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.

Comparing Asian and African progresses: Now and next

Waiting for moments like this.

The African Cup of Nations is rolling in in Gabon and Equator Guinea. Last week British journalist Jonathan Wilson argued that the absence of Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, and Cameroon in the tournament does not mean that the continental balance of power is reached. Rather, it signals that things have gone wrong with African football. With respects to Niger and Guinea, Egyptian, South African and Cameroon federations, managements, and players had made life more difficult for them than it supposed to be.

Put it this way – an Asian Cup without Australia, China, and Saudi Arabia. I should have put in Japan or South Korea in the example, but comparing continental ranking of September 2010, when the qualification phase started, I just noticed that Nigeria’s and Cameroon’s ranks did not match their reputation, partly caused by poor performance in the World Cup. South Africa, a successful host and an admired team, ranked 10th in Africa, the position occupied by Syria at that time in Asia. It’s true that the revolution unbalanced the Pharaohs, but even with civil war Libya went on with their campaign and qualified for the first time since 1982.

Wilson outlined three stereotypes beloved by Western (and indeed, global) media regarding African football. “Painted faces, drummers and horns, and muscular forward play”. Asian football have the first two, at least in the World Cup. Of course, in Australia 2015 I expect that Japanese, South Korean, and Australian supporters will crowd the stadiums with painted faces as well. Yes, there will be drums as well. There will be Vietnamese conical hat worn by Australians instead of Vietnamese (how come Vietnamese supporters never dress up as Vietcongs?). But muscular forward play? Hmm, that’s something else. Twenty years ago “Australian soccer” was an oxymoron. Ten years ago it was still a joke even in Japan, despite 2001 Confeds Cup.  Even now the lingering stereotype is that the Socceroos are rough and persistent big men (plus Tiny Tim), but their strengths lie in midfield and goalkeeping, not forward. There is still no replacement yet for Viduka and Kewell.

It is true that one glaring difference between Asian and African football is that European scouts don’t go deep to Asian villages and streets to pouch young Japanese or Korean talents. Now and then there’s stories about Manchester United or Milan signing up an Australian toddler, but the result is yet to be seen on the next decade. The only exception that I can think of are Son Heung-Min and Ryo Miyaichi. Wilson mentioned the “Pape Bouba Diop template”, the preference for big enforcer instead of speedy winger and creative attacking midfielder. Certainly big enforcers could come from Australia and probably Iran. East Asian players have still to struggle with the annoying stereotype that they are small, something that is never brought up when discussing Argentinians or Italians.

Quick test on the small stereotype. If the category of ‘small’ meaning shorter than 180 cm, then yeah, only a handful of European-based Japanese players fulfill this category. Among them are Maya Yoshida, Mike Havenaar, Tadanari Lee (6 feet and yet is still called ‘pint-sized’), Honda, and Takayuki Morimoto. Kawashima, standing at 185 cm, is said to be “short for goalkeeper standard”, although he is taller than both Iker Casillas and Victor Valdes.

What about South Koreans? There are plenty of 6 feet tall players trading in Europe, such as Ki Sung-Yeung, Koo Ja-Cheol, Park Chu-Young, Ji Dong-Won, Son Heung-Min, and Jung Jo-Gook. So in average, Japanese and Korean players stand around 175 cm, but they are anything but little. And expect the assumption to be uttered again by both media and fans in 2014.

Both football federations in Asia and Africa have plenty of troubles. The A-League constantly struggles with attendance, interest from sponsors and prime talents, consistency (I’m thinking of Adelaide United and Sydney FC), and of course the Champions League. I’m still wondering about JFA’s seriousness in handling the Champions League. KFA is waiting nervously for February to see if they can continue the road to Brazil, and there was the muted and swept-under-the carpet scandal of match fixing in the K-League, as well as the attendance problem. And those are the best.

Nobody in Singapore concerns loudly that naturalization doesn’t work, sponsors don’t come up, and the Chinese-Singaporean youth are not into footballing (similar statement can be said on white Frenchmen). The Chinese say that it’s easier for property price to go down (already happened) than for the national team to win any cup (excluding East Asian Football Championship). Bahrain gets away with torturing and imprisoning Shiite players. Indian football disrespects itself with the creation of the Silly League, despite the I-League. Indonesia has a rogue league which is more popular, and Thai national team and league are going in circles.

I have pointed out in previous post that Asia always, always defeats Africa in World Cup encounters, and Africa is also yet to defeat Asia in Confederations Cup. Same thing happens in Club World Cup – Asia is yet to reach the final round, but consistently wins the third place. Yet African teams are always favored even by Asian punters and pundits for a simple reason – they are Africans. They are black footballers. People all over the world are thrilled to see Ivory Coast because they have Drogba and Kalou. Ghana because they have Muntari and Essien. Cameroon because they have…uh, Eto’o. Nigeria because uh…they have…Nigerians. But except for East Asian fanboys such as me, nobody is thrilled to watch Shinji Okazaki or Ji Dong-Won. At least Australians love their Holman and Kennedy.

The expectation is both unfair and fair. It’s unfair because it relies on the generalization that Africans are fun and lively while Asians are clumsy and boring. It’s also fair because in Europe, Africans are consistently scoring goals while Asians don’t. There are dozens of African players in Europe playing as both substitutes and starters, as stars and flops. There are only about a dozen of Asian players in Europe, some of them are lucky to become regular starters (Honda, Nagatomo, Kagawa), or at least regular subs such as Park Ji-Sung and Ki. Many others are rarely played and are pressured when they are lucky enough to be selected, especially if they are forwards like Okazaki and Morimoto. Park Chu-Young was bit lucky that it was Arshavin instead of him who was chosen to replace Oxlade-Chamberlain, otherwise all the blame for Arsenal’s loss to Manchester United would have fallen on him.

I feel that in this transfer window, Japanese and Korean players are very prudent and conservative with offers. It’s unclear if Tadanari and Maeda will eventually play for the English Championship of if they will stick to J. League. Kagawa wants to stay in Dortmund, and we have to wait until June if Honda is moving away from CSKA. Maybe they are worried that they are not good enough for Europe. Kagawa still deliver assists, but he does not score as much as he likes. Havenaar finds that Eredivisie is not easy, a fact that Robert Cullen has to contend with week in week out. Usami is pessimistic on his future with Bayern, and so should Miyaichi feel in Arsenal. Many African players are also warming up the bench or taunted online for their mishaps, but Demba Ba (Newcastle), Papa Diawara (Maritimo), and Emmanuel Emenike (Spartak Moscow) know that they are good. The only Asian player in Europe who knows that he is winning is Iranian Reza Ghoochannejhad (St. Truiden).

Who will represent Japan and Korea?

Crest for Nagoya Grampus

I'm impartial

Ah, the final week. Everyone in teams contesting J. League and K-League championships have to be sure they are healthy up to the kick off time. That’s including minding where is the aftershave bottle and make sure that the meals they were eating have positive agreement with their bowels.

Start with the easier, Korea. Jeonbuk, Pohang, and Seongnam have got the tickets to next year’s ACL. Just like a good K-League season should be: leave nothing to Suwon & Seoul. Meanwhile, Ulsan…well, Ulsan have beaten both aforementioned team, plus Pohang for good measure, and will face Jeonbuk this Sunday in the K-League Championship. So it’s decided: Lee Dong-Gook, Kim Jung-Woo (welcome back, soldier), Mota, Kim Dong-Chan, Eninho, and Seol Ki-Hyeon will fight for the Korean revival (this year’s loss to Al-Sadd is too much) in 2012. Unless they are transferred out. Except if they are transferred out to another ACL competitor from Japan or Saudi Arabia. Or Qatar.

What matters most for me in this year’s FIFA World is for the Japanese champions to reach semi-final match against Santos and to win the Third Place match against Al-Sadd  ES Tunis. Who are the most fitting firm to pounce Auckland City 5-0 before handing down a devastating 2-1 defeat to Monterey and to prove that CONCACAF is ALWAYS below AFC?

Three clubs answer the call and they are only one point separated between them. Kashiwa Reysol have 68. Nagoya Grampus have 67. Gamba Osaka have 66. Marinos, having a good year, are 12 points below Gamba. So three out of Japanese representatives for ACL 12 are already determined. Fourth place goes to Emperor Cup’s winners, which will have its fourth round next month after Club World Cup 11 is over.

Kashiwa have it tough – they will face Urawa, the former Asian Champions now in the danger of going down to J. League Division 2. Which means that the good people of Chiba will be happy to ensure that the good people of Saitama will see  Tatsuya Tanaka becoming the top scorer of D2 in 2012.

Nagoya will also face Albirex Niigata in the northern country. Bruno Lopes is not Josh Kennedy nor Keiji Tamada, so Nagoya will also be victorious.

What about Gamba? They have the toughest matches of all the championship hopefuls – away trip to Shimizu. Even as Korean Lee Keun-Ho can save the day, both Gamba and Nagoya have to rely on a simple fact: That Urawa will defeat Kashiwa. Urawa will do it for sure so that they will survive in the Division One.

Which team has the right to represent Japan in the Club World Cup? I choose Nagoya. I want to see all the hottest Japanese representatives in Toyota and Yokohama: Fujimoto, Tamada, and Nagai. And of course, one of the best striker in Asia this year: Josh Kennedy. Or maybe that I always had soft spot for Nagoya, the city often forgotten behind the Kanto-Kansai duopoly.

 

Anyway, India just got pummeled 0-5 by Zambia in Goa.

Asian Cup 2011 – Report Card

Qatar – B: How did Japan and South Korea go in 1991? Promising but not there. Ditto with United States in 1983. Even judging from their performance in the previous World Cup before they became the hosts, it seemed that they could only provide the home without the piano recital and the home made dinner.

How did Qatar go in the Asian Cup was how the best it could go. A third rate Asian team relying on expensive foreign coach, naturalized Latinos and uninterested local supporters. Qataris didn’t watch their national team – they watched the FA Cup. Its result was the best it could get. With the double surprises and close call against Japan. With the brilliant play against China. The humiliating opening match against Uzbekistan. That was pure Qatar. It has been compared to more achieving Bahrain. But this time it did better, and not because it is the host.

Uzbekistan – B: Fatigue? Screw it on the big day? For some reason Uzbekistan defense was a big shame in the semi final, after impressive domination in the group stage. Actually, scratch that. The only time Nesterov kept his clean sheet was during the opening match. But its attacking quality was something, with the exception against Australia. Maybe while Geynrikh could reclaim himself against Korea, they were THAT scared when already down 0-2 against Australia. Djeparov showed his credibility, but after one goal against Kuwait, Maksim Shatsikh lost his mojo and failed to regain it.

China – D: Big disappointment. Again. That’s what you get for insisting Adidas to design your jersey polo style, because you guys love polo shirt so much. Try again, only better. Deng Zhuoxiang, however, was probably the only man who could score from free kick in the tournament. Dunno, I didn’t see any Group D match.

KuwaitF: Hopeless. Maybe the result of deranged FA leadership.

Japan A: Again and again, Asia’s leader of the pack. Since childhood I always get impression that ‘Japan’s flashier, but Korea’s better”. This holds wrong in several tournaments, sometimes because Korea did worse – World Cup 98. Confed Cup 2001. World Cup 2010 (they both did well, but Japan won twice). Came in with a celebrity team, something that didn’t happen during the last decade, they looked like blew it in game against Jordan, and also in the third quarter against Syria. Its defense looked shaky, but its impressive, Euro- (okay, maybe…euh…Mexican? African?) quality attack prevailed in the ‘we score one goal more than you’ result. And that what matters. Finally, their victory against Australia shows that the white men are not only unbeatable, but also can be made to flunk every attempt. Just like in 1905.

Syria – C: Well, they did better than Saudi. That’s something.

JordanB: The surprise of the tournament. Less assuming than Syria which still has Al-Karamah football club. Their exported players play in second class Saudi teams and in Cyprus. Their foreign coach came from Iraq. And yet they were close to humiliate Japan and did the job against Saudi.  Their only mistake was only to do it worse than Uzbekistan.

Saudi – F: It’s their fault. It’s their fault for preventing players to go overseas, while criticizing Asian moguls for investing in European clubs instead of Asian ones (or that a cue to invest in Saudi?). With players from giants Al-Hilal & Al-Ittihad, they were supposed to be scary. Maybe the loss against Syria was a fu…bad luck, like what happened to Spain in South Africa. But Peserio was axed (figuratively, hopefully) also because of his record in the World Cup qualification. Still, like Kuwait, the biggest fault lies in the FA.

Korea – A: Great result from a U20 team. Who knows, an older team could not achieve a better result. I didn’t trust Ji Dong-Won much and had preferred for K-League top scorer Yoo Byung-Soo, who never came on pitch, but he still scored four goals, more than Euro based Japanese like Honda or Kagawa. Ko Ja-Cheol could become the second MVP, had not for his inconsistency in the play offs. Hopefully this new Golden Generation hopeful will stay consistent and deadly for the Olympics and World Cup qualification.

Australia A: This team made A-League fans happy. Well, there were only 3 players came from A-League and that’s because Jason Culina had past his prime for Europe, but Robbie Kruse and Matt McKay made the fans proud. Holger Osieck has also resurrected Harry Kewell and somewhat successful in making Tim Cahill a full-fledged forward. Still, seems he’s still unsure about the quality of the youth and the subs – too often he waited too long for subs, and Tommy Oar, Neil Kilkenny, and Scott McDonald failed to have quality time on field. Champions of 2015, unless Japan made an upset.

Bahrain C: Failed to surprise although they still tried to match the big two. Just bad draw which they failed to resist. But along with Uzbekistan, Bahrain is still a strong candidate for the extra World Cup spot.

India – C: I feared that India could become like NZ in World Cup or Philippines in the Suzuki Cup. It didn’t happen since they don’t play in Europe – with the exception of team’s top scorer Sunil Chhetri who plays in Major League Soccer and keeper Subrata Paul, who was a loveable loser (well he had to pick ball from the net ten times, did he?). Keep trying AFC…keep trying in making the Indians to love football. Well China isn’t very far away in this respect…

Iran – B: Still the game. They scored perfect points in the group stage, against defending champions Iraq and pesky NK.  They booked quarter finals match against Korea, a tradition of the Asian Cup. Despite the country rep, yeah, they might have the best looking players, even compared to the rugged Australians. Well that what happened when the groomed Immortals faced the unwashed Macedonian phalanx.

Iraq – B: Yeah, Thailand-Indonesia 2007 was a one hit wonder. Still, better things could have happened. For 115 minutes they scared the Aussies, who they defeated in the previous cup. Their attack and discipline, however, was not as they used to.

North Korea – F: You guys shame Koreans. Jong Tese played in 2. Bundesliga for a reason…this South Africa surprise pack failed to score just any goal against UAE. Some suspects the pains from the torture and mines are still there. Some worse people even thought that the players were look-alikes since the real players were already executed. No, I never tired of the gulag joke. It’s a form of futile protest.

UAE – F: The wooden spoon. Even Indians know how to put in the ball. Time to seize their platinum iPad and OptiShot golf set.

Asian Cup and SE Asian Cup

Seems I’ve missed two trains – the AFF Suzuki Cup playoffs and finals, and the AFC Asian Cup group stage. Luckily, redemption waits. Tonight Japanese supporters felt big relief and even some pride as Japan came back from two upsets to beat hosts Qatar 3-2 before the Extra Time. They are, also, mad with the referee who red carded defender Yoshida, (correctly) deemed Qatar’s first goal was onside, and prolonged the second injury time. As it happened, the referee is Malaysian, Subkhiddin Mohd Salleh.

Indonesians still have strong opinion for Malaysia. Although I wanted to steer clear from this supposed silliness, I could not. Yes, 3 quick goals against Indonesia in Kuala Lumpur was caused by Indonesia’s own ineptitude, and Indonesia’s frustration in losing to Malaysia on aggregate was more driven by the loss of self-made dream caused by over-exposition by Indonesian press and politicians to its maturing team.

But, even as it’s unfair to say this, it’s still hard for me personally to associate Malaysian football with integrity. Yes, of course Malaysian players and coach Rajagobal are decent people, and the Football Association is still a public enemy in Indonesia, even its chair Nurdin Halid won Guardian Football’s  “Most Corrupted President of the Year” – nobody in the world is worst than him, except perhaps the homophobic Croatian FA president. But during the online debates on the laser incident in Kuala Lumpur (which also recurred earlier in QF against Vietnam), Malaysian supporters offered no coherent arguments other than “well you did it first in Jakarta!”‘ or “Indonesia should not complain too much – we are brothers and you are supposed to be happy that Malaysian football does well.” (what? Nobody thought of simple “sore losers!” ?)

So when the referee for Japan-Qatar match is from Malaysia, and Japanese supporters screamed injustice, well, I associated his performance with his nationality. Actually it made sense – Qatar is not just the host but also strives hard to prove its worthiness as World Cup host (failed). Then, let’s face it, Muslim Malaysians would have softer spot for Qatar. My love for Asian football has to do with East Asian pride and quest for identity.

Whatever the reason – because when you talk about amateur refereeing, Europeans are not happy with their refs as well – both the Asian Cup and AFF Cup shows that Southeast Asian standards are still very much low. My pet gripe is the ridiculous home-away format of the finals. It prolonged the eight nations into a month as if it is the World Cup with so much wasted money and energy. It completely null the thrill of a tournament – giving all you’ve got before the home crowd or in foreign soil, with limited resting time and the risks of injuries, suspension, and bad luck. Although it’s never the intention of the AFF, by the time of Semi Finals the cup has become a farce in Indonesia. The president made the team his trophy, under the delusion that ‘Mandela did it too in Invictus‘. The press hovered on half-European Irfan Bachdim and scores of Filipino players, who flaunted their choleric emotion on field, a by-product of survival in American and European pitches. It was ended by the picture of the young Filipino manager with an Indonesian version of Kardashian sister – which also ended his job. By the time of the home-and-away finals, it has become so ridiculous. Thank God no SE Asian team qualified for the Asian Cup. By the team they reached Qatar, they would have been out of breath.

The Asian Cup’s foremost sin is the qualification of India and North Korea through the Challenge Cup. I don’t see other reason of this path rather than forcing India to get in, thus hoping that Indians will finally watch football. That said, I worried that India could become the surprise package like NZ did in South Africa and Philippines did in Vietnam. The surprise never came because unlike the two, the Indians played in local leagues, not in UK or US. Still, goalkeeper Subrata Paul became a cult hero for Asian football geeks for letting less than he could have conceded, especially in thwarting Korea’s quest to overtake Australia’s goal margin.

Saudi Arabia and North Korea exited in shambles – even with little resistance. Saudi has nurtured its five years disease of hampering its domestic players’ development – extreme version of what’s happening in England. After its loss in first game (which also happened to Spain in South Africa), in monarch fashion the coach was sacked (100 years ago perhaps he was literally beheaded), and it went downhill from there. Hopefully the Saudi FA sees the irony of putting two clubs in the Champions League Semis. As for North Korea, well, Chong Tae-Se is not good enough – or they are still sore from last year’s torture.

Next: Japan, Korea, and Australia. Providing the last two qualify to Semi Finals.