2015, then

And so they went home. You have heard that Shinji Kagawa wrote a formal apology to his fans, which according to my friend Sean Carroll is “as uninspired and predictable as his football in Brazil”. But that what in his (and his agent’s) mind is the right way to do, the right thing to say, to his fans. His Japanese fans. And even Japanese who are not his fans. But Japanese. And then his non-Japanese fans.

For most of us non-Japanese, his apology is optional. What matters is he gets his act together. Maybe even for Japanese culture, his apology is optional. He is not the first terrible number 10 to lead Japan in a failed World Cup campaign. I forget if Shunsuke Nakamura or Hiroshi Nanami did the same, although I guess they might have, at least in Japan.

But Kagawa is in bigger spotlight than Shunsuke. Back in Hide Nakata days there was no Twitter, YouTube, 24/7 updated football networks, and although it had started, European elite clubs did not receive as much as Asian sponsors as today. Kagawa truly believes he has failed his fans worldwide, both Japanese supporters and Manchester United fans. And sponsors. He should have done better, but the Ivory Coasters (what’s the proper noun for citizens of Cote d’Ivoire? I’m sorry) were so scary. Scarier than the walking Barbie doll in Beyond: Two Souls. He should have be able to do one-two with Honda, slashing through gasping Zuniga, and lobbed an overhead pass to Kakitani which the forward would have headed home.

Why can't Japan play football like this? Because life is not a manga.

Why can’t Japan play football like this? Because life is not a manga.

But he didn’t, did he? Nor did others. Or the whole English and Spanish defenses, in fact. But let others write about the Europeans. We’ve seen how scared little boys were the Japanese defense against Colombia, how nervous the forwards were against Greece.

In Jakarta Post, I argue that Asians in general don’t pay attention to the failures of Asia in 2014. They accept that Asians are terrible in sports as a matter of fact (never mind Michelle Wie, Jeremy Lin, Kei Nishikori, and yes, Shinji Okazaki) and naturally they omit Australia. On the other hand, there’s a persisting myth in Asia outside Korea and China that Japanese team possess the Bushido spirit.

Asians actually glared at me for saying “if you want to see Bushido in football, see Australia.” Now that’s brave football. Who cares if we get three goals past us? We’ll just attack and tackle. Part of it is the genetic of having European parents. And yes, one Mike Havenaar is not enough (I maintain that he deserved number 20 over Manabu Saito).

But essentially, Japan’s and Korea’s hesitation and lack of bravery during the matches were caused by fear of failure. When you are worried of making mistakes, you’ll make mistakes. Cliche but true.

Then, as John Duerden and other Western (but not Asian) journalists have said, Japan and Korea have no number nine – the goalscoring hero, the van Persie, the Suarez. So do Australia and Brazil, actually. So Brazil has to make sure somebody will be better than Luis Fabiano and Fred (and not having his European manager puts him as a winger) and Australia will also help Adam Taggart being better than Josh Kennedy and Scott McDonald.

But the lack of number nine in Japan and Korea also have to do with culture, I guess. Japanese boys want to become Captain Tsubasa, number 10, the creative playmaker. Number nine in Tsubasa’s saga is the brash, rude, and antagonistic Hyuga – who didn’t make it into Juventus starting 11. On the other hand, Korean boys want to become the speedy number 7, like Son Heung-min, Lee Chung-yong, or Lee Chun-soo in the past. Graceful and popular with girls. Koreans perpetually describe their football as “fast”.

Why? Because number 9 has to hog the ball and makes the final decision. He has to be under the spotlight. Of course many boys like that idea, many men eventually become them, the JFA and J. League continuously make such campaigns to encourage more attacking play and more goal scoring opportunities.

But how on Earth it could be a Japanese habit, Japanese psyche, if the Japanese keep on with group mentality and shunning of individuality in life beyond football? Even the closest thing to Hyuga, Keisuke Honda, showed himself as a 15 minutes attacking midfielder.

What Javier Aguerre, the new coach of Japan, can do is to develop Shinji Okazaki to become a full time number 9, with Yohei Toyoda, Yu Kobayashi, Junya Tanaka, and Mike Havenaar as next in the pool. Okazaki could scored 15 goals for Mainz last season because he had no such fear of failure in Germany. And because he was the number 9 for the club.

Thrown by toffees...of love.

Thrown with toffees…of love.

As for Korea. At least Kawashima and co., in their wonderful suits, were welcomed by squealing (always squealing) Japanese girls in that blue Adidas shirt. On the other hand, the Koreans were pelted with yeot, translated as toffees. Interestingly, among Chinese-Indonesians “toffee” is also an insulting word. So I guess the origin of the insult came from China.

Death of Korean football? Hardly. They didn’t call it death of Korean football back in 1998. Again, because back in 1998 they had no Twitter, Cyworld (or did Korea already have Cyworld back in 1998?), and Nike banners of Ki Sung-yong everywhere. And a dozen of European based players. Cha Bum-kun was more even disgraced back then. The pain was supposedly more…painful…with the economic crisis (called “IMF Crisis” by Koreans until today, blamed on IMF rather than their own fat cats) gripping, but maybe back then, Koreans thought everything sucked, so it’s appropriate for football to suck too.

In 2014, however, Koreans strongly believe they are the darlings of Asia. Japan’s sun has set and China is vilified, but everyone loves Lotte, K-pop, Korean drama, and Samsung. So everything nice and football has to be nice too. Why can’t football be nice?

After seeing Germany versus Algeria, I’ve come to admit the quality of Algerian football. Korea should have defeated Russia, but their only mistake against Algeria was they got panicked and scared, just like Japan in second half against Ivory Coast. Algeria could beat them in any day, even with better composure.

But now I’m finishing Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World. In Busan, she followed an American who dropped out of his exchange program out of frustration, and a Korean who was relieved to move to New Jersey. Nobody, even the Koreans, is happy with the way Korean education is run.

So in school and office, Koreans are pressured by themselves to be perfect. They berate themselves and are berated if they don’t do things perfectly. So that what happened with the toffees. The supporters, pressured to be perfect in college and office (or even in playing Starcraft), were angry that the Warriors were not perfect. Just like Xavi and Hart.

 

 

Christmas Confessions

I have man-envy…envy? The opposite of man-crush at John Duerden. He’s the one to write Asian football in Korea, or Japan, or Southeast Asia, or Australia. And he’s living the life.

In fact, I have man-envy…ok, envy, at all Westerner living in East Asia or making regular trips around the region to cover Asian football. Not because I cannot be like them, but because there’s lack of role models – a Chinese, Korean, or Japanese man of any nationality covering football for mainstream international media. It’s back to John, or Patrick Johnston, or well, the only Asian around is Sudipto Ganguly. Like I said, no Chinese, Korean, or Japanese. Fox Sports Asia (and its predecessor ESPN) even has no Asian male pundit or newscaster (Steve Lai has moved to Channel News Asia).

And as always, my education on what’s going on in Asia comes from a Westerner. Like John Duerden. He told us that A-League players and fans found it’s uncomfortable to sit an away match in Asia. And not only because Australians are not Asian and that stuff, but because Asian clubs dislike the AFC Champions League. J-League’s terrible performance in the ACL is blamed on lack of their enthusiasm for continental competition, but I was surprised to read that it also happens to K-League teams.

Suits in Japan and Korea say that the Champions League is not profitable. I don’t buy it. It’s expensive but they have the money. The real reason is because they loath making overseas trips, leaving the boxes of their Korean and Japanese worlds (and ditto to several other nations). Australians love to travel but they know that Asia is an acquired taste, unlike Europe or South America. But while the ACL can be a sobering and painful experience for A-League teams and supporters (with the final score), the bigger faults lie in the insular football culture in Asia.

Insular is a funny word. From Japan to Indonesia, people wear MU and Barcelona colors with pride. Children can recite the whole Liverpool formation by heart. They also talk with pride (before match) and despair (after match) about their national teams. But they give no damn about what’s going on next door.  The usual excuse is that European football is good while Asian football is boring. But the real issue is that they don’t have enough positive feeling for fellow Asian nations. Of course, this is not only in football but also in several other respects – pop culture, social, and language. That’s another thing I envy – Europeans can breezily interact with each other in several language, talking about their food, holiday spots, and X-Factor stars. Asians can, but they don’t want too.

Take the mid-week UEFA Champions League schedule. Europeans are eager to see their city team beating those pesky foreigners (or just owning some cute Czech or Norwegian team) on a Wednesday night, with the fanfare of glorious orchestral anthem. For all their venom for their neighbors over things that happened 100 or 200 years ago, Japanese and Koreans could not bring the whole family to see their club kick butt. Daddy still has to work (but it’s 8 pm!), Mommy prefers to see soap opera at home or Thor in cinema, and the kids are still in cram schools (but it’s 8 pm!). Plus, those Aussie or Japanese foreigners are not interesting – and it’s nauseating to see their supporters. It’s a different story with those hicks from neighboring province/prefecture that we will face on Saturday. We will come in full force and chanting without cease for 90 minutes. And cleaning up our trashes afterward.

More proof of this insularity? I got Winning Eleven/Pro Evo Soccer 14 for Christmas. Yay, Asian Champions League. Shall I play Guangzhou or Sanfrecce (I have enough K-League and A-League from FIFA, thank you). But first, let’s play FIFA Confederations Cup 2013!

Eh? What the hell? I scoured Internet and found it – the international version of PES 14 is not an official product of the Japan Football Association. But there’s no official press release. Just posts in fora (that’s forums). O God, I don’t believe this. Konami wants to become the official video game maker for UEFA Champions League, Copa Libertadores, and AFC Champions League. But the JFA doesn’t want foreigners to support Japan. I guess that’s the reason. I realize that now many football hipsters support Japan and discuss Kagawa, Yoshida, Honda, and Kakitani as if they are African players, but JFA does not want this.

I had two options: assembling a Japanese team composed of Hiroshima, Kashiwa, Urawa, and Sendai players plus the Europeans, or renamed the fictional players according to the Confed Cup lineups. I chose the latter and recalled my basic katakana reading skill to locate all the commentary sound files (I have the Asian version with Japanese audio option). Got them all – Kawashima, the Sakais, and Maeda. I just let the jersey to be red. Dear God, this is terrible, JFA. It’s not enough that you always refuse to provide J-League and refuse FIFA to obtain the J-League or Japan license. Now you have to discourage foreigners from playing Japan.

Then just now I caught up with an old friend and talking about Yakuza 5, which had been released in Japan last year. And Sega representatives were not happy when Westerners were asking them. Sega made limited comments that the localization (i.e. text translation) cost is too high and the fan base is too small. Konami can make the same excuse for J-League and JFA licensing. I think the real excuse is similar – Sega does not want foreigners to enjoy the virtual Kabukicho and other red light districts in Japan (in my Yakuza 4 guide I explain aspects of Japanese culture surrounding the game. Sega might have read it and unhappy that this Chinese Indonesian tells all. Who knows). Many Japanophiles enjoy Yakuza as they can become virtual tourists – and who knows, this is what actually irks Sega or some other parties in Japan.

So, ACL 14? More preliminaries? Good. Guangzhou as the big red tiger? Good. Western Sydney looks forward for the Asian away trip with caution? Fine. But I have also to brace for the possibility that both J. League and K-League teams might put on worse half-ass effort for the competition.

And what I’m sure is, I won’t buy another PES. Unless Japan win AFC Asian Cup 2015, in which I have to play PES 16. Better bet on the Socceroos then.