J. League & K-League are over. What’s else to watch?

Dad's happy he bought that bargain Hitachi LCD over the more expensive Viera.

JAPAN

Okay, Kashiwa get the title they deserve. Kashiwa teach us that lemon yellow (well, it’s ain’t as cool as Brazil’s canary yellow) deserves some respect besides the boring blue and red. Even the boring orange. The good news is Urawa, still the most watched team in Japan, survive the year (apparently I did some horrific miscalculation last week) despite Nobuhiro Kato’s terrible terrible mishaps. I wouldn’t be surprised if yesterday morning he had to carry around the execs’ golf kits on his shoulders and back. Certainly this has been a bad year for both Tatsuya Tanaka and Genki Haraguchi.

Can Kashiwa outdo Auckland City? Yes they can, all despite Auckland’s Spanish quartet. What about Monterrey? That’s when the test comes from. That’s when we would see if Sakai, Dong-Hyuk, Kitajima, Junya, and even Young-Hak (*I* consider him to be a Japanese) are really better than Kennedy, Tamada, Keun-Ho, and Endo. If they can bet Monterrey, they can go a long way in 2012 ACL.

The Emperor’s Cup is still on the roll this month. Sadly it’s not covered by my satellite network that covers J.League (thanks!) so I can only follow the news online and from Singaporean wrap-up programs. Nagoya v Kashiwa is certainly the one to watch (bit harsh for Kashiwa just week after their campaign to represent Japan, eh?), there are still Corinthians around like Matsumoto Yamaga, and personally I want to see Masashi Oguro & Shunsuke Nakamura playing in the ACL for once.

KOREA

Jeonbuk’s Eninho & Luiz Henrique’s performances against Al-Sadd have certainly made the Club World Cup less exciting that it should be. Yes, I’m still blaming them. Especially after seeing how excellent was Eninho performing during the finals of the Championship against the lesser Hyundai. And remembering how bad did Luiz play during the ACL final rounds. Ulsan have been impressive and it’s worth a wait to see how Seol Ki-Hyeon, Lee Ho, Kang Min-Soo, and Kwak Tae-Hwi (which have been a true tiger during  the play-offs) fare next year.

 

The next things to watch without J. League and K-League (and even S-League. And even more CSL) are certainly the A-League, the two Indonesian leagues, and of course Asian players in Europe. The latter is an agony lately. Park Ji-Sung played full-time in Manchester United’s unexpected, unplanned loss to Crystal Palace (my friend never heard of it and she thought it sounds like a Chinese restaurant); Ji Dong-Won, Ko Ja-Cheol, and Son Heung-Min played from the start and were subbed out halfway, Makoto Hasebe was red-carded, Park Chu-Young and  Takashi Usami weren’t even on the bench throughout the week, and Shinji Kagawa didn’t score again. (My god, that litany took four lines to write).

Again, is it genetics? Physical skills? Mentality? Or is it easier to spot a non-performing Asian than a non-performing Argentine, Swede, or Nigerian? Or in the end they actually played well but it was me who got too obsessed with my quest for Asian Goalscoring Superstar Hero so I spend Mondays worrying that they wouldn’t start the game next weekend? Like what’s happening to Park Chu-Young?

5 Things We Learned from Road to Brazil 14’s Matchday Five

Yes, in the style of Guardian Football’s favorite dish. At this point three matches are still running in West Asia but I only look at East and Southeast Asian teams. The AFC qualifications to Brazil 14 take a three months break after tonight, with cliffhangers still abound.

1. South Korea can’t function without Park Chu-Young

So Park Chu-Young got his second yellow against UAE. Big deal. They got other emerging names trading in England and Germany, not to mention Japan and Western Asia. To replace his position there would be Son Heung-Min (Hamburg), Ji Dong-Won (Sunderland), and Lee Keun-Ho (Gamba Osaka). And those were just the forwards. And South Korea are in an easy group.

Not quite. With 2011 ending and Park Chu-Young is still the region’s top scorer, South Korea have to give all they’ve got next February. After starting the campaign with owning Lebanon 6-0 at home, the Cedars hit back with a 2-1 surprise. Even with a surging Lebanon and a South Korea that went easy with its starting lineup, the Reds should have done better. Their supposedly solid defense, consisting of Cha Duri and ACL winner Lee Jung-Soo broke down in the first five minutes, as if the Lebanese were Nigerians in Durban. The golden boys of Qatar, Yoon Bit-Garam and Koo Ja-Cheol struggled  badly as if they were playing for Gyeongnam and Wolfsburg instead of South Korea, and yeah, thanks Koo for that penalty kick.

If South Korean press and fans are worried, they should be. Ji had a full 45 minutes to save the day, Nam Tae-Hee is an investment made in France, and Lebanon was just a small taste on what an away fixture to Iran or Jordan could taste like.

2. Even a giveaway game for Japan  raises the alarm.

Japan was expected to throw away the Pyongyang fixture. Why risk sending in the A-team to the Bizzaro planet of Republic of Korea? Similar quality, same hatred to Japan, only with worse pitch, ruder opponents, and very hostile laws. The expectation, however, that Zaccheroni Japan could hold a draw. Perhaps a header from Konno in the dying minutes to payback Jong Tae-Se’s screamer. Perhaps a bland 0-0 where the Japanese endured boos and everything for one and half hour. Or perhaps, North Korea had been that bad that Mike Havenaar could score the winning goal through a deflected shot.

Actually Zaccheroni did well in composing his team. Okazaki paired with Maeda, just like in the Asian Cup. Solid A- midfield line with Hasebe, Hosogai, Kengo and Kiyotake. Giving experience point to Nishikawa. The defense is bit dubious but no need to make Yoshida and Uchida working hard.

And so they lost to the Stalinists. While Jong Tae-Se had left the field early. What worrying was both Lee and Havenaar needed more that 15 minutes to score a hypothetical goal. Uzbekistan could do the better job, but then again they were not detained for four hours upon arrival, had no their national anthem booed (and who knew if someone made a tsunami reference? Even Belgians did it to Kawashima), and had no  the spirit  living and ever-present embodiment of Kim Il-Sung fighting against them.

Japan’s alarm is called Uzbekistan. A small mistake next February could cost them the group’s leader position. And that could go a long way in the fourth round.

3. Australia can survive when they have to

The impatient press and fans were at it again, when the Socceroos were still locked down with fifteen minutes to go. A winless back to back matches would be unacceptable. Then Holman headed the ball in. Rather than the single goal, it was the three points that count. Australia go to the next round, again later than Japan but earlier than South Korea (and while Saudi Arabia are still struggling). The surprise loss to Oman had raised calls to replace Osieck with a more high-profile manager with stronger record, a Hiddink Mark II if you like (so what’s Turkey’s Hiddink is called?). But now Osieck is safe, at least until the next surprise defeat. Don’t hold your breath, it won’t be against Japan.

4. Naturalization in Southeast Asia doesn’t work

Singapore began the craze about four-five years ago, following Hong Kong’s habit in the 20th century. The squad that fought in the group stage of Road to South Africa were romantic tragic warriors, composed of Africans, Englishmen, Balkans, and Chinese that had become the new bullies in Southeast Asia. They fought hard and fought well even thought Uzbekistan hit them eight times, they could hit back three. Even though they won by walkout and lost twice because nobody in the highly-disciplined Singaporean bureaucrats checked if Qiu Li was eligible to play.

Fast forward to 2010. Indonesia naturalized senior Uruguayan forward Cristian Gonzalez and recruited an array of half-Dutch and half-German kids. Philippines went further, miraculously found dozens of half-American and half-European boys who have Filipino mothers and are playing soccball (what’s the odd of them to be male on young age, and playing football instead of acting or being nerds?).

November 11. Philippines are nowhere to be found (actually they went down to Kuwait. Better result than in 2008, when they weren’t bother to join at all). Singapore fielded in only two naturalized players, both are above 30 years old. Duric made good impression in the narrow loss in China, but that was all he had done in this campaign.

Indonesia stuck to Gonzalez, but it wasn’t him who scored (yes, I asked for him instead of Boaz. Huh). Indonesia fast-tracked citizenship for a pair of Nigerians but their whereabouts are unknown (either they are in Nigeria for family reasons or they were clubbing in Jakarta). Irfan Bachdim quickly fell out of grace with the FA and the fans and won’t play football for the rest of this year. Not that he was playing in Indonesia’s first matchdays.

So if you want a half-Westerner player, follow Japan’s example. Hope that a son of a foreign parent is good at football and wants to be a footballer. In Indonesia and Thailand that is unlikely since all the half-Western boys are recruited to be actors (well I have a half-English friend who played cricket in school…he’s an engineer). As for Singapore, see how its U-15 team will shape up four years later. If Philippines want its investment to yield, then it’s better for its half-Western players to aim to play in the A-League, the S-League, or lower leagues in Europe. Neil Etheridge can train with Fulham, but he really needs to play 90 minutes under the post.

5. East Asia is still composed of three countries.

That’s the depressing side of watching Asian Football and being a proud East Asian. If you want your Captain Tsubasa, your Asian Goalscoring Superstar Hero, then actually there are only two instead of three teams that wear the jersey: Japan and South Korea. Australia, as always, are the white and big and muscular and rough Asians that occasionally eat pad thai and hit on Asian girls, but they are not Chinese. The only Asian-Australian player (in the East/Southeast Asian sense) I know was Brendan Gan, and he’s not in the A-League anymore. I’m not sure if in the next ten years the Socceroos will have a player from East Asian heritage.

Essentially, the Fourth Round will be a West Asian affair. Most of the East Asian teams have been eliminated ever since the first round. Southeast Asia did pretty well, slipping in three out of ten. And Thailand, although are likely to lose to Saudi Arabia (it’s still 0-0 against Oman, anyway), have done well to bounce back after the Suzuki Cup 10 disaster. But while three West Asian teams, namely Jordan, Lebanon, and Uzbekistan are getting stronger, East Asia shows that it cannot and does not want to catch up. I still believe in Japan, South Korea, and Australia, but I worry that other teams like China, Singapore, and Indonesia are content to watch English Premier League clubs and hosting their Asian tours in summer. As for North Korea, well, you can’t reason with Bizzaros.

This is What Happened

The last time I posted was in St. Valentine’s Day. That’s clue #1. Between that night and tonight, there have been lot of things going on. The first was the tragedy that hit Japan. It froze Japanese football for a while, but overall it’s been a meaningful and fruitful year for Japanese football. J. League legends returned for charity match against the national team, where Shinji Okazaki met Kazu Miura.

Summer…my, what a summer. Japan won the FIFA Women’s World Cup. I stayed on ESPN SportCenter every night just to see glimpses of how did the Nadeshiko go. Nobody outside Japan really paid attention, but well, even in Europe women football is also seen with a chuckle.  So the men won the Asian Cup against a re-surging Australia, and the women won against heavy favorites such as Germany and United States (unfortunately Eurosport Asia didn’t broadcast the tournament and the only match I followed through Guardian Football was Japan v England :p.

Australia unfortunately didn’t get to replace Japan in Copa America. Well, they share longitudes and DVD region, Australia sees its football team as rival to Uruguay, and I really want to see how do Australia fare in South America (this calls for a FIFA 12 tournament).

Highlight for this year is the 2014 World Cup Qualifications. I was happy that three Southeast Asian teams made it to the group stage, including Singapore and Indonesia :). Yeah they will last at the bottom, where their current strengths are, compared to Middle Eastern sides (but wehey, here’s Thailand at second place! Being in a group with Saudi Arabia is a true blessing!). The next two games are coming soon.

The bad side of missing out for 9 months (really, a friend has given birth during that gap) is that I’ve missed out most of J. League. The report and review, that is. My cable provides two live matches every weekend with a Singaporean highlight program in mid-week. So I know my Havenaar and tidy-cut Kennedy. Unfortunately KBS World doesn’t broadcast K-League, which is now in the championship phase. Jeonbuk Motors really earn my respect this year.

As for ACL…nobody really watches it, isn’t it? Another forgettable year for Japan, and since THAT incident in Suwon, now I’m really hating West Asian football. Good call for Lee Young-Pyo to leave the Saudi League. As for Lee Jung-Soo, well, he has to work somewhere and he’s good.

As for Asian players in Europe…well, not a big breakthrough as last year was. Kagawa still does great jobs with assists but not scoring, Honda and Lee Chung-Yong are sidelined for months. Okazaki is still finding form. Park Chu-Young should have stayed with Lille.  Morimoto starts to fall out with Novara (which is much better town than Catania). Even Tim Cahill doesn’t score anymore.  In short, no Asian player yet to make into the top scorers roll in various European leagues. On the good sides, many of them are now regular starters – Koo, Ki, Kawashima, Yoshida, and Hasebe to name a few.

So, I’m back to blog. The pleasure of seeing Asian players contributing to victories, the pleasure of seeing Japan and South Korea being victorious, the pleasure of reporting their matches, and the pleasure of seeing passionate and orderly Asian female fans (n/a in West Asia) keep me coming back.

Coming up: J. League final rounds, AFC Champions League final, K-League Championship round, the A-League, FIFA World Cup Qualifications, Olympics qualifications, Southeast Asian Games (no women football, bummer), and the FIFA Club World Cup. And the Indonesian League that will eventually come.

Asia Football Update – 2010 almost done!

League wise. The J. League 2010 season has been over.  In Division 1, Nagoya Grampus are the deserving champions due to great Joshua Kennedy and Keiji Tamada partnership. Kennedy shares his top scoring honor with Ryoichi Maeda of Jubilo and Edmilson of Urawa Reds. At least Japan now has developed promising strikers – Shinji Okazaki, Shoki Hirai (yet to be proved), Tamada (which unfortunately still shares the traits of Portuguese forwards), and Maeda (already has some trials with the national team, but is still far from being comfortable). Korea also has a young promise, Cho Young-Cheol.

Kashima, far from the danger of being overtaken at the final day, ended the season ahead of Gamba Osaka, after defeating Kyoto 2-1, while Gamba were surprisingly defeated at home by Yokohama Marinos. Shunsuke Nakamura’s stab and free kick assist spoiled Gamba’s season’s end party.

In Division 2, Kashiwa Reysol win the league comfortably with 77 points, nine above competitors Ventforet Kofu. Kofu’s Half-Dutch Mike Havenaar win the top scorer award with 20 goals. Actually there’s still one match left for J2, but all’s in the bag. With six points behind Avispa Fukuoka, JEF United must spend 2011 in Division 2. Good news for bottom of the ladder Kitakyushu, Toyama, and Okayama – they will not be relegated to the Japan Football League.

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K-League Championship is like what it should – between the champions and the runner-ups of the regular season. After Jeonbuk worked hard to overcome Asian Champions Seongnam, they fell to new sensation Jeju United 0-1 (Danilo Neco). Jeju will host the first final match against Seoul on Wednesday, while the day of decision will be on Sunday. Jeonbuk, however, have earned a Champions League ticket.

Park Ji-Sung and Shinji Kagawa have developed knacks to score goals in Europe. Park scored a goal in Manchester United’s massacre of Blackburn Rovers, while Kagawa scored his seventh goal with Dortmund in 4-1 rout against Monchengladbach. Park Chu-Young also follows this trend. Fresh from the grueling fight in Asian Games, he scored from penalty kick in Monaco’s 1-1 tie against Nice. He has scored five goals. Now if Takayuki Morimoto would kindly like to follow suit…

2010 AFF Suzuki Cup starts on Wednesday, featuring eight Southeast Asian nations.  Looking from FIFA’s ranking, Thailand is still the top SE Asian nation, while Indonesia comes second and will feature its foreign-born strikers Cristian Gonzales and Irfan Bachdim, while Papuan star Boaz Solossa is omitted for disciplinary problem. Melbourne Victory’s Surat Sukha join the Thai team under Bryan Robson, while almost half of Singaporean players play in the Indonesian Super League, including stars Agu Casmir, Precious, Shahril Ishak, and Noor Alam Shah.

Nicky Butt, a former Red Devil who fought alongside Scholes, Beckham, and Keane, is playing for Hong Kong’s South China AA.

The Short Future for Asian Football

As the 2010 World Cup is nearly over, the Asian joy – and world’s surprise – on what had South Korea and Japan achieved has worn off. It ended happily for both nations, especially Japan, when both the Japanese public and Asian media applauded them on their return home.

Despite a winless campaign for Australia and 90 minutes of shame for North Korea in the hands of Portugal, this has been the second best World Cup performance for the Taegeuk Warriors and the Samurai Blue, widely predicted to make no impact in South Africa. South Korea’s best achievement in 2002, however, was marred by controversies of disallowed goals for Italy and Spain and they ended the show as the recipients of Hakan Sukur’s 11 seconds goal. Since then – and despite South Korea’s victory against Togo and draw against France in 2006 – no pundits or fans outside the country confidently believed that they would do well.

And yet no world-famous player could match Japanese midfielders’ free-kick abilities (this offer still good until Sunday), no opposing player could break through Uruguay’s defence before Lee Chung-Yong, and no other forward other than Park Chu-Young has scored goals both for and against his team (again, this contest is closed on Sunday). The memories will enter the annals of South Korean and Japanese footballs – Park Chu-Young’s free-kick against Nigeria in par with Ahn Jung-Hwan’s header against Italy in 2002, and Japan’s 3-1 dismantling of Denmark to be as legendary as Australia’s 3-1 dismantling of Japan in 2006.

Sadly, less could be said about the rest of Asia and the world. In Indonesia, where I live, Germany is still not a strong favorite because none of its player trades in the EPL, La Liga, or Serie A. As my fellow Fans’ Networker Sean Carroll points out, he’s not sure Pringles (or any comparable global brand, with the happy exclusion of Gillette) will think marketing Keisuke Honda outside Japan will sell compared to synergizing with global brands such as Torres Villa, Sneijder, or newfound stars such as German bomber Mueller and Uruguayan goalkeeper Suarez.

While Western fans (the less enlightened ones) will keep comment that Park Ji-Sung is in United to sell shirts in Asia and that Cha Du-Ri is a diminutive man, general Asian fans will still think that any Brazilian, English, or Nigerian plays football better than a Korean. The stereotype would stay on for the short future. While a surge of interest for Japanese and Korean players from European clubs is guaranteed, hopefully most of them will not flop as it happened after the 2002 World Cup with Takayuki Suzuki (Racing Genk & Red Star Belgrade) or Lee Chun-Soo (Real Sociedad & Feyenoord). Unless AFC members can assure an encore (and improvement) in 2014.

The next stop for national teams and their new managers would be the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar. Located nearby Europe, hopefully European based players like Cahill, Ki Sung-Young, and Honda would participate. As usual, the Cup is still prefers ‘harmony’ over competition – the previous champion, runner-up, and third place qualified automatically, and India and North Korea qualified as the champions of the ‘Challenge Cup’ contested by countries with the lowest ranks – sparing them from the qualification pains of being in one group with Thailand or Japan.

Nevertheless, it’s still a championship full of stake. Saudi Arabia and Iran will want revenge for their absences in the World Cup. Australia wants redemption for a failed World Cup and a failed 2007 Asian Cup. North Korea wants to literally get out of the pit. The most important thing is Japan and South Korea need to test how good they are post-South Africa. It’s promised to be a hot start – Saudi Arabia is in one group with Japan and Australia will face South Korea early. And this time, there is no Southeast Asian representative. The quest for power is still far away for Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam.