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).