2015, then

And so they went home. You have heard that Shinji Kagawa wrote a formal apology to his fans, which according to my friend Sean Carroll is “as uninspired and predictable as his football in Brazil”. But that what in his (and his agent’s) mind is the right way to do, the right thing to say, to his fans. His Japanese fans. And even Japanese who are not his fans. But Japanese. And then his non-Japanese fans.

For most of us non-Japanese, his apology is optional. What matters is he gets his act together. Maybe even for Japanese culture, his apology is optional. He is not the first terrible number 10 to lead Japan in a failed World Cup campaign. I forget if Shunsuke Nakamura or Hiroshi Nanami did the same, although I guess they might have, at least in Japan.

But Kagawa is in bigger spotlight than Shunsuke. Back in Hide Nakata days there was no Twitter, YouTube, 24/7 updated football networks, and although it had started, European elite clubs did not receive as much as Asian sponsors as today. Kagawa truly believes he has failed his fans worldwide, both Japanese supporters and Manchester United fans. And sponsors. He should have done better, but the Ivory Coasters (what’s the proper noun for citizens of Cote d’Ivoire? I’m sorry) were so scary. Scarier than the walking Barbie doll in Beyond: Two Souls. He should have be able to do one-two with Honda, slashing through gasping Zuniga, and lobbed an overhead pass to Kakitani which the forward would have headed home.

Why can't Japan play football like this? Because life is not a manga.

Why can’t Japan play football like this? Because life is not a manga.

But he didn’t, did he? Nor did others. Or the whole English and Spanish defenses, in fact. But let others write about the Europeans. We’ve seen how scared little boys were the Japanese defense against Colombia, how nervous the forwards were against Greece.

In Jakarta Post, I argue that Asians in general don’t pay attention to the failures of Asia in 2014. They accept that Asians are terrible in sports as a matter of fact (never mind Michelle Wie, Jeremy Lin, Kei Nishikori, and yes, Shinji Okazaki) and naturally they omit Australia. On the other hand, there’s a persisting myth in Asia outside Korea and China that Japanese team possess the Bushido spirit.

Asians actually glared at me for saying “if you want to see Bushido in football, see Australia.” Now that’s brave football. Who cares if we get three goals past us? We’ll just attack and tackle. Part of it is the genetic of having European parents. And yes, one Mike Havenaar is not enough (I maintain that he deserved number 20 over Manabu Saito).

But essentially, Japan’s and Korea’s hesitation and lack of bravery during the matches were caused by fear of failure. When you are worried of making mistakes, you’ll make mistakes. Cliche but true.

Then, as John Duerden and other Western (but not Asian) journalists have said, Japan and Korea have no number nine – the goalscoring hero, the van Persie, the Suarez. So do Australia and Brazil, actually. So Brazil has to make sure somebody will be better than Luis Fabiano and Fred (and not having his European manager puts him as a winger) and Australia will also help Adam Taggart being better than Josh Kennedy and Scott McDonald.

But the lack of number nine in Japan and Korea also have to do with culture, I guess. Japanese boys want to become Captain Tsubasa, number 10, the creative playmaker. Number nine in Tsubasa’s saga is the brash, rude, and antagonistic Hyuga – who didn’t make it into Juventus starting 11. On the other hand, Korean boys want to become the speedy number 7, like Son Heung-min, Lee Chung-yong, or Lee Chun-soo in the past. Graceful and popular with girls. Koreans perpetually describe their football as “fast”.

Why? Because number 9 has to hog the ball and makes the final decision. He has to be under the spotlight. Of course many boys like that idea, many men eventually become them, the JFA and J. League continuously make such campaigns to encourage more attacking play and more goal scoring opportunities.

But how on Earth it could be a Japanese habit, Japanese psyche, if the Japanese keep on with group mentality and shunning of individuality in life beyond football? Even the closest thing to Hyuga, Keisuke Honda, showed himself as a 15 minutes attacking midfielder.

What Javier Aguerre, the new coach of Japan, can do is to develop Shinji Okazaki to become a full time number 9, with Yohei Toyoda, Yu Kobayashi, Junya Tanaka, and Mike Havenaar as next in the pool. Okazaki could scored 15 goals for Mainz last season because he had no such fear of failure in Germany. And because he was the number 9 for the club.

Thrown by toffees...of love.

Thrown with toffees…of love.

As for Korea. At least Kawashima and co., in their wonderful suits, were welcomed by squealing (always squealing) Japanese girls in that blue Adidas shirt. On the other hand, the Koreans were pelted with yeot, translated as toffees. Interestingly, among Chinese-Indonesians “toffee” is also an insulting word. So I guess the origin of the insult came from China.

Death of Korean football? Hardly. They didn’t call it death of Korean football back in 1998. Again, because back in 1998 they had no Twitter, Cyworld (or did Korea already have Cyworld back in 1998?), and Nike banners of Ki Sung-yong everywhere. And a dozen of European based players. Cha Bum-kun was more even disgraced back then. The pain was supposedly more…painful…with the economic crisis (called “IMF Crisis” by Koreans until today, blamed on IMF rather than their own fat cats) gripping, but maybe back then, Koreans thought everything sucked, so it’s appropriate for football to suck too.

In 2014, however, Koreans strongly believe they are the darlings of Asia. Japan’s sun has set and China is vilified, but everyone loves Lotte, K-pop, Korean drama, and Samsung. So everything nice and football has to be nice too. Why can’t football be nice?

After seeing Germany versus Algeria, I’ve come to admit the quality of Algerian football. Korea should have defeated Russia, but their only mistake against Algeria was they got panicked and scared, just like Japan in second half against Ivory Coast. Algeria could beat them in any day, even with better composure.

But now I’m finishing Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World. In Busan, she followed an American who dropped out of his exchange program out of frustration, and a Korean who was relieved to move to New Jersey. Nobody, even the Koreans, is happy with the way Korean education is run.

So in school and office, Koreans are pressured by themselves to be perfect. They berate themselves and are berated if they don’t do things perfectly. So that what happened with the toffees. The supporters, pressured to be perfect in college and office (or even in playing Starcraft), were angry that the Warriors were not perfect. Just like Xavi and Hart.

 

 

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.