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

All Right in the East…and West

Who said Twitter campaign doesn't work?

Who said Twitter campaign doesn’t work?

Last week I thought things were fine in Asia. This was when the scoreboards were Mouscron-Peruwelz (gah) 5 Standard Liege 2 and MK Dons 4 Manchester United 0 (plus a concussion). But suddenly things look up.

Start with the East, like the movement of sun is. K-League (Classic) continues its tradition of making into the semi finals of AFC Champions League, and the fancier Seoul defeat the unfancied (less fancied?) Pohang. Pohang’s indie rustic charm is something to admire – like Borussia Dortmund or Udinese. But somehow I just prefer Seoul’s cosmopolitanism. They have the only professional Spanish-Japanese footballer on Earth, after all (who is not that good). Homegrown players and local flavor must be something to be desired in modern club football everywhere (especially in Europe), but I’m bit worried that the “all-local” trend growing in Japan and Korea is more about racial purity than about pure football.

A Korean will be surely playing in the Champions League final, provided he is not injured – Kwak Tae-hwi from Al Hilal or Lee Myeong-ju (who was in Pohang last semester) from Al Ain. A defender and an aggressive midfielder – the proverbial Chinese duel of shield against sword.

And I’ve surprised myself by coming long way – cheering for an Australian team that has no player from East Asian heritage. Western Sydney’s starting eleven consisted of three Australians from ex-Yugoslavian background (Serbs, Croatians, Slovenians etc.), an Italian, a Croat, an Albanian, a half Mauritian-half German Australian, three Anglo-Irish Australians, and an African-Australian. Versus eight Chinese, a Brazilian, and two Italians.

So why didn’t I support the Chinese? Because I dislike their football – the Chinese defend and pass, the foreigners score. Evergrande go a long way in China and Asia (and even the world) with this tactic, but it does not any good for the Chinese national team. Because I dislike the bad sport of Chinese footballers. Because I dislike how working in CSL corrupts foreign players and managers. Because I dislike Evergrande’s supporters heavy handed tactics to intimidate Western Sydney. It’s more than anger against Vitor Saba’s acting. It’s pure racist hatred against the white Australians who dared to defeat Evergrande. I’m not sure about how they will treat Korean visitors, but Japanese visitors might be subjected to same, or even worse bullying. We don’t need that kind of trouble on the next stage (Evergrande will return next year).

An Italian approaches an Arab. A Croat and Chinese stay away.

An Italian approaches an Arab. A Croat and Chinese stay away.

I think I’d be neutral on the semi finals between Seoul and Western Sydney. It’s easy to go for Seoul, but I also fancy the fairy tale story of Western Sydney becoming the first A-League team to become the Champions of Asia. Just as I want Australia to win the AFC Asian Cup, despite Japan and Korea.

Now, to Europe. I’m planning to visit the nearest Puma shop to buy a Borussia Dortmund merchandise, because they’ve become my dream team – a team containing an Australian, a Korean, and a Japanese. Well, Mitch Langerak is on the bench again, Ji Dong-won does not sit there at all, and Kagawa has to prove himself against Milo Jojic and Sven Bender (it’s almost impossible to challenge Marco Reus). And euh, that Armenian guy.

I had the feeling Keisuke Honda would score the first Serie A goal for Milan and he did. Thank you Pippo for believing in him. Too bad Inter abandon the left midfield position so Nagatomo is a sub (unless he can overthrow Dodo, but it seems he’s better to be a left midfielder than a left defender).

Son sadly played only a half as Leverkusen continued its winning run, recently against Hosogai’s Berlin, the 2 against 1 fight between Koo and Okazaki versus Kiyotake ended 0-0, while Osako scored against Stuttgart.

In England, Ki earned a yellow card while Swansea are at number two, above Aston Villa (really), Manchester City, and Liverpool. Yoshida is hitori janai as Schneiderlin and Rodriguez stay in Southampton and his central back position is secured. And I can worry less about Manchester United. I think.

[Update: Southampton just welcomed Belgian central back Toby Alderweireld. Oh Maya.]

 

Your Biggest Enemy is…

You have to love to score.

You have to love to score.

After seeing Shinji Kagawa wasted too many chances (many he created perfectly) in the Champions League match against Real Sociedad, I tweeted that he experienced the classic Japanese problem of passing, not shooting. A Dutchman didn’t take this well and reminded me of Shunsuke Nakamura and Keisuke Honda.

Of course, the Kings of Asia don’t become the best of Asia (now still are, with Australia in decline, but well Australia won their last friendly, unlike Japan) by passing and winning penalty shootouts. By the time Kagawa scored almost 20 goals for Dortmund (2011-12) and Honda scored 9 goals for CSKA¬† (2012-13), I thought we had been through that.

Honda’s shortcomings are evident when playing with Japan this year, as he becomes the designated central attacking midfielder behind the striker (pushing Kagawa to the left flank). Still, in this position he has scored six times for Japan this year, but he should have scored more – against Australia, Mexico, Uruguay, and of course in the last dreadful friendlies against Serbia and Belarus. Even it seems that he has past his prime in CSKA, although that also has to do with his decision to move next year (he made the assist in the infamous CSKA 1 Manchester City 2 match).

As for Nakamura, I forgot that he was also a terrible shooter for Japan – the right midfielder, and one of best free kick takers in the world in the last decade, had not scored more than 3 goals in every major competitions since 2003 (meaning he scored 3 goals in 2003 FIFA Confederations Cup, and scored 1-2 goals in every Confed Cup, Asian Cup, and World Cup since then).

Lionel Messi, Oscar, and Neymar prove that body mass is not a big factor in being a deadly attacker. Even Japan have got its dream mecha in the form of Mike Havenaar, but he regularly becomes a substitute that comes in the last three minutes for Japan. Last semester he had to wait for Maeda, this semester for Kakitani.

I got the clue on what’s going on when reading on Li Na’s preparation for the WTA Championship final against Serena Williams. Li’s coach Carlos Rodriguez said that she needs to have more confidence, and Li said that’s been her career-long problem, lack of self-confidence.

There you have it. She can be the first Asian Grand Slam champion of our time and constantly participates in the WTA Tour Championship, but permanently takes herself as the underdog. She’s not alone, and most Asian athletes experience the same problem. The global media, of course, take the Asian athletes as the underdogs. The Asian athletes take themselves as the underdogs not only because of lack of self-confidence, but because they were raised and trained differently to their African and Latin counterparts. The group think, the suppression of individuality, and the overemphasis on team identity.

The Korean national team presents an interesting case – not long after Ki Sung-yueng was booed by fans and suspended for complaining against coach Choi Kang-hee (some fans demanded worse punishment), the coach himself and new star Son Heung-min talked trash to Iran, and humiliated themselves during the match. The trash talking itself was pretty out of character – but well, it was a case of sanctioned group think, as opposed to Ki’s personal statement.

So I think the reason that Kagawa was reluctant to shoot was because he was so aware of his role as a left midfielder. He wanted to provide assists to Rooney, and even seemed to have some last thoughts that affected his power and decisiveness. When he scores, he wants it to be as a result of team effort and according to his role – that’s why he was comfortable to become a second line attacker in Dortmund. This is a man who scored a beautiful volley against Italy in the Confed Cup, and at that time he had the conviction that the team work phase had been completed.

And the myriad of Japanese strikers who failed to make it big? Maybe their skills were not that good compared to the midfielders (same goes to the Australians, while Korea are supposed to have better forwards…but yeah, they have bad mentalities). Maybe they have become victims of the public and JFA’s pressures to find the suitable striker and cannot hold on their position for more than six months. Certainly Japan need to ditch the lone forward formation and put in two. Just make sure that they do not end up passing the ball to each other*.

 

*good thing Okazaki and Havenaar scored for their teams last weekend, with Okazaki scored his first brace in Germany.

Alex & Arsene’s Asian Boys

Thank you, Obi-wan

Thank you, Obi-wan

One is a socialist Glaswegian. The other is an Alsatian who grew up speaking German and became successful managers in Monaco and Nagoya. Choose which one will be responsible for making some Asian footballers known worldwide.

Arsene Wenger was naturally well-liked in Japan. First, he’s French. He gave Nagoya Grampus the Emperor’s Cup and became the manager of the year in 1995. He brought over Dragan Stojkovic from Marseille and almost 20 years later, Doragan-sama is still the hero of Nagoya. Another Nagoya’s star was Yasuyuki Moriyama, who played in Slovenia in 1998-99 before enjoyed an Indian summer with Nagoya again in 2001.

The English press was skeptical when he went to Arsenal – a Frenchman whose previous football experience was in Japan. His economics lecturer look felt excellent in Japan – a typical sophisticated Frenchman – but felt bit poofy for the English. Hey, this was the dawn of both the Premier League and Cool Britannia. Still years before Chelsea became Italian…and actually roughly the same year when Middlesboro became Brazilian.

 

World Cup 1998 was a bad advertisement for South Korea and Japan, but nonetheless an advertisement. There must be some good young players among the 2002 World Cup hosts, someone like Hidetoshi Nakata. There were so many promises from the U-20 squad that went to the 1999 World Youth Championship final (where they failed to defeat Iker Casillas).

Wenger chose Junichi Inamoto, a 1.8 meter baby faced blonde who was impressive in the 2001 Confederations Cup. Unfortunately, Inamoto found it harder even to secure the subs bench, competing with so many dashing trailblazers (pecking order: Vieira – Pires – Ljungberg – Gio – Edu – Lauren – Parlour – Pennant – Inamoto) He made no appearance in the Premier League and the FA Cup and was released before the 2002 World Cup, where he scored against Belgium and Russia.

After the 2002 World Cup, clubs around Europe were drafting Japanese and Korean players. Ferguson was still not interested. Inamoto went to Fulham, still in London so he could save his flat, and scored four goals in Europe (all against Bologna) and also against Manchester United when Fulham defeated Ferguson’s men in October 2003.

Still, Japanese and Korean footballers struggled to win trust, consistency, and reputation. They could last in Europe for years, but as journeymen, cult favorites, and loans. Hidetoshi Nakata experienced steady decline (by his own design, many Japanese fans said) and ended his experiments with soccer, style, and sex with Hollywood stars (Milla Jovovich and Maggie Q were two names that I knew) in Bolton, Inamoto failed to win the trust of mid-table managers, and long-term injuries seriously impaired their chances to stay beyond the second season (not for the last time).

Now I’m thinking about a pattern. Like Borussia Dortmund, PSV Eindhoven was a hip club, a mini iPod. When the hyped Arjen Robben left for Chelsea (and touted as a killer app for both Arsenal and Manchester United), the midfielders of PSV became a quintet of likeable and better-sum-than-its-part men from three continents – Mark van Bommel, Phillip Cocu, Johann Vogel, DaMarcus Beasley, and Park Ji-sung. Park started as the uglier brother for the Korean duo Guus Hiddink brought to Netherlands, compared to Lee Young-pyo (although Park was the one who shattered Portugal in the 2002 World Cup). He caught global attention (i.e. Manchester United noticed him) when he scored against Milan.

So why did Ferguson choose him? He was seen as a cover for Ryan Giggs. Since Japan and Korea hosted the 2002 World Cup and the aftermath, already cynics said that Asian players were recruited ‘to sell shirts’. Unfortunately, some Asians subscribe to this racist concept, as if Asians cannot be decent footballers. Park Ji-sung had also to refute that kind of accusation – even when you think about it, he’s not worse than many other Africans, British, and Europeans that Manchester United or any other big European clubs had signed.

In Manchester United Park was not a stellar player – hard to do so when you’re playing with Michael Carrick, Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani…and well, Ryan Giggs. Some Koreans saw him as overrated, but they had to admit even after the 2006 World Cup, where he jeopardized France’s chance of survival (they survived, Korea didn’t), he would still be Korea’s best player. Lee Chun-soo was too problematic, Park Chu-young was untested in Europe, Seol Ki-hyeon struggled, and Lee Dong-gook slaved himself to alcohol. In 2008, he lifted the Club World Cup and a year later, he became the only Asian player to play in Champions League final, after scoring against Arsenal in the semi. He survived Alex Ferguson while Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Owen, and Owen Hargreaves didn’t. He laid the first goal for the Aviva Stadium in Dublin as MU pounced League of Ireland XI in 2010, and made life worse for Greeks in the 2010 World Cup.

His departure and fall from grace in the Queens’ Park Rangers is most unfortunate and I agree that perhaps, America or Australia is a place to be for him now (Shinji Ono’s renaissance in Western Sydney is astonishing). QPR wanted him to become the playmaker, which is not his role in Europe (yes, in Korea he was the playmaker since as I said, he was the best). I understand the frustration of QPR fans, but they should have (they could not have) remembered him as a successful MU alumni with 200 appearances for the Red Devils, again, he is not a shirt seller (really, why nobody accuses Junior Holliett or Julio Cesar as a ‘shirt seller’?).

The second part of the story is a study of comparison. Shinji Kagawa, a 172 cm attacking midfielder, was the top scorer of J. League Division 2 in 2009, and as the story went, moved to Borussia Dortmund for 350 thousand euros, and made Dortmund fell in love with him after scoring two against archrivals Schalke 04. By the end of the 2010-11 season, he became one of Bundesliga XI. He scored 13 goals the next season, the club’s second best below Robert Lewandowski. His sweetest moment was defeating Bayern Munich in the DFB Pokal final.

Now in Manchester United, he has defeated Asia’s best keeper Mark Schwarzer (stand by for Schwarzer vs Kawashima coming soon), scored a hattrick against Norwich, and became the man of the match in Fergie’s farewell match. Dortmund made him a footballer. Ferguson made him a star.

Hate to write the good news first. Arsene Wenger recruited 19 year old Ryo Miyaichi into Arsenal – his first senior club. He entered Arsenal and picked up a Dutch dictionary and Rotterdam’s apartments listing. He scored three goals and earned nickname Ryodinho. Then he scored against Wigan. Reserves. As a part of Arsenal Reserves. In 2012 Miyaichi couldn’t see the lights of London at nights and had to settle for Bolton. After that, Wigan Athletic. So, nothing related to Arsenal then.

A more tragic story is Park Chu-young. Korea’s great hope for 2006 World Cup, he had the number 10 but suffered from inconsistency. During his time in the K-League with Seoul, he scored more than 10 goals only in 2005 and failed to take Seoul to compete in Asia.

Nevertheless, Park moved to Monaco and played regularly. In Monaco he scored more consistently than he did in Korea, although he still no chance to play continental competition. Monaco was relegated, but with 12 goals, champions Lille were interested to sign him.

And then Park got greedy, heard about the interest from Arsenal, and bailed out of the medical checkup. Wenger, confident with the dozen goals in Monaco, entrusted him with number 9 and entrusted him with no playtime (while kept saying “Park is ready,”). His only league match with Arsenal was against Manchester United. While Kagawa was soaring, Park joined Miyaichi as a loaned out player, with the Korean going to Spain. Again, his club is relegated.

At first I thought it’d be tricky to explain why Ferguson’s players went well while Wenger’s didn’t. Ferguson picked out players that already earned their scalps in Germany and Holland – the indicator is that they were already fan’s favorites. Key performances in the Champions League was a crucial indicator, since Ferguson wanted them to be ready for Champions League playoffs. Wenger bought on impulses, believing that he could develop a talent, while forgetting the development part.

And then, when Ferguson signed both Park Ji-sung and Kagawa, he meant it. He wanted them to be in the first team. Wenger seemed to share a sin of mine – buying a thing and never opened it. Worse, his a human being, not an imported CD or an easy Mandarin book+DVD set – and then lending out the unpacked item to a friend (just lending). It’s not farming, it’s destroying career (I bet Kagawa will wear number 22 next season. Park Chu-young went the other way around, going down from number 9 to 30).

And so, the Red Sir becomes the greatest sensei in England. But first he needed a great resume. He’s not the one making chump into champ – he was making chaps into champs. Wenger believed he could do the same – and then not doing his craft.