Asia Football Update – Glory in Japan

The Sun is Rising.

Until the middle of this decade, Nagoya is seen as a mediocre team in the J. League, like the city itself is put behind Tokyo & the Kansai Triangle (Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe). If a team can make the big break in J. League, that’d be Shimizu S-Pulse. But Nagoya Grampus have won the 2010 J. League Division 1 league last Saturday after downing already-relegated Shonan Bellmare 1-0 (Tamada). Gamba Osaka also made it to the Champions League, again at the expense of Bellmare (2-1, Hashimoto and Sasaki). The other strong candidate for the Champions League tickets is Kashima Antlers, but a mistake this weekend could see Cerezo Osaka or Shimizu to slip forward.

As for the national team, it’s sunny in Japan (well not many things are looking good in Japan for the moment). The U-23 national teams shine in the Asian Games in Guangzhou. Both were unbeatable and the women team kept a clean sheet throughout the tournament. Nadeshiko Japan Junior defeated Thailand, China, and North Korea, while the boys left Malaysia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand, Iran, and UAE knocked down.

The good thing is, the male team has broken the pattern of collective, star-less team. Forward Kensuke Nagai from Fukuoka University has become the event’s top scorer with five goals. So there is one name that Zaccheroni can ponder besides Shinji Okazaki, Keiji Tamada, Shoki Hirai, and Takayuki Morimoto to become Japan’s forwards in Qatar 2011 (with Keisuke Honda & Shinji Kagawa behind them). As for the women’s team, the classic pattern emerges. Their best goalscorer is Shinobu Ohno with 2 goals, and in total only four girls scored, compared with the eight boys.

 

Korea – Good, but not best

After North Korea being an arse again this week, I’ve decided to omitting its existence. Yes, Chong Te-Se is a living man playing in 2nd Division of Bundesliga, and NK is a team that takes part in Asian Games and the Asian Cup. But it kinda insulting to refer them as ‘North Korea’ (which NK takes as insulting – its proper name is ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’. No substitution). Korea is cool country, and it kinda sad to think that it’s northern part is…the worst. So like many other people, I’ll just call South Korea as Korea. Because the other half doesn’t matter at all.

Anyway, Korean national teams have repeated the same pattern – coming with a strong squad and yet still fail to take the gold. The girls brought in phenomenon Ji So-Yun. Yet she failed to score in a fateful semi-final against NK, before back to form in Bronze Medal match against China (damn, Chinese football is really going down). The boys took in senior team’s ace Park Chu-Young and developing star Cho Young-Cheol, who did well in the J. League. Still, they lost to NK again and then, surprisingly, to UAE.  The tragedy was set to continue in the Third Place Match against Iran, when Korea played badly for 75 minutes. Then miracle struck. Park Chu-Young’s goal was followed by quick one two by Ji Dong-Won, a rookie at Chunnam Dragons.

This is a warning for Qatar 2011: Korea can bring in a solid team compared to Japan and yet still flunked at the easiest match, while can fight to the last minute against a strong rival. Get ready for a close disappointment.

Still, the K-League can proudly say it is the best league in Asia, with Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma win the Club of the Year award from AFC, and its defender, Australian Sasa Ognenovski, becoming AFC Player of the Year. I was going to say that Tim Cahill is always a more deserving Australian to get the award, but well, he flunked in South Africa and Everton is low position in the Premier League, despite of his late goals. Josh Kennedy is yet to prove his form in the continent. In this year’s ACL, only Saudi and Iranian player can truly orchestrate their teams’ attack, while again the topscorers of the Eastern Team are non-Asians. So maybe Sasa does deserve the award.

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.