AFC Asian Cup 2015. Heh.

The magic of AFC Asian Cup.

Okay, I should be cheered up better. It’s an all East final. Featuring both of my favorites.

It’s all your fault, Japan.

But, had Japan was in the final, the mood be sourer than on Sunday. Korea v Japan would have been a nasty stuff. Japan v Australia in the semis, as interesting and ideal it was, would have been too much for many people on both sides of the Pacific.

Instead, in peaceful Australia it was an all-peaceful tournament. No Korea v Iran. Thank you Iraq. No Japan v China. On second thought, that would have been impossible.

The causes of Japanese terrible performance are clear. Stupid Aguirre put the same 11 throughout group stage – I won’t even do that on World Cup 2014 (yes, we couldn’t reenact the tournament on Pro Evolution Soccer 2015). Okazaki and Honda were too exhausted, too nice (the former), too nervous (the latter). Korea were lucky Lee Jung-hyup and Cho Young-choul were able forwards (and unlike Javier Aguirre, Uli Stielike was wise enough to deploy them), and the ranked-100th Australia employed their full potential at the right time, just like in movies.

UAE have the chance to be a hipster’s team now. Maybe less in Australia, after it’s revealed that Gulf nations want to expel Australia from the AFC since uh, it’s the new guys who went to the World Cups instead of them. I thought the biggest Australian haters in AFC would be something like China or Malaysia. Australia might secretly want a nasty rivalry, but it won’t be with Japan – it’d be with Saudi Arabia (the spitting incident), Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, and Kuwait.

Having said that, be assured that Asian football hipsters will look for UAE merchandises, and also free stuff related to Omar Abdulrahman. Wonderful, JFA, now UAE Pro League has better chance to be featured on FIFA than J. League Division 1 (not that you care).

What’s now? Massimo Luongo, Mat Ryan, and Trent Sainsbury will stay with Swindon, Club Brugge, and Zwolle. But they’d certainly play in a better club next season, just as Kawashima and Kagawa’s positions in Standard Liege and Borussia Dortmund are questionable. It’s a trickier prospect for the Emirates: clubs would have less confidence on them than on new names from Korea and Japan, but the bigger question is, would Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout like to start on mid table clubs in non-English speaking countries? Or in the Championship, like Ali al Habsi?

Finally, with Jason Davidson (quarter-Japanese) and Massimo Luongo (half-Indonesian), let it be said that Australia is an Asian nation in football, and Asian-Australians can make it in Australian sports.

Have a cheerful Valentine’s Day (I’m invited into a wedding. Yippie) and Lunar New Year. On March we’ll have brand new Asian football spectacles, such as India facing Pakistan and Taiwan taking Macau on the first step to Russia 2018.

Heck, even this week we are already in Champions League mood.

AFC Asian Cup 2015 Team of the Tournament

Goalkeeper: Mat Ryan (Australia, Club Brugge)

Defenders: Dhurgam Ismail (Iraq, Al Shorta), Kwak Tae-hwi (Korea, Al Hilal), Trent Sainsbury (Australia, FC Zwolle), Cha Du-ri (Korea, Seoul)

Midfielders: Massimo Luongo (Australia, Swindon Town), Omar Abdulrahman (UAE, Al Ain), Ki Seung-yung (Korea, Swansea)

Forwards: Ali Mabkhout (UAE, Al Jazira), Tim Cahill (Australia, New York Red Bulls), Son Heung-min (Korea, Bayer Leverkusen)

 

What’s on this February

AFC Champions League

4 February: Yadanarbon (Myanmar) v Warriors (Singapore), Johor Darul Tazim (Malaysia) v Bengaluru (India)

10 February: Ha Noi T&T (Vietnam) v Persib Bandung (Indonesia), Chonburi (Thailand) v Kitchee (Hong Kong), Guangzhou R&F (China) v Yadanarbon/Warriors, Bangkok Glass (Thailand) v JDT/Bengaluru

17 February: FC Seoul (Korea) v Ha Noi/Persib, Kashiwa (Japan) v Chonburi/Kitchee, Central Coast Mariners (Australia) v Guangzhou (surely), Beijing Gouan (China) v Bangkok Glass (likely)

24-25 February: Group stage already! Hectic, isn’t it

2015 AFC Asian Cup. Yay.

Nasser Al Shamrani ponders where he will go out tonight in Melbourne.

Happy New Year, Maya Yoshida. That’s a sweet victory against Arsenal, wasn’t it? You did good job in blocking Alexis Sanchez, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (a hipster favorite), and Theo Walcott for 20 minutes. You’re good to go for Australia 2015.

Asians are so diligent and hardworking, we are doing a major tournament in the first working week of 2015. Making the good use of southern hemisphere summer.

And so let’s see the teams that will compete in Asian Cup 2015.

Australia

When they won the hosting rights in 2011 (without competition), it was too easy. Only Japan could spoil their party. Four years later, everyone could tear down the house. Australia had experienced defeats by Qatar, China, Japan (in 90 minutes in 2013, breaking a 12 years record), and Jordan. They were held by Oman, North Korea, South Africa, and UAE.

As I said, while Australians tell each other that they are on transition, the world does not care. Asia enjoys the agony. [Update: Australia have stopped saying that they are on transition.]

Tim Cahill, still the most reliable goal scorer for the last ten years, survived against pretenders like John Aloisi, Scott McDonald, Brett Holman, and Joshua Kennedy. Now Australia badly need new goalscorers. Thankfully Nathan Burns is on good form, Tomi Juric is at the crossroad (his last goal came in November), while Mat Leckie is doing fine with Ingolstadt, currently topping the 2. Bundesliga.

Australians and me hope that they could be like Germany in 2006 – turning shameful slumps into a glorious, proud summer (the semi final match could be held on Australia Day). Therefore the only permissible way to begin is to win comfortably against Kuwait. If everything goes well (Korea are a major stumbling block), then it’s quarter final against China in Melbourne. That’s dream comes true for broadcasters and organizers, but expect plenty of venom coming from Chinese commentators (since Australians are, uh, Western white men). The other option is no more friendly – Spiranovic vs Al Shamrani II.

Going to semis? Iran. The ideal final, of course, pitches Australia and Japan.

Goalkeeper: Ryan

Defenders: Franjic, Sainsbury, Spiranovic, Davidson

Midfielders: Jedinak, Bresciano, McKay

Forwards: Kruse, Cahill (false 9), Oar/Leckie

Korea

Supposedly, they have put the disaster of 2013-14 behind with the leadership of Uli Stielike, the only German international to fail a penalty shootout. Their recent records are still mixed, however – wins against Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Paraguay, losses to Iran (a bloody one), Costa Rica, and Uruguay. Like Australia, they were on transition but Koreans hardly said that (at least in English).

The match against Australia is the biggest challenge, and I would say it will end in a draw, just like in 2011. A quarter final against North Korea is unlikely (some South Koreans actually fancy the idea), while Korean “netizens” hope for China so they can update Eul-Yong Ta for 2010s.

The semi final will be another heated affair whether as runner ups or group winners – either Iran or Japan. Heck, even in the final they will face either Iran or Japan and things can go nasty. Boy, Koreans do have plenty of issues, don’t they?

Goalkeeper: Kim Seung-gyu

Defenders: Kim Chang-soo, Kwak, Kim Young-gwon, Park Joo-ho

Midfielders: Lee Chung-yong, Ki, Koo

Forwards: Cho Yeung-chol, Lee Keun-ho, Son

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan, Uzbekistan. Our football team is more famous than Kazakhstan’s. We have Natasha Alam and you Kazakhstan have…you have that volleyball cutie.

No, she won’t care about Asian Cup. Maybe neither is Natasha Alam.

Remember Road to Japan and Korea? A pretty surreal qualification since Japan and Korea were not in and Australia were still in OFC. So if you remove these three nations, the final round of AFC qualification would be full of creepy countries ruled by mad dictators. Group B is a terrible put down. I blame the desert and the northern latitudes. And Stalin.

Uzbekistan feature the balanced lineups of players based in Uzbekistan (always a challenge in AFC Champions League, although not big spenders like Bunyodkor used to be). The spread of its foreign-based players is also interesting. Vitaly Denisov and Lutfulla Turaev play for Lokomotiv (spelling it “Locomotive” makes it sounds less communist) Moscow, Anzur Ismailov is with Changchun Yatai, Bahodir Nasimov plays in Iran, and captain Server Djeparov still can eat Seongnam’s best bulgogi. Not to mention those who play in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

So there’s no reason they cannot ace Group B, above Saudi Arabia and China. A quarter final against Korea will be a friendly derby, and so does semi final against Japan. For a mad dictatorship, it’s surprising that they have no personal problem with anyone.

Saudi Arabia

The ballad of Nasser Al Shamrani. Australians heckled him mercilessly in Melbourne when Saudi Arabia were humiliated 1-4 by Bahrain and in Parramatta, home of Western Sydney Wanderers. They will hunt him again in Brisbane and Melbourne. It’s still unknown if Arab-Australians will stand up for him, especially (or despite) after Al Hilal players described Sydney as the boonies.

China

Thank God you’re here, said the organizer. Otherwise Asian Cup will be devoid of the most important of all East Asians. Will Chinese-Australians care about China? Maybe they hardly care about any sport in the first place. But the Chinese students will persuade their Southeast Asian (and some Australian) friends to support China.

China did plenty of friendlies in preparation of the cup, but none of them was outside China. Why bother going to savage lands where you can invites barbarians such as Kyrgyzs (twice), Palestines, and New Zealanders to enjoy a bit of Chinese hospitality in the world-famous cities of Nanchang, Chenzhou, Shenzhen (Hong Kong’s ugly sister!), and Changsa?

Half-assed friendlies in faraway cities to tire out the visitors, local-based players since no Chinese footballer is good enough to play in Europe (and why bother playing in tiny Mainz where you can enjoy Guangzhou’s nightlife), and equally strong opponents. They won’t make it past the group stage.

North Korea

Scums of the Earth and a total waste of space. But wait, even the Hermit Kingdom has players based in Europe and Japan! Wunderbar! Ryang Yong-gi and Ri Yong-jik are Korean-Japanese who swear allegiance to North Korea. Now the nice Switzerland opens its door to the misunderstood North Koreans, from Kim Jong-un to Cha Jong-hyok and Pak Kwang-ryong, who is loaned by Basel to Vaduz. Hey, Liechtenstein is just like North Korea – the people are smiling, the mountains are beautiful, and the underground vault is shining.

Iran

Look at the champions. Asia’s best. Lack of playing time but they make the best of it, whether against Korea or Iraq. Like in 1997, they can expect full support from Iranian Australians. Their European players are so-so: Keeper Alireza Haghighi keeps picking balls from inside his net with Penafiel in Portugal, Javad Nekounam still proves his worth with four goals with Osasuna, while his team mate Karim Ansarifad is yet to score. But as a team, they can be invincible. Iranians will gleefully see the Princes of Persia slash down those pesky Arabs (they are conveniently group with Qatar, Bahrain, and UAE, who insist that it’s called Arabian Gulf).

Japan

The samurais care less that their daimyo is accused of match fixing back in 2010 – they have a cup to defend. Traditionally Japanese fans will sit on the fence – Aguirre is another foreigner whose main purpose is to lead Nippon. If he won’t resign over the allegation, he will resign over bad results. But he won’t stay forever.

Japanese footballers, the mainstay of Asian football in Europe, are again in dire need of redemption. Shinji Kagawa must be cannot believe his terrible luck, worse than his Manchester United days. Keisuke Honda could not sustain his goal scoring streaks and now Milanistas are singing for Jeremy Menez instead of him. 2015 has arrived and Eiji Kawashima is still thinking about next season – stay or leave? – as he’s sitting on Liege’s bench. His challenger, Shusaku Nishikawa, rue the days he slipped the J. League trophy – and the chance to be Japan’s number 1 – past his hands.

For some others, this is the moment of truth. Yasuhito Endo can’t believe his fairy tale story. At 34 going 35, he resurrected a disgraced team to win a Triple and is still Japan’s best holding midfielder for one and half decade. Without ever playing in Europe. Shinji Okazaki wants to match his club performance with national team performance, especially if he wants to move a bigger (and better paying) club next August. Yoshinori Muto will be thrilled to think which European scouts are watching him.

Japan will face nemeses Jordan and Iraq and have to put up with the crowds and the world who will support Palestine. They will get the job done and will face one of the Gulf nations. Then it’s Uzbekistan, who defeated them twice on the Road to Brazil. Then a final showdown against Australia or less likely, Iran.

Goalkeeper: Kawashima (my choice is as tricky as Aguerre’s. Higashiguchi can handle Palestine but first impression is everything)

Defenders: Sakai, Konno, Yoshida, Nagatomo

Midfielders: Endo, Hasebe, Kiyotake, Kagawa, Honda

Forward: Okazaki

5 Things from Asian Football this week

It’s Euro qualifying week so it’s friendly week in Asia. By tradition, it never runs well for both Korea and Japan (Kirin [Challenge] Cup was hardly fun), and for a change of pace, Australia still had not won an international this year (to the joy of some Asian media). Basically, it’s about how Asia moves beyond Brazil 2014. Here are five things I took note.

Work sucks.

Work sucks.

1. Keeper

Eiji Kawashima. 2014 caps with Japan: 8. Goals conceded: 13. 2014-15 appearances in Belgian Pro League: 7. Goals conceded: 16. He’s terrible in club and country. Last semester he was close to win the trophy (Liege were the top of the regular league, but lost in the final group by two points) and was the second safest hands in Belgium, together with Australian Mat Ryan (Anderlecht’s Silvio Proto was the top goalkeeper).

Last night he conceded five, his second time this season – to round up a terrible week after he was blamed for Venezuela’s second goal in the 2-2 friendly. He passed August without a clean sheet, and Liege’s sub goalkeeper Yoann Thuram is itching to take over his place. He has a great chance to be a benchwarmer before Christmas. Lucky for him, in Japan no one is able yet to replace him. Shusaku Nishikawa let three goals past him the last time he guarded Japan’s goal for 90 minutes (against Zambia), but things may change if Liege’s coach Guy Luzon has enough with Kawashima and if Nishikawa brings Urawa to win the J. League title.

Australia experienced a serious bout of Europe-based keeper disappointments. Adam Federici. Brad Jones. Nathan Coe. Mitch Langerak. Mat Ryan seemed to be answer, but just like Kawashima, he had conceded 13 goals this year, out of 8 games. Ironically, Australia’s first victory came when Langerak was on duty – considering that Ryan let no goal past him against Ecuador in the first half while Langerak missed four in 45 minutes.

Club wise, the rivalry between Ryan and Kawashima was one thing that made me keeping track of Belgian Pro League (not much news is in English), and often Ryan seemed like winning. He’s not doing that bad, compared to Kawashima, conceded seven goals out of six matches, but his mates did not do very well in scoring. Maybe just like in Australia. Langerak, meanwhile, experiences the benefits of training with Dortmund without the perk of playing. No one is sure who will stand for Australia in the AFC Asian Cup.

Now to Korea, which never exports a goalkeeper to Europe. Lee Woon-jae was much better than Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, but he stayed in Suwon. Jung Sung-ryong, a rival of Kawashima, seems to be having the same path (lucky for him, things are looking up for Suwon). New coach Uli Stielike tries new options with Kim Jin-hyeon (who I picked into my Korea 23 to Brazil) and Busan’s Lee Beom-yeong. They did well in their matches – both conceded only one goal against Venezuela and Uruguay respectively. But I still don’t understand why does Korea never look at keepers from the two best clubs: Jeonbuk and Pohang. It’s been like this throughout this century. Do KFA and POSCO and Hyundai Motors have some sort of unresolved issues? I’m asking this because both Kim and Lee are playing for clubs who are in the relegation zone.

2. The world does not really care about Australian transitional period.

Australian bloggers and pundit remind fans and readers that the Socceroos are in a transitional period. Results should be seen in perspective. Cahill scored one of the best goals of Brazil 14. Ange believes in the quality of A-League. Western Sydney are on the verge of making a big bang in Asia. The “Dad’s Army” of Bresciano, Emerton, and Kennedy were changing into one of the youngest squad to appear in a World Cup, and they did fine.

Unfortunately, no one outside Oceania cares. England is just happy that Australia fails to catch up in football, unlike in uh, rugby or cricket or basketball. Asia loves seeing Australia’s gradual decline with different kind of degrees – even if their footballs are not better either.

For one thing, Australia still cannot live without Tim Cahill, who is very likely to be in for AFC Asian Cup. He is still Australia’s best striker, with Mat Leckie and Tommy Oar are now employed as wingers. It won’t be all good for Mark Bresciano, but it seems that Socceroos can go on without him (he played 13 minutes against Saudi Arabia). Tomi Juric is on the card, but again, Americans and British (English+Scottish by next week) are more likely to follow news on him than Asians do.

3. Japan: The parts are better than its sum

“Don’t blame me, I wasn’t playing with Manchester United.” That was last year. That was last month. “Don’t blame me, I wasn’t playing with Japan.” That was this month. So Shinji Kagawa left Manchester and returned to Dortmund, got number 7, and was put behind Adrian Ramos. It took him 40 minutes to score. 40 minutes. After 30 scoreless matches with Manchester United.

Meanwhile, Shinji Okazaki is now improbably Bundesliga’s top scorer, together with Julian Schieber. Above Son Heung-min. Above Thomas Muller. Above Ivica Olic. Above Pierre Aubameyang. It’s a big question that Javier Aguerre does not put him as the striker – insisting that he’s a right winger.

One of my joys of life is holding an affordable official Blue Samurai merchandise. The three legged crow, the JFA letters, the beautiful blue. Now it feels like it’s a brand of disappointment, of poor quality, of being clueless. But maybe it goes the same for England. Or Manchester United.

4. China tries. Not too hard.

One of the things you can say to make me laugh is saying that China can win the World Cup (so do Japan. Logically, any nation can win the World Cup). A proud Chinese and admirers of China say nothing is impossible – China had sent people to outer space, has won the Olympics (gathering the most gold medals, actually), made great laptops and mobile phones, and won tennis Grand Slams.

The World Cup, football, of course is different. It’s not related with economic progress or growing political power. It’s related with football culture. United States, the richest country in the world, was terrible with football in the second part of 20th century because it didn’t like soccer. Same went with Japan and Australia. Then in early 1990s, USA and Japan made professional leagues and invested in grass root football. Australia followed suit in early 2000s. Three of them had different catalysts. For USA, it was the successful World Cup. For Japan, it was winning AFC Asian Cup 1992 followed by the Agony of Doha (Iraq-Japan 2-2). For Australia, it was defeating American Samoa 31-0 followed by inter-ethnic riots that marred the semi-pro National Soccer League in early 2000s.

What’s supposed to be the catalyst for China? The Beijing Olympics failed to do so. Would it be Evergrande’s AFC Champions League title? Still not quite. China has to send players to Europe first, busting their arses and feet like Hide Nakata, Viduka, and Park Ji-sung did. Like Okazaki, Jedinak, and Son Heung-min do. Chinese Super League won’t be enough.

At least this month China did friendlies not for the show. They challenged Asian teams who are as strong as them – Kuwait and Jordan. China should push further. Arrange friendlies OUTSIDE China. Travel to the Middle East, to Europe, to North America, to Oceania. Export players to Asia like other Asians do – Japanese in India, Koreans in Qatar, Australians in Malaysia. Any self help guru says you have to break through your comfort zone. Japan, USA, and Australia have done it. Now it’s China’s turn.

#WeAreHK. Dozens of us.

#WeAreHK. Dozens of us.

5. Hong Kong national team is more important than ever

Asia used to sneer Hong Kong as a mercenary team. Some Chinese with a number of Westerners and Africans thrown in to increase the winning odd. Maybe in this modern Carthage, it’s hard to find local who’s willing to become professional athlete, although every boy wants to play football and their dads bet for Barcelona.

As Hong Kongers believe it is under heavy pressure from China to abandon its freedom and way of life, the national team becomes a symbol of hope and independence. It’s no wonder that the history of Hong Kong 2 China 1 of 1985 is revived (All Hong Kong players were Cantonese in that match, saved for sub Phillip Reis, who might be half or full blooded Portuguese). #WeAreHK appeared during the match against Singapore.

Hong Kong footballers who were lost to Vietnam (twice) and held Singapore (they would meet Singapore again next month) consisted of local Cantonese, Chinese who were born in China, naturalized Africans, and Westerners who were born in Hong Kong. Such is the multiculturalism that Hong Kong holds as its identity, and which China takes as a relic of British colonialism. On the other hand, I agree that Hong Kongers should start accepting Chinese citizens as humans, not “locusts”. The problem is the People’s Republic of China, not the Chinese people.

Better yet for Hong Kong, China is out of the AFC Champions League, but a Hong Kong club makes it into the semi finals of the AFC Cup. Worse for China, Kitchee’s opponents would be Erbil, the Kurdish club whose hometown is not only much older than Xian, but which autonomy has been impregnable by Saddam’s regime, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State.

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.

 

 

Not happy to be there

OK, let’s be silent for a moment, or minute.

OK.

In 2006, Nike’s tagline for Australia’s campaign in Germany 2006 (still representing OFC) was “More than Happy to be There”, and the ad campaign portrayed them as super underdogs who didn’t give a damn, even though they were rated below Japan. Both Nike and Socceroos had successful campaigns as they became the only OFC representatives to reach Top 16, probably ever (here’s challenging you, New Zealand).

Eight years later, the spirit of 2006 still rings true. Australia were the first Asian team to be ousted. But you know what’s everyone talking about. McGowan. Cahill. Bam. 1-1.

In few hours they will face Spain and it’s the Spanish who are worried – worried of conceding even a single goal. Worried of a draw. Worried of an ugly 1-0 win. In 2006 it was bit overblown to portray Australia as super (or it’s the other way around?) underdogs. Viduka, Kewell, and Bresciano were household names in Europe and Aloisi was tipped as the next big thing. Cahill had good reputation in Everton and Schwarzer was the steady choice, while Japan couldn’t pick between Kawaguchi or Narazaki.

But Australia 2014 were indeed underrated: Cahill had passed his prime, they did messy jobs in the qualification, they still have no trusty defenders and overall, have to rely on veterans of 2006. None of them plays in European big teams, with many veteran and rookie names are playing in Asian leagues.

I don’t know any Hollywood movie where the heroes die horribly one by one but we don’t grieve their eventual losses – they just dance their way to destruction and looking cool doing it. I’ve come to believe that had Australia traded place with Iran or Japan, they could do some serious damage – and goals.

Nothing to rave about from Japan, although you can praise the improved defense. But both Kagawa and Honda continue their personal and public disappointing acts (which means they often state they are disappointed with their performances, especially Kagawa). I don’t know if Japan looks at sports psychology as serious as United States does, but heavy works are needed for both of them.

And please, put Okazaki as the spear head. He scored 15 goals for Mainz because Mainz trusted him as number 9. Osako can cut his teeth in Bundesliga 2 and Asian Cup 2015, but Japan needs the best striker now (of course, it’s too late to expect so from him against Colombia).

So, why did Cahill score that volley and Kagawa didn’t? They are both under 180 cm tall, Kagawa is almost 10 years younger, and supposedly possesses better football skills (Cahill, of course, has better experiences). Again I wonder if it comes to culture – Australia loves Tim but it does not force him to star in every ad and the media don’t trail him everywhere both in Liverpool and New York City. Japan looked so hesitant because they feared failure, they worried about making mistakes, and so their did make a lot of mistakes. Including passing the chances of just giving it a go.
But the disaster case lies with Republic of Korea. I (and some other people, usually Westerners rather than Asians) love to think of Korea as the antithesis to Japan. Loud and brash. Expressive and Westernized. “The Irish/Italians of Asia”.

But if Japan vs Greece was a 0, then Korea vs Algeria was a -2 rather than +1. Guangzhou Evergrande’s tight defense can be attributed to the central role of Kim Young-kwon, but he can leave all hopes of playing in Europe this season after last night. Algeria celebrated its first World Cup victory since 1982 (when they were robbed by Austria and West Germany), and it’s VERY painful to see Algerian men (not women) honk their rusty rides on the streets of Algiers instead of cool Korean boys and girls raving before Admiral Yi’s and King Sejong’s statues with all of the lights.

What really ticks me off is that Korean media and people lament the loss but seriously don’t care about it. More Koreans are angrier that Sassy Girl Jeon Ji-hyun advertises a Chinese drinking water which is supposedly sourced from a Korean holy mountain (it lies on the border of China and North Korea). In Korea Times, the loss to Algiers is less important to “Bear likes oral sex too” (no link. Google it yourself) and the editorial that Japan risks severing political ties with Korea over World War II’s sex slavery (not gonna happen). The least they could do was celebrating the victory of Korean-American Michelle Wie at the US Open.

In 2006 I was quite crushed to realize that English-language Japanese news focuses too much on sex news (like that bear or starlets doing first pitch on local baseball league), precisely because that the popular news in Japanese are. Eight years later, it takes a heavy loss to Algeria to open my eyes that Korean news are just same.

I scoured again for news on the match from Korean perspective, and all I could find were dull reports on the goals without clear analysis on what went wrong for Korea: Formation? Chemistry? Strategy? Add that with lazy comments from anonymous supporters (on the street, since no one comments on the article) – at least Western anonymous supporters (on the comment section, and on other teams) can be sharp and unforgiving.
I found bits on what I saw last night: the cowardly play in first half (worse than Japan’s performance against Greece), the late introduction of Kim Shin-wook, and the descriptions of Korea’s goals from two familiar sources: blogs and news written by Westerners. It’s just frustrating.

This is from SYDNEY Morning Herald, for Tae-yang's sake.

This is from SYDNEY Morning Herald, for Tae-yang’s sake.

Japan – Ivory Coast was the most watched match worldwide outside the opening Brazil – Croatia match, and it’s understandable that more than 50% of Japanese households watched the morning match. On the other hand it seems that Koreans just don’t care about this World Cup. One can say that Korea is still in grieving mode after the Sewol tragedy, but it seems they are not grieving enough to make fuzz about Jeon Ji-hyun. And bear.

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

 

My picks, their picks

Managers of Australia, Japan, and Korea have picked their 30…23 actually in Japan’s and Korea’s cases…men bound to Brazil. Wow, 23…that’s bit of a rush, isn’t it? It’s good they want to finish a project a month before the deadline so they can concentrate on other things, but yeah, it feels more like being hasty than being so sure and efficient.

So, let’s compare my picks and theirs.

Australia

Goalkeepers

Ange (not Angie)’s picks: Ryan, Langerak, Galekovic (Adelaide), Birighitti (Newcastle Jets).

My picks: Ryan, Federici, Jones, Langerak

Naturally many coaches wanted to balance between players based in Europe and in domestic leagues (with the exception of Africa, in most cases). Ange did not trust English based goalkeepers at all, but among A-League keepers, he picked Galekovic rather than say, Theo from Brisbane or Ante Covic from Western Sydney, who was also a Socceroo regular. Can’t wait to see Ryan facing the world’s best attackers at the group stage.

Defenders

Ange’s picks: Good (Dundee), Davidson, Spiranovic, Wilkshire, Franjic, Wright (Preston), McGowan, Wilkinson

My picks: Wilkshire, Williams, Neill, Herd, McGowan, Smith, Spiranovic, Ognenovski, Wilkinson, Davidson

We agreed on some Asian based players. Herd apparently has “personal issues” while yeah, Smith should have been there.

Midfielders

Ange’s picks: Brillante (Newcastle Jets), Bozanic (Luzern), Bresciano (Al Gharafa), Holland, Jedinak, Milligan, Vidosic, Sarota, McKay, Troisi, Luongo (Swindon)

My picks: Cahill, Holman, Jedinak, Kruse, McKay, Oar, Milligan, Vidosic, Sarota, Holland.

Ange picked Cahill and Oar as forwards but left Kruse, while I picked Troisi as a forward (same with Franjic). I did the silly mistake of omitting Bresciano. He did have legal trouble regarding his transfer but early this year FIFA had permitted him to play for Australia again.

Forward

Ange’s picks: Cahill, Kennedy, Leckie, Oar, Rogic (Melbourne Victory), Halloran (Fortuna), Taggart (Newcastle Jets)

My picks: Leckie, McDonald, Taggart, Troisi, Franjic, Joel Griffiths, Williams

So he didn’t believe in McDonald, while I also regret I forgot Kennedy. Rogic is a fine choice, tho, although I’d have put him as a midfielder.

So, generally we agree that these men are the best out there for Australia. Less flashy than the Japanese, but flashy is never a word associated with Australia. Gutsy is.

 

Oh, Chris.

Oh, Chris.

Japan

Goalkeepers

Al Z’s picks: Kawashima, Nishikawa, Gonda

My picks: Kawashima, Nishikawa, Gonda

Who else? Poor Hayashi.

Defenders

Al Z’s picks: Inoha (Jubilo), Konno (Gamba), Nagatomo, Morishige (Tokyo), Uchida, Yoshida, the Sakais

My picks: Uchida, the Sakais, Yoshida, Masukawa, Shoji, Yasuda, Shiotani, Hashimoto

Besides the elite four, probably four best Asian defenders worldwide, Don Al picked the old names (stars in their own rights at J. League, but with mixed results internationally) for the three subs.

Midfielders

Al Z’s picks: Yasuhito Endo (Gamba), Hasebe, Aoyama (Hiroshima), Yamaguchi (Cerezo)

My picks: Kagawa, Honda, Nagatomo, Hosogai, Kiyotake, Hasebe, Inui, Ono, Tasaka, Doi, Yasushi Endo (Kashima), Ienaga, Kakitani

This means only one thing – he chose only four holding and central midfielders and pushed everyone else as attackers. Old Al counts on four great defenders (with mediocre/poor subs) and the rest to attack, leaving opponents to rule the midfield. We know what will happen. And yeah, we thought about the different Yasu Endo.

While many girls know this Yasu

While many girls know this Yasu

Forwards

Al Z’s picks: Honda, Okubo, Okazaki, Kagawa, Kiyotake, Kakitani, Saito (Marinos), Osako

My picks: Okazaki, Havenaar, Osako, Toyoda, Okubo, Kobayashi

The Senegal option. Even Senegal only chose 7 forwards for 2012 African Cup of Nations (and scored only three goals). Okay, so the difference is I designated Honda, Kagawa, Kiyotake and Kakitani as midfielders while he said they’re forwards. Essentially he picked four forwards. Both of us believe in Okubo and Osako, Okazaki is undisputed with his 15 goals in Bundesliga, but I still believe Havenaar, despite a mixed year (he still can’t become Vitesse’s main contributor after two seasons, keep losing behind a Brazilian), is a far better option than Saito. Still hoping to see Toyoda in Asian Cup 2015.

 

Korea

Goalkeepers

Hong’s picks: Jung Sung-ryong (Suwon), Kim Seung-gyu (Ulsan), Lee Bum-young (Busan)

My picks: Kim Yong-dae (Seoul), Kim Young-kwang (Gyeongnam), Kim Jin-hyeon (Cerezo)

Totally different. Okay, Jung has replaced Lee Woon-jae since 2010 to become Korea’s number one, and Kim Yong-dae (and the rest of FC Seoul) has been shabby this year. He certainly believes in Kim Seung-gyu better than I do, but I believe it’s unfair to overlook Jin-hyeon.

Defenders

Hong’s picks: Kim Jin-su (Albirex), Kim Young-gwon, Yoon Suk-young, Hwang Seok-ho (Hiroshima), Hong Jeong-ho, Kwak Tae-hwi, Lee Yong (Ulsan), Kim Chang-soo (Kashiwa)

My picks: Park Jo-hoo, Kwak Tae-hwi, Hong Jeong-ho, Kim Jin-kyu, Kim Young-gwon, Hong Chul, Yoon Suk-young

Err…so he went Japanese (I know, I know) with the defenders. It’s too bad Park Jo-hoo is left out (I know, his recovery is slow), we agree that Kim Young-gwon is the best Korean defender in Asia at the moment (with Kwak Tae-hwi the second), and at least there’s a defender with singular given name.

Midfielders

Hong’s picks: Ki Sung-yong, Ha Dae-sung, Han Kook-yong (Kashiwa), Park Jong-woo (R&F), Kim Bo-kyung, Lee Chung-yong, Ji Dong-won, Son Heung-min

My picks: Park Ji-sung, Koo Ja-cheol, Lee Chung-yong, Ki Sung-yong, Kim Do-heon, Kim Nam-il, Kim Bo-kyung, Ji Dong-won, Ha Dae-sung, Lee Seung-gi

We agree more than I expected. We traded roles for Koo Ja-cheol and Son Heung-min.

Forwards

Hong’s picks: Koo Ja-cheol, Lee Keun-ho, Park Chu-young, Kim Shin-wook

My picks: Lee Dong-gook, Son Heung-min, Kim Shin-wook, Kim Seung-dae, Lee Keun-ho, Park Chu-young.

LOL, he picked Chu-young and struck out Dong-gook. At least Shin-wook and Keun-ho are pretty dependable, but it’s a shame that Pohang and Jeonbuk players are again omitted. As usual.

The Chosen 23 – who will be there Part 1

A dog doing his guard

A dog doing his guard

Thanks to my nephew who asked who Spain’s forwards will be for World Cup 2014 – and if Fernando Torres is among them*.

So with the World Cup coming in one and half months, it’s time to check and speculate on the top 23 picks for Japan, Korea, and Australia (but not Iran, sorry). And who should be on waiting lists.

*My takes: Pedro, Diego Costa, Negredo, Soldado, and David Villa. Torres is a possibility backup along with Llorente.

 

Japan

Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima is Japan’s biggest improver for this season. Already the safest pair of hands in Belgium, he has the good chance to lift the Belgian Pro League trophy. Behind him would be the safest hands in Japan (but not so in Asia, at least last year) Shusaku Nishikawa, who had moved from Hiroshima to Urawa. Number three is trickier. Usually they are Tokyo’s Shuichi Gonda and Hiroshima’s Takuto Hayashi, but Hayashi is crap in Asia and so is Gonda in Japan this season. If Al Z is interested in archeology, he could pick Kashima Antlers’ 34 year old Hitoshi Sogahata, who had deserved a decade worth of international appearance.

Defenders: Atsuto Uchida (Schalke), Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), and Hiroshi Sakai (Hannover). Japan’s four backs are covered. The reserves would be…all from J. League. I’d pick Kobe’s Takahiro Masukawa, Kashima’s Gen Shoji, and Sagan Tosu’s Michihiro Yasuda. Wild card: Tsukasa Shiotani (Hiroshima) and Wataru Hashimoto (Kashiwa).

Midfielders: Besides Kagawa (recovering) and Honda (falling), we have Nagatomo (who can be either left back or midfielder), we have Hajime Hosogai (Berlin), Hiroshi Kiyotake (Nurnberg), his compatriot at the club Makoto Hasebe, Takashi Inui (Frankfurt). Outside Germany, I reckon 33 year old Shinji Ono, leaving Western Sydney as a hero, deserves a place. Finally, Bochum’s Yusuke Tasaka. J. League picks would be Shoma Doi and Yasushi Endo (Kashima), Akihiro Ienaga (Omiya) and of course, Yoichiro Kakitani, who performs better in Asia than in Japan so far with Cerezo.

Forwards: Shinji Okazaki (Mainz) deserves the top bill. As I want Japan to try to have two forwards instead of one, we should go with Mike Havenaar (Vitesse) as the tandem. Yuya Osako (1860 Munich) shows great potential and should be included in with four goals from six appearances. The local dudes I’d pick are among Yohei Toyoda (Tosu), Yoshito Okubo (Kawasaki), and Yuu Kobayashi (Kawasaki). Still uncertain about Hiroshima’s Hisato Sato.

 

Korea

Goalkeepers: Gosh, going all locals. Okay, play safe and go with Kim Yong-dae (Seoul), and his lifelong rival Kim Young-kwang (Gyeongnam). Actually, for Yong-dae’s rival I pick Cerezo’s Kim Jin-hyeon, one of few Korean top players who are still playing in Japan. In fact, I might replace Young-kwang with Ulsan’s Kim Seung-gyu or Pohang’s Shin Hwa-yong, seeing how good Pohang are in both Korea and Asia.

Defenders: Okazaki’s mate at Mainz Park Joo-hoKwak Tae-hwi (Al Hilal), Hong Jeong-ho (Augsburg), Kim Jin-kyu (Seoul), Kim Young-kwon (Evergrande), Hong Chul (Suwon), and Yun Suk-young (Queen Park Rangers). Can’t think of any good reserve at the moment. 

Midfielders: Park Ji-sung? The Guard Dog has little desire to return to the national team, although at 32, he’s still the greatest footballing Korean in the world. If he refuses the spot, then it’s up to Koo Ja-cheol (Mainz), Lee Chung-yong (Bolton), Ki Sung-yong (Sunderland), Kim Do-heon (Suwon), Kim Nam-il (Jeonbuk), Kim Bo-kyung (Cardiff), Ji Dong-won (Augsburg), Ha Dae-sung (Beijing Guoan), and Lee Seung-gi (Jeonbuk). Reserves are Jung Hyuk (Jeonbuk) and Kim Jae-sung and Lee Myeong-ju (Pohang).

Forwards: Lee Dong-gook, obviously. And obviously he has to stay smart this time. Then Son Heung-min (Leverkusen), Kim Shin-wook (Ulsan), and Yeom Ki-hun (Suwon). I’m not sure about 34 year old Seol Ki-hyeon, so I’d go for Kim Seung-dae (Pohang), and Lee Keun-ho (Sangju, as he’s in the Army at the moment). And there’s always Park Chu-young :p.

 

Australia

Oh Socceroos, what has happened to you. At this rate you won’t cut it for the World Cup, trailing behind Uzbekistan.

Goalkeepers: Luckily there’s Mathew “Mat, not Matt” Ryan (Club Brugge), Kawashima’s nemesis in Belgian Pro League. Since we have to cross Mark Schwarzer, then Ryan’s deputies would be Adam Federici (Reading), and two bench warmers in great clubs, Brad Jones (Liverpool) and Mitchell Langerak (Dortmund).

Defenders: Luke Wilkshire (Dynamo Moscow), Rhys Williams (Middlesbrough), Lucas Neill (Doncaster), Chris Herd (Aston Villa), Ryan McGowan (Shandong Luneng), Matt Smith (Brisbane Roar), and Matthew Spiranovic (Western Sydney). Reserves are Sasa Ognenovski (Sydney), Alex Wilkinson (Jeonbuk), and Jason Davidson (Heracles).

Midfielders: Cahill of course, then Brett Holman (Al Nasr), Mile Jedinak (Crystal Palace), Robbie Kruse (Bayer Leverkusen), Matt McKay (Brisbane Roar), Thomas Oar (Utrecht), Mark Milligan (Melbourne Victory), Dario Vidosic (Sion), and Adam Sarota (Utrecht). Harry Kewell has just retired so the wild card is James Holland (Austria Vienna).

Forwards: How can you tell Australia is an Asian team? When they are out of strikers. The best we can recruit are Mathew Leckie (FSV Frankfurt…what’s with Australian parents and Mat(t)hew for a son’s name? Just like Japanese with Shinji), Scott McDonald (Millwall. Yes, him, please), Adam Taggart (Newcastle Jets), and James Troisi (Melbourne Victory). Well, none of them is a household name in Europe so far. I also consider Ivan Franjic (Brisbane Roar), Joel Griffiths (Newcastle Jets..but he’s 33), and David Williams (Melbourne Heart).

Those are the names that if, they are fit and healthy enough, might play in Brazil this June. Let’s see how the Australians are doing with the final matches of A-League, and the Japanese and Koreans (and Australians too, great showing this season) with the group stage of AFC Champions League coming to an end.

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.

5 Things About AFC Champions League Match Day 1

Are they Japanese? Are they Koreans? No, they are Chinese!

Are they Japanese? Are they Koreans? No, they are Chinese!

1. So much for Japan’s determination

“Japan looks to wrest Asian club crown from China”. For China, read Guangzhou Evergrande. Sure, Evergrande are not the only strong team in China – there’s also Guizhou Renhe, who defeated Guangzhou both in the 2013 Chinese FA Cup, and then the Community Shield, er, Super Cup.

Japanese clubs’ terrible records in the continent baffle even the Japanese. Then again, you can say the same thing for the English clubs. Well-funded teams? Check, although no flamboyant foreign billionaire owns a J. League club. Well known teams? Check. Yokohama F Marinos. Urawa Red Diamonds. Gamba Osaka. Just checking. Guess you might have heard of them compared to say oh, er, Pohang Steelers or Central Coast Mariners. Strong national sides? Check. Although continental wise, this applies better to Japan than to England. An island(s) nation who seems, at times, detached with the rest of the continental family and others love to make fun of its occasional troubles although secretly deep inside they love it and want to have its babies? Check. Ah.

Cerezo can try to Evergrande and bought Diego Forlan. But Diamanti he was not. Not when he played only for 27 minutes to replace Takumi Minamino (yes, I haven’t heard of him either). Yoichiro Kakitani, Japan’s next best thing, does not move to Bundesliga for a reason – he could not unlock a Korean defense twice. Besides those two, Aria Hasegawa, and Kim Jin-hyeon, I didn’t register any other cherry boy.

Sanfrecce look set to repeat 2013 – wonderful in Japan, terrible in Asia. Heck, they played the same team like in 2013 – minus Nishikawa, who moved to Urawa. Yokohama, oh, just marvelous.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the only Japanese team to win match day 1, Kawasaki Frontale, featured three foreign players. AFC and perhaps, perhaps fans, worry that an Asian club would field 10 Brazilians, Argentinians, Serbs, and Nigerians (and Koreans, perhaps) just like they do in Europe had there was no cap on foreign players. Of course all of us are for the development of home growth talents, but Japan is in the danger of not pairing its homegrowns with foreigners who come from different backgrounds, football culture, and mindset. A Diego Forlan is not enough. Sato and Saito had weak wingmen. Kawasaki delivered because Okubo, Renatinho, Kobayashi, and Paulinho could work together.

Lately Japan has reacted to its decline in business, entertainment, and international influences by resorting to isolationism. I don’t want Japanese football to follow the same path.

 

2. A-League is a different world to Australian national team

The Socceroos still can take on any team in Asia and CONCACAF, and maybe half of Europe, any given day. But A-League teams are still the jokes of the East side. By this time I believe it’s completely unfair that most of Asians, by different degrees of honesty, dislike Australian football simply because it’s…white. I was also guilty of this false mindset. Hopefully, most supporters of Ulsan, Guangzhou, and Seoul satisfied because their teams won and not because their teams won against ‘Westerners’ (although they would feel similarly if their teams defeat a Japanese team later on).

A-League teams, of course, have to step up their game and represent Australian football, made of the mixture of Irish, British, Italian, Greek, Balkan, Turkish, Latin American, and indigenous Australian sporting cultures. And they have to demonstrate it for the full 90 minutes, not just for the first minute or the first half.

 

3. It’s another season for the Koreans

The victory of Guangzhou Evergrande last season caused worse shock for Korean teams than the Japanese (who hardly reached the final anymore). Worse, more Chinese teams were attracting Korean and Korea-based foreigners to move into the Chinese Super League. Match day 1, however, showed the Koreans that they are still the heavyweights. Japanese Sergio Escudero might not able to replace Dejan Damjanovic, but Osmar can be greater than Adilson. Yun Il-lok looks bound to Brazil 14. It’s astonishing that Jeonbuk owned Marinos without Lee Dong-gook and Eninho at all, and Ulsan maintain the most exciting attacking duo in Korea – Rafinha and Kim Shin-wook. At the end, no Korean team lost match day 1. Expect one to make it to the final.

 

4. Guangzhou Evergrande is not a super team yet, but they are becoming an East Asian team.

Now for a something different – an East Asian team plays to a sold out crowd in the AFC Champions League. Almost 40 thousands, mostly youth, many were women, came to Tianhe Stadium with all sorts of big banners, compared to 11 thousands who went to Parramatta Stadium and 6000 to Seoul World Cup Stadium. The Chinese are used to make fun of their own football but it’s a great time to be a Guangzhou resident and a football fan. It’s good thing that the stadium and the environment are safe and attractive enough for women to come, despite the terrible pitch.

Guangzhou Evergrande set themselves on a different level with other Chinese teams and so do their fans. They look like, even better than, a hyper reality version of, a Korean team.

 

5. Buriram United may be the best team in Southeast Asia

AFC was kind enough to give a chance (“a fair go”, as Australians say) to assorted East Asian champions to qualify for the group stage. So we had chances to see how did champions of Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Vietnam held up against runner ups of China, Thailand, and Australia.

So by default, Thai Premier League is the best league in Southeast Asia, then? Maybe. Obviously other leagues are worse. Even you’d think a country as good as Singapore would have made a decent football league, seeing how they’ve made excellent universities, airport, and public transport system. So Thailand is, er, the best of the worst.

In the end, Thailand had to fight for extra spots against Australian and Chinese clubs, and unlike last year, they lost. But Buriram, sporting more multinational side than Japanese and Korean teams (two Spanish, an English, a Japanese, and a Thai-Norwegian), held themselves well against Vagner Love’s Shandong. If I’ve been searching for a Southeast Asian team to support besides my hometown teams, I think my search is over. Vote Buriram.