AFC Asian Cup 2015. Heh.

The magic of AFC Asian Cup.

Okay, I should be cheered up better. It’s an all East final. Featuring both of my favorites.

It’s all your fault, Japan.

But, had Japan was in the final, the mood be sourer than on Sunday. Korea v Japan would have been a nasty stuff. Japan v Australia in the semis, as interesting and ideal it was, would have been too much for many people on both sides of the Pacific.

Instead, in peaceful Australia it was an all-peaceful tournament. No Korea v Iran. Thank you Iraq. No Japan v China. On second thought, that would have been impossible.

The causes of Japanese terrible performance are clear. Stupid Aguirre put the same 11 throughout group stage – I won’t even do that on World Cup 2014 (yes, we couldn’t reenact the tournament on Pro Evolution Soccer 2015). Okazaki and Honda were too exhausted, too nice (the former), too nervous (the latter). Korea were lucky Lee Jung-hyup and Cho Young-choul were able forwards (and unlike Javier Aguirre, Uli Stielike was wise enough to deploy them), and the ranked-100th Australia employed their full potential at the right time, just like in movies.

UAE have the chance to be a hipster’s team now. Maybe less in Australia, after it’s revealed that Gulf nations want to expel Australia from the AFC since uh, it’s the new guys who went to the World Cups instead of them. I thought the biggest Australian haters in AFC would be something like China or Malaysia. Australia might secretly want a nasty rivalry, but it won’t be with Japan – it’d be with Saudi Arabia (the spitting incident), Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, and Kuwait.

Having said that, be assured that Asian football hipsters will look for UAE merchandises, and also free stuff related to Omar Abdulrahman. Wonderful, JFA, now UAE Pro League has better chance to be featured on FIFA than J. League Division 1 (not that you care).

What’s now? Massimo Luongo, Mat Ryan, and Trent Sainsbury will stay with Swindon, Club Brugge, and Zwolle. But they’d certainly play in a better club next season, just as Kawashima and Kagawa’s positions in Standard Liege and Borussia Dortmund are questionable. It’s a trickier prospect for the Emirates: clubs would have less confidence on them than on new names from Korea and Japan, but the bigger question is, would Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout like to start on mid table clubs in non-English speaking countries? Or in the Championship, like Ali al Habsi?

Finally, with Jason Davidson (quarter-Japanese) and Massimo Luongo (half-Indonesian), let it be said that Australia is an Asian nation in football, and Asian-Australians can make it in Australian sports.

Have a cheerful Valentine’s Day (I’m invited into a wedding. Yippie) and Lunar New Year. On March we’ll have brand new Asian football spectacles, such as India facing Pakistan and Taiwan taking Macau on the first step to Russia 2018.

Heck, even this week we are already in Champions League mood.

AFC Asian Cup 2015 Team of the Tournament

Goalkeeper: Mat Ryan (Australia, Club Brugge)

Defenders: Dhurgam Ismail (Iraq, Al Shorta), Kwak Tae-hwi (Korea, Al Hilal), Trent Sainsbury (Australia, FC Zwolle), Cha Du-ri (Korea, Seoul)

Midfielders: Massimo Luongo (Australia, Swindon Town), Omar Abdulrahman (UAE, Al Ain), Ki Seung-yung (Korea, Swansea)

Forwards: Ali Mabkhout (UAE, Al Jazira), Tim Cahill (Australia, New York Red Bulls), Son Heung-min (Korea, Bayer Leverkusen)

 

What’s on this February

AFC Champions League

4 February: Yadanarbon (Myanmar) v Warriors (Singapore), Johor Darul Tazim (Malaysia) v Bengaluru (India)

10 February: Ha Noi T&T (Vietnam) v Persib Bandung (Indonesia), Chonburi (Thailand) v Kitchee (Hong Kong), Guangzhou R&F (China) v Yadanarbon/Warriors, Bangkok Glass (Thailand) v JDT/Bengaluru

17 February: FC Seoul (Korea) v Ha Noi/Persib, Kashiwa (Japan) v Chonburi/Kitchee, Central Coast Mariners (Australia) v Guangzhou (surely), Beijing Gouan (China) v Bangkok Glass (likely)

24-25 February: Group stage already! Hectic, isn’t it

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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

Five Things about J. League 2014

You don’t need Nike or adidas to win the league.

J. League 2014 has wrapped up this month, with Gamba Osaka resurrected from death to ascend to the top. Just like the birthday boy (yea, actually He was born around May and 25th December is actually the birthday of Roman god Invictus Sol). I was going to call J. League the ________ League of Asia but that won’t work. Premier League? Not enough international stars (more on this later). Bundesliga? Might work ten years ago, plus now the best of J. League play in Bundesliga (ten years ago it would have been Serie A), but Bundesliga is now waaay better than Premier League.

Serie A then? Let’s see…famous names who are terrible in Champions League? Yes. A shadow of their 20th century selves? Yes. Corruption and match fixings? No, that would be China. Openly racist and sexist directors? Racist and sexist yes, but not openly. International fans who never abandon them? Yes. Fertile pool for future superstars? That works for Japan but not Italy.

So J. League is not even the Serie A of Asia. Because J. League it’s better, although it’s true that Honda looks more dashing wearing adidas’ Milan shirt than Umbro’s Gamba Osaka shirt (hey, you don’t see him playing for Urawa, do you?) Now he only needs to score several more goals for Milan and everything will be alright.

So, what’s 2014 about for Asia’s most popular league?

1. Like Japan, J. League is getting insular.

Japan’s response to the rise of China and Korea? Retreat to the mountain. The corporate owners of J. League teams don’t like how the world put their brands as an option besides (even behind) their Korean and Chinese competitors. Panasonic, owner of Gamba, experienced a resurgence in the 2000s from Lumix digital cameras, but now non-Japanese smartphones have put pocket cameras out of business, and professional photographers prefer Canon and Nikon (fellow Japanese, thankfully) for the big guns. Hitachi, owner of Kashiwa, has stopped making TV.

As J-pop refuses Western influences in contrast to K-pop and Japanese fanboys cling to the infantile AKB48 (mature-looking Korean girl bands are too scary for them), Japan is also cutting ties with its traditional Korean connection. Sagan Tosu were a serious contender for the championship thanks to coach Yoon Jung-hwan and playmaker Kim Min-woo. Could not bear the idea that a Korean could bring a traditionally minnow team to lift the trophy, the club fired Yoon on August. Tosu ended up not going to Champions League 2015, but the Japanese face of Sagantus is saved. I wonder if chairman Minoru Takehara or the governor of Saga was just aware of the Korean history epic Roaring Currents that summer.

So J. League clubs decreased the number of Koreans (on the other hand, many Koreans looking for international experience seem to prefer Arabian clubs. Plus, J. League teams still prefer Koreans over Australians for their Asian Foreign Player slot) but keep the Brazilians as acceptable foreigners. Sure, there are exceptions from Europe, but no African and Argentine played in 2014 J. League Division 1. Credit though, to Shimizu, who employed a Croatian-Canadian, a Slovenian, and a dark-skinned Chinese-Dutch.

 

2. Big Name Foreigners Cannot Flourish in J. League

J. League was the first Asian leagues to feature European legends – some continued to coaching like Zico, Dragan Stojkovic, and Guido Buchwald. But Japan was out of money by 1997 and never recovered its glamor, and now China and the Gulf have it.

Cerezo Osaka tried a play from Shanghai and Guangzhou clubs and recruited Diego Forlan – best Uruguayan footballer before World Cup 2010 – and Brazilian-German striker Cacau who was also in South Africa 2010. The result? Seventeen losses. Cacau played only eleven matches and scored five goals, while Forlan scored seven goals and a couple in Asia. Still, very disappointing for a man who played in 2014 World Cup. A Manchester United fan who scoffed at him in 2004, saying he’ll only good enough for an Asian league in ten years time, couldn’t get any more accurate than that.

So, why can’t big name foreigners flourish in J. League? First, only one club tried it. Cerezo’s town rivals Gamba won the league using two forwards who were benchwarmers back in Brazil.

Second, the money. If Patric and Lins would be good enough in 2015 AFC Champions League, they will be approached by richer Arabian or Chinese clubs (the Arabs from oil and sovereign funds, the Chinese from property and trade networks) . Thanks to their disastrous responses to the rise of Korea and China (instead of studying what works), Japanese conglomerates are struggling to keep their business afloat, and thus cannot be generous with their football clubs’ budgets. On the other hand, Australians and even English envy Japan’s talent development – at least the academies are working.

 

3. Will J. League Blow Again in 2015 AFC Champions League?

This is like the English and Italian problems. The world sings their clubs’ names. Children on the farthest corners of the world wear club jerseys bearing names like Oscar, Gerrard, Totti, and Vidal. But they have the slim chance of winning the 2015 UEFA Champions League (it’s zero for Liverpool). Worse than Japan, England and Italy have the slimmer chance to win the continental cup.

So why Japan keep on losing in the ACL? Let’s blame it first on distance. Do you know that compared to the distance of St. Petersburg and Madrid, the distance between Hiroshima and Dubai is…aw, forget it. They even could not hold a night in Seoul or Guangzhou, let alone Sydney.

Actually in 2014 Japanese clubs held themselves well in the group stage. Kawasaki were better than Ulsan. Hiroshima prevailed over Beijing. Cerezo defeated not only Buriram but also Shandong. Yokohama were unlucky enough to be grouped with both Jeonbuk and Evergrande. But if they could not handle flight fatigue to Guangzhou and Sydney, how could Korean clubs and Western Sydney prepared themselves for trips across India and the Arabian Sea?

So it went down to money and motivation. I don’t think club owners ordered their teams to throw away the match. But maybe the players and the managers themselves were not that interested with Asian tours. Since the double years of 2007 and 2008, it seems that Japan saw no point of Asian adventures – just like how they treated the competition in 2004. Ironically, once more Japan let the Koreans took the glory – and now even the Australians.

 

4. Do Japanese next best things need J. League?

There is Son Heung-min and there is Ryo Miyaichi. Both skipped local competitions and tried their luck in Europe. Miyaichi is lucky to be listed for the provisional Asian Cup squad, but I don’t blame him if he enjoys the abuses against Arsene Wenger. Son, on the other hand, gets all Cristiano Ronaldo’s perks at least in Korea.

Of course parents of non-European football prodigies worry if Europe will be the nightmare of their sons’ careers. It happened to Takayuki Morimoto and Hiroshi Ibusuki. Sota Hirayama made a career suicide when the sleepiness of Almelo killed him. Now he won’t wear the three-legged crow crest again, but at least he can see the lights of Tokyo every night.

So it’s better to see if you’re good for J. League first, then for the national team. Like Okazaki or Uchida. The miracles of Kagawa and Honda won’t happen to everyone (Honda was practically unheard of outside Japan when he was playing for Nagoya). Then again, we have enough Okubos and Usamis to show that J. League might be the final frontier for the rest. The twist is that the world’s best Asian footballers (or even athletes) play outside the system. That’s why they are specials.

 

5. What will Happen to J. League in 2015?

J. League 2015 will return to the two parts system, Latin American style, topped with Korean or Australian style championship play-offs, in an attempt to draw back spectators and sponsors. British commentators are skeptical and football hipsters mourn the loss of its volatile nature. Maybe that’s what actually the suits want to settle. Maybe they want two Kanto clubs to act like Chelsea and Arsenal and two Kansai clubs (hmm…bit difficult now, eh?) to act like Manchester United and Manchester City. Nagoya can play Liverpool.

How it will effect Japanese football quality remains to be seen. I mean, look at Australia. Where have they gone wrong? To market their clubs well, however, club owners have to market their corporate brands better. I love Panasonic earphones, but of course they are jokes for Beat and Audio Technica wearing students. Pajero drivers are increasingly seen as dicks (female drivers included) in Southeast Asia, and uh, Sumitomo, what are you selling again?

Evil Asian Football Clubs

Man, last night was intense, wasn’t it? I was really sure Western Sydney Wanderers would have blown it at the last minute, it’d had been 1-1 at full time, and Al Hilal would have steamrolled either in extra times (two goals) or penalty shootouts. But not. They were holding on, with Ante Covic blocked all possible shots or Al Hilal just flunked their great chances.

I was still thinking of writing from another angle, but Al Hilal’s reaction to the full time whistle confirmed my thought – instead of attacking bumbling referee Yuichi Nishimura, Nasser Al Shamrani and other Al Hilal players were attacking Western Sydney players instead.

The reason was same with the vitriolic hatred shown by Guangzhou Evergrande supporters toward Western Sydney, hatred for the ‘white men’ Australians. There was a big difference though. Al Hilal supporters showed themselves to be a good sport, in contrast to the club. At least after the end of the match, when they asked the wandering Australians to take group pictures of the men in blue jerseys. So, at the risk of walking through a painful memory lane (full of muggers and rats), I present several evil football clubs who were in the AFC Champions League final.

1. Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia)

Laurentiu from Arabia. Would Mourinho wear a bowler hat before the Champions League final? Or Pep wearing Lederhosen?

The Boss is indeed a titan of Asian football. Since Saudi players cannot play overseas, of course the best talents play in Saudi Professional League. Their Champions League matches feature full houses, which is a rarity – even their crowd counts often trump other Saudi competitors. Saudi oil, which is used for buying Ferraris instead of building better schools and creating employment for locals, was of course also used to buy football superstars (money from the oil, not the petrol itself) like Brazilians Mario Zagallo and Rivellino. And so Saudi’s orientation on Brazilian football was born, and in early 1990s they earned the “Brazil of Asia” moniker, due to their Brazilian links, individualized playing style, and since most of their footballers are African Arabs (gettit?). Not even Zico could turn Japan into  “Brazil of Asia”, after all.

Al Hilal won the 1991 and 2000 Asian Club Championship but surprisingly they never won the ‘new’ Champions League (wow. I thought they did. Apparently I confused them with their Jeddah rivals Al Ittihad).

My problem with Al Hilal began after I learned that the club complained about the absence of luxury in Sydney while Prince Al Waleed bin Talal promised big bonus for the club. In 2013 he made big fuss with Forbes since the magazine’s estimation of his wealth is below his (while many ethnic Chinese moguls said the magazine always overestimate their fortunes). To the point of threatening to sue Forbes, weeping on the phone, and hiring some white men to publish scathing papers against the magazine.

The club, meanwhile, complained about the hick town that was Sydney, saying that the stadium was shabby (unlike the wonderful King Fahd Stadium) and that the hotel they were staying (I assume Pullman Quay Grand Sydney Harbour) was too small (because unlike Saudi Arabia, Australia has this strange concept of wealth redistribution).

Back in Saudi Arabia, coach Laurentiu Reghecampf donned his Laurentiu of Arabia look, saying no way in hell Wanderers could defeat hims the second time, while Vice President Prince Abdulrahman bin Musaad asked Saudis to pray and do charity works, so that the pleased Allah will help Al Hilal with victory. Theeen…another VP, Mohamad al Hmaidani, called Al Hilal supporters to beat up other clubs’ supporters claiming bin Talal’s free ticket offers, added with obligatory “Yo’ Mama” expression.

At the first half, Al Hilal supporters used laser beams to intimidate the Wanderers (I expect it on the upcoming AFF Suzuki Cup. Idiots), unaware that the radiation gave Ante Covic superpower. Nassir Al Shamrani, one of Saudi’s finest strikers, became the villain of the final after repeatedly attacking substitute Matthew Spiranovic (Nishimura ignored, funny guy), then spat on him, and his club went on to win the Fair Play Award (previous winners were always Japanese and Korean clubs).

2. Guangzhou Evergrande (China)

What’s this, early football video game where the players use the same animation?

I tried to look the silver lining of Chinese football. When China were in the 2002 World Cup, I felt the great moment of Pan-Asian pride (of course, I relished the Germany 8 Saudi Arabia 0 match). But Chinese attitude in politics, environment, human rights, and its clubs attitude, made it harder for me to appreciate any bit of my ancestors’ homeland.

Again, Western Sydney Wanderers. Again, Juric scored the single goal in a night in Parramatta. Again, the richer club made several threats against the Australians. We are giants with wealth and power you can’t imagine. Evergrande even could take the brag to another notch – our coach had won the World Cup and the UEFA Champions League and our playmaker was good enough to play in the World Cup (I always insert Diamanti into my Italy 23). We are unbeatable. Our fanatical supporters will surround you in a massive dome you never seen before (again, Evergrande relied on female supporters, unlike Al Hilal who shunned them). We will show you the power of Asian football that will make you speechless. Prepare to suffer.

Essentially, both the royal Saudi and Chinese (for a communist state, they take their royalty seriously, don’t they?) can’t forgive the Australians for so many things. For setting up shop nearby. For being one of the best countries in the world without producing anything luxurious. For not being a part of thousand years imperial history. For being white and speaking English. For being a democracy.

The supporters, the Italians, and the football domination were not enough, anyway, that Evergrande supporters had to ram Western Sydney’s bus, had to terrorize their night, and yes, had to attack Covic’s eyes again with lasers. So much for their trust for Lippi, Diamanti, and the domestic players.

Tonight Evergrande has clinched another Chinese Super League title, and the league’s final top scorers tell the story – out of the top ten goal scorers, only one is Chinese. Wu Lei from Shanghai SIPG. The others might follow Evergrande’s strategy – defend and let the foreigners score.

3. Al Sadd (Qatar)

Play to win

 

When a Qatari talks about “The Boss” in football, he (hardly a she) talks about Al Sadd, winners of 2011 AFC Champions League. I saw on TV the terrible semi final match against Suwon, when Mamadou Niang (formerly a striker for Marseille and Fenerbahce) scored when Suwon thought Al Sadd would’ve waited for the on pitch treatment for Cho Sung-hwan. Well, if Jose Mourinho has not aware of the seriousness of head injury in 2014, so would Niang back in 2011. After the brawl (involving a pitch invader), Al Sadd’s Korean defender Lee Jung-soo walked out of the scene from frustration, asking to be subbed. It’s said he was censured by the management for not standing up for the club. But when he had to choose in 2012 between Al Sadd and Evergrande, he sticks with the lesser evil until today.

To my pain, Al Sadd defeated Jeonbuk to win the Champions League and defeated hosts Kashiwa Reysol in the Club World Cup.

4. Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma (Korea, 1989-2013)

A bad Korean club? Not that they did brawl in Champions League finals, but because they were owned by an evil organization – the Moonies. Or officially, the Church of Unification, who’s fond of marrying strangers based on the founder’s hunch (he’s literally the brother of Jesus, you know). After being a feeble team in the 1990s, in 1999 the club relocated from Cheonan to Seongnam, a satellite city of Seoul, and had more capital to attract top Korean players and decent foreigners. They dominated K-League in early 2000s but lost the 2004 Champions League final to Al Ittihad. In 2010 they finally won the Champions League and Sasa Ognenovski became a famous Socceroo.

Praise Jesus, in 2013 Sun Myung-moon after committing decades of crimes including asking Americans to forgive Richard Nixon, financing a terrible movie on the Battle of Inchon, creating The Washington Times, and evading tax. And oh, brainwashing people, intimidating those who want to leave his sect, and being cozy with Christian and Islamic religious nuts in United States (while waging war against Christian churches in Korea, interesting).

So with Sun bit the dust, the Moonies had little interest in running the club and sold it to the city of Ansan. After protests from club supporters, it was purchased by the government of Seongnam and now it’s a nice club. It’s unknown if Seongnam players were forced or persuaded to join Unification Church activities, but certainly many notable players from Korea and overseas used it as a stepping stone before moving to relatively saner clubs in Asia.

The four clubs I described were not necessarily evil in the sense of Dr. Evil from Evil University. Their players were professional footballers, not criminals. But they grow up in countries and societies that value wealth, ego, showmanship, and think little about social justice, communities, and ethics. In the case of Ilhwa Chunma, it grew up in the curious phenomenon that in Korea, that is industrious and impressible toward charismatic cults at the same time. I’m just glad that Sun’s death brought the end to the cult’s grip on the football club – a dark chapter in Korean history is behind us.

The same cannot be said for Saudi Arabia, China, and Qatar and many other Asian countries. I was one of Asians who deplored Australian entry into AFC, but well, the high hope that Australia can cure some diseases of Asian football is taking place, one step at a time. I’ve heard that some Australians demand AFC to drop sanction on Nasser Al Shamrani, while knowing it won’t happen. I still don’t know how did Koreans react to Niang’s unsportsmanlike behavior, besides calling Al Sadd as “Al Badd”.

But if Japanese media won’t talk (today Japanese supporters marched against racism – couldn’t find the news, sadly), then I applaud Australia’s loud call. Western Sydney Wanderers have proven that money and power cannot buy love. Let Asians take heed.

Four Great Asian Female Footballers

Anime/Manga perception of women soccer. Seriously.

Otaku perception of women soccer. Seriously. Yes, I’m aware of a Homare Sawa biography manga, but that’s one shot.

I wished I could write this post in happier circumstance. But Chelsea ladies lost their final match against 7th position Manchester City and so Liverpool won the 2014 English Women Super League by better goal difference.

I just noticed some weeks ago that Chelsea Ladies are the Dortmund of women football. Like Dortmund have Kagawa and Ji Dong-won, Chelsea have forward Yuki Ogimi (nee Nagasato) and midfielder Ji So-yun. Ogimi scored five goals this season (out of 14 matches) while Ji scored three, making them Chelsea’s top scorers along with English forward Eniola Aluko.

Few weeks ago several women internationals sued FIFA and Canadian Soccer Association for deciding to hold the 2015 Women World Cup on artificial turf. They argue that it’s essentially playing on concrete, and Kobe Bryant agrees (warning: bloody photo). I checked if any Asian player joining the lawsuit and I was happy to find that Ogimi and Ji did together with Australians Samantha Kerr and Caitlin Foord.

So, why them and not others? Why not Homare Sawa, the 2011 FIFA Footballer of the Year (her successors Abby Wambach and Nadine Angerer signed)? Ogimi and Ji, as I have said, played in Chelsea while Kerr and Foord plays in Perth Glory (it could be my favorite Asian club). Sawa plays in INAC Kobe in Japan. Maybe at 36, she feels less stronger than Ogimi about the issue. Maybe for her career in Japan, it’s wiser to take no position (as Ogimi shows, the issue won’t be with JFA but with the club and the league). Maybe she feels grateful with the FIFA award. In fact no Canadian player joined the lawsuit, and that tells a story.

Now I want to give you profiles of these great four Asian players – because women football is overlooked worldwide, especially in “football crazy” Asia.

1. Yuki Ogimi. Japan. Striker.

Yuki is used to win.

Yuki is used to win.

We start with her since Japan are now the third strongest team in the world after United States and Germany, and Japan are the reigning world champions. Born in Atsugi, a satellite town of Tokyo, she played professional football at the age of 14 with NTV Beleza, which is owned by Nippon TV. Scored her first professional goal for NTV at the age of 17 and scored 18 goals in the 2005 season, although it was still nothing to Shinobu Ono’s 25 goals (she also played for NTV). Those goals, however, put her into the L-League best eleven as the best forward together with Ono and Tasaki’s Mio Otani.

In 2006, she shined for club and country. She repeated her 18-goals feat in the L League and finally became the top scorer (Sawa, playing behind her, was the best player). They played for Japan in the 2006 Asian Cup and Ogimi, then known with her maiden surname Nagasato, scored one goal against Vietnam, five to Taiwan, but lost to Australia 0-2 in the semi finals (ah, 2006). Nagasato scored again the third place match against the super rude North Korea (who kicked the referee in the semi final loss to China) but still lost 2-3.

China, Australia, and North Korea qualified to 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup while Japan must face Mexico. Nagasato did not score but Japan prevailed by 3-2 aggregates and so went to China. Meanwhile, Nagasato scored 14 goals for NTV but she did not join L-League’s best eleven, losing to Ono (23 goals), Kozue Ando (Urawa), and Mizuho Sakaguchi (Tasaki).

In China, Japan did badly. They avoided 1-2 loss to England by last minute strike by Aya Miyama, and things looked well when Nagasato scored the last minute winning goal against Argentina. But they lost 0-2 to Germany while at the same time England rampaged 6-0 over Argentina. Other Asian teams made it past the group stage but not in the quarter finals.

Nagasato failed to repeat her double digit goal achievements in 2008 with NTV, but things were much better with Japan. She did not score in Japan’s lucky escape from the group stage (unnecessary draw with New Zealand, lost to USA, and 5-1 jackpot against Norway). The sweetest thing was they were the best third place team, above Canada and hah, North Korea.

In quarter finals Japan faced its nemesis China, who they beat 2-0 thanks to Sawa and Nagasato. It’s downhill from there – losses to USA and Germany. No medal but fourth place, still ok.

Nagasato left Japan in summer 2009 and played in Germany with Turbine Postdam. She scored six goals and lifted the Bundesliga Women trophy and the UEFA Champions League Women trophy – two goals against Norwegian champions Roa and a penalty goal in the 6-7 final shootouts with Lyon.

2011 could be her highest mark: 10 goals in Bundesliga (nothing to team mates Anja Mittag and Fatmire Bajramaj) and read this – 9 Champions League goals. While Postdam retain their Bundesliga trophy, they lost the Champions League cup to Lyon.

And of course, there’s the 2011 Women World Cup. Nagasato scored against New Zealand, but that’s about it and she missed the penalty kick against United States in the final. Because of that, she failed to make it into the tournament’s best players.

She married Kosuke Ogimi in 2012 (most of online items on him are on German) and changed her professional surname to Yuki Ogimi, the name she’s listed as in the 2012 Olympics. Japan did badly in London, drawing 0-0 with Sweden and South Africa after defeated Canada 2-1. Ogimi heated up at last and scored against Brazil (together with Ono) and scored again in the semis against France. She even scored in the final, but failed to follow up and United States won the gold medal.

Another year and another year of victory for Postdam. You have to say she has the habit of winning. She became one of the deadliest feet in Germany in 2012 with her team mate Genoveva Anonma – the Equator Guinean became the first non-German to become Bundesliga’s top scorer. In Europe, she and Anja Mittag scored 7 goals each but Postdam lost 1-5 to Lyon (again!) in the semi finals.

In 2013 Ogimi got bad and good news. Bad: Postdam lost the Bundesliga title to Wolfsburg. Good: she became the first Asian to win the golden boot with 18 goals. It was worse in Europe – Postdam failed to enter the top eight and she failed to score 5 goals.

So she moved to London for a new challenge (and better sight). She was off to terrible start, as Chelsea were at the bottom of the league, had not Doncaster Rovers Belles were relegated. And tonight, she was close to lift the trophy. But not yet.

 

2. Samantha Kerr. Australia. Right Winger.

Google often thinks the only Australian Kerr is Miranda.

Google often thinks the only Australian Kerr is Miranda.

Samantha was born in Fremantle, Western Australia’s second largest city. If Ogimi’s siblings play football, Kerr’s brother and father play Australian Football. She’s also Asian in another sense since she’s 1/4 Indian. She moved to Perth and played for Glory in 2008. Her goal against Sydney FC in 2009 won the W-League Goal of the Year Award. She entered the Matildas and scored against South and North Koreas to win the 2010 Asian Cup.

Unfortunately she scored no goal in the 2011 World Cup as Australia lost 1-3 to Sweden in the quarter (preventing an all-Asian semi against Japan). In 2012 Kerr moved to Sydney FC (Perth had been a lower end team), and although ironically lost to Perth in the regular season, Kerr went berserk in the playoffs, er, finals series and scored two goals against Brisbane and defeated Melbourne Victory in the Grand Final.

Kerr was loaned to Western New York Flash and so she moved from a metropolis to another. The competition was tight against world’s best players such as Abby Wambach and Carli Llyod (fortunately in the same team with her) and Alex Morgan (Portland. Come on. You know her by googling her bikini pics). The Flash almost won 2013 Women’s Soccer League (won the league, lost the final to Portland) but Kerr did not get any award.

In 2014 Kerr got bad news and good news: Flash kept on losing and ended up at the 7th place, but she became the club’s top scorer and won a player of the week award. Released by Sydney, she went home to Perth, which now dominate the W-League thanks to Kerr and Kate Gill. And of course, to Caitlin Foord.

 

3. Caitlin Foord. Australia. Right Winger/Right Wing Back.

It was such a hot day.

It was such a hot day. Foord wears purple, anyway, vs Leena Khamis.

She came from the other way around – Foord (not Ford) was raised in Shellharbour, about 100 km from Sydney. Readily joined the local big club Central Coast Mariners, the club folded and so Foord took the bus (or train? Or did her father drive her?) to Sydney. The 17 year old wore number 9 for the 2011 World Cup, and yeah, did not score.

Her big break came in 2013 as she scored six goals for Sydney and moved to USA to join New Jersey’s Sky Blue FC. Kerr’s Western New York defeated the Jersey girls in the semi finals. She took the flight back (figuratively, not necessarily actually) to Sydney together with Kerr and she scored 5 goals compared to Kerr’s three.

And this semester, they are playing together again in Perth.

4. Ji So-yun. Korea. Midfielder.

I always like it with Korea and Japan make up.

I always like it when Korea and Japan make up.

A native of Seoul, like many other Koreans Ji puts education before sport (at least her parents did). She graduated from Hanyang Women’s University in Seoul before moving to Japan to join INAC Kobe. She, however, had played for Korea U-17 and U-20 teams. In fact, she scored her first senior international goal – goals –  at the age of 15 against Taiwan. So Korea could hardly wait for Park Chu-young but they were extremely patient for Ji So-yun. Figures.

In 2010 Asian Games Ji went for a killing spree, scoring against Vietnam, a hattrick to Jordan, but lost the semi final to North Korea. Ji, however, scored Korea’s second goal against China and got the medal bronze – and the bragging right of being the games’ top scorer. With the absence of Yuki Nagasato, INAC became the new queens of L-League and Ji became probably the first Korean to be in L-League best eleven in 2012, supplying great passes to Megumi Takase and Shinobu Ono (yes, she has switched side). She re-entered the best eleven in 2013, together with American team mate Beverly Goebel-Yanez (who fits Japanese caricature of an American woman).

Sadly Korean women football progresses slower than Ji’s progress, and she remains one of a kind. Tonight, her magic partnership with Yuki Ogimi still has to wait for another year.

5 Things from Asian Football this week

It’s Euro qualifying week so it’s friendly week in Asia. By tradition, it never runs well for both Korea and Japan (Kirin [Challenge] Cup was hardly fun), and for a change of pace, Australia still had not won an international this year (to the joy of some Asian media). Basically, it’s about how Asia moves beyond Brazil 2014. Here are five things I took note.

Work sucks.

Work sucks.

1. Keeper

Eiji Kawashima. 2014 caps with Japan: 8. Goals conceded: 13. 2014-15 appearances in Belgian Pro League: 7. Goals conceded: 16. He’s terrible in club and country. Last semester he was close to win the trophy (Liege were the top of the regular league, but lost in the final group by two points) and was the second safest hands in Belgium, together with Australian Mat Ryan (Anderlecht’s Silvio Proto was the top goalkeeper).

Last night he conceded five, his second time this season – to round up a terrible week after he was blamed for Venezuela’s second goal in the 2-2 friendly. He passed August without a clean sheet, and Liege’s sub goalkeeper Yoann Thuram is itching to take over his place. He has a great chance to be a benchwarmer before Christmas. Lucky for him, in Japan no one is able yet to replace him. Shusaku Nishikawa let three goals past him the last time he guarded Japan’s goal for 90 minutes (against Zambia), but things may change if Liege’s coach Guy Luzon has enough with Kawashima and if Nishikawa brings Urawa to win the J. League title.

Australia experienced a serious bout of Europe-based keeper disappointments. Adam Federici. Brad Jones. Nathan Coe. Mitch Langerak. Mat Ryan seemed to be answer, but just like Kawashima, he had conceded 13 goals this year, out of 8 games. Ironically, Australia’s first victory came when Langerak was on duty – considering that Ryan let no goal past him against Ecuador in the first half while Langerak missed four in 45 minutes.

Club wise, the rivalry between Ryan and Kawashima was one thing that made me keeping track of Belgian Pro League (not much news is in English), and often Ryan seemed like winning. He’s not doing that bad, compared to Kawashima, conceded seven goals out of six matches, but his mates did not do very well in scoring. Maybe just like in Australia. Langerak, meanwhile, experiences the benefits of training with Dortmund without the perk of playing. No one is sure who will stand for Australia in the AFC Asian Cup.

Now to Korea, which never exports a goalkeeper to Europe. Lee Woon-jae was much better than Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, but he stayed in Suwon. Jung Sung-ryong, a rival of Kawashima, seems to be having the same path (lucky for him, things are looking up for Suwon). New coach Uli Stielike tries new options with Kim Jin-hyeon (who I picked into my Korea 23 to Brazil) and Busan’s Lee Beom-yeong. They did well in their matches – both conceded only one goal against Venezuela and Uruguay respectively. But I still don’t understand why does Korea never look at keepers from the two best clubs: Jeonbuk and Pohang. It’s been like this throughout this century. Do KFA and POSCO and Hyundai Motors have some sort of unresolved issues? I’m asking this because both Kim and Lee are playing for clubs who are in the relegation zone.

2. The world does not really care about Australian transitional period.

Australian bloggers and pundit remind fans and readers that the Socceroos are in a transitional period. Results should be seen in perspective. Cahill scored one of the best goals of Brazil 14. Ange believes in the quality of A-League. Western Sydney are on the verge of making a big bang in Asia. The “Dad’s Army” of Bresciano, Emerton, and Kennedy were changing into one of the youngest squad to appear in a World Cup, and they did fine.

Unfortunately, no one outside Oceania cares. England is just happy that Australia fails to catch up in football, unlike in uh, rugby or cricket or basketball. Asia loves seeing Australia’s gradual decline with different kind of degrees – even if their footballs are not better either.

For one thing, Australia still cannot live without Tim Cahill, who is very likely to be in for AFC Asian Cup. He is still Australia’s best striker, with Mat Leckie and Tommy Oar are now employed as wingers. It won’t be all good for Mark Bresciano, but it seems that Socceroos can go on without him (he played 13 minutes against Saudi Arabia). Tomi Juric is on the card, but again, Americans and British (English+Scottish by next week) are more likely to follow news on him than Asians do.

3. Japan: The parts are better than its sum

“Don’t blame me, I wasn’t playing with Manchester United.” That was last year. That was last month. “Don’t blame me, I wasn’t playing with Japan.” That was this month. So Shinji Kagawa left Manchester and returned to Dortmund, got number 7, and was put behind Adrian Ramos. It took him 40 minutes to score. 40 minutes. After 30 scoreless matches with Manchester United.

Meanwhile, Shinji Okazaki is now improbably Bundesliga’s top scorer, together with Julian Schieber. Above Son Heung-min. Above Thomas Muller. Above Ivica Olic. Above Pierre Aubameyang. It’s a big question that Javier Aguerre does not put him as the striker – insisting that he’s a right winger.

One of my joys of life is holding an affordable official Blue Samurai merchandise. The three legged crow, the JFA letters, the beautiful blue. Now it feels like it’s a brand of disappointment, of poor quality, of being clueless. But maybe it goes the same for England. Or Manchester United.

4. China tries. Not too hard.

One of the things you can say to make me laugh is saying that China can win the World Cup (so do Japan. Logically, any nation can win the World Cup). A proud Chinese and admirers of China say nothing is impossible – China had sent people to outer space, has won the Olympics (gathering the most gold medals, actually), made great laptops and mobile phones, and won tennis Grand Slams.

The World Cup, football, of course is different. It’s not related with economic progress or growing political power. It’s related with football culture. United States, the richest country in the world, was terrible with football in the second part of 20th century because it didn’t like soccer. Same went with Japan and Australia. Then in early 1990s, USA and Japan made professional leagues and invested in grass root football. Australia followed suit in early 2000s. Three of them had different catalysts. For USA, it was the successful World Cup. For Japan, it was winning AFC Asian Cup 1992 followed by the Agony of Doha (Iraq-Japan 2-2). For Australia, it was defeating American Samoa 31-0 followed by inter-ethnic riots that marred the semi-pro National Soccer League in early 2000s.

What’s supposed to be the catalyst for China? The Beijing Olympics failed to do so. Would it be Evergrande’s AFC Champions League title? Still not quite. China has to send players to Europe first, busting their arses and feet like Hide Nakata, Viduka, and Park Ji-sung did. Like Okazaki, Jedinak, and Son Heung-min do. Chinese Super League won’t be enough.

At least this month China did friendlies not for the show. They challenged Asian teams who are as strong as them – Kuwait and Jordan. China should push further. Arrange friendlies OUTSIDE China. Travel to the Middle East, to Europe, to North America, to Oceania. Export players to Asia like other Asians do – Japanese in India, Koreans in Qatar, Australians in Malaysia. Any self help guru says you have to break through your comfort zone. Japan, USA, and Australia have done it. Now it’s China’s turn.

#WeAreHK. Dozens of us.

#WeAreHK. Dozens of us.

5. Hong Kong national team is more important than ever

Asia used to sneer Hong Kong as a mercenary team. Some Chinese with a number of Westerners and Africans thrown in to increase the winning odd. Maybe in this modern Carthage, it’s hard to find local who’s willing to become professional athlete, although every boy wants to play football and their dads bet for Barcelona.

As Hong Kongers believe it is under heavy pressure from China to abandon its freedom and way of life, the national team becomes a symbol of hope and independence. It’s no wonder that the history of Hong Kong 2 China 1 of 1985 is revived (All Hong Kong players were Cantonese in that match, saved for sub Phillip Reis, who might be half or full blooded Portuguese). #WeAreHK appeared during the match against Singapore.

Hong Kong footballers who were lost to Vietnam (twice) and held Singapore (they would meet Singapore again next month) consisted of local Cantonese, Chinese who were born in China, naturalized Africans, and Westerners who were born in Hong Kong. Such is the multiculturalism that Hong Kong holds as its identity, and which China takes as a relic of British colonialism. On the other hand, I agree that Hong Kongers should start accepting Chinese citizens as humans, not “locusts”. The problem is the People’s Republic of China, not the Chinese people.

Better yet for Hong Kong, China is out of the AFC Champions League, but a Hong Kong club makes it into the semi finals of the AFC Cup. Worse for China, Kitchee’s opponents would be Erbil, the Kurdish club whose hometown is not only much older than Xian, but which autonomy has been impregnable by Saddam’s regime, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State.

2015, then

And so they went home. You have heard that Shinji Kagawa wrote a formal apology to his fans, which according to my friend Sean Carroll is “as uninspired and predictable as his football in Brazil”. But that what in his (and his agent’s) mind is the right way to do, the right thing to say, to his fans. His Japanese fans. And even Japanese who are not his fans. But Japanese. And then his non-Japanese fans.

For most of us non-Japanese, his apology is optional. What matters is he gets his act together. Maybe even for Japanese culture, his apology is optional. He is not the first terrible number 10 to lead Japan in a failed World Cup campaign. I forget if Shunsuke Nakamura or Hiroshi Nanami did the same, although I guess they might have, at least in Japan.

But Kagawa is in bigger spotlight than Shunsuke. Back in Hide Nakata days there was no Twitter, YouTube, 24/7 updated football networks, and although it had started, European elite clubs did not receive as much as Asian sponsors as today. Kagawa truly believes he has failed his fans worldwide, both Japanese supporters and Manchester United fans. And sponsors. He should have done better, but the Ivory Coasters (what’s the proper noun for citizens of Cote d’Ivoire? I’m sorry) were so scary. Scarier than the walking Barbie doll in Beyond: Two Souls. He should have be able to do one-two with Honda, slashing through gasping Zuniga, and lobbed an overhead pass to Kakitani which the forward would have headed home.

Why can't Japan play football like this? Because life is not a manga.

Why can’t Japan play football like this? Because life is not a manga.

But he didn’t, did he? Nor did others. Or the whole English and Spanish defenses, in fact. But let others write about the Europeans. We’ve seen how scared little boys were the Japanese defense against Colombia, how nervous the forwards were against Greece.

In Jakarta Post, I argue that Asians in general don’t pay attention to the failures of Asia in 2014. They accept that Asians are terrible in sports as a matter of fact (never mind Michelle Wie, Jeremy Lin, Kei Nishikori, and yes, Shinji Okazaki) and naturally they omit Australia. On the other hand, there’s a persisting myth in Asia outside Korea and China that Japanese team possess the Bushido spirit.

Asians actually glared at me for saying “if you want to see Bushido in football, see Australia.” Now that’s brave football. Who cares if we get three goals past us? We’ll just attack and tackle. Part of it is the genetic of having European parents. And yes, one Mike Havenaar is not enough (I maintain that he deserved number 20 over Manabu Saito).

But essentially, Japan’s and Korea’s hesitation and lack of bravery during the matches were caused by fear of failure. When you are worried of making mistakes, you’ll make mistakes. Cliche but true.

Then, as John Duerden and other Western (but not Asian) journalists have said, Japan and Korea have no number nine – the goalscoring hero, the van Persie, the Suarez. So do Australia and Brazil, actually. So Brazil has to make sure somebody will be better than Luis Fabiano and Fred (and not having his European manager puts him as a winger) and Australia will also help Adam Taggart being better than Josh Kennedy and Scott McDonald.

But the lack of number nine in Japan and Korea also have to do with culture, I guess. Japanese boys want to become Captain Tsubasa, number 10, the creative playmaker. Number nine in Tsubasa’s saga is the brash, rude, and antagonistic Hyuga – who didn’t make it into Juventus starting 11. On the other hand, Korean boys want to become the speedy number 7, like Son Heung-min, Lee Chung-yong, or Lee Chun-soo in the past. Graceful and popular with girls. Koreans perpetually describe their football as “fast”.

Why? Because number 9 has to hog the ball and makes the final decision. He has to be under the spotlight. Of course many boys like that idea, many men eventually become them, the JFA and J. League continuously make such campaigns to encourage more attacking play and more goal scoring opportunities.

But how on Earth it could be a Japanese habit, Japanese psyche, if the Japanese keep on with group mentality and shunning of individuality in life beyond football? Even the closest thing to Hyuga, Keisuke Honda, showed himself as a 15 minutes attacking midfielder.

What Javier Aguerre, the new coach of Japan, can do is to develop Shinji Okazaki to become a full time number 9, with Yohei Toyoda, Yu Kobayashi, Junya Tanaka, and Mike Havenaar as next in the pool. Okazaki could scored 15 goals for Mainz last season because he had no such fear of failure in Germany. And because he was the number 9 for the club.

Thrown by toffees...of love.

Thrown with toffees…of love.

As for Korea. At least Kawashima and co., in their wonderful suits, were welcomed by squealing (always squealing) Japanese girls in that blue Adidas shirt. On the other hand, the Koreans were pelted with yeot, translated as toffees. Interestingly, among Chinese-Indonesians “toffee” is also an insulting word. So I guess the origin of the insult came from China.

Death of Korean football? Hardly. They didn’t call it death of Korean football back in 1998. Again, because back in 1998 they had no Twitter, Cyworld (or did Korea already have Cyworld back in 1998?), and Nike banners of Ki Sung-yong everywhere. And a dozen of European based players. Cha Bum-kun was more even disgraced back then. The pain was supposedly more…painful…with the economic crisis (called “IMF Crisis” by Koreans until today, blamed on IMF rather than their own fat cats) gripping, but maybe back then, Koreans thought everything sucked, so it’s appropriate for football to suck too.

In 2014, however, Koreans strongly believe they are the darlings of Asia. Japan’s sun has set and China is vilified, but everyone loves Lotte, K-pop, Korean drama, and Samsung. So everything nice and football has to be nice too. Why can’t football be nice?

After seeing Germany versus Algeria, I’ve come to admit the quality of Algerian football. Korea should have defeated Russia, but their only mistake against Algeria was they got panicked and scared, just like Japan in second half against Ivory Coast. Algeria could beat them in any day, even with better composure.

But now I’m finishing Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World. In Busan, she followed an American who dropped out of his exchange program out of frustration, and a Korean who was relieved to move to New Jersey. Nobody, even the Koreans, is happy with the way Korean education is run.

So in school and office, Koreans are pressured by themselves to be perfect. They berate themselves and are berated if they don’t do things perfectly. So that what happened with the toffees. The supporters, pressured to be perfect in college and office (or even in playing Starcraft), were angry that the Warriors were not perfect. Just like Xavi and Hart.

 

 

Not happy to be there

OK, let’s be silent for a moment, or minute.

OK.

In 2006, Nike’s tagline for Australia’s campaign in Germany 2006 (still representing OFC) was “More than Happy to be There”, and the ad campaign portrayed them as super underdogs who didn’t give a damn, even though they were rated below Japan. Both Nike and Socceroos had successful campaigns as they became the only OFC representatives to reach Top 16, probably ever (here’s challenging you, New Zealand).

Eight years later, the spirit of 2006 still rings true. Australia were the first Asian team to be ousted. But you know what’s everyone talking about. McGowan. Cahill. Bam. 1-1.

In few hours they will face Spain and it’s the Spanish who are worried – worried of conceding even a single goal. Worried of a draw. Worried of an ugly 1-0 win. In 2006 it was bit overblown to portray Australia as super (or it’s the other way around?) underdogs. Viduka, Kewell, and Bresciano were household names in Europe and Aloisi was tipped as the next big thing. Cahill had good reputation in Everton and Schwarzer was the steady choice, while Japan couldn’t pick between Kawaguchi or Narazaki.

But Australia 2014 were indeed underrated: Cahill had passed his prime, they did messy jobs in the qualification, they still have no trusty defenders and overall, have to rely on veterans of 2006. None of them plays in European big teams, with many veteran and rookie names are playing in Asian leagues.

I don’t know any Hollywood movie where the heroes die horribly one by one but we don’t grieve their eventual losses – they just dance their way to destruction and looking cool doing it. I’ve come to believe that had Australia traded place with Iran or Japan, they could do some serious damage – and goals.

Nothing to rave about from Japan, although you can praise the improved defense. But both Kagawa and Honda continue their personal and public disappointing acts (which means they often state they are disappointed with their performances, especially Kagawa). I don’t know if Japan looks at sports psychology as serious as United States does, but heavy works are needed for both of them.

And please, put Okazaki as the spear head. He scored 15 goals for Mainz because Mainz trusted him as number 9. Osako can cut his teeth in Bundesliga 2 and Asian Cup 2015, but Japan needs the best striker now (of course, it’s too late to expect so from him against Colombia).

So, why did Cahill score that volley and Kagawa didn’t? They are both under 180 cm tall, Kagawa is almost 10 years younger, and supposedly possesses better football skills (Cahill, of course, has better experiences). Again I wonder if it comes to culture – Australia loves Tim but it does not force him to star in every ad and the media don’t trail him everywhere both in Liverpool and New York City. Japan looked so hesitant because they feared failure, they worried about making mistakes, and so their did make a lot of mistakes. Including passing the chances of just giving it a go.
But the disaster case lies with Republic of Korea. I (and some other people, usually Westerners rather than Asians) love to think of Korea as the antithesis to Japan. Loud and brash. Expressive and Westernized. “The Irish/Italians of Asia”.

But if Japan vs Greece was a 0, then Korea vs Algeria was a -2 rather than +1. Guangzhou Evergrande’s tight defense can be attributed to the central role of Kim Young-kwon, but he can leave all hopes of playing in Europe this season after last night. Algeria celebrated its first World Cup victory since 1982 (when they were robbed by Austria and West Germany), and it’s VERY painful to see Algerian men (not women) honk their rusty rides on the streets of Algiers instead of cool Korean boys and girls raving before Admiral Yi’s and King Sejong’s statues with all of the lights.

What really ticks me off is that Korean media and people lament the loss but seriously don’t care about it. More Koreans are angrier that Sassy Girl Jeon Ji-hyun advertises a Chinese drinking water which is supposedly sourced from a Korean holy mountain (it lies on the border of China and North Korea). In Korea Times, the loss to Algiers is less important to “Bear likes oral sex too” (no link. Google it yourself) and the editorial that Japan risks severing political ties with Korea over World War II’s sex slavery (not gonna happen). The least they could do was celebrating the victory of Korean-American Michelle Wie at the US Open.

In 2006 I was quite crushed to realize that English-language Japanese news focuses too much on sex news (like that bear or starlets doing first pitch on local baseball league), precisely because that the popular news in Japanese are. Eight years later, it takes a heavy loss to Algeria to open my eyes that Korean news are just same.

I scoured again for news on the match from Korean perspective, and all I could find were dull reports on the goals without clear analysis on what went wrong for Korea: Formation? Chemistry? Strategy? Add that with lazy comments from anonymous supporters (on the street, since no one comments on the article) – at least Western anonymous supporters (on the comment section, and on other teams) can be sharp and unforgiving.
I found bits on what I saw last night: the cowardly play in first half (worse than Japan’s performance against Greece), the late introduction of Kim Shin-wook, and the descriptions of Korea’s goals from two familiar sources: blogs and news written by Westerners. It’s just frustrating.

This is from SYDNEY Morning Herald, for Tae-yang's sake.

This is from SYDNEY Morning Herald, for Tae-yang’s sake.

Japan – Ivory Coast was the most watched match worldwide outside the opening Brazil – Croatia match, and it’s understandable that more than 50% of Japanese households watched the morning match. On the other hand it seems that Koreans just don’t care about this World Cup. One can say that Korea is still in grieving mode after the Sewol tragedy, but it seems they are not grieving enough to make fuzz about Jeon Ji-hyun. And bear.

World Cup Debriefing: Match Day 1

This will be brief so we can get back to practice soon.

Australia

The perpetual optimists, blessed them, look forward to hurt Holland for their upcoming match. Naturally this means two things: a) they will do it and score a draw (any chance Ryan becomes tonight’s Ochoa?) or b) it will get worse. On record, Australia’s worst defeat in World Cup was 0-4 to Germany in 2010, and Australia looked tough for the first five minutes.

Certainly Chile were their best chance to score three points, but by all counts it was impossible (same result achieved by my high-tech analytical machine – EA’s World Cup 2014). The good news is, the perpetual optimists (TM) Australians can now look forward to surprise (or annoy) two teams with serious claims for the trophy (and one with serious need to rebound).

Certainly Australians take sports more seriously than Japanese and Koreans. This nation divided between sports buffs and obese, healthy eating and double crispy bacon, does not have to boringly claim “football is war” and yet they looked sober instead of crushed, considering they were the worst Asian team of the week.

Maybe it’s genetic. They knew they were slower and less skillful (this is relative) compared to European and South American contestants at the World Cup. But they are as big and aggressive as these football veterans. They are absolved from other baggage dragging town Japan and Korea – short, weak, non aggressive, boring, etc.

Maybe it’s also cultural. Australians are new to association football (still called soccer to avoid confusion with Australian Rules Football, makes me wondering why Japan calls it soccer although they don’t have to differentiate it to another code). On one side, Australian media and spectators do not put the hope and pressure as high as they might have on Australian swimmers and rugby players.

On another side, since Germany 2006 football, particularly the World Cup, has united Australian public even more than cricket or rugby international (i.e. Mediterranean and East Asian Australians also pay attention besides Anglo-Irish and South Asian/Pacific Australians). It took Japan’s disastrous meltdown after Tim Cahill’s equalized in June 2006 to put football into the main stream of Australian ads and pub conversation (although it might also started from John Aloisi’s penalty against Uruguay a year earlier).

The difference is, unlike Japanese and especially Koreans, Australians don’t put overtly burden toward its players. Chris Herd is a laugh in some forums, but there is no public condemnation against him, accusing him as selfish or whatever. And so Cahill and Mike “Mile” Jedinak left Arena Pantanal walking tall, felt less stung than Japan did in Recife.

Japan

Throughout Asia, everyone (except Koreans, maybe) equates “fighting spirit” with the Japanese. Numerous Second World War references ensue, and strangely in positive way. They were taken as the strongest Asian side, and certainly the sported names notable enough in both the West and East: Kagawa, Honda, Internazionale’s Nagatomo, and Mainz’ Okazaki.

Unlike Australia, Japan had the chance to defeat Ivory Coast. Yes, this is Drogba’s and now Yaya Toure’s Ivory Coast. Gervinho’s and Bony’s. But African teams have patchy records in 21st century’s World Cups thanks to terrible FAs mismanagement, overrated coaches, disparities between local and European based players, and clash of egos.

Yet it took aged Drogba to motivate the Elephants to spring to life, including changing the misfiring Bony. Sadly, Kagawa played like he did in Manchester United and overall Japan played, like, Japan.

Most news and reports on the match focus on Ivory Coast, because not only they won, but because the Toures and Gervinho have made more impact on the Premier League than Kagawa and Yoshida. Japanese fans naturally focus on criticizing the players and Al Z did the same – fuming why didn’t his players attack on the second half.

So, that 1-2 felt much more hurt than 1-3 (minus the foul plays experienced by Australia, and with several Ivory Coast players leaving the pitch limping). Maybe Japan really did not demonstrate the fighting spirit showed by Australia (Leckie’s rushes vs Yoshida’s dangerous tackles). Maybe Japanese fans worldwide set the standard too high – and the Japanese players set their standard too low. Japan’s fate still hangs on the balance – topping this manageable group or be at the bottom.

First half was fun.

First half was fun.

Iran

I want to care about them but I cannot. Maybe it’s the Eastern bias. Maybe because I can’t see anything interesting from modern Iran. Maybe because Carlos Queiroz had to bring Japan (which he referred as “Iran”) and Korea to angrily defend himself.

 

Korea

Heh, just like Japan in 2010 – terrible warm ups, surprising World Cup result. The difference is, this is the first time Korea failed to win its first World Cup match since 1998 (wow!). And they were close to win it. Can we have Kim Seung-gyu on goal for second match, please? He’s not much better, but still better than Jung.

Londoners, meanwhile, make another joke on Park Chu-young, who completed only 55% of his passes. Of course, the bigger jokes fell on Fabio Capello. Which is a good news – if Russia are England 2014, then the Koreans are USA 2014. 2-2 draw with Belgium and 1-0 victory against Algeria. Yippee.

Global media are obliged to show more pictures of Korean supporters. Don't everyone love Asian women?

Global media are obliged to show more pictures of Korean supporters. Don’t everyone love Asian women?

PS: Meanwhile, the Chinese do their own football in a series of friendlies: back to back against Macedonia and against Mali. Rich and strong China can’t pay Serbia or Tunisia to come, heh.

Er, shorts and cans of beer at midnight are bad for your health

Er, shorts and cans of beer at midnight are bad for your health

 

A History of Southeast Asia & the World Cup: 1934-1989

These days with World Cup 2014 video game I’m playing around the Southeast Asian teams. Hm, Singapore do have some Singapore-born Chinese, like Joey Sim and Andrew Tan (actually there are only two of them). I wish I could enjoy Indonesia better but nah, although I’m happy that EA still rates them stronger than Malaysia and Vietnam (that’s weird.)

So, rather than previewing Australia, Japan, and Korea in the World Cup (ready for the mess?), I want to tell you stories on how did Southeast Asia keep failing in their World Cup campaigns.

1934-1954: One and Only Dutch East Indies

Asia, 1934. The whole continent was under European, American, and Japanese rules with the exception of fractured China. The Europeans and Americans had introduced football in Philippines, Southeast Asia, and Western Asia. Some ethnic-based clubs had been formed for identity bonding and nationalism, just like migrants in Canada, Australia, Brazil, and United States formed their sporting clubs. The Japanese, meanwhile, were more into baseball and lovingly taught that sport to the Taiwanese.

Since no one in East Asia wanted to sail all the way to Italy, no country or territory was interested with the 1934 World Cup. Three Middle Eastern (now only one of them is in AFC) countries were in Group 12 – Egypt, Palestine (consisted of nine British, six Jews, and an Arab), and Turkey who withdrew. So Palestine might be the first Asian team in the World Cup, and this Palestine was the precursor to modern Israeli and Palestine national teams.

Indonesian media love to point out that Indonesia were the first Asian team in the World Cup. With the caveat that it competed under the name Dutch East Indies back in 1938 and they lost to Hungary 0-6 in first round. That’s all. No more story.

Indeed there was no Indonesia back in 1938, there were Dutch East Indies. Only them and Japan were available in the Asian group – I wonder what had happened to French Indochina (while France hosted the World Cup) and the Philippines (United States were regulars at 1930s World Cup). The British Empire naturally were too arrogant to join the continental tournament. So Japan withdrew since they were too busy killing the Chinese and preparing for the invasion of Asia, leaving Dutch East Indies sailing across the Indian Ocean to France.

Here is the roster of the Dutch East Indies squad against Hungary and their supposed ethnicity:

Goalkeeper: Tan Mo Heng (Chinese, HTCNH)

Defenders: Frans Hu Kon (Chinese, Sparta), Jack Kolle (Dutch/Eurasian…maybe even Jew, Excelsior)

M: Sutan Anwar (Minang, VIOS), Frans Meeng (Chinese, probably, SVVB) (captain), Achmad Nawir (Javanese, probably, HBS)

F: Frans Taihuttu (Moluccan, Jong Ambon), Henk Zomers (Dutch/Eurasian, Hercules), Tan Hong Djien (Chinese, Tiong Hoa), Suvarte Soedarmadji (Javanese, HBS), Tjaak Pattiwael (Moluccan, Jong Ambon)

Coach: Johan Mastenbroek

And introducing the plushie.

And introducing the plushie.

Some 2-3-5 it was. You can see why modern Indonesia is not too proud of them – too many Dutch and Chinese for modern Indonesian liking (supposedly Muslim Indonesians have no problem with the Christian South Mollucans/Ambonese, which still contributed many players to the national team until 1980s). 9000 people watched the match in Reims on 5 June 1938 where Hungary took 4-0 lead by half time.

Fast forward to 1950 and Asia was wrecked by Second World War. The communists took power in China, independence wars raged over Vietnam and Indonesia, pro-American governments were busily snuffing communism out in Japan and South Korea, India still mourned the loss of Gandhi, and communist rebellion took place in Malaya. Philippines seemed to be the only orderly place in Asia.

Philippines, however, could not afford sailing to Brazil and so they withdrew, along with Indonesia and Burma. India withdrew for one of two reasons – either because they could not play barefoot, or because they also could not afford the trip. Maybe both of them. FIFA gave up looking for a replacement.

In 1954 only East Asians contested the qualification. Republic of China withdrew so the South Koreans began the long tradition of kicking Japanese asses with a satisfying 5-1 match in Tokyo.

 

1957-1969: Withdraw, Withdraw!

Indonesia were back as the muscle of Southeast Asia (pretty much because no one else competed). Anti-communist Republic of China withdrew, knowing that if they won, they must face something more repulsive than Indonesia – the People’s Republic. The 2-0 victory against China in Jakarta is still a legend of Indonesian football history, along with 0-0 draw against Soviet Union in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Gowan (in South Sulawesi) Ramang, who grew up playing foot volley and thus a master of volleys and scissor kicks, scored both goals. He would score two more goals in the away match in Beijing, in which Indonesia lost 3-4, and Indonesia passed by better goal average (after a pointless 0-0 third match in Burma).

In the Second Round, Indonesia and Egypt spectacularly withdrew because there were Israel. Sudan agreed to move on only to change their minds in the final round. FIFA, however, could not let Israel go to Sweden without winning any match, but even Belgium refused to play them (did Belgium have any interest in Muslim world at this time?) so Wales grabbed the ticket after defeating Israel 2-0 twice. Indonesia threw away its big chance because of religious and quasi-communist politics. Ramang himself would be disgraced in 1960 with accusation of bribery, which was more likely a slander related to political struggles between communists, Islamists, and the Army.

Indonesia blew another chance in 1961 as it withdrew from a three way competition against South Korea and Japan. Certainly Sukarno’s quixotic “revolution” has alienated Indonesia in the region and apparently Indonesia did not like South Korea enough, although Sukarno loved Japan – his new wife was a geisha provided by Toyota, Naoko Nemoto. Korea kicked out Japan again before going down to Yugoslavia in intercontinental playoff. By this time I believe it’s safe to say that Filipinos didn’t care about football.

1965 was an even weirder time. All African teams withdrew and only two Asian teams were available (keywords: Southeast Asia. Domino Theory). Both of them were from the Korean peninsula. Australia finally went into the picture while South Africa, grouped in the Oceania Confederation of Football, were banned. North Korea refused to play in the imperialist land of Japan (which had lost interest in football, thanks to South Korea) and South Korea refused to play in Cambodia, so South Korea said anyong. North Korea gleefully kicked out Australia 6-1 and 3-1, with German-Australian Les Scheinflug scored both goals (I don’t really care about North Korea).

Apparently 1969 was still not a good time for Southeast Asia to compete, although Indonesia had joined the anti-communist bandwagon, securing peace in the region south of South China Sea. South Korea met its foil Australia while still taking the pleasure of beating Japan. In the end, Israel qualified to Mexico.

Everybody hated us.

Everybody hated us.

 

1973-1989: I Couldn’t Believe Thailand were that Bad

In 1973, South Vietnam, which was on the verge of collapse, competed. Surprisingly, they defeated Thailand 1-0 in Seoul while Malaysia went down to Hong Kong 0-1. In the next round South Vietnam were eliminated by both Hong Kong and Japan. Israel and South Korea aced Group 2 while finally the first match between Southeast Asian teams took place: Malaysia defeated Thailand 2-0 on 23 May 1973 in Seoul thanks to Rahim Abdullah and Harun Jusoh. South Korea naturally topped the group.

Indonesia, meanwhile, were grouped together with Iraq, Australia, and New Zealand. A bit weird arrangement. Maybe AFC and FIFA wanted to prevent another walk out by separating Indonesia and Iraq as far as possible from Israel (curiously, Muslim Malaysia had no trouble playing Israel – they lost 0-3). In a tiring six matches marathon over twenty days in Melbourne and Sydney, Indonesia scored only a victory over New Zealand, thanks to Maurice Tillotson’s own goal. So Australia went on to defeat Iran and then South Korea.

AFC and FIFA played a little sadistic hunger game in 1977 – grouped all Southeast Asian teams in one block. Over 15 days in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore (first appearance), and Hong Kong were beating each other (Sri Lanka withdrew early). The hosts looked strong before being trumped 0-4 by Indonesia at the last day, and so Hong Kong walked away as the winners. From these four Southeast Asian countries, only Singapore, powered by Quah Kim Song, managed to score two wins in this group. In the final round, Hong Kong would lose all their matches against Iran, South Korea, Kuwait, and Australia.

In 1981, the Southeast Asians were spread into different groups and there was no assigned host for Group 1. So the Indonesians traveled to Suva, Auckland, Melbourne, and Taipei, to the joy of PSSI suits and their wives. Indonesia scored two home victories, 1-0s against Taiwan (officially called Chinese Taipei now) and Australia. New Zealand, instead of Australia, topped the group.

Malaysia and Thailand found themselves on the same group again over a week in Kuwait City. 2-2 and another shock – South Korea failed to top the group.

Finally, the Singaporeans spent a Christmas in Hong Kong, drew with Hong Kong and lost to North Korea (North Korea didn’t have problem playing in an imperialist British colony. That’s also new).

Malaysia tripped South Korean’s start on 10 March 1985 with a 1-0 victory in Kuala Lumpur (Dollah Saleh). The next week, they defeated Nepal 2-0 (Hassan Sani and James Wong) and looked like South Korea’s campaign would be killed off soon. Zainal Hassan scored a hattrick against Nepal in Kuala Lumpur (5-0) and the last match in Seoul was the decider. The Koreans scored early and Malaysia were kicked out despite three wins – Korea passed through goal average – 7 to Malaysia’s 6. That was really hurt.

Indonesia also rampaged early with victories against Thailand, India, and Bangladesh and Bambang Nurdiansyah and Dede Sulaiman became the stars. After first away victory to Thailand, Indonesia petered out and lost to Bangladesh and drew with India, but enough to top the group. Thailand were only able to defeat Bangladesh 3-0 at home.

Brunei, recently independent from United Kingdom, started off by receiving goals from Macau, Hong Kong, and China. End of story. Singapore were also unfortunate enough to be grouped with Japan and North Korea, although they managed to draw North Korea 1-1 at home.

In the next round, Indonesia lost to South Korea. Thus ended the legend of Sundanese Dede Sulaiman.

The hair. The shorts. The moustaches.

The hair. The shorts. The mustache.

The hunger games returned in 1989: South Korea were grouped together with Malaysia and Singapore. Korea won EVERY match without letting anyone scored against them, while Malaysia and Singapore scored victories against Nepal. Singapore and Malaysia drew 2-2, anyway.

Thailand, meanwhile, delighted with 1-0 victory against Bangladesh before going down repeatedly to China, Iran, and yes, Bangladesh. How humiliating it was.

Finally, Indonesia became the champions of draws by holding both North Korea and Japan 0-0 in Jakarta and Hong Kong 1-1. Their only victory was only 3-2 win against Hong Kong which supposedly was a good spectacle: trailing 0-1 for one hour, Mustaqim equalized only for Nang Yan Leung to score again at the 64th minute. Then Herry Kiswanto scored ten minutes later and one minute before full time to turn the table, denying Hong Kong its only victory in the group.

 

(*Look, I hope somebody has the television footage of this match and kindly uploads it to YouTube. 250 million Indonesians will thank you*)

Those are the stories of qualification for now. Since the Cold War was ending, over the next four years more countries would join in the Asian qualification. Part 2, 1993-2013, is coming up.