So, was it good?

Baby, you’re a star

How are you with post-Olympics withdrawal? It couldn’t come at the better time here. Friday is Independence Day holiday (how convenient, just two days after Korea’s and a week after Singapore’s) and after that, week-long Idul Fitri break.

I was going to write how I feel with the Olympics in general, but that’s the scope of my East Asian blog. Okay, focus on football.

First impression is of course disappointment. Disappointment that Japan failed to retain its supremacy in women’s football, the disappointment that Korea and Japan failed to reach the final, and while I could accept that Korea sent a better team, the disappointment that Korea had to celebrate their victory sourly.

But on second view, well, they had succeeded where others failed. Sean Carroll explains why Japanese supporters and footballers were good sports in Britain, a place like anywhere in West Europe, where football is the intermingling of fame, fortune, fouls, and yeah, fuck ups. Even in Asia, ‘gamemanship’ is an unknown concept for a Japanese footballer, compared to an Australian or a West Asian. If that ventures into naivety, then be it. They are strong enough to be naive (unless we are talking about ACL play offs :p).

And they shattered the dreams of Spain. If there are countries which are despairing with London, certainly they are not Japan or Korea. That’d be of course Austria, and then Greece (there there), and Brazil and Spain. For the latter two, because for the other weeks of the year, they are making headlines in motorsports….and football. And there’s the invincible Spain, unable to incapacitate the supposedly ‘easy’ Japan.

And then they became the only team besides Brazil – Brazil! which ensured qualification by the second match. Take that, Africa! :p. It was a bit letdown to see them failed to show their authority against Honduras, but you really have to give a credit for a team who refused a pass for United States Men National Team (#USMNT, right? One of popular Twitter tags? Not here, buddy).

The pattern is familiar. Except for Korea/Japan 2002, Japan passed the group stage better than Korea, although Korea’s sole win against Switzerland was enough to incur a Swiss’ wrath. How shocking. By the time the group stage ended, I had feared the familiar scenario – Korea would defeat Japan in the Third Place playoff. As familiar as England’s QF exit.

The news of Korea’s victory was big in Asia – boyband defeating indie band, as they said here in Indonesia. No one here remembers who’s Park Chu-young, Ki Sung-yueng, or Ji Dong-won, but everyone knows who’re Daniel Sturridge, Craig Bellamy, and of course Ryan Giggs. Unfortunately, in Britain the result was more about self-hating – the opinion that Team Great Britain suck and good riddance to them – they can’t even play Korea.

I’m really hoping, with another kill against Africa, Japan 3 Egypt 0, that football fans worldwide will stop regarding African players above Asian players. Not gonna happen. Not while in courtyards all over Europe the players are of Moroccan and Nigerian backgrounds instead of Korean and Japanese.

Of course, we’re not talking about Asian football here. We’re talking about Japanese and South Korean football. Not Chinese. Not Thai. Not even Australian. Hell, I hope not Emirate or Uzbek either. Knowledgeable British pundits and maybe even Australians envy the success of their youth development. While ten years ago young Roos were playing in English Championship or Eredivisie, now young Japanese are playing in Bundesliga and are scoring in the J. League.

These two are truly exceptions. China will not catch up with them (certainly not in Brazil 14) at this rate, and the press and the state don’t care. Why developing a sport which only result in two gold medals while you can grab four each from badminton and table tennis? Therefore China has betrayed its female footballers, the nemesis of United States in 1990s. If Chinese national team can pass the group stage of 2015 AFC Asian Cup, I’d call it an improvement.

And Australia? The Olyroos are never good in the first place, but so did Japan and Korea U23. I hope more Australian analysts would find out what’s not working for Australia, by seeing what’s working for Japan and Korea. As for Southeast Asia, well, heh. Tough luck facing Northeast Asia and West Asia at the same time. Everyone wanted Thailand to be improving (‘everyone’ refers to British, Dutch, Japanese, and Australians, but not other Southeast Asians), but with every passing year, it seems that they just won’t care. First of course, they have to rule Southeast Asia first – in this respect I think it’s necessary to support them in the Suzuki Cup.

That’s the men. For the women, there’s only one talking point – Japan. A very disappointing and concerning group stage, especially when I was kind enough to see 90 minutes of match against South Africa (it’s really hard to catch women football on TV, you know). Japanese women are of course never catching the attention of netters the way Americans do, and outside Japan (after they’ve won the World Cup), no one in Asia is interested to do a feature on them. Not even Adidas outside Japan. I wished the shock against Brazil would wake everyone up. Yeah, maybe to some degree in USA, Britain, and of course Brazil, but certainly not in Asia.

When they were up in the final, I wasn’t sure with the desired result. JFA didn’t really support them in the first place and American supports were too strong. Of course media even here were more interested to publish pictures of Hope Solo and Alex Morgan rather than Yuki Ogimi and the Best Female Footballer on Earth.

But reading the reflections upon the heartbreaking match, yeah, it was worth it. That was indeed the first time Solo had to work hard in the tournament, even when counting the semis against Canada. Of course she knew she could lose – it had happened before. Japanese crowded big screens before dawn the way Australians did in World Cup 2006. Nadeshiko Japan could go home, knowing they are still one of the best teams in the world, and they are better than the men team. They’ve got the silver medals to prove.

Five things we learnt from AFC Olympics qualifications

Football at the Olympics

1. Japan have plenty of talents

What do you know. There was a chance that Japan would bottle the group and have to qualify to London through intercontinental playoff. Instead they top the group with the best goal aggregate and the best point. Past that fumble against Syria, Japan are simply the best U-23 team in Asia. Well, they are officially, after the gold medal at the Asian Games.

The biggest headache for Japan now is to choose their forwards. There are so many choices – All-European Otsu, Ibusuki, and Usami? Or tried and true J. Leaguers Nagai and Yamazaki? (Sorry, I still have some reserve on Yuya Osako). They certainly don’t want to be like Senegal which came with six forwards for the African Cup of Nations and lost all matches.

Certainly everybody has learned to stop calling a team “the Golden Generation”. Certainly pessimistic Japanese fans can recite these names: Shoji Jo, Yanagisawa, Robert Cullen, and sigh, Sota Hirayama. But the Japanese are happy to know that they are not Australians. Or Italians.

2. South Korea and Japan can alternately being unstable

Should I start call them Tweedledee and Tweedledum? Certainly they fight alot in many issues, they have host World Cup together and many Koreans grind themselves in the J. League. And like magnets, they often move to opposite direction (disclaimer: I suck at sciences). Korea played Qatar in Seoul National Stadium. Japan played Bahrain in Tokyo National Stadium. Qatar and Bahrain, are of course, the dee and dum of the Gulf. Certainly when you play in Seoul National Stadium you give your all and you don’t play half-ass, even if your club needs you for weekend K-League. Even when your rival for that position is arrested (sorry, can’t resist). And yet, Korea let 20 thousand supporters down. They come to see a goal. On the other hand, it was the turn for the Japanese to make the 30 thousands Tokyo residents proud. The lesson: Never, never assume that South Korea are more solid than Japan.

3. What shall we do with Australia?

Jesus. Four draws out of six games, which includes, of course, all home games. And here’s the now famous punch line. No goal. Even Malaysia could score three, all of them at Bahrain. The agony of the Olyroos would be too cruel and only could come from the fantasy of a Socceroos hater (there are many of them in Asia). I wonder if Australia couldn’t score a goal because they faced West Asian (including Uzbekistan) teams. No myth about physical advantage. Hostile and unfamiliar away matches, not to mention tiring. But how they could go down 0-2 at Tashkent is beyond my Acomprehension.

Australian media, luckily for the Olyroos, are both too optimistic and aloof about youth football to scream in panic. The women team also failed to qualify, ranked below Japan and North Korea at the final group stage. Now, the Australia U-23 team for the match against Iraq was drawn totally from A-League teams. Certainly, as a non-fan, I think Australian fans need to be somewhat panic with the state of their leagues and young talents. No one can deny that the Socceroos are still formidable, but I’m somewhat puzzled that young Aussies don’t play in Europe while young Japanese and Koreans are. Heck, if Europe’s too far, then play in Japan or Korea or China.

4. There’s still hope for UAE football

You cannot blame Star Sports to skip on Japan’s match yesterday. Of course the priority was for Malaysia, which match ran at the same time with Japan’s and Korea’s. The Uzbekistan v UAE match ran immediately after that, and it was really and dead or alive match. UAE’s senior team have taken severe batterings lately, and the junior team looked to be disappointed as well as Uzbekistan played before, er, 7500, are having a rising senior team, and led 1-0 at halftime. Made that 2-0 two minutes later. Theeen….Ahmad Khalil scored two goals in the space of two minutes. UAE held on for a draw…no, for a win, their fourth win in the group. The emirates achieved what their Gulf rivals failed to do, heck, even what Saudi failed to do, and condemned Uzbekistan to the torture of Play-off round. UAE have a decent league and AFC rules might check their clubs’ dependencies on Brazilian and aging European imports. Although, don’t expect the crowds to come. They are too beautiful to watch open air local football.

5. Malaysia are not Southeast Asia’s finest, but they have the flair.

Malaysia finished their group with total defeats and sixteen goals. But they often punched above their weights. Their national team were not supposed to win the AFF Cup. The Young Tigers were not supposed to win gold medal at the Southeast Asian Games. They were not supposed to aim for London. But they defeated Lebanon and braved long trips to Bahrain and Jordan and the prospect of being bullied by Japan (which happened well, in Kuala Lumpur). But they were not afraid.

Because apparently other Southeast Asian teams couldn’t bother with qualifying. Thailand carelessly fielded ineligible player for a narrow 1-0 win over Palestine. Singapore lost twice to Yemen when they should have won. Indonesia threw away games against Turkmenistan. Well, it was Vietnam’s bad luck to be pitted against Saudi Arabia. In short, lack of motivation and skills from the players, and more importantly, self-defeatism from their NOCs and football federations, disguised as realism. “We wouldn’t get a gold medal so why bother.” Ugh.

Malaysian national pride and willingness to improve and to compete, fortunately, trumped the apathy. They represented Southeast Asia, they lost badly, but they had tried with all their hearts.