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.

The Hive

Davo from Brisbane

Davo from Brisbane

Early this month I knew why Ki Sung-yueng/Ki Sung-yong was not present in the crucial Brazil 14 final matches (his last match was in March against Qatar, in which Korea won 2-1).

OK, maybe he was in fact injured. But throughout this month he had been more than injured. He had become Korea’s most hated man. For saying something that everything else had said.

In June, former national coach Choi Kang-hee was the most hated man in Korea (believe me, not all Koreans hate Kim Jong-un). I hated him too for his stupidity of talking trash to Iran – and for fielding weak midfielders when Korea had Ki, Kim Bo-kyung, Koo Ja-cheol, and Lee Chung-yong. I still had some sympathy with his decision to abandon Park Chu-young (which, in hindsight, he shouldn’t have done especially after the spring’s code red), but he had the stupidity of fielding all his four forwards – Lee Dong-gook, Ji Dong-won, Son Heung-min, and Kim Shin-wook at once.

Piling up forwards is not attacking play. Attacking play is putting on two forwards supported by two attacking midfielders (I’m not a fan of 4-2-3-1 – especially for Japan and Korea). Senegal had proven in the last African Cup of Nations the folly of hoarding strikers just because they seemed scary.

And so, in February 2012 Ki wrote Facebook status along the lines of “Gee coach, thanks for taking me although I play for second-tier league.” Because mighty Choi commented that the Scottish Premier League is a second-tier league – lower than the K-League (Yeah? I’d see how the Hibs fare against Jeju United. Oh.)

Then Ki put on his Rip Curl beanie and murmured “Now everyone knows the value of overseas players. Leave us alone or somebody gets hurt, mate.” I know it’s bit mixed message. So did he want to be called into Team Korea or not?

OK class. Why the shit hit the fan, then?

There you go. Sung-yueng disrespected his superior. Publicly. What do you mean publicly? He didn’t do it on Twitter with @choikanghee and #celtic #respect #내가 제일 잘 나가 right? Just personal Facebook status, eh?

You’re as puzzled as I do. But true to forms, Koreans got angry and showered Ki Sung-yueng and his wife Han Hye-jin with online abuses. Many asked for barring him from Brazil 14, on the ground that his arrogance and frivolity will damage team chemistry. So Ki deleted his FB page (some footballers and athletes had also closed their Twitter accounts), but then a sportswriter reported that he had another account and said it “Very serious problem”.

I believe that expression of racism or homophobia by a footballer is a serious problem. Reckless driving and tackling are serious problems. Brawling is serious problem. Getting even with a coach BY SCORING GOAL AND PLAYING WELL is not serious problem. After that, Han was abused online with comments such as “Please stop your husband from getting online! He is shameful! Can’t you be a good wife?” and “What kind of man marries a much older woman like you?”. When asked by reporters why Han was targeted for something her husband did, the answer was “because we can reach her online.”

Accidentally, few weeks ago I saw a translated digest of Japanese news on ice skater Miki Ando admitting that she has a baby. Most of the comments on Yahoo! Japan and Twitter was that one word – slut. People really wrote that.

I just finished a book that my sister studied in college, The Asian Mind Games by Chinese-American business consultant Chin-ning Chu. A mid 1990s’ book when Japan’s implosion was not evident enough, when Korea was still at dawn, and when United States was not quite sure what to make of the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum. The book is subtitled “A Westerner’s survival manual” but I could use it as well. Being an overseas Chinese, I’m as clueless and perplexed as an Asian-American with what actually Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans think and why.

In a way, so does Ki. He became a teenager in Australia and Brisbane Roar had offered him a place, no doubt to kickstart the making of the first Asian Socceroo. He chose to become a Korean footballer, finished his high school in Korea and joined FC Seoul the next year.

And like Ki, I also refused Australia feeling that our home is in Asia. But well, he had learned the hard way the true meaning of being a Korean. Even though Choi was unpopular, he was a superior, an older man. And young and old Koreans hate a young man who disrespects his superior far more than they look at their personal merits (they really don’t think about the weighing at all. The older one is always right).

For the Korean media, Ki’s mistake was to write the status. They said if he disliked Choi, he should have kept it to himself. Well he didn’t write “F U Mutha I gonna kill ya and raip yo ho gal how do ya lik dat”, which is terrible. But was Ki wrong to air his TRUE feeling? Rather than pretending everything OK and cursing about Choi just like what others Taeguk Warriors might have done? Not for me, not for him. Plus it’s Facebook status. You might as well like it.

If the KFA tut-tuts him, that’s fine. There’s something called organizational discipline. But it’s the public that judges him. Online. The KFA has decided that there’s no penalty for him, now it’s the turn of KFA to receive the wrath. Well, that he’s a bad example and other players will act bad too yadda yadda.

I really, really hate the East Asian culture of bitching people online behind avatars and nicknames, while maintaining the poker face on the street. As Chin-ning Chu said to me, that’s Asia, honey. Everything has to be concealed.

We are used to cocky athletes, angry athletes, trash-talking, behaving badly athletes. Ki Sung-yueng is not one of them. He’s not Rooney, or Suarez, or Terry. He deserves better respect from Koreans. Personally I think this controversy is stupid (it happened in February 2012! Why you people made a fuzz of it just in July 2013?!). What also makes me mad is how Korean papers make it by default that it’s Ki’s fault for doing something horrible. But well, it’s something Koreans have taken for granted. They are more open than the Japanese. They are more exposed to American culture and values than the Japanese. But they are still a hive, thinking in unison and abuses a rebel. Online. Where they can hide behind avatars and nicknames, and where nobody sees them.

Good Times, Bad Times

"So uh...you think they have good sushi bar in Liverpool?""Nah, me and the Saints have regular get together in London."

“So uh…you think they have good sushi bar in Liverpool?”
“Nah, me and the Saints have regular get together in London.”

Certainly these weeks have been full of mixed news for Asian football (cancelling my earlier draft of ‘It’s Even Worse’. To sum up, it’s the case of great news in Europe and bad news in Asia.

Start with the Dan Tan saga. Slovenian Admir Sulic was arrested gave himself up in Italy after a short flight from Singapore. And I did not even have to put another theory that Dan Tan is in Singapore. He is in Singapore, protected by the Singaporean police. And Interpol has no problem with that.

So why does Singapore protect him? The saving face theory is still in effect, plus another theory. The arrest of Tan can trigger investigations and spotlights on international banks involved on this major scandal. And Singapore (and even Interpol) does not want to disturb the peace of minds of all the big names here…HSBC, Citibank, Standard Chartered, several Swiss names…I’m just firing names here, but considering they did and do business with Iran and gave middle fingers to United States for having problem with that, well, I went ahead. Singapore is an important banking and finance hub in the world, like Hong Kong it relies on these incomes to become a big city, and no way it will let integrity and justice stand in the way of wealth and reputation. Just ask Interpol (so kids, give up on your dream to become an Interpol officer. You are not going to become James Bond with a badge).

For many in Singapore – British pundits, member of the governments, and perhaps ordinary football fans, this is a ‘victimless’ crime. Random Africans, Arabs, and Eastern Europeans told to fix something in an unimportant league or international friendly where punters could gain some extra cash necessary for their Audi, Patek Phillipe, and condominium aspirations. What matters is Manchester United, the Three Lions, and Barcelona are winning.

Therefore I continue my boycott on the S. League.

Then good news comes from Portugal. Forty Chinese youth are playing in Portugal. They are not the best – the best are with China U-23 to learn disappointment, mediocrity, bullying, and match fixing. They were the next best things and were shipped to Portugal in a project made by Chinese and Portuguese football federations. Portugal needs the money and China needs a proper football environment. For the young Chinese, the cultural differences are not just about food, weather, and language. In China they would live in cities of dozen of millions, while in Portugal they are staying in towns populated by hundred of thousands, and we are talking about a Catholic country. But these towns have strong football culture and working leagues, while Chinese megapolises (well, they are over 10 million people big) have only one club. Good luck for them, although it looks like a typical Chinese case of Do-it-for-Me rather than Do-it-Yourself.

Second good news is from the English League Cup final. A match of two fairy tales – League Two mid-rank Bradford City vs the pride of Wales Swansea City. Bradford City’s achievements won them the support of the South Asian communities who saw the club as the pride of white bigots who harassed their business after games (like how black South Africans saw the Springboks). Michael Laudrup put Ki Sung-yong on the defense, to the bemusement of Swansea supporters. Instead, it was a master stroke as he not only held the line but even initiated the charges by Michu, de Guzman, and Dyer. And the link to Guardian Football’s discussion on Ki made my Twitter entry favorited and retweeted by Korean girls. Sweet.

Back to bad news from the Asian Champions League. Which is actually good news for Thailand with Buriram and Muangthong holding Sendai and Jeonbuk. Predictably, this is a bad start for J. League teams except one. It’s also a disappointing day one for Korea, with one win (a good one for FC Seoul) and three draws. Even from China’s perspective, it’s also a bad start with with two losses, although Guangzhou were overjoyed with complete ownage over Urawa. Australia is also experiencing sinking feeling with a single representative in the AFC Champions League and the Mariners rely more on the teamwork rather than stars quality, with Matt Simon gone to Korea and Daniel McBreen, Matthew Ryan, and Bernie Ibini-isei yet to prove themselves in the national team.

And well, you know the next big good news. Shinji Kagawa scored three goals, the second in his career. Japanese journalists posted in Manchester (not a bad deal, smaller than London but more functional than Liverpool and Birmingham) only to follow him are still enjoying their big catch prior to the match against Madrid (here’s hoping they are for second and even bigger treat). Liverpool go to ‘want that one’ mode and return to Keisuke Honda. Again, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel with that news.

It’s sad to end this story with the twist – good news from Asia and bad news from Europe. Good news: Sergio van Dijk is enjoying himself in Bandung, Indonesia, with four goals out of four matches. Five goal less than another naturalized Indonesian, Cristian Gonzales, but he’s going there.

The bad news from Europe? A week after he was panned by Vigo press for being a dud forward, Park Chu-young is not included into Team Korea for the crucial World Cup qualifier against Qatar. When you have got Son Heung-min and Ji Dong-won, you want to take two K-League strikers, and you have Kim Shin-wook and Lee Dong-gook. Despite Park’s six goals in the 2014 qualifying campaign last year. If I had been Choi Kang-hee, I’d choose Kim too over Park. Maybe June is a good time for him to enter the National Service. He’s had two World Cups and he won’t go to Brazil at this rate. Just like Julio Cesar.

The importance of Lee Dong-Gook

내가 제일 잘 나가

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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