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.