World Cup Debriefing: Match Day 1

This will be brief so we can get back to practice soon.

Australia

The perpetual optimists, blessed them, look forward to hurt Holland for their upcoming match. Naturally this means two things: a) they will do it and score a draw (any chance Ryan becomes tonight’s Ochoa?) or b) it will get worse. On record, Australia’s worst defeat in World Cup was 0-4 to Germany in 2010, and Australia looked tough for the first five minutes.

Certainly Chile were their best chance to score three points, but by all counts it was impossible (same result achieved by my high-tech analytical machine – EA’s World Cup 2014). The good news is, the perpetual optimists (TM) Australians can now look forward to surprise (or annoy) two teams with serious claims for the trophy (and one with serious need to rebound).

Certainly Australians take sports more seriously than Japanese and Koreans. This nation divided between sports buffs and obese, healthy eating and double crispy bacon, does not have to boringly claim “football is war” and yet they looked sober instead of crushed, considering they were the worst Asian team of the week.

Maybe it’s genetic. They knew they were slower and less skillful (this is relative) compared to European and South American contestants at the World Cup. But they are as big and aggressive as these football veterans. They are absolved from other baggage dragging town Japan and Korea – short, weak, non aggressive, boring, etc.

Maybe it’s also cultural. Australians are new to association football (still called soccer to avoid confusion with Australian Rules Football, makes me wondering why Japan calls it soccer although they don’t have to differentiate it to another code). On one side, Australian media and spectators do not put the hope and pressure as high as they might have on Australian swimmers and rugby players.

On another side, since Germany 2006 football, particularly the World Cup, has united Australian public even more than cricket or rugby international (i.e. Mediterranean and East Asian Australians also pay attention besides Anglo-Irish and South Asian/Pacific Australians). It took Japan’s disastrous meltdown after Tim Cahill’s equalized in June 2006 to put football into the main stream of Australian ads and pub conversation (although it might also started from John Aloisi’s penalty against Uruguay a year earlier).

The difference is, unlike Japanese and especially Koreans, Australians don’t put overtly burden toward its players. Chris Herd is a laugh in some forums, but there is no public condemnation against him, accusing him as selfish or whatever. And so Cahill and Mike “Mile” Jedinak left Arena Pantanal walking tall, felt less stung than Japan did in Recife.

Japan

Throughout Asia, everyone (except Koreans, maybe) equates “fighting spirit” with the Japanese. Numerous Second World War references ensue, and strangely in positive way. They were taken as the strongest Asian side, and certainly the sported names notable enough in both the West and East: Kagawa, Honda, Internazionale’s Nagatomo, and Mainz’ Okazaki.

Unlike Australia, Japan had the chance to defeat Ivory Coast. Yes, this is Drogba’s and now Yaya Toure’s Ivory Coast. Gervinho’s and Bony’s. But African teams have patchy records in 21st century’s World Cups thanks to terrible FAs mismanagement, overrated coaches, disparities between local and European based players, and clash of egos.

Yet it took aged Drogba to motivate the Elephants to spring to life, including changing the misfiring Bony. Sadly, Kagawa played like he did in Manchester United and overall Japan played, like, Japan.

Most news and reports on the match focus on Ivory Coast, because not only they won, but because the Toures and Gervinho have made more impact on the Premier League than Kagawa and Yoshida. Japanese fans naturally focus on criticizing the players and Al Z did the same – fuming why didn’t his players attack on the second half.

So, that 1-2 felt much more hurt than 1-3 (minus the foul plays experienced by Australia, and with several Ivory Coast players leaving the pitch limping). Maybe Japan really did not demonstrate the fighting spirit showed by Australia (Leckie’s rushes vs Yoshida’s dangerous tackles). Maybe Japanese fans worldwide set the standard too high – and the Japanese players set their standard too low. Japan’s fate still hangs on the balance – topping this manageable group or be at the bottom.

First half was fun.

First half was fun.

Iran

I want to care about them but I cannot. Maybe it’s the Eastern bias. Maybe because I can’t see anything interesting from modern Iran. Maybe because Carlos Queiroz had to bring Japan (which he referred as “Iran”) and Korea to angrily defend himself.

 

Korea

Heh, just like Japan in 2010 – terrible warm ups, surprising World Cup result. The difference is, this is the first time Korea failed to win its first World Cup match since 1998 (wow!). And they were close to win it. Can we have Kim Seung-gyu on goal for second match, please? He’s not much better, but still better than Jung.

Londoners, meanwhile, make another joke on Park Chu-young, who completed only 55% of his passes. Of course, the bigger jokes fell on Fabio Capello. Which is a good news – if Russia are England 2014, then the Koreans are USA 2014. 2-2 draw with Belgium and 1-0 victory against Algeria. Yippee.

Global media are obliged to show more pictures of Korean supporters. Don't everyone love Asian women?

Global media are obliged to show more pictures of Korean supporters. Don’t everyone love Asian women?

PS: Meanwhile, the Chinese do their own football in a series of friendlies: back to back against Macedonia and against Mali. Rich and strong China can’t pay Serbia or Tunisia to come, heh.

Er, shorts and cans of beer at midnight are bad for your health

Er, shorts and cans of beer at midnight are bad for your health

 

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6 Things from Asian Cup qualification final day…and friendlies

Still the boss.

Still the boss.

My gosh, a new post in less than a month! It’s just that yesterday’s international orgy frenzy was so awesome I had to make some notes. Here they are.

1. Cahill: Still the Boss of Asia.

When he ruined Japan back in World Cup 2006, coming in for Mark Bresciano at the 53th minute, Tim Cahill still represented Oceania Football Confederation. Indeed, he had the choice to represent Samoa (like his brother Chris does).  I could not hate Tiny Tim – he did his job, and he did it better than Shunsuke Nakamura and the forgettable Hidetoshi Nakata.

One year later, Australia joined the AFC Asian Cup and many Asians – Arabs, Chinese, Indians, and Malays – did not welcome the white ‘intruders’ well. Oman were close to welcome Australia into the barrack, but Tim saved Australia’s face on injury time. Iraq did the job (3-1), before Australia defeated Thailand soundly 4-0.

Australia came into the knockout rounds as favorites against Japan, and this time Japan prevailed in the penalty shootouts (Cahill scored). Japan’s victory, however, felt hollow after Iraq took all the glory. Seasons afterward, Cahill became a cult player in the Premier League – goals after goals with the football hipster’s (if you can say so) club Everton. Then he thought that’s that and ‘retired’ to United States, where again he used heads and feet to score for NY Red Bulls.

Meanwhile, Australia had no other player like him while Japan produced Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda and Korea released Son Heung-min and Ki Sung-yong. No Australian player took the center stage of European leagues in the past two years.

Not everyone in Australia takes well the news that the 34 year old is still Australia’s prime goal scorer and best player. But with his reliability and relatively lack of drama (compared to Kagawa in Europe and Ki in Korea), how come you don’t love someone who keeps scoring for your team?

Australia 3 Ecuador 4 (Cahill 2 goals. Ryan was subbed for Langerak at second half, who then was replaced with Jones after Langerak was red carded).

2. Who’s Asia’s best goalkeeper? Kawashima or Ryan?

It was Mark Schwarzer. He had mixed records with Middlesbrough and Fulham, but any Asian goalkeeper is lucky enough to be trusted by a European club. Maybe the impression that they are “too short”. Maybe the sense that they are either not aggressive and commanding enough, or too panicked and erratic to guard the posts. Schwarzer, Federici, Jones, and Petkovic were recruited by European clubs because they are European Australians.

Then Eiji Kawashima became the first Japanese goalkeeper to play in Europe since Kawaguchi was booed in England and Denmark in early 2000s. It was not easy – he had to contend with the “Fukushima Kawashima” jeers in 2011 and Standard Liege benched him several times before he survived loan consideration and saw rivals Anthony Moris and Yohann Thuram-Ulien loaned out instead.

Schwarzer still wants to play for Brazil 14, but Australian coaches wanted a younger face. They might have found it in Mathew Ryan. Kawashima might be the safest hands in Belgian Pro League with streaks of clean sheets, but Ryan prevailed over him when Club Brugge defeated Standard Liege 1-0 last Sunday.

Kawashima played for 90 minutes against New Zealand and how he missed Liege’s defense on the second half. Meanwhile, Ryan logged off when it was Australia 3 Ecuador 0 and partly bemused, partly amused, by the sight of his rivals Langerak and Jones messed things up.

O yeah, Jung Sung-ryong restarts the competition with Kim Seung-gyu for Korea’s number one, but one of them has to be able to play in Europe eventually. And that’s a tall order. On Iran? Daniel Davari is just terrible for club and country.

Japan 4 New Zealand 2. Japan scored four goals in 20 minutes then let New Zealand pulled back two in the next 70 minutes.

3. Korea can do better.

Poor, poor Greeks. Losing 0-2 to Korea twice – on neutral and home grounds. Park Chu-young has redeemed himself much sooner than the Greek economy and football have. Korean football is still an anomaly after the 2011 match fixing scandals – plenty of promising stars in Britain and Germany, hidden gems in Japan and the Gulf, and clubs with strong performance in Asia. But put them against Uzbekistan and Iran and I’ll be very stressed out for 90 minutes.

At least now Hong Myung-bo knows that Korea can win without Park Ji-sung. This is not a totally good news, as now there’s a dilemma to call him for Brazil 14 or not. And if he’s called and he heeds the call, should he be a marquee sub or a starter? Is it wise to gamble eternity for the decision, knowing every movement and final result of a World Cup match are remembered forever?

Actually, Korea have nothing to lose. They know they will not win the World Cup and the best possibility is to pass the group stage. Nobody expects Son Heung-min, Koo Ja-cheol, Ki Sung-yong and Kim Young-gwon to become global brands (they even aren’t hipsters’ favorites). The goal of the Class of 2011 is to win the 2015 Asian Cup.

But the expectation and demand of the people of Korea can be overwhelming and burdensome. Forever they’ll curse a player who makes a mistake and make a catchphrase out of a missed opportunity. Korea can do better if only their fans lower the expectation and let things go easier, but no. They will want Korea to win gold.

Greece 0 Korea 2. Park Chu-young returned from disgrace with the first goal.

4. China must stop relying on luck.

Lucky losers China are. Had Zhang Xizhe missed the penalty kick against Iraq, it would have been Lebanon who qualified, leaving no East Asian team to qualify via proper process. China go to Australia 2015 as lucky losers, the best of all third place teams. During the qualification process, China won twice, two 1-0s at home to Indonesia and Iraq. This is not good enough for the country with the supposedly most exciting league in Asia (well, more foreigners will agree with that claim than most Chinese do). Not good enough for players who play week in week out for Guangzhou Evergrande.

In Australia 2015, China might have bit of luck on their side. But that’s not enough. It’s about time they have some players good enough to play Europe by their own merits.

Iraq 3 China 1. China qualify to Asian Cup 2015 as the best third-place team, above Lebanon.

5. Southeast Asia: Some Try, Some Don’t.

One terrible thing for Australia, host to the next Asian Cup, is that no Southeast Asia country coming. Southeast Asians make up a great part of Asian-Australians: Chinese and Indian Malaysians, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Thais, and Chinese and non-Chinese Indonesians. These Asian residents and citizens might not have flocked the stadiums had their teams qualified, but there would be spotlights on both Australia and Southeast Asia. Some European Australians might even support Thailand or Vietnam out of family or social relations.

Malaysia and Vietnam were Southeast Asians who tried hard. Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia did not try hard. Thailand are a puzzling case. I just praised Buriram United, and yet the national team lost all their matches – against Lebanon, Iran, and Kuwait. Lest they could have done were putting a fight against Lebanon and Kuwait. Instead they conceded at least two goals in each match – three goals was the norm. No way the political crisis is a valid excuse.

African stars in Europe have lamented on how corruption, football as political tools, petty rivalries, elites’ obsession for watching European football, and ignoring grassroot development destroy the supposedly promising national sides. It’s the same story in Southeast Asia.

Thailand 2 Lebanon 5. Saudi Arabia 1 Indonesia 0. Yemen 1 Malaysia 2. Vietnam 3 Hong Kong 1. Oman 3 Singapore 1. Only Malaysia finish the group at the third place.

6. Stop AFC Challenge Cup, please.

Ironically, Philippines have the good chance of being the sole Southeast Asian representative in Australia 2015, if they win the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup. The Challenge cup is supposedly a medium for the weakest teams in Asia to get something to care about. But it’s never that. It’s a sneaky ploy to get India and North Korea to play in the Asian Cup although they don’t deserve it. It’s a device to jump the queue.

I get the point if AFC wants India to love football. I get the point if AFC wants Philippines to love football. What I never understand is why AFC loves North Korea (qualified to Asian Cup via Challenge Cup). If money is the answer, then we have a very disturbing situation, because North Korea gets its money through crimes.

Even according to the current FIFA ranking, Philippines do not belong in the Challenge Cup. Now they are the strongest team in Southeast Asia, and I believe it. Indonesia and Singapore (and Malaysia, actually) fit in better to be put into the Challenge Cup, although it won’t be done. It’d be too humiliating for both these football crazy countries and for the AFC. But if the Challenge Cup’s category is “for countries where football is not the primary sport and/or whose national leagues are in um, developing stages” then North Korea do not fit the first category and India don’t fit the second. AFC Challenge Cup is a big fat junk and it should be kicked out.

Otherwise, the winner of the challenge cups must face lucky losers of the proper Asian Cup qualifications – if North Korea or Philippines want to play in the Asian Cup (India, mercifully, were eliminated by Bangladesh), then they have to prove that they are better than China and Lebanon first.

AFC Challenge Cup 2014 is set to begin on May 2014. The winner will qualify to the Asian Cup. “Favorites” are Turkmenistan, Philippines, and Myanmar.

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).

Comparing Asian and African progresses: History

Meet you at Moscow

Ah, Asia-Africa. In Japanese geek parlance, it is a bad pairing. It’s bad fan fiction. But Asia-Africa Road (always, always a road) are there in major Indonesian cities. It is the official Indonesian name to what Cold War historians call Bandung Conference. Back in 1955 some Asian states had gained independence while most of sub-Saharan Africa had not. The conference drew on the idea that both continents were victims of colonization and had things in common – dashing nationalist figures and interest for Socialism. The biggest African star at that conference was Egypt.

Enough history, move on to football. The African Cup of Nations. People in Asia don’t really watch it. But people in Asia also do not watch AFC Asian Cup unless their national team is playing. Worse, although people admire and fear Drogba and Kalou, and people did admire Eto’o, it’s hard to find someone in Asia, Australia, and Europe (white people. And not a football geek. And offline) that can name Ghana or Ivory Coast XI. Still, African football attracts positive images of colorful fans, comical goal celebrations, and loud percussion. If television won’t capture the moment, newspapers and their websites will.  Asian football, on the other hand, attracts negative images of clumsy players, weird surnames, boring 1-1 matches, and…wait a minute, why do people tend to forget about Korean hot chicks who wear only red bra and flag sarong? Japanese and Korean supporters also play loud percussion, although the tone is more martial than ….euh….tribal.

Jonathan Wilson’s article on the false sense of African Progress since 1994 inspires me to track Asian performance in World Cup. After North Korea’s legendary 1966 campaign, AFC representatives for the next 15 years would come from the West. First stop, Israel. Yes, Israel is a West Asian country. It qualified after defeating New Zealand (North Korea walked out since it refused to play in Israel) and Australia. In the past AFC and OFC competed for the same ticket, and OFC encompassed some countries with political complications like Taiwan, Rhodesia, and eventually Israel. In Mexico 70, after down to Uruguay, they retained their dignities by holding  Sweden and Italy. Yet Italy survived Group 2, although the draw cost Sweden’s chance.

In 1974, OFC’s Australia defeated South Korea, so no AFC story. 1978, the Kingdom of Iran qualified after topping a mini league where Australia languished and again South Korea failed at the last step. At this time Japan had no interest in football, was crap at football, and even were weaker than Hong Kong. In Argentina, Andranik Eskandarian’s own goal prevented them from scoring a legendary victory against Scotland. They went down to Netherlands (Iran conceded two penalties) and Peru (which also scored twice from penalties. Iran did have terrible defenders, didn’t they?)

1982, Kuwait topped the final round group, while New Zealand represented OFC after won a tie-breaking playoff against China. After holding Czechoslovakia, Kuwait languished against France (1-4) and lost narrowly to England. And what does historians remember? France had one goal disallowed after Sheik Fahid al-Sabah stormed the pitch to protest  after Kuwaiti players said they mistook a whistle from the crowd with the ref’s. Al-Sabah was just fined, but Soviet referee Miroslav Stupar was demoted. Even when I was a baby, West Asian football had become some sore loser.

1986, finally the East Asian moment arrived. East Asia and West Asia were divided into two conferences with a guaranteed ticket for each of conference winner. Iraq survived thrilling semi-finals against UAE before defeated Syria to qualify, while Iran were disqualified after refusing to play Bahrain. In the East, Japan finally took football seriously and defeated Hong Kong. In final round, South Korea awaited. Oh, what a joy for the Koreans.

In Mexico, South Korea would be acquainted with the “oh-so-near” tragedies that will haunt it for many, many World Cups. After went down to Argentina and held Bulgaria, it would have held Italy had not for Cho Kwang-Rae’s own goal. After restart, Huh Jung-Moo immediately scored to undo the damage, but the 2-3 scoreline remained, although those 7 minutes would have been heart stopping for so many Italians. Huh would become a successful national coach in 2010 while Cho became his disgraced successor, fired after South Korea lost to Lebanon. Iraq, on the other hand, became the first Asian team to lose all group matches since South Korea in 1954.

In 1990, South Korea and UAE topped the final round and both of them were so terrible it was embarrassing. Especially for UAE which conceded 11 goals. In 1994, Korean-Americans flocked to watch South Korea while Saudi Arabia became a moderate source of pride for Arab-Americans and were dubbed as “the Asian Brazil”. After a great 2-2 comeback against Spain (Hong Myung-Bo and Seo Jung-Won scored in the last five minutes), Korea took one draw too many after failed to score against Bolivia. They scored twice after trailing 0-3 to Germany in the first half…and it was not enough since Spain defeated Bolivia soundly. Saudi Arabia lived up to its bill, leading 1-0 against Netherlands in the first half before lost 1-2, defeated Morocco (first Asian victory since 66, and the beginning of Asian winning records against Africa in World Cup – take that!) and the legendary 1-0 victory over Belgium (sorry, no video link. I don’t like Saudi Arabia enough). Sweden stopped them in the second round. O yeah, that was also the day when World Cup started to be cruel at Belgium. Washington, 29 June 1994.

Japan finally qualified to the World Cup through  the hard way – extra time goal in a playoff against Iran, after a very unconvincing campaign (four draws out of eight matches). Even until today some South Koreans say that Japan defeated South Korea in Seoul because South Korea gave the game away for the sake of diplomacy and to save the 2002 co-host’s face. South Korea and Saudi Arabia aced their respective groups, while Iran qualified after giving Australia its Agony of Doha (nobody ever says Agony of Melbourne, anyway).

In France 98, again Asia demonstrated that it was the weakest region (people for some reason have better respect to Australia and NZ). Saudi Arabia did hold South Africa, which post-apartheid team was supposedly a growing power in the mid 1990s,  illustrious Korean coach Cha Bum-Kun was fired after 0-5 defeat to Holland, and ironically Korea held Belgium 1-1 under interim coach, Iran got its coveted victory against Evil Empire, uh, Great Satan United States, so defeats to Germany and Yugoslavia did not matter, and Japan were always lost narrowly. Lost narrowly to Argentina under Batistuta and to Croatia under Suker. And lost narrowly even to Jamaica.

Which such results, how could Asia hope to hold the World Cup? By giving East Asia a big pride. 2002 was a year of dyeing your hair brown and watching Taiwanese and Korean soap operas (Meteor Garden and Winter Sonata) while listening to Japanese pop (Utada Hikaru and Ayumi Hamasaki were big stars with unfortunately no rivalry between them, BoA and Mika Nakashima were debuting). All of the sudden, South Korea won its first World Cup, defeating Poland 2-0, while Japan failed to defeat Belgium. No such joy for Saudi Arabia and China – which scored no goal and received average of 10 goals between them. Japan finally scored its first win against its favorite white victim, Russia; while Korea thought that draw with United States was enough to payback its speed skating grudge against Japanese-American skater Apollo Ohno. Japan defeated Tunisia while Korea blew the predictions by defeating favorite Portugal. Going to the playoff rounds, it became nasty and controversial for Korea – extra time victory to Italy and penalty shootout win against Spain, all against accusations of foul plays. South Koreans, however, have learned to love the marriage of pop culture with nationalism and just said that the outside world were just jealous. Germany stopped their path to the final before Korean defense became the recipient of the fastest goal ever. Still, no grudge for the Turks and even it was the beginning of a partnership – South Korea sent its B-Team players (from Lee Eul-Yong to Shin Young-Rok) to the Turkish League, while Turkish coach Senol Gunes helped the development of Korean football. O yeah, Turkey also defeated a plucky Japanese side, a sour ending note for Philippe Troussier.

2006 World Cup was really bad for Asians excluding South Korea. Iran couldn’t make a suprise, Japan was so shameful (nevermind Australia’s triple goals – how could Yanagisawa missed Croatia’s open goal? How could Oguro be that impotent?), Saudi Arabia realized that its 2002 disaster was there to stick. South Korea prolonged Asia > Africa record against Togo, and held France with one good break despite being overpowered. Again, they blew it at the last moment  – lost to Switzerland. That’s why in 2010 Asians bar North Korea were so surprising. Although South Korea came close to blow it out again had Nigeria used their chances well – there was a good chance that Nigeria could win 3-2 to score the first ever African victory over Asia. Japan were ready to accept its fate as losers, but Keisuke Honda beat the expectations, humiliated Eto’o, and later the Danes. Both Honda and Endo were also among the first players to be able to score from free kick in the tournament. Australia were surprising in term that they failed to pass the group and lost badly to Germany, despite came close to take the lead very early.

My, while Jonathan Wilson could summarize Africa’s glory and fall in seven paragraphs, I charted everything that happened since 1970. Alright, we stop it right there for today with this lesson – just like Asia is yet to defeat South America in World Cup, the same thing happens for the Africans – Asians are their nemesis.

Anyong North Korea and Other Happy Thoughts

Thanks to a spam comment, I found an English K-League blog. And yet, as usual, it’s written by Westerners instead of Koreans :p. The long quest to find fellow English-speaking Asian football fan continues (that’s also a reason of the long inactivity in this blog).

Anyway, matchday 4 of WCQ tomorrow. Yesterday read this report from Pyongyang, and after reading it, I’ve grown to hate North Korea more. Who thought that even Uzbekistan players were not only more accessible, but were also scared with the atmosphere? Tomorrow it was the turn of North Korea to see the lighter version of their dystopia. Uzbekistan, ironically, like other Central Asian states, looks upon South Korea as the um, strategic economic partner.

The deal is simple. If Uzbekistan win and Japan also defeat Tajikistan, both are likely (to understate the latter – thank you FIFA for kicking out Syria), it’s anyong North Korea. Perhaps the post-South Africa punishment left deep scars for the team that even their Japanese and European based players couldn’t regain the glory of 2008 qualifications…up to that game against Brazil. Of course, the 0-7 defeat to Portugal wasn’t a sudden fall from grace. Like the trip to Pyongyang suggest, homegrown North Koreans could be trained to run fast and tackle hard and to keep in line, but only the Japanese know how to improvise and to make personal judgment. Perhaps the point of whole story is this: Jong Tae-Se has passed his prime in the national team (and this is a man who is a regular at 2. Bundesliga. But the Southerns play at THE Bundesliga, haha).

Move on with other previews. Jordan will ace the group of life (in the sense that there’s no big bad boy here) against The Old Lions Singapore (which did great job of preventing Malaysia to experience six international matches) 2-0. The Deebs are that potent, evident in their away 2-0 victory to Iraq. Iraq would win 1-0 against China in Qatar, so much for the Spanish revolution. Unless the Guangzhou players could show their stuff – then 1-1 then.

Powered by Park Chu-Young, South Korea should have it easy against UAE, which would go down with a fight. 1-2 maybe?  Kuwait have been improving lately and are still unbeaten, but Lebanon are not pushovers anymore, at least in the last two games. So it can be a high-tension 2-2. Or a bland 1-1.

On second thought, Japan might have not that easy against Tajikistan, although even an uneventful 0-2 victory is enough for them. Uzbekistan might also have hard time unlocking North Korean defense, although eventually they will,  even if only once. Even if through penalty kick.

Australia would also have fun with non-performing Oman, where Kennedy would continue his winning form. Saudi Arabia might have their first win to Thailand, unless the Elephants, fueled to present something for the nation in distress, could be so fired up and hold the declining former powerhouse to a satisfying draw.

Ah, Bahrain v Iran. Now that’s one Western Asian match I’d like to see (it might be broadcasted in Indonesia, tho). Will Bahrain recover from their pummeling? How would the host keep their nervous smile in front of the Shiite visitors? Would, performance-wise, Bahrain become the North Korea of West Asia? We’re talking about a team which narrowly almost went to South Africa and still gave hard time to Australia and South Korea last January.

Finally, Qatar versus Indonesia. Like the previous match in Jakarta, the outcome will be decided by Indonesian terrible defense and Qatar’s scoring inability. This time Indonesia bring in two naturalized Nigerians. Don’t think they can do better than Jeonbuk Motors player, by the way.

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.

Asia Football Update – Glory in Japan

The Sun is Rising.

Until the middle of this decade, Nagoya is seen as a mediocre team in the J. League, like the city itself is put behind Tokyo & the Kansai Triangle (Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe). If a team can make the big break in J. League, that’d be Shimizu S-Pulse. But Nagoya Grampus have won the 2010 J. League Division 1 league last Saturday after downing already-relegated Shonan Bellmare 1-0 (Tamada). Gamba Osaka also made it to the Champions League, again at the expense of Bellmare (2-1, Hashimoto and Sasaki). The other strong candidate for the Champions League tickets is Kashima Antlers, but a mistake this weekend could see Cerezo Osaka or Shimizu to slip forward.

As for the national team, it’s sunny in Japan (well not many things are looking good in Japan for the moment). The U-23 national teams shine in the Asian Games in Guangzhou. Both were unbeatable and the women team kept a clean sheet throughout the tournament. Nadeshiko Japan Junior defeated Thailand, China, and North Korea, while the boys left Malaysia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand, Iran, and UAE knocked down.

The good thing is, the male team has broken the pattern of collective, star-less team. Forward Kensuke Nagai from Fukuoka University has become the event’s top scorer with five goals. So there is one name that Zaccheroni can ponder besides Shinji Okazaki, Keiji Tamada, Shoki Hirai, and Takayuki Morimoto to become Japan’s forwards in Qatar 2011 (with Keisuke Honda & Shinji Kagawa behind them). As for the women’s team, the classic pattern emerges. Their best goalscorer is Shinobu Ohno with 2 goals, and in total only four girls scored, compared with the eight boys.

 

Korea – Good, but not best

After North Korea being an arse again this week, I’ve decided to omitting its existence. Yes, Chong Te-Se is a living man playing in 2nd Division of Bundesliga, and NK is a team that takes part in Asian Games and the Asian Cup. But it kinda insulting to refer them as ‘North Korea’ (which NK takes as insulting – its proper name is ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’. No substitution). Korea is cool country, and it kinda sad to think that it’s northern part is…the worst. So like many other people, I’ll just call South Korea as Korea. Because the other half doesn’t matter at all.

Anyway, Korean national teams have repeated the same pattern – coming with a strong squad and yet still fail to take the gold. The girls brought in phenomenon Ji So-Yun. Yet she failed to score in a fateful semi-final against NK, before back to form in Bronze Medal match against China (damn, Chinese football is really going down). The boys took in senior team’s ace Park Chu-Young and developing star Cho Young-Cheol, who did well in the J. League. Still, they lost to NK again and then, surprisingly, to UAE.  The tragedy was set to continue in the Third Place Match against Iran, when Korea played badly for 75 minutes. Then miracle struck. Park Chu-Young’s goal was followed by quick one two by Ji Dong-Won, a rookie at Chunnam Dragons.

This is a warning for Qatar 2011: Korea can bring in a solid team compared to Japan and yet still flunked at the easiest match, while can fight to the last minute against a strong rival. Get ready for a close disappointment.

Still, the K-League can proudly say it is the best league in Asia, with Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma win the Club of the Year award from AFC, and its defender, Australian Sasa Ognenovski, becoming AFC Player of the Year. I was going to say that Tim Cahill is always a more deserving Australian to get the award, but well, he flunked in South Africa and Everton is low position in the Premier League, despite of his late goals. Josh Kennedy is yet to prove his form in the continent. In this year’s ACL, only Saudi and Iranian player can truly orchestrate their teams’ attack, while again the topscorers of the Eastern Team are non-Asians. So maybe Sasa does deserve the award.

The Short Future for Asian Football

As the 2010 World Cup is nearly over, the Asian joy – and world’s surprise – on what had South Korea and Japan achieved has worn off. It ended happily for both nations, especially Japan, when both the Japanese public and Asian media applauded them on their return home.

Despite a winless campaign for Australia and 90 minutes of shame for North Korea in the hands of Portugal, this has been the second best World Cup performance for the Taegeuk Warriors and the Samurai Blue, widely predicted to make no impact in South Africa. South Korea’s best achievement in 2002, however, was marred by controversies of disallowed goals for Italy and Spain and they ended the show as the recipients of Hakan Sukur’s 11 seconds goal. Since then – and despite South Korea’s victory against Togo and draw against France in 2006 – no pundits or fans outside the country confidently believed that they would do well.

And yet no world-famous player could match Japanese midfielders’ free-kick abilities (this offer still good until Sunday), no opposing player could break through Uruguay’s defence before Lee Chung-Yong, and no other forward other than Park Chu-Young has scored goals both for and against his team (again, this contest is closed on Sunday). The memories will enter the annals of South Korean and Japanese footballs – Park Chu-Young’s free-kick against Nigeria in par with Ahn Jung-Hwan’s header against Italy in 2002, and Japan’s 3-1 dismantling of Denmark to be as legendary as Australia’s 3-1 dismantling of Japan in 2006.

Sadly, less could be said about the rest of Asia and the world. In Indonesia, where I live, Germany is still not a strong favorite because none of its player trades in the EPL, La Liga, or Serie A. As my fellow Fans’ Networker Sean Carroll points out, he’s not sure Pringles (or any comparable global brand, with the happy exclusion of Gillette) will think marketing Keisuke Honda outside Japan will sell compared to synergizing with global brands such as Torres Villa, Sneijder, or newfound stars such as German bomber Mueller and Uruguayan goalkeeper Suarez.

While Western fans (the less enlightened ones) will keep comment that Park Ji-Sung is in United to sell shirts in Asia and that Cha Du-Ri is a diminutive man, general Asian fans will still think that any Brazilian, English, or Nigerian plays football better than a Korean. The stereotype would stay on for the short future. While a surge of interest for Japanese and Korean players from European clubs is guaranteed, hopefully most of them will not flop as it happened after the 2002 World Cup with Takayuki Suzuki (Racing Genk & Red Star Belgrade) or Lee Chun-Soo (Real Sociedad & Feyenoord). Unless AFC members can assure an encore (and improvement) in 2014.

The next stop for national teams and their new managers would be the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar. Located nearby Europe, hopefully European based players like Cahill, Ki Sung-Young, and Honda would participate. As usual, the Cup is still prefers ‘harmony’ over competition – the previous champion, runner-up, and third place qualified automatically, and India and North Korea qualified as the champions of the ‘Challenge Cup’ contested by countries with the lowest ranks – sparing them from the qualification pains of being in one group with Thailand or Japan.

Nevertheless, it’s still a championship full of stake. Saudi Arabia and Iran will want revenge for their absences in the World Cup. Australia wants redemption for a failed World Cup and a failed 2007 Asian Cup. North Korea wants to literally get out of the pit. The most important thing is Japan and South Korea need to test how good they are post-South Africa. It’s promised to be a hot start – Saudi Arabia is in one group with Japan and Australia will face South Korea early. And this time, there is no Southeast Asian representative. The quest for power is still far away for Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam.