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.

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The Tigers and the Hello Kitty

We’re so 2014, Godzilla is so 1990 and late

2012 season is over for Japan and Korea.

Wah.

So, how did they go? The easy answer is of course – so-so. Still, Olympics semi-finalists and still the big boys on the block. But the feeling can be more complicated if you are an Australian supporter. With the failure to qualify for Brazil 14 still a good possibility (Japan, however, are there to give a hand), Australia will still relish tonight’s victory over a K-League Korean team, with the scorer, Rukavytsya and Cornthwaite (yep, needed some effort to spell their names) are under 30 years old. It’s been a very tough year for them, having failed to qualify for the Olympics and coping with life after…um…Harry Kewell and John Aloisi?

And Japan was close to get another bad verdict from me. First, was quite in bad mood after all chance to get a 2010-11 Japan jersey (the one worn by Honda in Qatar and Sawa in Germany) was closed. Should I order that gorgeous blue pajamas, although with it Japan failed to win an Olympic gold? Why it’s so hard to find Adidas stuff related to Blue Samurai around? And of course, Japan looked horrible in the second half away match against Oman – Yoshida played as bad as he is in Southampton these days and Honda seemed too tired to direct any build up.

Add that with the typical minimalist presentation by ESPN Asia/Star Sports – a pair of British with bland and pointless (as in having a point can offend anyone and they are told not to do that) comments and I have no chance to see them during half time and full time. As if I was watching an illegal video streaming or watching a pirated DVD – no extra and no perk of cover sheets.

So, Yasuhito Endo, 32 years old, 122 games for Japan (Steven Gerrard. Meh), leaped and aligned the ball toward the center, passing Ali al Habsi who anticipated his shot. Okazaki drove it home and for the next three minutes the stadium went silent. Cheerful Japanese girls lifted up a Hello Kitty float. Hello Kitty! Where else you can see it in a football stadium? Japan are yet to go to Brazil, but they will not finish the group in rank 4 or 5 for sure. And putting Australia in rank 2 with better goal difference to Oman (0 to -3, actually). I ended up ordering a scarf and a ‘Japan Soccer’ long sleeve.

Last Saturday, the Ulsan Munsu stadium featured a tiger that really looks like a menacing tiger, not the cutesy one like the Seoul Olympics mascot. Al Ahli supporters strengthened their players’ hearts with a cardboard saying something about Allah, but at full time, it was Kim Shin-wook and several other Koreans who kneed and raised their hands into the air, praising Jesus. Korea have won the Asian Champions League again and Ulsan will look forward to pummel the champions of Japan next month – Hiroshima, Sendai, Urawa, or Nagoya.

That Ulsan tiger must be menacing. But Japanese supporters should employ that Hello Kitty float more often – it will become the terror from the East. Really East, the place where the sun rises. Except when facing Korea, the message will be like this – I can be less manly and acts cutesy and I still kick your ass.

So, was it good?

Baby, you’re a star

How are you with post-Olympics withdrawal? It couldn’t come at the better time here. Friday is Independence Day holiday (how convenient, just two days after Korea’s and a week after Singapore’s) and after that, week-long Idul Fitri break.

I was going to write how I feel with the Olympics in general, but that’s the scope of my East Asian blog. Okay, focus on football.

First impression is of course disappointment. Disappointment that Japan failed to retain its supremacy in women’s football, the disappointment that Korea and Japan failed to reach the final, and while I could accept that Korea sent a better team, the disappointment that Korea had to celebrate their victory sourly.

But on second view, well, they had succeeded where others failed. Sean Carroll explains why Japanese supporters and footballers were good sports in Britain, a place like anywhere in West Europe, where football is the intermingling of fame, fortune, fouls, and yeah, fuck ups. Even in Asia, ‘gamemanship’ is an unknown concept for a Japanese footballer, compared to an Australian or a West Asian. If that ventures into naivety, then be it. They are strong enough to be naive (unless we are talking about ACL play offs :p).

And they shattered the dreams of Spain. If there are countries which are despairing with London, certainly they are not Japan or Korea. That’d be of course Austria, and then Greece (there there), and Brazil and Spain. For the latter two, because for the other weeks of the year, they are making headlines in motorsports….and football. And there’s the invincible Spain, unable to incapacitate the supposedly ‘easy’ Japan.

And then they became the only team besides Brazil – Brazil! which ensured qualification by the second match. Take that, Africa! :p. It was a bit letdown to see them failed to show their authority against Honduras, but you really have to give a credit for a team who refused a pass for United States Men National Team (#USMNT, right? One of popular Twitter tags? Not here, buddy).

The pattern is familiar. Except for Korea/Japan 2002, Japan passed the group stage better than Korea, although Korea’s sole win against Switzerland was enough to incur a Swiss’ wrath. How shocking. By the time the group stage ended, I had feared the familiar scenario – Korea would defeat Japan in the Third Place playoff. As familiar as England’s QF exit.

The news of Korea’s victory was big in Asia – boyband defeating indie band, as they said here in Indonesia. No one here remembers who’s Park Chu-young, Ki Sung-yueng, or Ji Dong-won, but everyone knows who’re Daniel Sturridge, Craig Bellamy, and of course Ryan Giggs. Unfortunately, in Britain the result was more about self-hating – the opinion that Team Great Britain suck and good riddance to them – they can’t even play Korea.

I’m really hoping, with another kill against Africa, Japan 3 Egypt 0, that football fans worldwide will stop regarding African players above Asian players. Not gonna happen. Not while in courtyards all over Europe the players are of Moroccan and Nigerian backgrounds instead of Korean and Japanese.

Of course, we’re not talking about Asian football here. We’re talking about Japanese and South Korean football. Not Chinese. Not Thai. Not even Australian. Hell, I hope not Emirate or Uzbek either. Knowledgeable British pundits and maybe even Australians envy the success of their youth development. While ten years ago young Roos were playing in English Championship or Eredivisie, now young Japanese are playing in Bundesliga and are scoring in the J. League.

These two are truly exceptions. China will not catch up with them (certainly not in Brazil 14) at this rate, and the press and the state don’t care. Why developing a sport which only result in two gold medals while you can grab four each from badminton and table tennis? Therefore China has betrayed its female footballers, the nemesis of United States in 1990s. If Chinese national team can pass the group stage of 2015 AFC Asian Cup, I’d call it an improvement.

And Australia? The Olyroos are never good in the first place, but so did Japan and Korea U23. I hope more Australian analysts would find out what’s not working for Australia, by seeing what’s working for Japan and Korea. As for Southeast Asia, well, heh. Tough luck facing Northeast Asia and West Asia at the same time. Everyone wanted Thailand to be improving (‘everyone’ refers to British, Dutch, Japanese, and Australians, but not other Southeast Asians), but with every passing year, it seems that they just won’t care. First of course, they have to rule Southeast Asia first – in this respect I think it’s necessary to support them in the Suzuki Cup.

That’s the men. For the women, there’s only one talking point – Japan. A very disappointing and concerning group stage, especially when I was kind enough to see 90 minutes of match against South Africa (it’s really hard to catch women football on TV, you know). Japanese women are of course never catching the attention of netters the way Americans do, and outside Japan (after they’ve won the World Cup), no one in Asia is interested to do a feature on them. Not even Adidas outside Japan. I wished the shock against Brazil would wake everyone up. Yeah, maybe to some degree in USA, Britain, and of course Brazil, but certainly not in Asia.

When they were up in the final, I wasn’t sure with the desired result. JFA didn’t really support them in the first place and American supports were too strong. Of course media even here were more interested to publish pictures of Hope Solo and Alex Morgan rather than Yuki Ogimi and the Best Female Footballer on Earth.

But reading the reflections upon the heartbreaking match, yeah, it was worth it. That was indeed the first time Solo had to work hard in the tournament, even when counting the semis against Canada. Of course she knew she could lose – it had happened before. Japanese crowded big screens before dawn the way Australians did in World Cup 2006. Nadeshiko Japan could go home, knowing they are still one of the best teams in the world, and they are better than the men team. They’ve got the silver medals to prove.