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.

 

 

The Dutch World Tour

I wanna be adored.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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