines for different reasons. Vincent Tan’s Cardiff City go up, with still mixed feelings from both fans and the press, while Tony Fernandes’ QPR go down, and many say that they’ll find life in the Championship will not be easy. A terrible finale for Park Ji-sung’s career. And I agree with those who say that QPR is not a diversification – it’s a very expensive promotion vehicle for Air Asia. So, Malaysians have the money but they don’t use it for home renovation (with respect, Malaysia and Malaysia U23 have shown some passion, but well, the state of the league), and same goes for the Qataris and Emirates.

Nice plane.

Nice plane.

And so the header picture is about how Asia treats football. A commodity to watch and buy, not to play and develop. Except in Australia, Japan, and Korea.

Comparing Asian and African progresses: Now and next

Waiting for moments like this.

The African Cup of Nations is rolling in in Gabon and Equator Guinea. Last week British journalist Jonathan Wilson argued that the absence of Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, and Cameroon in the tournament does not mean that the continental balance of power is reached. Rather, it signals that things have gone wrong with African football. With respects to Niger and Guinea, Egyptian, South African and Cameroon federations, managements, and players had made life more difficult for them than it supposed to be.

Put it this way – an Asian Cup without Australia, China, and Saudi Arabia. I should have put in Japan or South Korea in the example, but comparing continental ranking of September 2010, when the qualification phase started, I just noticed that Nigeria’s and Cameroon’s ranks did not match their reputation, partly caused by poor performance in the World Cup. South Africa, a successful host and an admired team, ranked 10th in Africa, the position occupied by Syria at that time in Asia. It’s true that the revolution unbalanced the Pharaohs, but even with civil war Libya went on with their campaign and qualified for the first time since 1982.

Wilson outlined three stereotypes beloved by Western (and indeed, global) media regarding African football. “Painted faces, drummers and horns, and muscular forward play”. Asian football have the first two, at least in the World Cup. Of course, in Australia 2015 I expect that Japanese, South Korean, and Australian supporters will crowd the stadiums with painted faces as well. Yes, there will be drums as well. There will be Vietnamese conical hat worn by Australians instead of Vietnamese (how come Vietnamese supporters never dress up as Vietcongs?). But muscular forward play? Hmm, that’s something else. Twenty years ago “Australian soccer” was an oxymoron. Ten years ago it was still a joke even in Japan, despite 2001 Confeds Cup.  Even now the lingering stereotype is that the Socceroos are rough and persistent big men (plus Tiny Tim), but their strengths lie in midfield and goalkeeping, not forward. There is still no replacement yet for Viduka and Kewell.

It is true that one glaring difference between Asian and African football is that European scouts don’t go deep to Asian villages and streets to pouch young Japanese or Korean talents. Now and then there’s stories about Manchester United or Milan signing up an Australian toddler, but the result is yet to be seen on the next decade. The only exception that I can think of are Son Heung-Min and Ryo Miyaichi. Wilson mentioned the “Pape Bouba Diop template”, the preference for big enforcer instead of speedy winger and creative attacking midfielder. Certainly big enforcers could come from Australia and probably Iran. East Asian players have still to struggle with the annoying stereotype that they are small, something that is never brought up when discussing Argentinians or Italians.

Quick test on the small stereotype. If the category of ‘small’ meaning shorter than 180 cm, then yeah, only a handful of European-based Japanese players fulfill this category. Among them are Maya Yoshida, Mike Havenaar, Tadanari Lee (6 feet and yet is still called ‘pint-sized’), Honda, and Takayuki Morimoto. Kawashima, standing at 185 cm, is said to be “short for goalkeeper standard”, although he is taller than both Iker Casillas and Victor Valdes.

What about South Koreans? There are plenty of 6 feet tall players trading in Europe, such as Ki Sung-Yeung, Koo Ja-Cheol, Park Chu-Young, Ji Dong-Won, Son Heung-Min, and Jung Jo-Gook. So in average, Japanese and Korean players stand around 175 cm, but they are anything but little. And expect the assumption to be uttered again by both media and fans in 2014.

Both football federations in Asia and Africa have plenty of troubles. The A-League constantly struggles with attendance, interest from sponsors and prime talents, consistency (I’m thinking of Adelaide United and Sydney FC), and of course the Champions League. I’m still wondering about JFA’s seriousness in handling the Champions League. KFA is waiting nervously for February to see if they can continue the road to Brazil, and there was the muted and swept-under-the carpet scandal of match fixing in the K-League, as well as the attendance problem. And those are the best.

Nobody in Singapore concerns loudly that naturalization doesn’t work, sponsors don’t come up, and the Chinese-Singaporean youth are not into footballing (similar statement can be said on white Frenchmen). The Chinese say that it’s easier for property price to go down (already happened) than for the national team to win any cup (excluding East Asian Football Championship). Bahrain gets away with torturing and imprisoning Shiite players. Indian football disrespects itself with the creation of the Silly League, despite the I-League. Indonesia has a rogue league which is more popular, and Thai national team and league are going in circles.

I have pointed out in previous post that Asia always, always defeats Africa in World Cup encounters, and Africa is also yet to defeat Asia in Confederations Cup. Same thing happens in Club World Cup – Asia is yet to reach the final round, but consistently wins the third place. Yet African teams are always favored even by Asian punters and pundits for a simple reason – they are Africans. They are black footballers. People all over the world are thrilled to see Ivory Coast because they have Drogba and Kalou. Ghana because they have Muntari and Essien. Cameroon because they have…uh, Eto’o. Nigeria because uh…they have…Nigerians. But except for East Asian fanboys such as me, nobody is thrilled to watch Shinji Okazaki or Ji Dong-Won. At least Australians love their Holman and Kennedy.

The expectation is both unfair and fair. It’s unfair because it relies on the generalization that Africans are fun and lively while Asians are clumsy and boring. It’s also fair because in Europe, Africans are consistently scoring goals while Asians don’t. There are dozens of African players in Europe playing as both substitutes and starters, as stars and flops. There are only about a dozen of Asian players in Europe, some of them are lucky to become regular starters (Honda, Nagatomo, Kagawa), or at least regular subs such as Park Ji-Sung and Ki. Many others are rarely played and are pressured when they are lucky enough to be selected, especially if they are forwards like Okazaki and Morimoto. Park Chu-Young was bit lucky that it was Arshavin instead of him who was chosen to replace Oxlade-Chamberlain, otherwise all the blame for Arsenal’s loss to Manchester United would have fallen on him.

I feel that in this transfer window, Japanese and Korean players are very prudent and conservative with offers. It’s unclear if Tadanari and Maeda will eventually play for the English Championship of if they will stick to J. League. Kagawa wants to stay in Dortmund, and we have to wait until June if Honda is moving away from CSKA. Maybe they are worried that they are not good enough for Europe. Kagawa still deliver assists, but he does not score as much as he likes. Havenaar finds that Eredivisie is not easy, a fact that Robert Cullen has to contend with week in week out. Usami is pessimistic on his future with Bayern, and so should Miyaichi feel in Arsenal. Many African players are also warming up the bench or taunted online for their mishaps, but Demba Ba (Newcastle), Papa Diawara (Maritimo), and Emmanuel Emenike (Spartak Moscow) know that they are good. The only Asian player in Europe who knows that he is winning is Iranian Reza Ghoochannejhad (St. Truiden).

Comparing Asian and African progresses: History

Meet you at Moscow

Ah, Asia-Africa. In Japanese geek parlance, it is a bad pairing. It’s bad fan fiction. But Asia-Africa Road (always, always a road) are there in major Indonesian cities. It is the official Indonesian name to what Cold War historians call Bandung Conference. Back in 1955 some Asian states had gained independence while most of sub-Saharan Africa had not. The conference drew on the idea that both continents were victims of colonization and had things in common – dashing nationalist figures and interest for Socialism. The biggest African star at that conference was Egypt.

Enough history, move on to football. The African Cup of Nations. People in Asia don’t really watch it. But people in Asia also do not watch AFC Asian Cup unless their national team is playing. Worse, although people admire and fear Drogba and Kalou, and people did admire Eto’o, it’s hard to find someone in Asia, Australia, and Europe (white people. And not a football geek. And offline) that can name Ghana or Ivory Coast XI. Still, African football attracts positive images of colorful fans, comical goal celebrations, and loud percussion. If television won’t capture the moment, newspapers and their websites will.  Asian football, on the other hand, attracts negative images of clumsy players, weird surnames, boring 1-1 matches, and…wait a minute, why do people tend to forget about Korean hot chicks who wear only red bra and flag sarong? Japanese and Korean supporters also play loud percussion, although the tone is more martial than ….euh….tribal.

Jonathan Wilson’s article on the false sense of African Progress since 1994 inspires me to track Asian performance in World Cup. After North Korea’s legendary 1966 campaign, AFC representatives for the next 15 years would come from the West. First stop, Israel. Yes, Israel is a West Asian country. It qualified after defeating New Zealand (North Korea walked out since it refused to play in Israel) and Australia. In the past AFC and OFC competed for the same ticket, and OFC encompassed some countries with political complications like Taiwan, Rhodesia, and eventually Israel. In Mexico 70, after down to Uruguay, they retained their dignities by holding  Sweden and Italy. Yet Italy survived Group 2, although the draw cost Sweden’s chance.

In 1974, OFC’s Australia defeated South Korea, so no AFC story. 1978, the Kingdom of Iran qualified after topping a mini league where Australia languished and again South Korea failed at the last step. At this time Japan had no interest in football, was crap at football, and even were weaker than Hong Kong. In Argentina, Andranik Eskandarian’s own goal prevented them from scoring a legendary victory against Scotland. They went down to Netherlands (Iran conceded two penalties) and Peru (which also scored twice from penalties. Iran did have terrible defenders, didn’t they?)

1982, Kuwait topped the final round group, while New Zealand represented OFC after won a tie-breaking playoff against China. After holding Czechoslovakia, Kuwait languished against France (1-4) and lost narrowly to England. And what does historians remember? France had one goal disallowed after Sheik Fahid al-Sabah stormed the pitch to protest  after Kuwaiti players said they mistook a whistle from the crowd with the ref’s. Al-Sabah was just fined, but Soviet referee Miroslav Stupar was demoted. Even when I was a baby, West Asian football had become some sore loser.

1986, finally the East Asian moment arrived. East Asia and West Asia were divided into two conferences with a guaranteed ticket for each of conference winner. Iraq survived thrilling semi-finals against UAE before defeated Syria to qualify, while Iran were disqualified after refusing to play Bahrain. In the East, Japan finally took football seriously and defeated Hong Kong. In final round, South Korea awaited. Oh, what a joy for the Koreans.

In Mexico, South Korea would be acquainted with the “oh-so-near” tragedies that will haunt it for many, many World Cups. After went down to Argentina and held Bulgaria, it would have held Italy had not for Cho Kwang-Rae’s own goal. After restart, Huh Jung-Moo immediately scored to undo the damage, but the 2-3 scoreline remained, although those 7 minutes would have been heart stopping for so many Italians. Huh would become a successful national coach in 2010 while Cho became his disgraced successor, fired after South Korea lost to Lebanon. Iraq, on the other hand, became the first Asian team to lose all group matches since South Korea in 1954.

In 1990, South Korea and UAE topped the final round and both of them were so terrible it was embarrassing. Especially for UAE which conceded 11 goals. In 1994, Korean-Americans flocked to watch South Korea while Saudi Arabia became a moderate source of pride for Arab-Americans and were dubbed as “the Asian Brazil”. After a great 2-2 comeback against Spain (Hong Myung-Bo and Seo Jung-Won scored in the last five minutes), Korea took one draw too many after failed to score against Bolivia. They scored twice after trailing 0-3 to Germany in the first half…and it was not enough since Spain defeated Bolivia soundly. Saudi Arabia lived up to its bill, leading 1-0 against Netherlands in the first half before lost 1-2, defeated Morocco (first Asian victory since 66, and the beginning of Asian winning records against Africa in World Cup – take that!) and the legendary 1-0 victory over Belgium (sorry, no video link. I don’t like Saudi Arabia enough). Sweden stopped them in the second round. O yeah, that was also the day when World Cup started to be cruel at Belgium. Washington, 29 June 1994.

Japan finally qualified to the World Cup through  the hard way – extra time goal in a playoff against Iran, after a very unconvincing campaign (four draws out of eight matches). Even until today some South Koreans say that Japan defeated South Korea in Seoul because South Korea gave the game away for the sake of diplomacy and to save the 2002 co-host’s face. South Korea and Saudi Arabia aced their respective groups, while Iran qualified after giving Australia its Agony of Doha (nobody ever says Agony of Melbourne, anyway).

In France 98, again Asia demonstrated that it was the weakest region (people for some reason have better respect to Australia and NZ). Saudi Arabia did hold South Africa, which post-apartheid team was supposedly a growing power in the mid 1990s,  illustrious Korean coach Cha Bum-Kun was fired after 0-5 defeat to Holland, and ironically Korea held Belgium 1-1 under interim coach, Iran got its coveted victory against Evil Empire, uh, Great Satan United States, so defeats to Germany and Yugoslavia did not matter, and Japan were always lost narrowly. Lost narrowly to Argentina under Batistuta and to Croatia under Suker. And lost narrowly even to Jamaica.

Which such results, how could Asia hope to hold the World Cup? By giving East Asia a big pride. 2002 was a year of dyeing your hair brown and watching Taiwanese and Korean soap operas (Meteor Garden and Winter Sonata) while listening to Japanese pop (Utada Hikaru and Ayumi Hamasaki were big stars with unfortunately no rivalry between them, BoA and Mika Nakashima were debuting). All of the sudden, South Korea won its first World Cup, defeating Poland 2-0, while Japan failed to defeat Belgium. No such joy for Saudi Arabia and China – which scored no goal and received average of 10 goals between them. Japan finally scored its first win against its favorite white victim, Russia; while Korea thought that draw with United States was enough to payback its speed skating grudge against Japanese-American skater Apollo Ohno. Japan defeated Tunisia while Korea blew the predictions by defeating favorite Portugal. Going to the playoff rounds, it became nasty and controversial for Korea – extra time victory to Italy and penalty shootout win against Spain, all against accusations of foul plays. South Koreans, however, have learned to love the marriage of pop culture with nationalism and just said that the outside world were just jealous. Germany stopped their path to the final before Korean defense became the recipient of the fastest goal ever. Still, no grudge for the Turks and even it was the beginning of a partnership – South Korea sent its B-Team players (from Lee Eul-Yong to Shin Young-Rok) to the Turkish League, while Turkish coach Senol Gunes helped the development of Korean football. O yeah, Turkey also defeated a plucky Japanese side, a sour ending note for Philippe Troussier.

2006 World Cup was really bad for Asians excluding South Korea. Iran couldn’t make a suprise, Japan was so shameful (nevermind Australia’s triple goals – how could Yanagisawa missed Croatia’s open goal? How could Oguro be that impotent?), Saudi Arabia realized that its 2002 disaster was there to stick. South Korea prolonged Asia > Africa record against Togo, and held France with one good break despite being overpowered. Again, they blew it at the last moment  – lost to Switzerland. That’s why in 2010 Asians bar North Korea were so surprising. Although South Korea came close to blow it out again had Nigeria used their chances well – there was a good chance that Nigeria could win 3-2 to score the first ever African victory over Asia. Japan were ready to accept its fate as losers, but Keisuke Honda beat the expectations, humiliated Eto’o, and later the Danes. Both Honda and Endo were also among the first players to be able to score from free kick in the tournament. Australia were surprising in term that they failed to pass the group and lost badly to Germany, despite came close to take the lead very early.

My, while Jonathan Wilson could summarize Africa’s glory and fall in seven paragraphs, I charted everything that happened since 1970. Alright, we stop it right there for today with this lesson – just like Asia is yet to defeat South America in World Cup, the same thing happens for the Africans – Asians are their nemesis.