Keep Calm and Freak On

For the team, put in a goalkeeper who has the safest pair of hands in Belgium, a versatile side defender who delivers mean crosses in Serie A, a pair of above average attacking midfielder – one who has journalists and Manchester United supporters behind him in his feud against David Moyes, and another who stays on with chilly Moscow for at least three seasons. For the forward – a young talent who tore down Manchester United defense in an exhibition and was certainly the most hated Japanese in Korea (after Prime Minister Abe) last July.

And what do you have? A team who cannot score. The best team in the continent who are on their seventh loss this year.  Against a decent European side who do not qualify to Brazil 14.

It was just not Japan’s night. At least they were not Australia or Hungary. They lost to the same score to Korea the next night.

But well, alright, maybe after all I am among those who overrate Japan. If they were in Europe (Kazakhstan and Israel do), they will not qualify to World Cup either, just like Serbia. Actually they are as strong as Serbia according to this month’s FIFA ranking, so there. Otherwise, they are still comparable to other losers of the European qualification – Norway, Czech Republic, and well…Romania…who still have a slim chance to qualify.

So, what do we make of the prominence of Japanese players in European clubs? Individually, some of them are exceptional – Kagawa, Honda, and Nagatomo. Below them, Kawashima, Uchida, Kiyotake, and probably Havenaar.

Now comparing with Serbia: the defense play in top tier English clubs. Some of them play together with the Samurai – Subotic with Kagawa (this is a past and future statement), Tosic with Honda, and Kuzmanovic with Nagatomo. Serbia’s strongest point lie in its defense, while Japan’s is in its attacking midfielder.

So what’s the difference? Serbian players, apart from the defense, do not play in European giants themselves. Tadic and Jojic, the goal scorers, played for Twente and Partizan respectively. But Japanese players beside Kagawa and Nagatomo, are essentially demoted. From Wolfsburg to Nuremberg. Stuttgart to Mainz. Southampton to Tokyo.

Secondly, the dreadful 4-2-3-1. Which forces Kagawa and Okazaki to play in sides, while Japan can certainly do better with Okazaki and Kakitani up front with Honda and Kagawa behind them. It can certainly could have helped them dealing with Ivanovic and Nastatic better. Eleven years on, and I still cannot understand why Japan think they can win with single striker.

So, Japan’s next international match is again Belarus, the bottom of Group I in this World Cup qualification. Which they have to win – big. Sometimes I get sleepless nights thinking about Japan meeting Belgium in Brazil.

Now, what about Korea?  Well, nothing much you can do with Brazil enforced by Neymar and Oscar. Apart from the shunned Park Chu-young, Korea have got everyone, including Ki Sung-yong. With 4-4-1-1, it’s arguable that they have employed two forwards. What they need to do now is to defeat Mali next Tuesday. This year they only have won three times out of twelve matches. They simply have no one in the caliber of Kagawa and Honda – Son Heung-min’s father preferred him to spend more time with clubs than with the Devils. Actually I might have to be worried about Korea more than Japan – I might be standing up for them on Guardian Football Fans’ Network next year, and again I want and need to perform better than Japan.

Actually this is an interesting situation: Japan have better players but Korea have better clubs. Hm, at least the situation isn’t as hard (and painful) as Australia’s.

 

Agony of February

Just keep doing better, man.

Just keep doing better, man.

February. 30ish days after your New Year’s Resolutions, you meet the truth that some old troubles stick. Others are popping out. That fresh start is not really fresh. People replaced their calendar with dread – O God, it’s one month already and I’m still like this?!

As for me, health problems keep dragging me down and prevented me to write on the scram from Shanghai and the Singapore fix sooner. But let’s get it on with the bleeding.

First paragraph applies to Korea. Now they are six months away from their last victory – 2-1 in friendly against Zambia back in August. Then draw with Uzbekistan, and then loss to Iran, and then…loss to Australia at home.

In February 2013 Korea attempted to be international and held friendly with Croatia in London – so Ki SY and Lee CY could take trains, Park CY, Son HM, and Koo JC could take budget flights, while Croatia could bring in the heavies.

Indeed they were. Ah, 0-2 at half-time. Well, Mario Manduzkic is certainly better than Mario Gomez, isn’t he? Let’s try second half, this time with Lee Dong-gook, Park Chu-young, and Kim Bo-kyung thrown in. Ah, 0-4. By guys who played in Everton and Fulham. For comparison, Australia also went down 2-3 to Romania in Spain…but they scored twice. Well, their defenders, anyway. And that after winger Robbie Kruse had a great weekend before the match.

If I were a Korean, I’d be so envy toward the Japanese, who enjoy the spotlight with Shinji “I’m not good enough” Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, and Shinji Okazaki. And Yuto Nagatomo, who is playing for Inter and might play for Munich or Manchester United. Granted, Latvia didn’t send its best team to Japan (i.e. no Hamburg’s Artjom Rudnevs), but see how offices were like on Thursday morning in Tokyo and Seoul. I even wore Samurai Blue scarf to work – flu-chic.

Umm, now in Shanghai people are celebrating New Year, Anelka and Drogba must be not on their minds. In mid-January I was searching the reasons why they left – Shanghai sounded supposed to be a fun place to play easy football and gaining easy money. Turned out the explanations were so simple.

Shanghai boss Zhu Jun is a bizzare character in first place. Some say that he’s more interested in self-publicity, oneupmanship, and online gaming business (The9) rather than football business. That could be the logical explanation behind the sellings of Duvier Riascos (24 goals in 39 matches) and Gao Lin (to scandal-tainted Guangzhou Evergrande, well this is back in 2010). That’s why Joel Griffiths left (he wasn’t happy in Beijing either). That’s why Tigana was sacked just after five matches.

That’s why the team went on strike in October. Zhu Jun himself was unhappy – his business partners in the Communist Party didn’t give him ‘his fair share’.

I was one of those who believed that Anelka and Drogba could flourish in China. The men themselves had pictured great lives in the great Far East metropolitan. The result was like what I wrote in the 2012 review – goals to force a draw, frustrations, and Anelka sulking on the supporters. When they left, Shanghai Shenhua supporters blamed the club – or saying that actually they were too good for Shanghai. And so greed and ignorance of several tycoons (and their cronies in the government) cancelled the rise of Chinese football.

Worse thing came out of Singapore, and also with worse reaction. The fixing of boatloads of friendlies, lower leagues, and even probably the Champions League match between Liverpool and Debrecen. For years everyone had spoken about ‘Asian gambling syndicate’. Now we have names – Dan Tan Seet Eng (Dan is his English name. His Chinese given name is Seet Eng) and his lieutenant Wilson Raj Perumal. WRP was arrested in Finland soon after he berated some players who didn’t fulfill order. There were stories that it was Tan who tipped the police because Perumal blew his budget and had too many debts to the boss.

Why it’s a worse news? Not just because it’s a major international crime. But it’s depressing how Singapore reacts to the scandal. Major media outlets (controlled by the government) did put it on headlines, but no more than that. Now it’s a forgotten story in Singapore. Several Westerners believe that Dan Tan is not really a fugitive – he’s still in Singapore. I wonder if many Singaporeans think the same – they don’t say. Even these days it’s easier for correspondents to know what the Chinese think (through anonymous interviews and lurking on microblogs) than what do the Singaporeans think.

So why does the Singaporean government seem to aloof on Tan? I don’t believe that they have the share from his profit – it’s rather the very annoying Asian concept of ‘saving face’. One explanation on why do Singaporeans control the fixing industry rather than the Chinese is because the islanders speak English and the passport has very good reputation. Being a small nation, Singaporean passport holders can travel the world effortlessly under the radar. And even after this scandal is known worldwide, they are protected from law and media scrutiny simply because of that saving face thing. Not just from ‘mere outsider’ but from the Malay minority and neighbors. Chinese and Indian Singaporeans cannot afford to live with the fact that they can be baddies too. The government cannot live with the fact that it lives from dirty money. And they are lucky again – the world pays more attention for bad news from China than from the unassuming Singapore.

And so, the result was the destruction of Southeast Asian teams in the first round of 2015 AFC qualification. Jordan – Singapore 4-0. Thailand – Kuwait 1-3. Iraq – Indonesia 1-0 (that was okay, actually). Qatar – Malaysia 2-0. Vietnam – UAE 1-2. Saying that ‘we suck’ isn’t enough. Putting too much attention on English football (only for 4-5 teams, actually) while looking down on local football is the issue. Southeast Asia and China have their asses kicked by West Asia and they are supposed to angry about that, not just merely shrugging (Hong Kong got my credit for holding Uzbekistan 0-0). And yeah, Singapore disappoint again. Big time.

At least there’s a ray of hope. Tonight Buriram United join Muangthong United in representing Thailand in the AFC Champions League, after defeated Brisbane United 3-0 on penalties. Buriram’s forwards were composed by non-Thai Asians – Japanese Kai Hirano and American Anthony Ampaipitakwong. It’s actually unfortunate that Australia only has 1.5 allocation, with Uzbekistan having a very weird arrangement – 1.5 in West and 1 in East. But that means Australia, and Southeast Asia, have to fight hard to get more spots in the Champions League. Yes you, Southeast Asia.

 

Continental Drift

Picture this, Schaefer.

Yo, finally I’m doing something with my layout. Ah, the first step toward professional attitude.

The 2015 AFC Asian Cup certainly looks professional. It is hosted by Australia. It has Japan and Republic of Korea. And North Korea. Since uh, it won something called The Challenge Cup, defeating Turkmenistan. Philippines came close, winning third place against Palestine. So, maybe that’s a key for success in Asia – aim low and you can get the ticket while the mediocre cannot.

Ah, the mediocre. You know, minnows like Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia (well…). They have to fight to death throughout 2013 and 14, as if Iran and Uzbekistan are not preoccupied with Rio, um, Brazil 2014. Travel to Tashkent. Sodden pitch. The humidity. Uglier prostitutes. At least in Asia crowd riot is hardly a problem, unlike in Africa.

And yeah, it’s unfair that Japan and Korea, and North Korea, do not join the qualification. According to Thai coach Winfried Schaefer, his team deserve Japan. Or Korea. They deserve Kagawa and Ki Sung-yueng. Because Iran, Kuwait, and Lebanon are not enough for him. Here, even Spain had to qualify for Euro 2012. He said that even Italy and England had to qualify, even if England didn’t play at all in Euro 2008. But I missed the point. The point is Thailand demand to see Japan. How else they will improve if Honda and Endo do not give them sick free kicks? Why on earth Niweat Siriwong should fly to Teheran instead of Seoul?

Well, Schaefer has a point, hasn’t he? It was ridiculous when India, Iraq 2008 (the crappy model, not the sleek 2007 model), Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Korea already qualified to Qatar 2011, right? True. But to say that the qualification ‘leaves the minnows to fight for themselves while the heavyweights qualify’ is wrong. Australia are the host. Okay. But how many heavyweights are there? Japan, one. Korea, two. Why nobody protests about AFC Challenge Cup? If they are nice enough to make comparison with UEFA, would UEFA make a Challenge Cup, where Cyprus or Armenia could qualify after defeating Malta in an extra time thriller, while Wales and Israel languish once more. Actually, I might have given Michel Platini a brilliant idea.

If the automatic qualifications of the winners and runner ups of a previous Asian Cup is weird, so does the bloated European qualifications. European press are asking why UEFA still do not apply first and second round qualifications for the weakest teams before going to group stage – a system widely used in club championships. Why can’t San Marino have a playoff or group stage first against Andorra and Faroe Islands? Because, of course, UEFA believes that kids in Belarus deserve to see David Silva and Xavi in action, even if kids in Spain cannot watch them on television. More cynically, because Gazprom, McDonald’s, Sony, and Adidas deserve to be presented ten times by a single favorite team, compared to probably six times had Spain and Germany played third round qualification. But again, UEFA does not have this concern in the Champions League.

So first – when it comes to football governance, Europe cannot even serve as a role model. Second, the questions asked to AFC should not about whether Japan and Korea deserve automatic qualification. First, it’s if North Korea deserve automatic qualification. They don’t even eligible to enter the Challenge Cup anymore. Then, if the qualification process should follow the already decent 2014 World Cup qualification scheme – first round and second round playoffs, and then group stages involving Japan and Korea.

If the purpose of AFC Challenge Cup is to challenge the proficiency of Nepal and Taiwan in football, then be it. But the prize of winning the Challenge Cup should be a place in the qualification group stage, not the final tournament. If there’s should be a playoff between the winners of the CC with Asia’s no. 19 or 20, then be it, like the playoff for promotion and relegation in Dutch and German leagues.

Still, I cannot help from thinking that the sole purpose of AFC Challenge Cup is to pass India into the final tournament. Maybe North Korea too, but I do not see the financial logic of giving a free pass to North Korea.

What now for Japan and Korea? Of course, friendlies against the big boys. Before World Cup 2010, Japan still had to handle Yemen and Hong Kong. Now they have arranged friendlies against France and Brazil. Great. Korea should follow suit. Play with guys such as Mexico, Egypt, Sweden, and Australia. If Thailand want to test themselves against Japan, then pick up the phone and call JFA to arrange a friendly. But make sure you know first how to handle Iran and Lebanon. Heck, make sure first you win the AFF Cup.