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1-1. 35 year old Mark Schwarzer failed Dario Rodriguez (who beat him in Montevideo) and Marcelo Zalayeta (Uruguay had withdrawn Alvaro Recoba and didn’t play Diego Forlan), and the overjoyed running of John Aloisi entered the lore of Australian sports.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.

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It’s a Hard Knock Life

“Are you an angel?”
“Si senor. I’m here to take you back to Spain.”
“NOOOOOO…..”
“The recession isn’t that bad, senor.”
“No, Liu Jianye’s screwing up again…”

It’s a hard knock life to be a manager. To be a national team manager. Be the field marshal of your nation’s pride, or be the darling of a foreign country, a ‘white witch doctor’, perhaps? Certainly Guus Hiddink had it in Korea and Australia.

But it’s never never fun to become the man responsible for international matches. That’s why men prefer to manage clubs – more ruthless, more money-driven, and every week could be your last week at the job, but you don’t have to blame someone else the morning the national papers are looking for the culprit. When an oversexed narcissist says he hates you after he’s late for the training again, you can just sell him and shrug that he’s past his prime anyway. At least the press tend to blame the players for ‘lack of spirit’ rather than accusing you as a tactical idiot. Leave that to tweeters.

First thing first, life’s pretty hard for Jose Camacho. Look, for millenniums (millennia, dear spell checker) the Chinese have assured themselves that it’s a jungle out there, north of Mongolia and south of Vietnam and east of the coast. Chinese who left the Middle Kingdom were seen as lost souls who had left civilization.

So, when in a day in 2012, China ventured to the wilderness of Brazil’s northeast region, far from Sao Paulo or Rio, rather than arranging a match in say Dubai or Switzerland, just when Japan thinks its wiser to invite random Latin American or Southern European teams to Japan under the guise of ‘Kirin Challenge Cup’; China said “Look Mom, I’m a grown man and I’m willing to travel to Brazil rather than paying Hulk and Neymar to come here to say hello to Didier and Nic.” Good God what did they think. They might as well burn a wooden dragon and call it The Ashes of Chinese football. Recife, 10 September 2012.

Here’s parting shot on China – they can export anything but not footballers. Haw haw.

Move on. It’s a hard life for Alex Ferguson, seeing his goods damaged by national federations – Jones, Kagawa, and van Persie. But after Tuesday night, all Japanese fans could sleep soundly and it’s safe again for me to wear Germany 2006 shirt on Wednesday. Mahmoud could  have scored had not for referee intervention, seeing him toying with Kawashima? Sure. Honda was yeah good but he should have scored? Of course. Iraq were the better team even with rookie starters? What can you say.

But it’s Japan 1 Iraq 0. It’s ten points from three victories. That’s three or four more wins before it’s Samba 14. In the night where it’s Serbia 6 Wales 1, Peru 1 Argentina 1, and England 1 Ukraine 1. Closer to Saitama, it’s  Uzbekistan 2 Korea 2, and Ki Sung Yueng scored an own goal and Lee Dong Gook had his effort cancelled just after the kick off. More importantly, it’s Lebanon 1 Iran 0. And here it comes – Jordan 2 Australia 1. With Schwarzer on the goal and Cahill and Bresciano on the case.

So, who’s got blamed? Not the coaches for now. Australians are complaining about ‘Dad’s Army’ and Osieck says that some will be fired. Oh sure. But can Langerak replace Schwarzer? Will Jones play for Liverpool in the league, not the League Cup? Where does sideback David Carney live? Tashkent, Uzbekistan. What about Spiranovic? His address is in Doha. Great for executives but not for a footballer. What about Matt McKay? Busan, Republic of Korea. Hmm…what about the heir to Kewell or Viduka? Oh, you mean Robbie Kruse? At least he’s playing for his country, unlike his teammate Cha Du-ri.

No one would think of this ten years ago – Anglo-Irish Australians don’t play in the EPL* and the Italians don’t play in Serie A. Now Japanese youth are learning German (I hope they do…but I don’t hold my breath) while their seniors are living uncomfortably in small cities like Manchester or Stuttgart, which are not as glittering as Tokyo (I hope you are happy now, Sota Hirayama). Compare their fates with the young Australians who enjoy good life in Busan, Doha, and Abu Dhabi. And of course Melbourne, the greatest city in the world.

*Except Brett Holman and um, Brad Jones.

At least now Aussie press are in panic mode. Which is good. Because we just had an Olympics football without ‘roos and Mathildas. There’s a risk, some say, that Australians will see a World Cup without Australia. Nonsense. Even if Iraq manage to become the runner up of the group, and thus fulfilling George Bush’s vision of an achieving Middle Eastern state, Australia will meet Uruguay in the Intercontinental Playoff after bested future tournament hosts Qatar. If you want to bedevil someone, let him be Luis Suarez.

PS: Apparently Sven-Goran Eriksson has read “100 Bullshit Jobs and How to Get Them”. Technical Director. That’s a bullshit job. So does “Global Advisor”, but the latter is located north of Manchester, while the former is located in Bangkok. It’s a good life and he will not take the blame when BEC Tero Sasana still don’t compete in ACL 13.

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.