My love-hate-love feeling for Australia

Since Honda & Kagawa won't do this.

Since Honda & Kagawa won’t do this.

They were the big boys of Oceania – an artificial region composing Pacific area outside Asia. Asia itself is a broad definition – from Syria to Japan and Indonesia. In the past Oceania served as a bin for associations with political complications, like Israel and Taiwan.

In Oceania, however, Australia didn’t make it to the World Cup apart from 1974. New Zealand made in in 1982, and in other occasions they lost the playoffs against Europe (Scotland in 1985), South America (Uruguay in 2001), and even Asia (Iran in 1997). At the same time, the question of Australia’s place in Asia Pacific arose again, at it had been in 1980s and 1990s (and now). Asian students had become a part of Australia’s capitals, Asian Australians were growing in numbers (propelled by Southeast Asians from children of Vietnamese boat people to Malaysian students securing permanent residency), and Sydney stock market is comparable to Shanghai’s (after 2000s), Singapore’s, and Seoul’s.

When I arrived in Australia a decade ago, football was a messy affair of South European rivalry. South Melbourne were a Greek club as Sunshine were Croatian. Just a decade ago, football was seen as a Euro sport, although Anglo-Irish players had appeared, like Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton. Australia did really well in the 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup (the last time Japan beat them in 90 minutes, 1-0 by Hide Nakata), but the team continued a heartbreaking streak of losing the intercontinental playoffs. I remember them went down to Argentina in 1993 (Diego Maradona vs Ned Zelic), Iran in 1997 (equalized from 0-2 down in the first half), and the start of bitter rivalry with Uruguay in 2001 (total 7 yellow cards for the hosts in Montevideo). And that was before Luis Suarez.

So Australia, who held world record for 31-0 (insert verbal noun) over American Samoa, thought it’s better to work their way up against Syria, Uzbekistan, and Thailand before jostling for a ticket with Japan and Saudi Arabia (hey, this was a decade ago. OK, Iran then). Rather than steamrolling Vanuatu, knocking New Zealand on the head, and only to go down again in intercontinental.

They did get their wish in 2005 when Mark Bresciano scored against Uruguay in Sydney, equalizing the aggregate to 1-1. 35 year old Mark Schwarzer failed Dario Rodriguez (who beat him in Montevideo) and Marcelo Zalayeta (Uruguay had withdrawn Alvaro Recoba and didn’t play Diego Forlan), and the overjoyed running of John Aloisi entered the lore of Australian sports. He was seen, thanks to the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup, as a better forward to Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell (who had become a winger at this time). At the same year, the A-League was launched, to close curtains on the semi-professional quality and ethnics division of Australian football.

Luckily Konami Australia chose this over when he celebrated against Japan.

Luckily Konami Australia chose this over when he celebrated against Japan.

Then the crack came. As a representative for Oceania, they belonged to the same pot with South America and Africa in the draw – and were put in Group F with Japan. The plot was that Brazil (featuring the ‘golden square’ of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka, and Adriano) would breeze through with Croatia came second. The third place would be either Australia or Japan.

Looking back, the air of confidence between Australia and Japan were quite difference. Australia put in the air of defiance, even portraying Japan as a better favorite. But they didn’t care. Nike chose Mark Bresciano (“More than happy to be there”) while adidas promoted Harry Kewell (“+10”). Japan also had big confidence, but outside Japan only Shunsuke Nakamura was considered dangerous enough. This assumption held on the match day. Masashi Oguro played in a minor club in Serie A. Hidetoshi Nakata was seen as a has-been. I spoke to some Japanese students a week before the match and I was more optimistic on Naohiro Takahara than they were. Actually I worried that captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto raised the nation spirit by organizing a futsal match between Morning Musume vs JAL stewardesses instead of increasing his training regime.

But I felt happier living in the otaku (anime geek) world in contrast to the manly Aussie sports world. At this time I felt I had been lost in touch with the Asian part of Australian life that I enjoyed, and so Japan represented that Asian joy, while Australia represented the reality of Western civilization that I was living in. It was a classical East vs West battle.

And I hated Australia for that. And I knew that everything I counted on Japan was wrong. Cahill was better playmaker than Shunsuke. Schwarzer was a better keeper than Kawaguchi. Alex was always ineffective as an attacking forward. And that Japan’s substitutes were lack of quality. The early morning chants of Australian supporters when they passed to the Round of 16 was the worst rude awakening I ever had (my life’s pretty uneventful, huh?).

When Italy defeated Australia and Fabio Grosso became the Dirty Diego of the tournament, Chinese match commentators screamed ecstatically, cursing Australia to the point of being racist. That’s what many Asian males feel about Australia joining AFC. We have no problems with Iranians or Uzbeks, but you ‘whities’ don’t belong here in Asia.

A year later, I was back in Indonesia and Australia were favorites to win the 2007 Asian Cup. In Thailand, Australian supporters wore the bamboo farmer cone caps, something that Thais or any other Southeast Asian supporters never wear (and all the Aussies were white). Indonesia hosted Korea, who played badly against Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Korea needed to defeat Indonesia to pass and Koreans in Jakarta supported them from behind…faaar behind from the safety of gated communities and bulgogi joints. While the Australians felt comfortable in Bangkok (they also did badly against Iraq and Oman), eating rambutan and drinking Chang beer, the Koreans were too terrified to visit the stadium. Too many ‘brownies’ for their comfort. Korean expats are happy for a family outing in Doha or Dubai but not Djakarta.

Australia, in the end, counted their first Asian Cup as bad experience. Aloisi repeated his achievement in scoring against Japan, but Takahara came back with a vengeance. Kewell and Neill failed to defeat Kawaguchi, but Takahara threw away his chance. Australia did have a hope, but Nakazawa scored. With the ousting, David Carney and Nick Carle failed to become Australia’s next big stars. Japan later found out that while Australia had no desire to kill them, Korea did. The next year, Adelaide United reached the AFC Champions League final, only to be shot down 0-3, 0-2 by Gamba Osaka. 2008 proved to be the zenith point for both J-League and A-League in Asia.

My hatred for the Socceroos continued in the FIFA World Cup qualifications, but two things happened. 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup was forgettable because Asia was represented by Iraq. Secondly, watching Australia facing Bahrain, Qatar, and Uzbekistan, part of me wanted them to lose and part of me were irritated with the quarrelsome and vain West Asians and their stadiums that were devoid of women. I began to see the common point between Australia and Japan. It was in Japan’s interest that Australia went well against the West Asians. I also always want Japan to play as passionate and dominating the way Australia do (Australia scored 12 goals, two on Japan, while Japan scored 11. The big difference was Australia conceded only one – the scorer was Tulio Tanaka).

Then came the day Australia’s supremacy and defiance ended. Schwarzer was looking forward to face the country of his parents and Tim Cahill was one of the best playmaker in England. They scared Germany in the first five minutes. Three minutes later, Podolski scored. Then Klose. Then forward Cahill received red card. Then Muller scored again. Kick off, then it’s the turn of substitute Cacau.

Looking back, Australia did as well as they did in 2006 – draw with Ghana and victory over Serbia, with Brett Holman came into prominence. Problem was Ghana had the better goal aggregate. And so Pim Verbeek was deemed as a failure.

Was I happy? Absolutely. Of course, United States vs Australia would have become an ultimate soccer game. But everyone needed a lovable African team and they were Ghana.

In 2011, my dilemma of Australia vs West Asia returned. Disappointed that Korea failed to defeat them but happy that they defeated Bahrain, Iraq, and destroyed Uzbekistan. Tim Cahill, as always, could become Japan’s nemesis. He came close to score but he didn’t, and Tadanari Lee’s volley made Japan, once more, the Kings of Asia. Unfortunately, Lee’s moment failed to spark renewed respect for the Korean-Japanese. Worse, his fellow Korean-Japanese girlfriend left him for Okinawan geek girl’s god Gackt and he failed to settle in Southampton.

Two other things happened recently. The hostile nationalism gripping all Asian nations, including Japan and Korea, and their disdain for liberalism and green issues, has made me wide awake at nights. Australia has become a standard for everything right about society and politics (compared to Japan, Korea, and Singapore, my Australian friends).

Second, I’m teaching Australian cultural studies and I’m loving it. I prefer Girls’ Generation but I play Gotye and Sia. My students enjoyed Packed to the Rafters that I showed while I like Dream High and Working!! better. From advising nervous and excited teenagers how to enjoy life in Australia, I’ve come to fall in love with it again.

The cordial atmosphere between Japan and Australia last week has become a point where I’ve come to accept Australia as one of the East Asians. But not yet. Australia still have no footballer from Asian background. Australia still has almost no athlete from East Asian background (only diver Melissa Wu comes into mind, plus some badminton players). The only Asian Australian footballer I know (discounting those of Lebanese backgrounds) is Brendan Gan, who played for Sydney FC and now is with New South Wales Premier League’s Rockdale City Suns (formerly a Macedonian club). If the chance comes, he opts to play for Malaysia rather than Australia.

And so the quest for Soccer Australia’s Jeremy Lin still afar. It can be ten years from now, or it can be soon after 2015. Or much longer, the way United States still yet to find the heir to Brian Ching and Canada with Issey Nakajima-Farran (and both players are half-white). When he comes and plays for the green and gold, I’ll completely support the Socceroos.

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.