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.

 

 

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Your Biggest Enemy is…

You have to love to score.

You have to love to score.

After seeing Shinji Kagawa wasted too many chances (many he created perfectly) in the Champions League match against Real Sociedad, I tweeted that he experienced the classic Japanese problem of passing, not shooting. A Dutchman didn’t take this well and reminded me of Shunsuke Nakamura and Keisuke Honda.

Of course, the Kings of Asia don’t become the best of Asia (now still are, with Australia in decline, but well Australia won their last friendly, unlike Japan) by passing and winning penalty shootouts. By the time Kagawa scored almost 20 goals for Dortmund (2011-12) and Honda scored 9 goals for CSKA  (2012-13), I thought we had been through that.

Honda’s shortcomings are evident when playing with Japan this year, as he becomes the designated central attacking midfielder behind the striker (pushing Kagawa to the left flank). Still, in this position he has scored six times for Japan this year, but he should have scored more – against Australia, Mexico, Uruguay, and of course in the last dreadful friendlies against Serbia and Belarus. Even it seems that he has past his prime in CSKA, although that also has to do with his decision to move next year (he made the assist in the infamous CSKA 1 Manchester City 2 match).

As for Nakamura, I forgot that he was also a terrible shooter for Japan – the right midfielder, and one of best free kick takers in the world in the last decade, had not scored more than 3 goals in every major competitions since 2003 (meaning he scored 3 goals in 2003 FIFA Confederations Cup, and scored 1-2 goals in every Confed Cup, Asian Cup, and World Cup since then).

Lionel Messi, Oscar, and Neymar prove that body mass is not a big factor in being a deadly attacker. Even Japan have got its dream mecha in the form of Mike Havenaar, but he regularly becomes a substitute that comes in the last three minutes for Japan. Last semester he had to wait for Maeda, this semester for Kakitani.

I got the clue on what’s going on when reading on Li Na’s preparation for the WTA Championship final against Serena Williams. Li’s coach Carlos Rodriguez said that she needs to have more confidence, and Li said that’s been her career-long problem, lack of self-confidence.

There you have it. She can be the first Asian Grand Slam champion of our time and constantly participates in the WTA Tour Championship, but permanently takes herself as the underdog. She’s not alone, and most Asian athletes experience the same problem. The global media, of course, take the Asian athletes as the underdogs. The Asian athletes take themselves as the underdogs not only because of lack of self-confidence, but because they were raised and trained differently to their African and Latin counterparts. The group think, the suppression of individuality, and the overemphasis on team identity.

The Korean national team presents an interesting case – not long after Ki Sung-yueng was booed by fans and suspended for complaining against coach Choi Kang-hee (some fans demanded worse punishment), the coach himself and new star Son Heung-min talked trash to Iran, and humiliated themselves during the match. The trash talking itself was pretty out of character – but well, it was a case of sanctioned group think, as opposed to Ki’s personal statement.

So I think the reason that Kagawa was reluctant to shoot was because he was so aware of his role as a left midfielder. He wanted to provide assists to Rooney, and even seemed to have some last thoughts that affected his power and decisiveness. When he scores, he wants it to be as a result of team effort and according to his role – that’s why he was comfortable to become a second line attacker in Dortmund. This is a man who scored a beautiful volley against Italy in the Confed Cup, and at that time he had the conviction that the team work phase had been completed.

And the myriad of Japanese strikers who failed to make it big? Maybe their skills were not that good compared to the midfielders (same goes to the Australians, while Korea are supposed to have better forwards…but yeah, they have bad mentalities). Maybe they have become victims of the public and JFA’s pressures to find the suitable striker and cannot hold on their position for more than six months. Certainly Japan need to ditch the lone forward formation and put in two. Just make sure that they do not end up passing the ball to each other*.

 

*good thing Okazaki and Havenaar scored for their teams last weekend, with Okazaki scored his first brace in Germany.

East Asians in Europe Prospect for 2013-14

New season in Europe and bigger competition for Asian players to win the starting 11 position (or at least being the steady sub). At the stake is the call up to represent their national sides in Brazil 14.

Australia certainly have less footballers playing regularly in England and Italy compared to ten years ago (and on the surface, more of them play in the Middle East and Asia), but that don’t necessarily mean they are out of Aussies playing in Europe.

Mark Schwarzer is certainly still be Australia’s number one in Brazil, and he is willing to sit for Petr Cech if that means he can train with Chelsea (more importantly, Chelsea was willing to grab him. Seems they really don’t have any sub goalkeeper left besides Hilario.

The big daddy

The big daddy

Similarly, Mitchell Langerak is the understudy of Roman Weidenfeller, who will certainly become one of Germany’s prime choices. He is yet to play for guard the posts for Australia. Matthew Ryan, formerly a Mariner, is the first pick for Club Brugge in Belgium and is competing tightly with Japan’s Eiji Kawashima (more on Japan section). No such luck for Adam Federici, now the sub goalkeeper at Championship’s Reading. Similarly Brad Jones wishes that he’d have more air time with Liverpool, seeing that Belgian Simon Mignolet (with big ambition himself) has settled well in his debut at Anfield.

Top three: Schwarzer, Ryan, and Langerak or Jones. Their toughest competition would be Eugene Galekovic.

Luke Wilkshire is playing his sixth season in Dynamo Moscow but the competition is tough with younger locals. Michael Zullo is struggling to get into the Utrecht bench, while Rhys Williams is having less competition in Middlesbrough – ditto for Jason Davidson.

Top four: Well, that’s all we have. David Carney is in New York, Lucas Neill is in Omiya, Japan, and Jade North is in Brisbane.

Tommy Oar has secured his winger position in Utrecht and how many rivals you think James Holland can get in Austria Wien? Mile Jedinak look strong in Crystal Palace. Tom Rogic is still hoping for his Celtic moment, Nikita Rukavytsya must fight for his position at Mainz, and Terry Antonis is developing in Parma. Carl Valeri hopes he can do something with newly promoted Sassuolo, Ben Halloran must try harder in Fortuna Dusseldorf, and finally Adam Sarota is still recovering from injury in that Little Asia club called Utrecht.

Top four: Oar, Jedinak, umm..well, not very promising is this? Cahill is in America while Bresciano is in Qatar. Holman is in UAE while Nichols is playing for Melbourne. Victory.

Robbie Kruse is of course Australia’s great hope, that if he can prevail over the Sam-Kiessling-Son trio. Mathew Leckie is steady with FSV Frankfurt, while Eli Babalj is waiting for his star to fall at AZ.

Top two: Kruse…and Leckie. A-League’s best are Thompson and Duke, while Kennedy is still in Nagoya and Brosque is still in UAE.

_________________________________________________________________________

Samurai Blue is still in terrible form with only two players standing out: Kagawa and Honda. And Okazaki now and then. Still, it doesn’t hurt if they keep their German conversation club going.

Eiji Kawashima bounces back from his humiliation with Japan in the Confederations Club and friendly against Uruguay with four clean sheets with Standard Liege, now number one in Belgium. Looking forward for Liege vs Brugge.

Top three: Nothing much here – Kawashima, Nishikawa from Hiroshima and Gonda from Tokyo. With Hayashi from Sendai trailing, but he’s pretty old.

Atsuto Uchida is one of the most high profile right back in Bundesliga and is now linked with Arsenal. It’s all up to him (remember that I wrote that Wenger disrespects his Asian players). Yuto Nagatomo hopes for a better year with Internazionale with him performing. Gotoku Sakai is the prime right back for Stuttgart. Maya Yoshida, however, faces a tougher second year with Southampton. Hiroki Sakai enjoyed a promotion to the first team with Hannover.

Stay. In. Gelschenkirchsence...Germany.

Stay. In. Gelschenkirchsence…Germany.

Top four: With all these boys, we wonder how the hell Japanese defense was terrible.

Makoto Hasebe is sitting pretty for Wolfsburg’s bench, Hajime Hosogai holds Berlin’s midfield, Takashi Inui is playing for Frankfurt, Yuki Otsu is staying with VVV in Eerste Divisie…and welll….Ryo Miyaichi and Arsenal. Ah-ha.

Top four: Hosogai, Inui, it depends if you think how VVV fares against Nagoya or Kashiwa. Otherwise, there are Aoyama and Takahagi from Hiroshima and Yamaguchi and Ogihara from Cerezo.

These are the best bits: Depends on the month, Kagawa and Honda can be forwards or midfielders. The surprise is that Keisuke Honda stays in CSKA, but he knows damn well he’s the best in Russia. Shinji Kagawa, on the other hand, didn’t show his super-ness in Manchester United’s Japan tour and had better times with the national team (thank God). Remains to be seen if he’ll get a place in Moyes’ scheme. With Bony in England, now Mike Havenaar is Vitesse’s point man. Time for him to work on his magic. Hiroshi Kiyotake has scored for Nurnberg while Shinji Okazaki faces the similar gauntlet to Havenaar – being the main striker – for Mainz.

Top two: Honda and Kagawa, with sadly somebody gotta give for Brazil. Not to count that there at least one player from J. League. I’m among the Sato faction, but he can turned out be Kakitani.

_________________________________________________________________________

Finally, Korea. Which are in deep shambles. If Guardian Football recruits fans again for Brazil 14, I’ll go for Korea again seeing there are plenty British covering Japan. And Australians covering Australia. Heck, sometimes I do the explanation for Koreans in Indonesian media as this big expat group is too silent to explain themselves.

There’s no Korean keeper in Europe.

Park Joo-ho plays with Okazaki in Mainz. If Nikita can return to form, then Mainz have the complete Asian outfit. Yun Suk-young isn’t a part of Queens Park Rangers’ new Empire image (they defeated Ipswich Town with 9 English, 1 Irish, and 1 Canadian last week. Not that any Southeast Asian cared).

Top four: Euh, can I talk about how Korea recruited all Japan-based defenders instead for the friendly against Peru? At least they were tight.

Koo Ja-cheol looks good in a Wolfsburg shirt (just ask Makoto), the Welsh Kim Bo-kyung and Ki Sung-yueng look OK despite their defeats, and Lee Chung-yong stays loyal with Bolton.

Top four: Nobody nobody but them.

Son Heung-min looks alive in Hamburg, unlike Ji Dong-won and Park Chu-young.

Top two: Son and well, shall we give Park another chance?

Yes please.

Yes please.

 

 

 

Where the Players are Coming from

May he prosper in Singapore

May he prosper in Singapore

Around two years ago I had discussed naturalization, and this year’s AFF (ASEAN Football Federation) Cup features three teams with plenty of naturalized players – Singapore, Philippines, and Indonesia.

The Singaporeans are leftovers from a decade long project, but they are in the final. Shi Jiayi and Qiu Li, born in China, are 29 and 31 years old respectively. So does Sarajevo native Fahrudin Mustafic, and Daniel Bennett (34) came from England. One of the deadliest strikers in Southeast Asia, Aleksandar Duric, is 42. I wouldn’t be surprised if a fan put on their heads over the bodies of The Expendables.

Philippines and Indonesia invested in young bloods from Europe with different results. Philippines remain the dark horses of Southeast Asian football and no SE Asian team now can be confident they can secure win against the Street Dogs (yep, the nickname itself is quiet un-Asian). Indonesia received little support with the FA civil war lingers on and fans greeted the 0-2 defeat to Malaysia with little emotion. The prevailing mood was “I’ve told you so.”

Actually, naturalization is hardly the business of Asian nations too lazy to develop homegrown players. Both England and Australia are recruiting migrants from Africa, like Wilfried Zaha and Emmanuel Frimpong (England) or Kofi Danning and Bernie Ibini-isei (Australia). In the case of England (less likely with Australia), the FA is aware that some players can still opt to play for their countries of birth.

When the naturalization debate began in Indonesia five years ago, many commentators erroneously cited the example of France – they said that Zinedine Zidane and Marcel Desailly were also naturalized. I wouldn’t be surprised if several Indonesians believe that Mario Balotelli is naturalized (heck, even some Italians refuse to accept that he is Italian). My definition for a player who is naturalized is someone who had spent a good deal of his life in a country and played football there (i.e. joining a football club) before moving somewhere else. This definition sticks for most players in Asia (e.g. Singapore, Qatar, and Indonesia).

That is because you hardly have people from elsewhere migrating to Asia and raising kids there. Japan makes an exception. Until last year I thought that Mike Havenaar was a son of a Dutch and Japanese, rather than a Dutch who was born in Japan. In early 1990s Japan did naturalize adult Brazilians such as Ruy Ramos and Wagner Lopes, but in the last ten years Japan features one of the most multicultural national teams in Asia, and they are made in Japan – Havenaar, Tadanari Lee, Ariajusuru Hasegawa, and Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Alex Santos in the past (well, Santos finished his school in Japan). I’m still waiting for an Asian Socceroo. Their closest counterparts in Asia might be English Hong Kongers like Michael Campion and Jaimes McKee (a midnight child – his family came to Hong Kong in 1997).

Filipinos can be defensive about their footballers, worried that outsiders accusing them of playing cheap. Of course, it’s fair for them to recruit half-Filipinos, rather than arranging a Brazilian or Nigerian to switch citizenship (did Emerson wave the flag of Qatar yesterday?). Actually, that what Singapore did, and it was bit lazy – rather than owing to the virtue of immigration. I’d be happier (and no doubt many Singaporeans would be) if they look for Western footballers with a Singaporean parent (isn’t that wonderful that many half-Filipino kids in Europe and USA are boys who choose footballing as a career?) or develop migrant kids in Singapore to become footballers, the way Japan does. While there could be, could be, not enough white French footballers in France, definitely there is not enough Chinese and non-Muslim Indian footballers in Singapore.

What’s the outlook of the future of Singapore’s football? Well, the naturalization program is still living, seeing that Jonathan Toto and Sirina Camara (France) and Sherif El-Masri (Canada) are in the Young Lions. There are certainly more Chinese names, like Emeric Ong, Gary Lee, and even Benjamin Lee, whose mother is Danish. Certainly it’s quite fair to say that in Singapore, footballing (playing professionally, that is) is a Muslim affair. But seems Chinese Singaporeans are able to live with it like white French supporters do with Les Blues.

When Saturday Comes

Where do you go? I wanna know.

So excited I was with the Olympics that I forgot that J. League and K-League were going on. In fact, K-League was done. Regular season wise. So now, on to the playoff round where Seongnam will beat everyone before losing in the final, and with Daegu and Gangwon having a break?

Not quite. This year the afterlife of K-League season introduces several changes – first like in Russia, there’s Championship Round and Relegation Round. Yes, finally there’s something called Relegation. There’s no such thing in USA but now it’s there in Korea. The name of the hell is Korea National League, coming soon in 2013. The name of heaven is ACL Champions League. Not a name to be associated with heaven, but let’s hope Korean clubs will win it again and again.

And Seongnam will not contest an ACL spot. With Seoul and Qatari clubs poaching their Colombians, Aussies, and Brazilians, they sit at number 10 below Daegu. No, not via FA Cup either – they lost to Ulsan at the 1/8 final. So if now you’re an aspiring Korean footballer and you want to become big, you have better options than Ilhwa Chunma. Good for Korea.

While the eight clubs (two more clubs than previous editions) will contest three Asian spots (four of them – Pohang, Gyeongnam, Jeju, and Ulsan have the KFA Cup backup) have time to rest until mid-September, national coaches around Asia are already preparing for the Brazil 14 Qualifiers, also held in mid-September. Next Thursday Japan will face UAE and Australia take an away trip to Lebanon. Korea will skip the friendlies, but already making headlines in the in brief section for recruiting Park Jong-Woo, probably now the most hated South Korean in Japan, into the roster for the match against Uzbekistan.

On the other hand, Al Zaccheroni have also made up his mind. He will not include Ryo Miyaichi and Hisato Sato. The former is “not having match fitness” while the latter, now the top scorer of J. League, would mean a change to the lineup, and Al Z is not interested with any change. Surely he can at least trade his place with say, Ryoichi Maeda or at least Genki?

At least, when Saturday comes, the world will see Shinji Kagawa playing again (Sunday actually). For his third match, and last weekend all Japanese was in relief – he didn’t embarrass. In fact now he’s seen as one of the best assets for Manchester United, besides van Persie. He’s not, groan, a ‘shirt seller for Far East market’ anymore. He’s the incarnation of Tsubasa Oroza, the number 10. Since Wayne Rooney has to play for number 10 and 9 roles for both Manchester United and England.

And so, now it’s back to leagues watch for me – tracking down European clubs where Japanese and Korean players are. There are dozens of them now, ten years after the post-Korea/Japan boom launched Takahara, Shunsuke, Seol, and Ji-sung to Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Netherlands. And in the past weeks, I did lose track. Week 1 was pretty sad, seeing Kagawa failed to pass Everton’s defense and looking for Ki Sung-yeung in Celtic’s lineup.

Now here’s a summary of how Japanese and Korean players in Europe are doing:

  • Eiji Kawashima (Standard Liege) – the move upward after Lierse. He has conceded six goals, as much as Club Brugge’s Vladan Kujovic, but worse than Belgium’s national keeper Silvio Proto (just one goal gap), and Gent’s Sergio Padt. Fortunately, his team mates are apt in scoring goals.
  • Yuto Nagatomo (Inter) – He didn’t come to Indonesia few months ago, unfortunately, because he had to mark Tim Cahill and Mark Bresciano. After a gloomy season, Inter are off to a good start against Pescara, where he played 90 minutes at the left back. Since the retirement of Lee Young-pyo, Korea are yet to produce his opposite.
  • Park Jo-hoo (Basel) – finally he’s a Red Devil once more. Integral to the defense of Basel, unfortunately last year’s surprise pack of the UCL fell down to CF Cluj, so no more sightings of him on Wednesday nights.
  • Maya Yoshida (VVV Venlo) – the very manly Maya, probably a successor to Marcus Tulio in terms of being an enforcer and a corner kick bulldog, is yet to move a better club. Even in VVV he’s competing with Ismo Vostermann for right center back. At least he has better chance of being a starter than Robert Cullen. UPDATE: Now Yoshida’s with Southampton. He might face Kagawa on Sunday.
  • Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart) – yet to play for his new club.
  • Hiroki Sakai (Hannover) – ditto.
  • Makoto Hasebe (Wolfsburg) – A real tough competition in Wolfsburg, since the slots for defending midfielders are taken by Robin Knoche and international player Marcel Schafer. Iranian winger Ashkan Degajah has better chance to be in the Starting 11. Even in the subs list, Hasebe’s current rank is below Czech’s Jan Polak. Even by Christmas he could be in the transfer market.
  • Hajime Hosogai (Leverkusen) – at least this pretty German-looking guy is on the bench, covering for Simon Rolfes or Lars Bender. The bad news is on the bench there’s also Junior Fernandez from Chile.
  • Keisuke Honda (CSKA) – Back to the tough neighborhood that is the Russian League and he’s comfortable at the left midfield, already scoring two goals from six appearances.
  • Kim Bo-kyung (Cardiff) – Damn, and I had had made of fun of Cardiff :p. Has yet to play for the Red Bluebirds Dragons.
  • Koo Ja-cheol (Augsburg) – another year to survive the Bundesliga. The left wing is his. Last week he duelled against Robbie Kruse from Dusseldorf and both of them were substituted.
  • Ki Sung-yeung (Swansea) – there you are, I was looking for you in Celtic. Is expected to replace Jonathan de Guzman, and has to match Michu’s standard.
  • Lee Chung-yong (Bolton) – Welcome back Chungy. Rumors of transfer to the Premier League is counterbalanced for feeling of grateful for a club that nurtured him (and also Stuart Holden) during the long injury and comfortable starting place.
  • Shinji Okazaki (Stuttgart) – Last year he could hold the competitors – Martin Harnik and Vedad Ibisevic. This season he expects to sit on the bench much longer, next to Cacau.
  • Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United) – top of the world.
  • Mike Havenaar (Vitesse) – If Bony doesn’t deliver, then he’s off for the job, but he’s yet to save the day.
  • Park Chu-young (Celta Vigo) – That’s it, I don’t have to tune in for Arsenal anymore. Tipped to be the successor of van Persie, competing with Gervinho & Theo Walcott, Chu-young moves instead to somewhere nearer Monaco. No what? He’s Arsenal reserve no 30? Possible moves to Fulham or Norwich? But Berbatov also cancels Fiorentina for Fulham? So what’s his club now? Which one I should see? Ah well, at this rate he might play for Sangju Sangmu Phoenix.

And please keep these names in your pray:

Besides the regular intention for Takayuki Morimoto, also pray for Ryo Miyaichi, Atsuto Uchida, Michihiro Yasuda, Cha Du-ri, Tadanari Lee (esp. now he’s lost his love to pretty old man Gackt), Takashi Inui, Ji Dong-won, and Son Heung-min. Jesus loves you, said the Korean players.

Get Ready

Please qualify. Please.

Asian football federations have announced their squads for upcoming World Cup qualification, and the preceding friendly match. Well, most of them. As Australia has no friendly schedule, they are yet to announce the 23 men sent in to face Saudi Arabia. Australia can get easy, but they don’t want to disappoint the good people of Melbourne and Thailand. And Oman.

Thailand. If they win against Oman in Muscat (not easy. But in Bangkok they really psyched out Oman which scored an own goal to complete a 3-0 win for the home team), and Saudi Arabia lose to Australia, then they will become the only Southeast Asian team to enter the final round. The last Southeast Asian team to do so were Indonesia in 1985, which lost to South Korea in the semi finals of Zone B, which determined the qualifier from East Asia. After defeated Indonesia, South Korea defeated Japan and went to Mexico.

So that  was 27 years ago (I just remembered that although Thailand lost intercontinental playoff round against England in 2001, that was in my version of FIFA 2002 rather than actual history). As a Southeast Asian, I really hope that Thailand can make a miracle and join the last ten teams, since Singapore and Indonesia are eliminated already. Thailand will face Maldives in friendly match on Friday (not sure on the venue). They should prevail. Here’s my Thailand XI:

G: Hathairattanakool (Chonburi) D: Phanrit (Muangthong), Samana (Chonburi), Siriwong (Pattaya), Sukha (Chonburi). M: Thonglao (Muangthong),  Choeichiu (Muangthong), Nutnum (Buriram), Kaewprom (Buriram). F: Winothai (BEC), Dangda (Muangthong).

No dashing name, and none of them plays overseas (Hathairattanakool played in my hometown Bandung, and Sukha played in second hometown Melbourne. Nice, eh?). Winothai and Dangda must give all they have to outwit al-Habsi.

Japan will employ 100% local stars to face Iceland in Osaka. Their European players are scoring, although not always winning. Havenaar scored again as a sub, although that was Vitesse’s goal when they went down 1-4 to Twente. Okazaki’s goal also was not enough to save Stuttgart from 2-4 loss to Hannover. He’s only one goal short from matching Kagawa’s tally, mind. On the other hand, Yoshida hit one when VVV put down de Graafschap (unfortunately, Bob Cullen failed to grab this easy opportunity). Miyaichi could become a new hero for Bolton as he led them to FA Cup’s Quarter Finals. And yeah, Kagawa is injured for two weeks :p. So he might be not playing against Uzbekistan. Nor is Honda, as CSKA still can’t include him for Champions League showdown against Madrid.

Anyway, here’s my Japan XI against Iceland.

G: Nishikawa (Hiroshima). D: Komano (Iwata), Konno (Gamba), Inoha (Kobe), Iwamasa (Kashima). M: Endo (Gamba), Kengo (Kawasaki), Abe (Urawa). F: Okubo (Kobe), Maeda (Iwata), Fujimoto (Nagoya).

Sorry, no Cerezo recruit :(.

Korea (there’s only one) is supposedly on good mood. Quite. Ajax reject Suk Hyun-Jun did good service for his old club by scoring two past PSV’s defense. Two! At the week when Hiddink decides that he’s tough enough to live in Dagestan Moscow!  Ki Sung-Yueng scored as Celtic demolished fellow Catholics Hibernian of Edinburgh. Martin O’ Neill was too nervous that he forgot to send in Ji as Sunderland handed Arsenal another humiliation. Park Chu-Young, as usual, was spared from the humiliation as he wasn’t on the list.

They should be pumped up enough to face Uzbekistan at noon in Jeonju, yes? They should be. Show Uzbekistan what kind of storm they will experience against Japan. And show Kuwait that they deserve to top the group, even if now they have the same amount of point with Lebanon. Sheesh.

My Korea XI against Uzbekistan & Kuwait:

G: Sung-Ryong (Suwon). D: Bom-Seok (Suwon), Jung-Soo (Al-Sadd), Tae-Hwi (Ulsan), Hyo-Jin (Phoenix). M: Sang-Sik (Jeonbuk), Sung-Yueng (Celtic), Do-Heon (Police), Keun-Ho (Ulsan). F: Chu-Young (Arsenal), Dong-Gook (Jeonbuk).

I’m yet to find the Singapore‘s roster for Friday night friendly with Azerbaijan in Dubai. They will hang around the Gulf before next week’s match against Iraq in Qatar. They are as hopeless as Next World Leader China, which will host Jordan in Guangzhou. Maybe because the Chinese think that it’s pointless too, so that I’m also yet to find the roster for friendly match against Kuwait in Hangzhou for….Wednesday.

Finally, Indonesia, in the spirit of purging players who are not in the Premier League employing the glorious U-23 team, will face Bahrain with completely newbies who are never playing for the national team! And expecting to draw a point! Qatar certainly not happy as they have to play Iran in Teheran, while Bahrain will demonstrate A-level football to the Indonesian boys at home in Riffa.

Here’s my Indonesia XI, which is the hardest one to make.

G: Samsidar (Semen Padang. Yes, I put in the Indonesian word for ‘cement’ for your amusement). D: Wijiastanto (Bantul), Michiels (Jakarta), Dwi Cahyo (Arema), Rahman (Semen. Alright, Padang). M: Taufiq (Surabaya 1927), Irawan (Surabaya 1927), Nurcahyo (Bantul). F:  Bahcdim (Malang), Sinaga (Padang), Arif (Bojonegoro).

God be with you, young men. God be with you.

And they scored!

The sad thing was Manchester United lost. Because they were lost, nobody really remembered Park Ji-Sung equalizer. In the same night, my wish from the previous post came true – Shinji Kagawa scored two goals against Hoffenheim, and Mike Havenaar scored for Vitesse before PSV put an end to their hope of a comeback. Hajime Hosogai also helped Ausburg scoring equalizer against Kaiserslautern. The only dent was Koo and Hasebe’s inability to fight Bayern Munich.

Kagawa and Havenaar’s performance both grabbed modest attention in Japanese media on Sunday, as well as assorted sports site. Unfortunately, they play in Germany instead of England. In the rest of Southeast Asia there are raging debates every day on EPL clubs, while in Indonesia people abuse each other over Madrid v Barcelona, but no one watches Bundesliga, let alone Eredivisie.

On Sunday, however, the fortunes of the Koreans and the Japanese turned over. Nagatomo played full time in Inter’s suprise defeat to Lecce, Okazaki came in at the start of the second half but Stuttgart were badly damaged in the last ten minutes, Uchida played only for the first half and got a yellow card to boot (and Schalke was able to turn the table once he was gone), and Yoshida was helpless as RKC  mistreated VVV. Ji and Chu-Young spent the whole match again on the bench. Still, credit to Kawashima for clean sheet in away victory against Westerlo.

What’s the lesson? First, at least watching Japanese and Korean attackers are much less depressing than five years ago, when you got Takahara and Ahn and Seol and Lee Dong-Gook attempting to make a break in England and Germany. No, please don’t remind me on the last day of the Japanese in Serie A (I’m not talking about Yuto. I’m talking about Ogasawara, Yanagisawa, Oguro. And Morimoto). But as expected, their defensive sides, while have secured their names in starting XI, are still shaky. Even my favorite Lee Jung-Soo lapsed in the second half and almost letting go a three goals advantage as Al Sadd registered narrow 3-2 against Al Ahli in Qatar.

 

I think that’s all about Japan and Korea. Anyway, yesterday I found two names – first is Hiroshi Ibusuki, the current top scorer of Spain’s Segunda B Group 4. He plays for Sevilla B. A former youth player for Kashiwa, he has lived in Spain for three years and scored 35 goals. How about that, scoring 35 goals in Spain before you are 21 year old. In Japan U-23, however, he is still ranked behind Yamazaki, Nagai, Osako and Usami, just to name a few.

The second name is Xavier Chen, playing for Mechelen. I was wondering how could a Taiwanese playing in the Belgian Premier League, seeing that no Taiwanese plays even in Hong Kong First Division or J.League Division 2. Turned out he’s half-Belgian, the Taiwanese football federation claimed to know him when playing FIFA 12 (talking about scouting), and said that they had to race China which was also approaching Chen. I don’t think China is one of federations which are keen to naturalize foreign-born players, but let’s just leave the story like that.

On the other hand, Indonesians are in love with Radja Nainggolan, half-Indonesian Belgian midfielder playing for Cagliari, who was linked with Juventus, which is still a popular club in Indonesia. I’m glad that he has played twice for Belgium so Indonesian football federation cannot approach him for *sigh* naturalization. FYI, in FIFA 12 Chen is rated 67 while Nainggolan’s rating is 76, making him one of the top Asian players in the game, ethnically.

Comparing Asian and African progresses: Now and next

Waiting for moments like this.

The African Cup of Nations is rolling in in Gabon and Equator Guinea. Last week British journalist Jonathan Wilson argued that the absence of Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, and Cameroon in the tournament does not mean that the continental balance of power is reached. Rather, it signals that things have gone wrong with African football. With respects to Niger and Guinea, Egyptian, South African and Cameroon federations, managements, and players had made life more difficult for them than it supposed to be.

Put it this way – an Asian Cup without Australia, China, and Saudi Arabia. I should have put in Japan or South Korea in the example, but comparing continental ranking of September 2010, when the qualification phase started, I just noticed that Nigeria’s and Cameroon’s ranks did not match their reputation, partly caused by poor performance in the World Cup. South Africa, a successful host and an admired team, ranked 10th in Africa, the position occupied by Syria at that time in Asia. It’s true that the revolution unbalanced the Pharaohs, but even with civil war Libya went on with their campaign and qualified for the first time since 1982.

Wilson outlined three stereotypes beloved by Western (and indeed, global) media regarding African football. “Painted faces, drummers and horns, and muscular forward play”. Asian football have the first two, at least in the World Cup. Of course, in Australia 2015 I expect that Japanese, South Korean, and Australian supporters will crowd the stadiums with painted faces as well. Yes, there will be drums as well. There will be Vietnamese conical hat worn by Australians instead of Vietnamese (how come Vietnamese supporters never dress up as Vietcongs?). But muscular forward play? Hmm, that’s something else. Twenty years ago “Australian soccer” was an oxymoron. Ten years ago it was still a joke even in Japan, despite 2001 Confeds Cup.  Even now the lingering stereotype is that the Socceroos are rough and persistent big men (plus Tiny Tim), but their strengths lie in midfield and goalkeeping, not forward. There is still no replacement yet for Viduka and Kewell.

It is true that one glaring difference between Asian and African football is that European scouts don’t go deep to Asian villages and streets to pouch young Japanese or Korean talents. Now and then there’s stories about Manchester United or Milan signing up an Australian toddler, but the result is yet to be seen on the next decade. The only exception that I can think of are Son Heung-Min and Ryo Miyaichi. Wilson mentioned the “Pape Bouba Diop template”, the preference for big enforcer instead of speedy winger and creative attacking midfielder. Certainly big enforcers could come from Australia and probably Iran. East Asian players have still to struggle with the annoying stereotype that they are small, something that is never brought up when discussing Argentinians or Italians.

Quick test on the small stereotype. If the category of ‘small’ meaning shorter than 180 cm, then yeah, only a handful of European-based Japanese players fulfill this category. Among them are Maya Yoshida, Mike Havenaar, Tadanari Lee (6 feet and yet is still called ‘pint-sized’), Honda, and Takayuki Morimoto. Kawashima, standing at 185 cm, is said to be “short for goalkeeper standard”, although he is taller than both Iker Casillas and Victor Valdes.

What about South Koreans? There are plenty of 6 feet tall players trading in Europe, such as Ki Sung-Yeung, Koo Ja-Cheol, Park Chu-Young, Ji Dong-Won, Son Heung-Min, and Jung Jo-Gook. So in average, Japanese and Korean players stand around 175 cm, but they are anything but little. And expect the assumption to be uttered again by both media and fans in 2014.

Both football federations in Asia and Africa have plenty of troubles. The A-League constantly struggles with attendance, interest from sponsors and prime talents, consistency (I’m thinking of Adelaide United and Sydney FC), and of course the Champions League. I’m still wondering about JFA’s seriousness in handling the Champions League. KFA is waiting nervously for February to see if they can continue the road to Brazil, and there was the muted and swept-under-the carpet scandal of match fixing in the K-League, as well as the attendance problem. And those are the best.

Nobody in Singapore concerns loudly that naturalization doesn’t work, sponsors don’t come up, and the Chinese-Singaporean youth are not into footballing (similar statement can be said on white Frenchmen). The Chinese say that it’s easier for property price to go down (already happened) than for the national team to win any cup (excluding East Asian Football Championship). Bahrain gets away with torturing and imprisoning Shiite players. Indian football disrespects itself with the creation of the Silly League, despite the I-League. Indonesia has a rogue league which is more popular, and Thai national team and league are going in circles.

I have pointed out in previous post that Asia always, always defeats Africa in World Cup encounters, and Africa is also yet to defeat Asia in Confederations Cup. Same thing happens in Club World Cup – Asia is yet to reach the final round, but consistently wins the third place. Yet African teams are always favored even by Asian punters and pundits for a simple reason – they are Africans. They are black footballers. People all over the world are thrilled to see Ivory Coast because they have Drogba and Kalou. Ghana because they have Muntari and Essien. Cameroon because they have…uh, Eto’o. Nigeria because uh…they have…Nigerians. But except for East Asian fanboys such as me, nobody is thrilled to watch Shinji Okazaki or Ji Dong-Won. At least Australians love their Holman and Kennedy.

The expectation is both unfair and fair. It’s unfair because it relies on the generalization that Africans are fun and lively while Asians are clumsy and boring. It’s also fair because in Europe, Africans are consistently scoring goals while Asians don’t. There are dozens of African players in Europe playing as both substitutes and starters, as stars and flops. There are only about a dozen of Asian players in Europe, some of them are lucky to become regular starters (Honda, Nagatomo, Kagawa), or at least regular subs such as Park Ji-Sung and Ki. Many others are rarely played and are pressured when they are lucky enough to be selected, especially if they are forwards like Okazaki and Morimoto. Park Chu-Young was bit lucky that it was Arshavin instead of him who was chosen to replace Oxlade-Chamberlain, otherwise all the blame for Arsenal’s loss to Manchester United would have fallen on him.

I feel that in this transfer window, Japanese and Korean players are very prudent and conservative with offers. It’s unclear if Tadanari and Maeda will eventually play for the English Championship of if they will stick to J. League. Kagawa wants to stay in Dortmund, and we have to wait until June if Honda is moving away from CSKA. Maybe they are worried that they are not good enough for Europe. Kagawa still deliver assists, but he does not score as much as he likes. Havenaar finds that Eredivisie is not easy, a fact that Robert Cullen has to contend with week in week out. Usami is pessimistic on his future with Bayern, and so should Miyaichi feel in Arsenal. Many African players are also warming up the bench or taunted online for their mishaps, but Demba Ba (Newcastle), Papa Diawara (Maritimo), and Emmanuel Emenike (Spartak Moscow) know that they are good. The only Asian player in Europe who knows that he is winning is Iranian Reza Ghoochannejhad (St. Truiden).