2015 AFC Asian Cup. Yay.

Nasser Al Shamrani ponders where he will go out tonight in Melbourne.

Happy New Year, Maya Yoshida. That’s a sweet victory against Arsenal, wasn’t it? You did good job in blocking Alexis Sanchez, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (a hipster favorite), and Theo Walcott for 20 minutes. You’re good to go for Australia 2015.

Asians are so diligent and hardworking, we are doing a major tournament in the first working week of 2015. Making the good use of southern hemisphere summer.

And so let’s see the teams that will compete in Asian Cup 2015.

Australia

When they won the hosting rights in 2011 (without competition), it was too easy. Only Japan could spoil their party. Four years later, everyone could tear down the house. Australia had experienced defeats by Qatar, China, Japan (in 90 minutes in 2013, breaking a 12 years record), and Jordan. They were held by Oman, North Korea, South Africa, and UAE.

As I said, while Australians tell each other that they are on transition, the world does not care. Asia enjoys the agony. [Update: Australia have stopped saying that they are on transition.]

Tim Cahill, still the most reliable goal scorer for the last ten years, survived against pretenders like John Aloisi, Scott McDonald, Brett Holman, and Joshua Kennedy. Now Australia badly need new goalscorers. Thankfully Nathan Burns is on good form, Tomi Juric is at the crossroad (his last goal came in November), while Mat Leckie is doing fine with Ingolstadt, currently topping the 2. Bundesliga.

Australians and me hope that they could be like Germany in 2006 – turning shameful slumps into a glorious, proud summer (the semi final match could be held on Australia Day). Therefore the only permissible way to begin is to win comfortably against Kuwait. If everything goes well (Korea are a major stumbling block), then it’s quarter final against China in Melbourne. That’s dream comes true for broadcasters and organizers, but expect plenty of venom coming from Chinese commentators (since Australians are, uh, Western white men). The other option is no more friendly – Spiranovic vs Al Shamrani II.

Going to semis? Iran. The ideal final, of course, pitches Australia and Japan.

Goalkeeper: Ryan

Defenders: Franjic, Sainsbury, Spiranovic, Davidson

Midfielders: Jedinak, Bresciano, McKay

Forwards: Kruse, Cahill (false 9), Oar/Leckie

Korea

Supposedly, they have put the disaster of 2013-14 behind with the leadership of Uli Stielike, the only German international to fail a penalty shootout. Their recent records are still mixed, however – wins against Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Paraguay, losses to Iran (a bloody one), Costa Rica, and Uruguay. Like Australia, they were on transition but Koreans hardly said that (at least in English).

The match against Australia is the biggest challenge, and I would say it will end in a draw, just like in 2011. A quarter final against North Korea is unlikely (some South Koreans actually fancy the idea), while Korean “netizens” hope for China so they can update Eul-Yong Ta for 2010s.

The semi final will be another heated affair whether as runner ups or group winners – either Iran or Japan. Heck, even in the final they will face either Iran or Japan and things can go nasty. Boy, Koreans do have plenty of issues, don’t they?

Goalkeeper: Kim Seung-gyu

Defenders: Kim Chang-soo, Kwak, Kim Young-gwon, Park Joo-ho

Midfielders: Lee Chung-yong, Ki, Koo

Forwards: Cho Yeung-chol, Lee Keun-ho, Son

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan, Uzbekistan. Our football team is more famous than Kazakhstan’s. We have Natasha Alam and you Kazakhstan have…you have that volleyball cutie.

No, she won’t care about Asian Cup. Maybe neither is Natasha Alam.

Remember Road to Japan and Korea? A pretty surreal qualification since Japan and Korea were not in and Australia were still in OFC. So if you remove these three nations, the final round of AFC qualification would be full of creepy countries ruled by mad dictators. Group B is a terrible put down. I blame the desert and the northern latitudes. And Stalin.

Uzbekistan feature the balanced lineups of players based in Uzbekistan (always a challenge in AFC Champions League, although not big spenders like Bunyodkor used to be). The spread of its foreign-based players is also interesting. Vitaly Denisov and Lutfulla Turaev play for Lokomotiv (spelling it “Locomotive” makes it sounds less communist) Moscow, Anzur Ismailov is with Changchun Yatai, Bahodir Nasimov plays in Iran, and captain Server Djeparov still can eat Seongnam’s best bulgogi. Not to mention those who play in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

So there’s no reason they cannot ace Group B, above Saudi Arabia and China. A quarter final against Korea will be a friendly derby, and so does semi final against Japan. For a mad dictatorship, it’s surprising that they have no personal problem with anyone.

Saudi Arabia

The ballad of Nasser Al Shamrani. Australians heckled him mercilessly in Melbourne when Saudi Arabia were humiliated 1-4 by Bahrain and in Parramatta, home of Western Sydney Wanderers. They will hunt him again in Brisbane and Melbourne. It’s still unknown if Arab-Australians will stand up for him, especially (or despite) after Al Hilal players described Sydney as the boonies.

China

Thank God you’re here, said the organizer. Otherwise Asian Cup will be devoid of the most important of all East Asians. Will Chinese-Australians care about China? Maybe they hardly care about any sport in the first place. But the Chinese students will persuade their Southeast Asian (and some Australian) friends to support China.

China did plenty of friendlies in preparation of the cup, but none of them was outside China. Why bother going to savage lands where you can invites barbarians such as Kyrgyzs (twice), Palestines, and New Zealanders to enjoy a bit of Chinese hospitality in the world-famous cities of Nanchang, Chenzhou, Shenzhen (Hong Kong’s ugly sister!), and Changsa?

Half-assed friendlies in faraway cities to tire out the visitors, local-based players since no Chinese footballer is good enough to play in Europe (and why bother playing in tiny Mainz where you can enjoy Guangzhou’s nightlife), and equally strong opponents. They won’t make it past the group stage.

North Korea

Scums of the Earth and a total waste of space. But wait, even the Hermit Kingdom has players based in Europe and Japan! Wunderbar! Ryang Yong-gi and Ri Yong-jik are Korean-Japanese who swear allegiance to North Korea. Now the nice Switzerland opens its door to the misunderstood North Koreans, from Kim Jong-un to Cha Jong-hyok and Pak Kwang-ryong, who is loaned by Basel to Vaduz. Hey, Liechtenstein is just like North Korea – the people are smiling, the mountains are beautiful, and the underground vault is shining.

Iran

Look at the champions. Asia’s best. Lack of playing time but they make the best of it, whether against Korea or Iraq. Like in 1997, they can expect full support from Iranian Australians. Their European players are so-so: Keeper Alireza Haghighi keeps picking balls from inside his net with Penafiel in Portugal, Javad Nekounam still proves his worth with four goals with Osasuna, while his team mate Karim Ansarifad is yet to score. But as a team, they can be invincible. Iranians will gleefully see the Princes of Persia slash down those pesky Arabs (they are conveniently group with Qatar, Bahrain, and UAE, who insist that it’s called Arabian Gulf).

Japan

The samurais care less that their daimyo is accused of match fixing back in 2010 – they have a cup to defend. Traditionally Japanese fans will sit on the fence – Aguirre is another foreigner whose main purpose is to lead Nippon. If he won’t resign over the allegation, he will resign over bad results. But he won’t stay forever.

Japanese footballers, the mainstay of Asian football in Europe, are again in dire need of redemption. Shinji Kagawa must be cannot believe his terrible luck, worse than his Manchester United days. Keisuke Honda could not sustain his goal scoring streaks and now Milanistas are singing for Jeremy Menez instead of him. 2015 has arrived and Eiji Kawashima is still thinking about next season – stay or leave? – as he’s sitting on Liege’s bench. His challenger, Shusaku Nishikawa, rue the days he slipped the J. League trophy – and the chance to be Japan’s number 1 – past his hands.

For some others, this is the moment of truth. Yasuhito Endo can’t believe his fairy tale story. At 34 going 35, he resurrected a disgraced team to win a Triple and is still Japan’s best holding midfielder for one and half decade. Without ever playing in Europe. Shinji Okazaki wants to match his club performance with national team performance, especially if he wants to move a bigger (and better paying) club next August. Yoshinori Muto will be thrilled to think which European scouts are watching him.

Japan will face nemeses Jordan and Iraq and have to put up with the crowds and the world who will support Palestine. They will get the job done and will face one of the Gulf nations. Then it’s Uzbekistan, who defeated them twice on the Road to Brazil. Then a final showdown against Australia or less likely, Iran.

Goalkeeper: Kawashima (my choice is as tricky as Aguerre’s. Higashiguchi can handle Palestine but first impression is everything)

Defenders: Sakai, Konno, Yoshida, Nagatomo

Midfielders: Endo, Hasebe, Kiyotake, Kagawa, Honda

Forward: Okazaki

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Continental Drift

Picture this, Schaefer.

Yo, finally I’m doing something with my layout. Ah, the first step toward professional attitude.

The 2015 AFC Asian Cup certainly looks professional. It is hosted by Australia. It has Japan and Republic of Korea. And North Korea. Since uh, it won something called The Challenge Cup, defeating Turkmenistan. Philippines came close, winning third place against Palestine. So, maybe that’s a key for success in Asia – aim low and you can get the ticket while the mediocre cannot.

Ah, the mediocre. You know, minnows like Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia (well…). They have to fight to death throughout 2013 and 14, as if Iran and Uzbekistan are not preoccupied with Rio, um, Brazil 2014. Travel to Tashkent. Sodden pitch. The humidity. Uglier prostitutes. At least in Asia crowd riot is hardly a problem, unlike in Africa.

And yeah, it’s unfair that Japan and Korea, and North Korea, do not join the qualification. According to Thai coach Winfried Schaefer, his team deserve Japan. Or Korea. They deserve Kagawa and Ki Sung-yueng. Because Iran, Kuwait, and Lebanon are not enough for him. Here, even Spain had to qualify for Euro 2012. He said that even Italy and England had to qualify, even if England didn’t play at all in Euro 2008. But I missed the point. The point is Thailand demand to see Japan. How else they will improve if Honda and Endo do not give them sick free kicks? Why on earth Niweat Siriwong should fly to Teheran instead of Seoul?

Well, Schaefer has a point, hasn’t he? It was ridiculous when India, Iraq 2008 (the crappy model, not the sleek 2007 model), Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Korea already qualified to Qatar 2011, right? True. But to say that the qualification ‘leaves the minnows to fight for themselves while the heavyweights qualify’ is wrong. Australia are the host. Okay. But how many heavyweights are there? Japan, one. Korea, two. Why nobody protests about AFC Challenge Cup? If they are nice enough to make comparison with UEFA, would UEFA make a Challenge Cup, where Cyprus or Armenia could qualify after defeating Malta in an extra time thriller, while Wales and Israel languish once more. Actually, I might have given Michel Platini a brilliant idea.

If the automatic qualifications of the winners and runner ups of a previous Asian Cup is weird, so does the bloated European qualifications. European press are asking why UEFA still do not apply first and second round qualifications for the weakest teams before going to group stage – a system widely used in club championships. Why can’t San Marino have a playoff or group stage first against Andorra and Faroe Islands? Because, of course, UEFA believes that kids in Belarus deserve to see David Silva and Xavi in action, even if kids in Spain cannot watch them on television. More cynically, because Gazprom, McDonald’s, Sony, and Adidas deserve to be presented ten times by a single favorite team, compared to probably six times had Spain and Germany played third round qualification. But again, UEFA does not have this concern in the Champions League.

So first – when it comes to football governance, Europe cannot even serve as a role model. Second, the questions asked to AFC should not about whether Japan and Korea deserve automatic qualification. First, it’s if North Korea deserve automatic qualification. They don’t even eligible to enter the Challenge Cup anymore. Then, if the qualification process should follow the already decent 2014 World Cup qualification scheme – first round and second round playoffs, and then group stages involving Japan and Korea.

If the purpose of AFC Challenge Cup is to challenge the proficiency of Nepal and Taiwan in football, then be it. But the prize of winning the Challenge Cup should be a place in the qualification group stage, not the final tournament. If there’s should be a playoff between the winners of the CC with Asia’s no. 19 or 20, then be it, like the playoff for promotion and relegation in Dutch and German leagues.

Still, I cannot help from thinking that the sole purpose of AFC Challenge Cup is to pass India into the final tournament. Maybe North Korea too, but I do not see the financial logic of giving a free pass to North Korea.

What now for Japan and Korea? Of course, friendlies against the big boys. Before World Cup 2010, Japan still had to handle Yemen and Hong Kong. Now they have arranged friendlies against France and Brazil. Great. Korea should follow suit. Play with guys such as Mexico, Egypt, Sweden, and Australia. If Thailand want to test themselves against Japan, then pick up the phone and call JFA to arrange a friendly. But make sure you know first how to handle Iran and Lebanon. Heck, make sure first you win the AFF Cup.

Six things we learnt from AFC Champions League Group Stage

1. Qatar – numbers mean nothing

Like many things in Qatar, the Stars League can offer more than its neighbors. The payroll might not be as interesting as in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but Doha seems to be a more interesting place to live and has better football atmosphere. We’re talking about the Asian Cup and the World Cup host here (which, well, who knows, might get the fourth ticket to Brazil). Many Bahrain players move there to escape the political prosecution and complications, and supposedly, with a Qatari club as the defending champions, a Qatar club can go further than UAE’s, while the living condition is more pleasant than in Saudi.

Not so. All Qatari club, four of them, crashed. First, unlike Liverpool 2005, the champions Al-Sadd was not competing. They could be the third best club in the world after Kashiwa Reysol (okay, that’s not true), but they finished sixth in the 2010-11 Stars League season. They won’t compete in ACL next year either, finished fourth (the fourth ticket was taken by Emir Cup’s winners Al Gharafa).

So, Al Rayyan (Afonso Alves, ex-Middlesbrough) and Lehkwiya (Nam Tae-Hee) scored only two wins. Al Gharafa (Ze Roberto & ex-Urawa Edmilson) got three times draw – although facing Persepolis and Al Hilal would leave you a little chance of qualifying.  Al Arabi….certainly the worst. Six losses, four goals for against sixteen against.

I’ve said that there’s a ray of light shining for UAE since the Olympics qualification. It is, with Al Jazira topping Group A and Bani Yas overcoming Pakhtakor. Al Nasr and Al Shabab certainly crashed and ranked below their Qatari rivals, but the Emirates are still having in the game.

2. Can Saudi football redeem itself?

Certainly Saudi Pro League still have the two most fearsome clubs in Asia – Al Ittihad and Al Hilal. In the past both clubs could draw more than 30 thousands to an ACL match, although that’s not the case now. They are, however, are still powered by local players. In fact each of them has only two non-Muslim players – Paulo Jorge and Fabrice Ondama in Ittihad and Christian Wilhelmsson and Yoo Byung-Soo in Hilal, which are flourishing far away from La Coruna and Incheon.

Of course, club success can be powered by good management and national failures can be influenced by terrible FA administration, negative state intervention (including choosing a crappy or inflexible manager), and lack of motivation. It’s hard to describe nationalism in an absolute monarchy – Hegel had found it in the 1800s. Al Hilal, Al Ahli, and Al Ittihad have the good chance to go to quarter finals (and eliminating UAE clubs if they do so), and certainly they aim to reclaim the champions title, last won by a Saudi side in 2005. If they can do it, then the FA have to follow up with the Asian Cup 2015 project.

 

3. Adelaide are still the only reliable Australian club in the ACL

In A-League, they can go from top 3 to bottom 3 in alternating seasons. Adelaide qualified to this year’s ACL through playoff. But their experience and flair against the northerners count year after year, while Brisbane and Central Coast prove that unlike the national team, Aussie clubs are not first rate (league and clubs managements included). Adelaide destroyed two former champions, Pohang and Gamba, and could become the favorites against Nagoya. Bruce Djite might fit as Australia’s Emile Heskey, but Dario Vidosic has my vote to be a Socceroo regular, and Sergio van Dijk is the best forward Indonesia has never had.

 

4. These are testing times for Korean teams.

Finally, the fallout of last year’s bribe scandals is here. Only Ulsan proved the quality of a Korean team, and Seongnam were lucky they were in an equally boring group with half of the group’s games ended in draws  (hey, draws without losses is something to be proud of. Just ask New Zealand fans). The supposedly exciting Pohang lost in competition to Bunyodkor (another sign of Uzbek resilience against the Japan-Korea block), while I’m bit ashamed of praising Lee Dong-Gook in my last post, seeing how Jeonbuk fell. It seems that the life and death of Jeonbuk are decided by how he’s doing on the match day instead of the teamwork Eninho, Kim Jung-Woo, and Kim Sang-Sik. Hugo Droguett is promising, but it seems like he needs more time to be a worthy partner to D.G.

This is the first time Korea fail to qualify at least three clubs since the current format introduced in 2009. And I take it as a failure. Jeonbuk’s failure certainly influenced by the rise of Guangzhou Evergrande, which deserves its own talking point, but even Seongnam were close to fail were it faced more aggressive opponents.

 

5. Guangzhou Evergrande continue its empire building

Manchester City teach that money can build your glory, earlier than what you expect. that’s what’s happened in Guangzhou, probably the best-run metropolis in China, which scouted and nurtured South Americans who really delivered. If Chelsea rely on Africans and Arsenal on continental Europeans (and Manchester United, at one point, on the Celts), then Guangzhou can be forgiven to rely on Muriqui, Cleo, and Conca for the attack and Paulao for the defence. Still, they needed six others Chinese to hold the line – and it’s good to see Cho Won-Hee redeemed after terrible times in Wigan and Suwon.

Sadly, pride rather than ambition might influence the replacement of Lee Jang-Soo with Marcello Lippi. Evergrande RE just wants to boast that it employs the Italian legend rather than trusting a coach that can ensure its domination in China and in Asia. Just like Roberto di Matteo’s employment in Chelsea is still not ensured even if he’ll win them the UEFA Champions League tonight. Owners, after all, care more about employing famous generals than having the most suited general for the club.

 

6. Gamba aside, J. League clubs are fine

Oh the irony. Newcomers FC Tokyo, previously the West Ham of Tokyo football, did really fine. Unstable Japanese champions Kashiwa passed the test with the last day’s coup against Jeonbuk (a plus point, if you consider Japanese stage fright against Korean teams). Nagoya followed Seongnam’s policy of two wins four draws, and yet they still prevailed against the supposedly threatening Brisbane and Tianjin.

So, why do we need to speak about Gamba? Perhaps because they are the former Asian champions. Perhaps they are used to be one the most strongest teams in Japan year in and year out. And now in the J. League, their mission for the season would be to escape relegation, just one month into the completion.

I’ll leave the deeper discussion about Gamba to my good friend Ben Mabley, who’s considering himself Osakan. I counted myself as a Gamba supporter, but then again, I don’t feel the passion I have when I’m supporting Manchester United (come on, I feel bad writing this). Maybe had I lived in Japan, I chose to live in Yokohama. Yay Marinos.

Six best Japan’s victories

Pele is my Homie

Yes, this is after a Guardian Football article. On the greatest victories of United States, written after the 1-0 upset against Italy in last week’s friendly, just when Japan surprisingly went down to Uzbekistan by the same score. So, as United States have their moments, and after seeing how Japanese forwards soon back at scoring goals and providing assists for their clubs in Europe*, I want to look at the Samurai Blue’s finest hours and halves. Unfortunately I won’t do the same for Korea since they have not won the Asian Cup for fifty years, and they have never been in Confederations Cup.

*Dortmund-Mainz 2-1 (Kagawa 77), Vitesse-de Graafschap 2-0 (Havenaar 73), VVV-NAC 2-1 (Cullen 85, Yoshida 87), Stuttgart-Hamburg 4-0 (Okazaki won a penalty kick for Kuzmanovic), Lierse-Leuven 0-0 (…okay, clean sheet for Kawashima)

1. Japan 15-0 Philippines, 1967 Olympics qualification

This is not in for the sheer brutality. Fifty years before, Philippines inflicted the worst defeat ever for Japan, 2-15, also in Tokyo during the Far Eastern Championship (see? Japan’s always crap when it comes to EAFF). That 1917 humiliation came the day after the Republic of China put five without reply against Japan – and might be responsible for the lack of interest of soccer (yes, Americans are not the only ones who call it soccer). Philippines, on the other hand, were one of the pioneers of football in Asia, especially since the Americans were keener to share the love for the sport, compared to the British in Singapore and Hong Kong.

After World War 2, however, Philippines lost interest at football just like the Americans did (despite the 1950 World Cup). In Japan, football was also behind rugby union, although the richest and advanced nation in Asia was keen to participate in any kind of international tournament, especially after hosting the 1964 Olympics, where the host defeated Argentina 3-2 before succumbed 0-4 to Czechoslovakia in QF.

The carnage against Philippines came in the first matchday of Group 1 qualification in Japan. Had the JFA received more funds and better training, names like Kunishige Kamamoto and Teruyuki Miyamoto could become the legends of Asia. You never heard of them unless you were Japanese (or an Asian football geek), since Japan didn’t come to 1964 Asian Cup and lost to Taiwan in the 1968 qualification. That’s right, Taiwan cared about football back in 1960s, continuing its Republic of China tradition. Even, Philippines’ lineup for the fateful day featured many ethnic Chinese. How the times have changed.

Japan had led two nil by five minutes, and 23 year old Kamamoto, who played for Yanmar Diesel (now Cerezo Osaka), scored his first at the 16th minute. He gained his third goal by the half hour mark. 27 year old Miyamoto (Yawata Steel, folded in 1999) had opened his account four minutes before. In total, Kamamoto scored six (including the last one one minute before time), while Miyamoto had four. Other scorers were Ryuichi Sugiyama, substitute Yasuyuki Kuwahara, and Masashi Watanabe. Poor goalkeeper Fertes was not substituted.

Japan continued its rampage the next days by beating Taiwan and Lebanon, before being held 3-3 by Korea despite 2-0 lead at half time. In Mexico City (Puebla, actually), Kamamoto scored hattrick against Nigeria (3-1), while Japan survived draws against Brazil and Spain (Watanabe, who also played for Yawata, scored against Brazil). Hungary humiliated them 0-5 but in the fight for bronze medal, Kumamoto scored two to upset the hosts. Had only he was born forty years later.

2. Japan 3-2 China, 1992 Asian Cup

It was the cruel irony for Korea. They had established themselves as the East Asian representatives for World Cup, twice. Japan had nothing against them (even well, to this day?). They even just hosted the Olympics to boot. Yet Japan, which just created a professional league, won the rights to host the Asian Cup, something that Korea has never done (really, this is a gap in the checklist for a country which has hosted a World Cup and will host the Winter Olympics). Yet, the Tigers didn’t have to visit Japan – they were knocked out in the qualification by…Thailand.

Japan won the Group A unconvincingly, earning narrow victory against Iran while played draws against North Korea and 1990’s West Asian representatives/whipboys UAE. And Japan consisted of J.League celebrities such as Ruy Ramos, Kazuyoshi Miura, and Masashi Nakayama. Were they overhyped? (in Japan there’s no such thing as ‘overhyped’ and ‘overrated’) Could they really qualify to USA 1994?

So they faced China in semi-final, which had good knack for coming back from one goal deficit, both against favorite Saudi Arabia and Qatar (Thailand failed to live up their credibility as the dark horses). China’s mistake was that they scored earlier. Xie Yuxin, first Chinese player to play in Europe (PEC Zwolle, which ceased business in 1990) scored right off the bat. The score stayed for 45 minutes, looked like Japan would blow it. Then, Masahiro Fukada (Urawa) scored three minutes into the second half, and Tsuyoshi Kitazawa (Verdy Kawasaki) turned over the game ten minutes later. But! China kept the drama alive through Li Xiao, before Masahi Nakayama (Jubilo, in case you forget) won it for the host six minutes from time.

So Japan defeated their best available East Asian rivals, which came close from creating an upset. They improved the defence and won the final match against Saudi Arabia through Takuya Takagi (Hiroshima)’s single goal. China have never been against a scary threat for Japan (at least the footballers) while Koreans only could see in envy when MVP Kazu Miura lifted the trophy. They would have the last laugh the following year.

3. Japan 8-1 Uzbekistan, 2000 Asian Cup

You could say that Japan flunked it. After winning the Asian Cup, they failed to qualify to the World Cup, J. League clubs were languishing in Asian Championship, they experienced that foreign coaches (who were also subjected into overexposure) could take the team into implosion rather than glory, while local coach Shu Kamo survived despite losses in 1995 King Fahd’s Cup and 1996 Asian Cup. They qualified to France in ugly manners and lost to Jamaica despite honorable 0-1 losses to Argentina and Croatia.

So – Japan would become the co-host of 2002 World Cup, and the leadership fell into Phillipe Troussier, who spent his managing career in Africa. While the senior team became a disappointing guest at the Copa America, the U-20 team reached the final of World Youth Championship. The young players were believed to be the great hope – figures such as Naohiro Takahara, Shinji Ono, and Atsushi Yanagisawa.

And Japan opened the West Asian campaign with a bang by humiliating Saudi Arabia 4-1, where young boys Takahara and Yanagisawa shined. Then came the humiliation of Uzbekistan. Both Takahara (Jubilo) and Akinori Nishizawa (Cerezo) scored hattricks. The scoreline was already 5-1 in the first half. It was a quiet silent atmosphere at Sidon, where only 2 thousands watched the game. Japan failed to impress in the third game against Qatar (some might say that they conserved energy). The semi final against China was a repeat of 1992 – China led by 2-1 with 50 minutes of play, and Japan’s goal came courtesy of Fan Zhiyi’s own goal. Nishizawa and Tomozaku Myojin (Kashiwa) saved the day, and the final was also a repeat of 1992 – Japan defeated Saudi Arabia 1-0. How the development had come a long way for Uzbekistan (other Central Asian countries couldn’t follow and Kazakhstan defected to UEFA two years later), and how Japan could be really irresistible in a big tournament.

4. Japan 1-0 Russia, 2002 World Cup

It’s never nice to draw analogy between football and military history, but coincidentally, Japan usually graduated by beating Russia. It seemed that the co-host had better draw than Korea which got Portugal and United States, but it was not that easy. Russia were top of the group in the qualification and banished the chances of Yugoslavia and Switzerland. Belgium were better than Scotland, and after all, qualified while their bigger, more handsome brother Netherlands failed. In short, Japan’s best hope was to defeat Tunisia, but the same thing could be said for Jamaica in 1998.

Korea won their first World Cup match by convincing 2-0 victory against Poland, so Japan felt the emotional pressure to do the same against Belgium. It was not to happen. Naohiro Takahara sadly had to miss the tournament to injury, while fans were outraged that Shunsuke Nakamura was not chosen by Troussier. Japan featured household names of Hide Nakata, Junichi Inamoto, and Shinji Ono in the midfield, and Nakamura would have completed the circle, with Myojin if necessary. As for forward, Japan relied on Yanagisawa and Takayuki Suzuki, who was impressive during the 2001 Confederations Cup where he scored a brace against Cameroon.

Suzuki did deliver to counter Marc Wilmots’ goal, and Japan were on path of victory after Inamoto scored (lesson: dyed blondes win). But van der Heyden equalized and Japan failed to match Korean achievement. Russia, meanwhile, had defeated Tunisia and were leading the group.

Troussier replaced Daisuke Ichikawa on the starting lineup with Myojin while retaining Kazuyuki Toda. Russia, however, switched from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1 and reserved Beschastnykh, supposedly to face on Japan’s 3-5-2 formation. First half came tough. The sign of the crack up came in the second half when forward Pimenov (why not Vladimir B from the start?) was replaced by Sychev. Five minutes later, Inamoto scored. Beschastnykh came as Russia’s third sub before the hour mark, and you can smell fear behind Oleg Romantsev’s neck. Not Tsushima again. Suzuki failed to endanger Russia and was replaced by Nakayama – the curtain call for his hours of fame. Japan celebrated its first World Cup win after five attempts, compared to Korea’s 15. Although Tunisia held Belgium, Japan knew Round 2 was on the bag. And so they proceed with 2-0 victory. The unfortunate casualties were Japanese nationals who were beaten up by angry Russian fans. Tsushima indeed.

5. Japan 3-1 Denmark, 2010 World Cup

2000s were a game of two halves for Japan. While Korea eternally remembered 2002 with a smile despite later controversies, Japan retained the Asian Cup and won the honor of defeating Greece, the bane of Europe, in 2005 Confederations Cup.You could say the overconfidence ruled before the 2006 World Cup, as the media put too much trust on Zico (understandable for Kashima fans) and captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto even had the time to organize girls’ futsal match. When Germany 2006 came, Japan went in for rude awakening that only Shunsuke Nakamura and Keiji Tamada could actually play.

2007 Asian Cup were not supposed to be that bad for Japan – until they lost to Saudi – and then to Korea. Ivica Osim and his JEF United team were disgraced, and the victory against Australia was soon forgotten. The pessimism prevailed just before the 2010 World Cup as accountant/system engineer Takeshi Okada returned. Japan lost four friendly matches throughout April-May 2010, conceded at least two goals each time.

Blonde Keisuke Honda, however, prevailed over Samuel Eto’o. But when Netherlands prevailed and Japan had to win against Denmark, the analogy with the fate of Korea in 2006 appeared. Korea then defeated Togo, held France, but failed to go on after lost soundly to Switzerland. Denmark had the same points with Japan after defeated Cameroon.

Fans and players complained about the difficulty of employing free kick using the adidas Jabulani ball. Japan proved that it was not a big deal. Both Keisuke Honda and Yasuhito Endo outwitted Denmark’s wall and Thomas Sorensen. Denmark returned through a penalty kick’s rebound, but then Honda rampaged and passed the ball beyond Sorensen to Shinji Okazaki. Usually only teams like Germany, Brazil, or Netherlands could beat Denmark with two goals margin like that. Japan failed to conquer Paraguay, which was motivated by model Larissa Riquelme who promised she would go nude in front of the team had they won the World Cup. But Japan, and also Korea, had proved that in the 21st century, Asian teams were no longer pushovers.

6. Japan 1-0 (0-0) Australia, 2011 Asian Cup

Australia want a friendly rivalry with Japan over the mastery of Asia. Japan might have taken the challenge after the outrage at Germany 06, although its real derby is against Republic of Korea. In any case, Japan and Australia were the top favorites to win, although the championship was held in West Asia. Japan started roughly, equalized in injury time against Jordan and defeated Syria through Honda’s penalty kick. They eventually ousted Saudi Arabia, which already lost to Syria and Jordan. 5-0, as Okazaki scored hattrick and Ryoichi Maeda gained two goals.

In quarter finals, Japan defeated the hosts 3-2 with twenty minutes remaining – Qatar’s goals came from its naturalized players, Sebastian Soria and Fabio Cesar. Semi final was a battle royale affair against Korea, and Korea were favored based on derby’s history. Both teams scored in extra time, but something very unexpected happened – Korea could not put a single goal in penalty shootout.

Came the dream final against Australia, where the Soceroos were again favored. The scourge of Japan, Tim Cahill was there, but he had only scored two goals against India. More dangerous were Mile Jedinak and Harry Kewell, and six different players scored in the 6-0 demolition of Uzbekistan. And Cahill came that close in early second half, but his header and its wild impact failed to cross the line.

Penalty shootout loomed and Mark Schwarzer was invincible as ever, but Yuto Nagatomo, the Cesena’s short side back that was much underestimated by Western punters in the World Cup, crossed to Tadanari Lee. He scored with a volley. Australians argue that Japan have not defeated Australia in 90 minutes. The last time Japan did was in 2001, 1-0 in Confederations Cup and 3-0 in AFC v OFC match. Incidentally, as rivals, both teams have not held friendly match since 1998, despite of ease of travel between Tokyo and Sydney and the presence of expatriates in both countries.

Sadly, Lee’s heroic achievement failed to raise the profile of Korean-Japanese in Japan and Korea (Tadanari was rejected by his team mates in Korea U-20 and he dates Korean-Japanese singer Iconiq, who is also shunned in both countries as ‘too foreign’). But Japan have defeated Korea in football multiculturalism, as now its national team features a Dutch and a Korean, both are made in Japan.

oh my god what the hell was that

Welcome back, Do.G

That was the question asked all over Asia last night. In Japan after their surprise lost to Uzbekistan. In Australia after their so last decade model revived the spirit of 06 and came back from one goal down to destroy the opponent just in fifteen minutes. In UAE after supposedly bottom of the barrel Lebanon qualified despite significant defeat. In Singapore and Indonesia after sham refereeing partly responsible for their teams’ utter destruction. In Bahrain and Qatar after a nick of time shot changed everything between the two rivals.

(What I’m talking about: China-Jordan 3-1. Iraq-Singapore 7-1.  Korea-Kuwait 2-0. UAE-Lebanon 4-2. Japan-Uzbekistan 0-1. Australia-Saudi Arabia 4-2. Oman-Thailand 2-0. Bahrain-Indonesia 10-0. Iran-Qatar 2-2)

Group A: Iraq, Jordan, China, Singapore

To keep my emotion in check, I start with the group approach. Which maybe overlap with the timeline. Things went as planned in Guangzhou, where ex-Schalke midfielder Hao Junmin scored before break. Yu Dabao, who drifted in Portugal after failed to impress Benfica years ago, scored the finisher. A bold 3-1 victory of China. They have to wait until 2016 for their next chance at World Cup (are you missing them already, United States? You always be on the same pot, you know), but well, a sweet finishing for a bitter campaign. Iraq were expected to lead the table but the difference was made when Jordan were able to defeat Iraq, something that China failed to do twice.

The match between Iraq and Singapore taking place in Qatar, conducted in parallel with Bahrain v Indonesia, smelled of sham. Like the other match, the West Asian team received multiple penalty kick awards. On the other hand, while Indonesia were handicapped by a much weakened team, Singapore were supposed to have no problem. Yes, Lewis was not guarding the goal, but Sunny is supposed to be a fair keeper and the defenders were regulars like Bennett and Khaizan. And oh, all of them were yellow carded for challenging Iraqi players’ runs. And the biggest difference – Football Association of Singapore does not have a civil war going on. They don’t, do they?

I guess the lack of motivation is a big factor, but Singapore did fight back, at least for the first half. Personally I’m so worried for Singapore’s football prospect, perhaps more than Singaporeans do. Meh, sometimes I wonder how it feels like to be a Belgian or a Norwegian football fan.

Group B: Korea, Lebanon, Kuwait, UAE

Lee Dong-Gook returns to save Korea (there’s only one) after a nervous first half. He’s crazy and everything but I like him. At least he’s not Lee Chun-Soo. Lee Keun-Ho returns to Korea for real…while round top scorer Park Chu-Young is pulled back . Come on…he didn’t play enough for Arsenal, so he really needed more time up front, didn’t he? Oh right, jet lag.

And whee, although Lebanon qualified, their China resident Roda Antar was understandably angry with the national press. Jet lag. Well I had been angry too had I been a Lebanese. Last night was their first defeat in six months after a stellar streak against competitors UAE, Kuwait, and eventually Korea. And UAE were crap big time before last night, continuing their pitiful form after Asian Cup 11. And this is a country which league contains Ricardo Oliveira (remember Milan 06-07?), Asamoah Gyan, and Grafite (remember that guy from Wolfsburg?). And some scruffy Argentine guy.

So, why did Lebanon lose? Antar blamed media expectation. I blame instability. So expect this in the final round: Lebanon can pull a surprise or two, but when they are not into it, more likely on away matches, they can concede more than three goals.

Group C: Uzbekistan, Japan, North Korea, Tajikistan

Alright, this is the hardest part. Japan’s loss to Uzbekistan. Maybe it had been better had Japan fielded in its J-League team which defeated Iceland. But maybe Don Al wanted to keep the chemistry between its top players intact. In any case, the fans are not entertained at all. They were learning football the hard way against German defenders, but Okazaki (Stuttgart, 7 goals), Kagawa (Dortmund, 7 goals), and Inui (Bochum, 6 goals) reverted to type: they did not shoot at goal (sadly, I fail to find a simple stat on how many times Japan shot and how many of those were on target). Al Z singled out those three players for not shooting enough. Add that with Havenaar. Fans retorted that he should have sent in Miyaichi, and Ryo agreed that he could have changed the game. The Italian said that he felt it was not the right time to put in Miyaichi, but it was not a right time to put in Komano either.

Japanese fans have complained for decades that their forwards pass the ball around but nobody shoots. Other times, they attempt to get into the box by themselves a la Jeremy Lin rather than pass and move (what? Don’t Winning Eleven teach anyone anything? Like how difficult it is to go Ronaldo 97?). Of course, there’s second glaring inherited weakness of Japan – a high profile manager who maintains that he was right. Yes, Zaccheroni apologized, but the sign is still worrying. How would this team fare on a Melbourne night or a Teheran afternoon, or even a crucial 90 minutes trial in Saitama? Less optimistic fans might point out that Japan were only comfortable against one team – Tajikistan.

Group D: Australia, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Thailand

Right, I’ve got out Japan out of the system. Australia were supposed to be humiliated like the Olyroos were, but not. The spirit of 06 (I know, how I hated Australia back in 2006) prevailed with Harry and Emerton, as Australia scored three times in three minutes. Nevermind Zico’s Japan…how the hell Saudi could be that caught off with the turn of tide. Coming off with a mainly AFC team, Shimizu’s Alex Brosque was really shining.  As for Saudi, I can only say, enjoy the free fall. And good luck for Champions League 12.

Sadly, my dream of Thailand representing Southeast Asia crumbled as they were not up to defeat al-Habsi (with Winothai red carded), even as Australia had helped them. Yeh yeh, there goes the SE Asian dream.

Group E: Iran, Qatar, Bahrain, Indonesia

Bahrain 10 Indonesia 0? Here’s the Wikipedia entry on Lebanese referee Andre El Haddad. If you still get the “kampret” at the end of his name, that’s the Indonesian word for “dickhead”. Singaporeans call him “kayu“). Red card for Indonesian goalkeeper on first minute! Four penalties for Bahrain! Unpunished Bahrain after they kicked Indonesian keeper’s face! Justice prevailed as Qatar scored equalizer to overtake Bahrain in the ladder by one point. Peter Taylor was devastated. I just wish that the transfer for El Haddad was cancelled. You know the worst part? Although Indonesian press are angry, the fans are not and are instead continuing their ISL v IPL fight instead of condemning this mutual enemy. Perhaps the problem is that “Bahrain” is not spelled “Malaysia”.

Wait, what? Singaporean media and fans are even more muted on their trashing by Iraq? And on my suspicion that Singapore was also disadvantaged? (although the motive for this suspicion is much weaker as Iraq, unlike Bahrain, didn’t need to win big as Jordan had been checked by China hours before). What the hell was that?

Comparing Asian and African progresses: History

Meet you at Moscow

Ah, Asia-Africa. In Japanese geek parlance, it is a bad pairing. It’s bad fan fiction. But Asia-Africa Road (always, always a road) are there in major Indonesian cities. It is the official Indonesian name to what Cold War historians call Bandung Conference. Back in 1955 some Asian states had gained independence while most of sub-Saharan Africa had not. The conference drew on the idea that both continents were victims of colonization and had things in common – dashing nationalist figures and interest for Socialism. The biggest African star at that conference was Egypt.

Enough history, move on to football. The African Cup of Nations. People in Asia don’t really watch it. But people in Asia also do not watch AFC Asian Cup unless their national team is playing. Worse, although people admire and fear Drogba and Kalou, and people did admire Eto’o, it’s hard to find someone in Asia, Australia, and Europe (white people. And not a football geek. And offline) that can name Ghana or Ivory Coast XI. Still, African football attracts positive images of colorful fans, comical goal celebrations, and loud percussion. If television won’t capture the moment, newspapers and their websites will.  Asian football, on the other hand, attracts negative images of clumsy players, weird surnames, boring 1-1 matches, and…wait a minute, why do people tend to forget about Korean hot chicks who wear only red bra and flag sarong? Japanese and Korean supporters also play loud percussion, although the tone is more martial than ….euh….tribal.

Jonathan Wilson’s article on the false sense of African Progress since 1994 inspires me to track Asian performance in World Cup. After North Korea’s legendary 1966 campaign, AFC representatives for the next 15 years would come from the West. First stop, Israel. Yes, Israel is a West Asian country. It qualified after defeating New Zealand (North Korea walked out since it refused to play in Israel) and Australia. In the past AFC and OFC competed for the same ticket, and OFC encompassed some countries with political complications like Taiwan, Rhodesia, and eventually Israel. In Mexico 70, after down to Uruguay, they retained their dignities by holding  Sweden and Italy. Yet Italy survived Group 2, although the draw cost Sweden’s chance.

In 1974, OFC’s Australia defeated South Korea, so no AFC story. 1978, the Kingdom of Iran qualified after topping a mini league where Australia languished and again South Korea failed at the last step. At this time Japan had no interest in football, was crap at football, and even were weaker than Hong Kong. In Argentina, Andranik Eskandarian’s own goal prevented them from scoring a legendary victory against Scotland. They went down to Netherlands (Iran conceded two penalties) and Peru (which also scored twice from penalties. Iran did have terrible defenders, didn’t they?)

1982, Kuwait topped the final round group, while New Zealand represented OFC after won a tie-breaking playoff against China. After holding Czechoslovakia, Kuwait languished against France (1-4) and lost narrowly to England. And what does historians remember? France had one goal disallowed after Sheik Fahid al-Sabah stormed the pitch to protest  after Kuwaiti players said they mistook a whistle from the crowd with the ref’s. Al-Sabah was just fined, but Soviet referee Miroslav Stupar was demoted. Even when I was a baby, West Asian football had become some sore loser.

1986, finally the East Asian moment arrived. East Asia and West Asia were divided into two conferences with a guaranteed ticket for each of conference winner. Iraq survived thrilling semi-finals against UAE before defeated Syria to qualify, while Iran were disqualified after refusing to play Bahrain. In the East, Japan finally took football seriously and defeated Hong Kong. In final round, South Korea awaited. Oh, what a joy for the Koreans.

In Mexico, South Korea would be acquainted with the “oh-so-near” tragedies that will haunt it for many, many World Cups. After went down to Argentina and held Bulgaria, it would have held Italy had not for Cho Kwang-Rae’s own goal. After restart, Huh Jung-Moo immediately scored to undo the damage, but the 2-3 scoreline remained, although those 7 minutes would have been heart stopping for so many Italians. Huh would become a successful national coach in 2010 while Cho became his disgraced successor, fired after South Korea lost to Lebanon. Iraq, on the other hand, became the first Asian team to lose all group matches since South Korea in 1954.

In 1990, South Korea and UAE topped the final round and both of them were so terrible it was embarrassing. Especially for UAE which conceded 11 goals. In 1994, Korean-Americans flocked to watch South Korea while Saudi Arabia became a moderate source of pride for Arab-Americans and were dubbed as “the Asian Brazil”. After a great 2-2 comeback against Spain (Hong Myung-Bo and Seo Jung-Won scored in the last five minutes), Korea took one draw too many after failed to score against Bolivia. They scored twice after trailing 0-3 to Germany in the first half…and it was not enough since Spain defeated Bolivia soundly. Saudi Arabia lived up to its bill, leading 1-0 against Netherlands in the first half before lost 1-2, defeated Morocco (first Asian victory since 66, and the beginning of Asian winning records against Africa in World Cup – take that!) and the legendary 1-0 victory over Belgium (sorry, no video link. I don’t like Saudi Arabia enough). Sweden stopped them in the second round. O yeah, that was also the day when World Cup started to be cruel at Belgium. Washington, 29 June 1994.

Japan finally qualified to the World Cup through  the hard way – extra time goal in a playoff against Iran, after a very unconvincing campaign (four draws out of eight matches). Even until today some South Koreans say that Japan defeated South Korea in Seoul because South Korea gave the game away for the sake of diplomacy and to save the 2002 co-host’s face. South Korea and Saudi Arabia aced their respective groups, while Iran qualified after giving Australia its Agony of Doha (nobody ever says Agony of Melbourne, anyway).

In France 98, again Asia demonstrated that it was the weakest region (people for some reason have better respect to Australia and NZ). Saudi Arabia did hold South Africa, which post-apartheid team was supposedly a growing power in the mid 1990s,  illustrious Korean coach Cha Bum-Kun was fired after 0-5 defeat to Holland, and ironically Korea held Belgium 1-1 under interim coach, Iran got its coveted victory against Evil Empire, uh, Great Satan United States, so defeats to Germany and Yugoslavia did not matter, and Japan were always lost narrowly. Lost narrowly to Argentina under Batistuta and to Croatia under Suker. And lost narrowly even to Jamaica.

Which such results, how could Asia hope to hold the World Cup? By giving East Asia a big pride. 2002 was a year of dyeing your hair brown and watching Taiwanese and Korean soap operas (Meteor Garden and Winter Sonata) while listening to Japanese pop (Utada Hikaru and Ayumi Hamasaki were big stars with unfortunately no rivalry between them, BoA and Mika Nakashima were debuting). All of the sudden, South Korea won its first World Cup, defeating Poland 2-0, while Japan failed to defeat Belgium. No such joy for Saudi Arabia and China – which scored no goal and received average of 10 goals between them. Japan finally scored its first win against its favorite white victim, Russia; while Korea thought that draw with United States was enough to payback its speed skating grudge against Japanese-American skater Apollo Ohno. Japan defeated Tunisia while Korea blew the predictions by defeating favorite Portugal. Going to the playoff rounds, it became nasty and controversial for Korea – extra time victory to Italy and penalty shootout win against Spain, all against accusations of foul plays. South Koreans, however, have learned to love the marriage of pop culture with nationalism and just said that the outside world were just jealous. Germany stopped their path to the final before Korean defense became the recipient of the fastest goal ever. Still, no grudge for the Turks and even it was the beginning of a partnership – South Korea sent its B-Team players (from Lee Eul-Yong to Shin Young-Rok) to the Turkish League, while Turkish coach Senol Gunes helped the development of Korean football. O yeah, Turkey also defeated a plucky Japanese side, a sour ending note for Philippe Troussier.

2006 World Cup was really bad for Asians excluding South Korea. Iran couldn’t make a suprise, Japan was so shameful (nevermind Australia’s triple goals – how could Yanagisawa missed Croatia’s open goal? How could Oguro be that impotent?), Saudi Arabia realized that its 2002 disaster was there to stick. South Korea prolonged Asia > Africa record against Togo, and held France with one good break despite being overpowered. Again, they blew it at the last moment  – lost to Switzerland. That’s why in 2010 Asians bar North Korea were so surprising. Although South Korea came close to blow it out again had Nigeria used their chances well – there was a good chance that Nigeria could win 3-2 to score the first ever African victory over Asia. Japan were ready to accept its fate as losers, but Keisuke Honda beat the expectations, humiliated Eto’o, and later the Danes. Both Honda and Endo were also among the first players to be able to score from free kick in the tournament. Australia were surprising in term that they failed to pass the group and lost badly to Germany, despite came close to take the lead very early.

My, while Jonathan Wilson could summarize Africa’s glory and fall in seven paragraphs, I charted everything that happened since 1970. Alright, we stop it right there for today with this lesson – just like Asia is yet to defeat South America in World Cup, the same thing happens for the Africans – Asians are their nemesis.

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.

Asian Cup and SE Asian Cup

Seems I’ve missed two trains – the AFF Suzuki Cup playoffs and finals, and the AFC Asian Cup group stage. Luckily, redemption waits. Tonight Japanese supporters felt big relief and even some pride as Japan came back from two upsets to beat hosts Qatar 3-2 before the Extra Time. They are, also, mad with the referee who red carded defender Yoshida, (correctly) deemed Qatar’s first goal was onside, and prolonged the second injury time. As it happened, the referee is Malaysian, Subkhiddin Mohd Salleh.

Indonesians still have strong opinion for Malaysia. Although I wanted to steer clear from this supposed silliness, I could not. Yes, 3 quick goals against Indonesia in Kuala Lumpur was caused by Indonesia’s own ineptitude, and Indonesia’s frustration in losing to Malaysia on aggregate was more driven by the loss of self-made dream caused by over-exposition by Indonesian press and politicians to its maturing team.

But, even as it’s unfair to say this, it’s still hard for me personally to associate Malaysian football with integrity. Yes, of course Malaysian players and coach Rajagobal are decent people, and the Football Association is still a public enemy in Indonesia, even its chair Nurdin Halid won Guardian Football’s  “Most Corrupted President of the Year” – nobody in the world is worst than him, except perhaps the homophobic Croatian FA president. But during the online debates on the laser incident in Kuala Lumpur (which also recurred earlier in QF against Vietnam), Malaysian supporters offered no coherent arguments other than “well you did it first in Jakarta!”‘ or “Indonesia should not complain too much – we are brothers and you are supposed to be happy that Malaysian football does well.” (what? Nobody thought of simple “sore losers!” ?)

So when the referee for Japan-Qatar match is from Malaysia, and Japanese supporters screamed injustice, well, I associated his performance with his nationality. Actually it made sense – Qatar is not just the host but also strives hard to prove its worthiness as World Cup host (failed). Then, let’s face it, Muslim Malaysians would have softer spot for Qatar. My love for Asian football has to do with East Asian pride and quest for identity.

Whatever the reason – because when you talk about amateur refereeing, Europeans are not happy with their refs as well – both the Asian Cup and AFF Cup shows that Southeast Asian standards are still very much low. My pet gripe is the ridiculous home-away format of the finals. It prolonged the eight nations into a month as if it is the World Cup with so much wasted money and energy. It completely null the thrill of a tournament – giving all you’ve got before the home crowd or in foreign soil, with limited resting time and the risks of injuries, suspension, and bad luck. Although it’s never the intention of the AFF, by the time of Semi Finals the cup has become a farce in Indonesia. The president made the team his trophy, under the delusion that ‘Mandela did it too in Invictus‘. The press hovered on half-European Irfan Bachdim and scores of Filipino players, who flaunted their choleric emotion on field, a by-product of survival in American and European pitches. It was ended by the picture of the young Filipino manager with an Indonesian version of Kardashian sister – which also ended his job. By the time of the home-and-away finals, it has become so ridiculous. Thank God no SE Asian team qualified for the Asian Cup. By the team they reached Qatar, they would have been out of breath.

The Asian Cup’s foremost sin is the qualification of India and North Korea through the Challenge Cup. I don’t see other reason of this path rather than forcing India to get in, thus hoping that Indians will finally watch football. That said, I worried that India could become the surprise package like NZ did in South Africa and Philippines did in Vietnam. The surprise never came because unlike the two, the Indians played in local leagues, not in UK or US. Still, goalkeeper Subrata Paul became a cult hero for Asian football geeks for letting less than he could have conceded, especially in thwarting Korea’s quest to overtake Australia’s goal margin.

Saudi Arabia and North Korea exited in shambles – even with little resistance. Saudi has nurtured its five years disease of hampering its domestic players’ development – extreme version of what’s happening in England. After its loss in first game (which also happened to Spain in South Africa), in monarch fashion the coach was sacked (100 years ago perhaps he was literally beheaded), and it went downhill from there. Hopefully the Saudi FA sees the irony of putting two clubs in the Champions League Semis. As for North Korea, well, Chong Tae-Se is not good enough – or they are still sore from last year’s torture.

Next: Japan, Korea, and Australia. Providing the last two qualify to Semi Finals.

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.