AFC Asian Cup 2015. Heh.

The magic of AFC Asian Cup.

Okay, I should be cheered up better. It’s an all East final. Featuring both of my favorites.

It’s all your fault, Japan.

But, had Japan was in the final, the mood be sourer than on Sunday. Korea v Japan would have been a nasty stuff. Japan v Australia in the semis, as interesting and ideal it was, would have been too much for many people on both sides of the Pacific.

Instead, in peaceful Australia it was an all-peaceful tournament. No Korea v Iran. Thank you Iraq. No Japan v China. On second thought, that would have been impossible.

The causes of Japanese terrible performance are clear. Stupid Aguirre put the same 11 throughout group stage – I won’t even do that on World Cup 2014 (yes, we couldn’t reenact the tournament on Pro Evolution Soccer 2015). Okazaki and Honda were too exhausted, too nice (the former), too nervous (the latter). Korea were lucky Lee Jung-hyup and Cho Young-choul were able forwards (and unlike Javier Aguirre, Uli Stielike was wise enough to deploy them), and the ranked-100th Australia employed their full potential at the right time, just like in movies.

UAE have the chance to be a hipster’s team now. Maybe less in Australia, after it’s revealed that Gulf nations want to expel Australia from the AFC since uh, it’s the new guys who went to the World Cups instead of them. I thought the biggest Australian haters in AFC would be something like China or Malaysia. Australia might secretly want a nasty rivalry, but it won’t be with Japan – it’d be with Saudi Arabia (the spitting incident), Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, and Kuwait.

Having said that, be assured that Asian football hipsters will look for UAE merchandises, and also free stuff related to Omar Abdulrahman. Wonderful, JFA, now UAE Pro League has better chance to be featured on FIFA than J. League Division 1 (not that you care).

What’s now? Massimo Luongo, Mat Ryan, and Trent Sainsbury will stay with Swindon, Club Brugge, and Zwolle. But they’d certainly play in a better club next season, just as Kawashima and Kagawa’s positions in Standard Liege and Borussia Dortmund are questionable. It’s a trickier prospect for the Emirates: clubs would have less confidence on them than on new names from Korea and Japan, but the bigger question is, would Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout like to start on mid table clubs in non-English speaking countries? Or in the Championship, like Ali al Habsi?

Finally, with Jason Davidson (quarter-Japanese) and Massimo Luongo (half-Indonesian), let it be said that Australia is an Asian nation in football, and Asian-Australians can make it in Australian sports.

Have a cheerful Valentine’s Day (I’m invited into a wedding. Yippie) and Lunar New Year. On March we’ll have brand new Asian football spectacles, such as India facing Pakistan and Taiwan taking Macau on the first step to Russia 2018.

Heck, even this week we are already in Champions League mood.

AFC Asian Cup 2015 Team of the Tournament

Goalkeeper: Mat Ryan (Australia, Club Brugge)

Defenders: Dhurgam Ismail (Iraq, Al Shorta), Kwak Tae-hwi (Korea, Al Hilal), Trent Sainsbury (Australia, FC Zwolle), Cha Du-ri (Korea, Seoul)

Midfielders: Massimo Luongo (Australia, Swindon Town), Omar Abdulrahman (UAE, Al Ain), Ki Seung-yung (Korea, Swansea)

Forwards: Ali Mabkhout (UAE, Al Jazira), Tim Cahill (Australia, New York Red Bulls), Son Heung-min (Korea, Bayer Leverkusen)

 

What’s on this February

AFC Champions League

4 February: Yadanarbon (Myanmar) v Warriors (Singapore), Johor Darul Tazim (Malaysia) v Bengaluru (India)

10 February: Ha Noi T&T (Vietnam) v Persib Bandung (Indonesia), Chonburi (Thailand) v Kitchee (Hong Kong), Guangzhou R&F (China) v Yadanarbon/Warriors, Bangkok Glass (Thailand) v JDT/Bengaluru

17 February: FC Seoul (Korea) v Ha Noi/Persib, Kashiwa (Japan) v Chonburi/Kitchee, Central Coast Mariners (Australia) v Guangzhou (surely), Beijing Gouan (China) v Bangkok Glass (likely)

24-25 February: Group stage already! Hectic, isn’t it

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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

Trying to Love Winning Eleven is a waste of time, really

You might not like the title

In high school, I was the only one who played FIFA (right from when Dad bought FIFA International Soccer for Super Nintendo in early 1994, and asking an Australian game store clerk if there’s FIFA 95 for Super Nintendo – it’s a Genesis/Mega Drive exclusive).

Other kids played World Soccer Winning Eleven (WE), then known in the West as Goal Storm. The classic argument was that FIFA had no elegance – pass-pass-shoot-shoot, while WE rewarded tactic, individual skill, and brainy build up – even shot strength and direction.

But the more important reason WE was and is more popular in Asia than FIFA is because it’s a Japanese brand. Back in 1990s I didn’t care about Japanese culture (including anime and manga) and was into American and British culture, that’s why playing Manchester United and England with FIFA was such joy. Re-enacting MU’s Treble season on FIFA 99, to the tune of “The Rockafeller Skank”, was magical.

Then in 2001-2002 I fell in love with Japan and Korea (because of Utada Hikaru and My Sassy Girl, really), coincidentally fell into place with FIFA 2002 and 2003. Big difference between two versions – FIFA 2002 had 2000 AFC Asian Cup and complete schedule of Japan and Korea’s 2001 friendly schedules (including Kirin Cup series and 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup), being a licensed JFA product. On the other hand, FIFA 2003 did not have Japan at all (amusingly, it rated Lee Young-pyo as a 87 central midfielder).

Inamoto (Arsenal) vs Nakata (Parma)?! Sweet! As if!

So I bought Pro Evolution Soccer 2, as Winning Eleven 6 International was known in Europe and Australia, and re-enacted the 2002 World Cup (in the official game I could only play one team and it relied heavily on volleys, a stupid concept). I switched allegiance so I can play Japan (even then and now I find little fun in getting into the K-League).

Pro Evolution Soccer 4 was the peak – I played Park Ji-Sung in PSV Eindhoven and Japan’s friendlies (including semi finals of 2004 AFC Asian Cup, although it’s safe to say that both FIFA and WE had ignored international football at this point).

I stuck with Pro Evolution Soccer (PES), as now WE is known internationally (including in Asia) but by PES 6 I’d seen the sign. The presentation got more drab, the gameplay did not evolve (as I was reading about what FIFA’s up to), and steadily more disappointments came in. No German league at all. No improvement in team licenses. The boring commentary.

PES 2008 (supposedly PES 7, but Konami was tired of Westerners thinking they were one year behind FIFA) was a mixed bag. I could play 2007 AFC Asian Cup, but I could not play every team besides Australia, Japan, and Korea (not that I wanted to play Saudi Arabia and Iran). The group stage was replaced with home and away qualifications. The songs (all produced in house) was horrible and so was the menu outline – compared to FIFA 08.

I made no choice in 2008 and when I bought PlayStation 3, I chose FIFA 10. I didn’t really care about Japan, as long I could play the A-League, Nakamura in Espanyol (he’s supposedly the team’s best player!), Morimoto in Catania, and that wonderful blondie Honda in VVV. I could play UEFA Champions League with all the pristine kits and club names.

Even sharing attention with PES only made it worse. Yes, I could play 2011 AFC Asian Cup in PES 12, but I could not play Kagawa in Dortmund. Unlike in previous versions, you could not register Japanese national players to clubs – they could only be transferred from other clubs. The UEFA Champions League license was bleh with the English teams (Man Blue, London FC, North London, Merseyside) had to be inserted manually (computer tends to skip them when picking teams), and looking back at the cover, I noticed how insidious Konami was – it depicts Honda vs Nagatomo in their club jerseys, but all images of Kagawa shows him in Japan jersey.

Conned. Even the Japanese.

 

And oh, of course. J. League.

EA had featured K-League since 2000 and claimed they wanted to put in J. League too, but Konami has the exclusive right with J. League (and JFA, in terms of Japan national team). J. League, however, was and is only featured in the Japanese edition, while you can play K-League with whatever region your copy of FIFA is. J. League and Konami always claim that they believe that J. League will not be interesting enough for international consumers.

By late 2000s I’d learned that Japanese gamers may have to buy two copies of Winning Eleven each year – one for J. League, the other for the European leagues. No one-stop- playing like in FIFA, where a Korean can play K-League and also Premier League.

This weekend I went retro and played Winning Eleven J. League games for PlayStation 2, utilizing basic knowledge of Japanese, familiarity with PES/WE architecture that hardly changes, and good knowledge of J. League teams’ emblems and key players. Finally I could play both the league and the Emperor Cup.

I thought I could go all way to Winning Eleven 14, but turned out the Japan version ceased to be published for PlayStation 2 in 2012. My PlayStation 3 is not modded and it’s impossible to find a Japanese copy of WE 13 & 14 here.

But what I found next was startling – it’s not good to be a Japanese WE player either.

J. League in Winning Eleven 13 is a Downloadable Content – DLC. Maybe it’s free, but a Japanese who bought it and went home would not find her/his hometown club. Now, for many reasons some people don’t have their PS3 connected to broadband internet. That’d be suck, isn’t? And say, a Japanese student in United States ordered the Japanese copy through Amazon or bought it in Japan. Can he or she download the J. League DLC if the PS3 machine is located outside Japan? How can Konami be this cruel to Japanese football? Of course, the decision was made with the consent of J. League, if only the main reason was to prevent non-Japanese gamers from buying the Japanese edition so they can play J. League.

What about Winning Eleven 14? A parent who bought WE14 for their kids needed to spend another thousands of yens if the kid loves J. League. WE 14 does not have it, World Soccer Winning Eleven 14: Aoki Samurai no Chousen has it. And not on PSP (no, no Vita version).

I felt conned with Winning Eleven 14. The international version cruelly does not license Japan, has their home jersey color red, and put everyone name to be fictional. I won 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup after painstakingly putting in Honda, Kagawa, and Kawashima and renamed other players (painfully many played in Bundesliga), but red Japan looked yucky. So I looked for a PSP image for Aoki Samurai 14 and played it.

Again, had I been a Japanese I would’ve flipped the bird to Konami. Same terrible menu, same terrible songs. Road to Rio? In 2014 FIFA World Cup I could start from friendlies in 2010 before the first match against North Korea in fall 2011. In Aoki Samurai 14 I jumped straight to the Fourth Round, played away match to Oman with no regard for Oman’s jersey, Ali Al Habsi’s distinctive look (PS3 version might draw him like a Metal Gear Solid character, but the ugly generic jersey stays), and no home crowd as everyone was chanting “Nippon!”.

 

The meaning of all these

It’s all clear now. EA and Konami run the global duopoly of football video games, but Konami enjoys its rule of Japan and Asia (and parts of Latin America, especially Brazil) too much. It gives the same terrible menus, music, and licensing to Japanese gamers, knowing that they won’t switch to FIFA anyway. For a decade or more they have managed to ask Peter Brackley and Jon Champion to sound robotic, laconic, and boring. Not only they had to follow typical Japanese commenting style (once you can go past Jon Kabira’s “Shutto!” and “Nippon!”, all his banters will end with “Desu ne” and “Ee.”), but they had to follow the Japanese impression/stereotype of calm and composed English commentators.

It might be puzzling, but I believe the best explanation on why Konami and J. League guard the league jealously is because it does not want non-Japanese to play it. Of course, the ability to play K-League or MLS do not make Europeans want to visit Jeonju World Cup Stadium or CenturyLink Field, and I’ve known dozens of Westerners who stand on Saitama Stadium 2002 and Osaka Expo 70 proudly week by week, but Konami has a vision and that is that J. League should not be a global obsession (it has). To the point of ripping Japanese consumers by separating J. League from the vanilla Winning Eleven.

The only proper way to enjoy playing J. League in video games is to play it on FIFA – not as a mod, but as a real licensed league with licensed kits and rosters that are updated weekly, just like Saudi Pro League and A-League’s teams are. EA likes the idea, but Konami and J. League (and JFA) will not see it happen. Maybe J. League is wholly overrated, but somehow we can’t replace it in our heart with K-League or A-League.

So, Winning Eleven 2015? From what I understood today from Konami’s ad when watching Kashima v Urawa, maybe J. League will available in the vanilla game – in Japanese market. If it’s so, good for Japanese players.

WE/PES 15? I’m skeptical that Japan national team will be licensed. If it does, it means Konami has learned a lesson. Its primary perk for me would be 2014 AFC Champions League – I can play Kawasaki or Jeonbuk, or even re-enacting the great path of Western Sydney. 2013 ACL was dreadful, but it’s not Konami’s fault. Hiroshima had no decent player besides Nishikawa, Aoyama, and Sato, Ulsan were absent, Australia only had Central Coast, and I couldn’t love Evergrande no matter how I saw it.

If American critics like PES 2015 enough, I might be a sucker for the game, even only to play the ACL. Man.

 

 

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.

All Right in the East…and West

Who said Twitter campaign doesn't work?

Who said Twitter campaign doesn’t work?

Last week I thought things were fine in Asia. This was when the scoreboards were Mouscron-Peruwelz (gah) 5 Standard Liege 2 and MK Dons 4 Manchester United 0 (plus a concussion). But suddenly things look up.

Start with the East, like the movement of sun is. K-League (Classic) continues its tradition of making into the semi finals of AFC Champions League, and the fancier Seoul defeat the unfancied (less fancied?) Pohang. Pohang’s indie rustic charm is something to admire – like Borussia Dortmund or Udinese. But somehow I just prefer Seoul’s cosmopolitanism. They have the only professional Spanish-Japanese footballer on Earth, after all (who is not that good). Homegrown players and local flavor must be something to be desired in modern club football everywhere (especially in Europe), but I’m bit worried that the “all-local” trend growing in Japan and Korea is more about racial purity than about pure football.

A Korean will be surely playing in the Champions League final, provided he is not injured – Kwak Tae-hwi from Al Hilal or Lee Myeong-ju (who was in Pohang last semester) from Al Ain. A defender and an aggressive midfielder – the proverbial Chinese duel of shield against sword.

And I’ve surprised myself by coming long way – cheering for an Australian team that has no player from East Asian heritage. Western Sydney’s starting eleven consisted of three Australians from ex-Yugoslavian background (Serbs, Croatians, Slovenians etc.), an Italian, a Croat, an Albanian, a half Mauritian-half German Australian, three Anglo-Irish Australians, and an African-Australian. Versus eight Chinese, a Brazilian, and two Italians.

So why didn’t I support the Chinese? Because I dislike their football – the Chinese defend and pass, the foreigners score. Evergrande go a long way in China and Asia (and even the world) with this tactic, but it does not any good for the Chinese national team. Because I dislike the bad sport of Chinese footballers. Because I dislike how working in CSL corrupts foreign players and managers. Because I dislike Evergrande’s supporters heavy handed tactics to intimidate Western Sydney. It’s more than anger against Vitor Saba’s acting. It’s pure racist hatred against the white Australians who dared to defeat Evergrande. I’m not sure about how they will treat Korean visitors, but Japanese visitors might be subjected to same, or even worse bullying. We don’t need that kind of trouble on the next stage (Evergrande will return next year).

An Italian approaches an Arab. A Croat and Chinese stay away.

An Italian approaches an Arab. A Croat and Chinese stay away.

I think I’d be neutral on the semi finals between Seoul and Western Sydney. It’s easy to go for Seoul, but I also fancy the fairy tale story of Western Sydney becoming the first A-League team to become the Champions of Asia. Just as I want Australia to win the AFC Asian Cup, despite Japan and Korea.

Now, to Europe. I’m planning to visit the nearest Puma shop to buy a Borussia Dortmund merchandise, because they’ve become my dream team – a team containing an Australian, a Korean, and a Japanese. Well, Mitch Langerak is on the bench again, Ji Dong-won does not sit there at all, and Kagawa has to prove himself against Milo Jojic and Sven Bender (it’s almost impossible to challenge Marco Reus). And euh, that Armenian guy.

I had the feeling Keisuke Honda would score the first Serie A goal for Milan and he did. Thank you Pippo for believing in him. Too bad Inter abandon the left midfield position so Nagatomo is a sub (unless he can overthrow Dodo, but it seems he’s better to be a left midfielder than a left defender).

Son sadly played only a half as Leverkusen continued its winning run, recently against Hosogai’s Berlin, the 2 against 1 fight between Koo and Okazaki versus Kiyotake ended 0-0, while Osako scored against Stuttgart.

In England, Ki earned a yellow card while Swansea are at number two, above Aston Villa (really), Manchester City, and Liverpool. Yoshida is hitori janai as Schneiderlin and Rodriguez stay in Southampton and his central back position is secured. And I can worry less about Manchester United. I think.

[Update: Southampton just welcomed Belgian central back Toby Alderweireld. Oh Maya.]

 

So We Begin Again

Got over the World Cup blues? Eiji Kawashima and Shinji Okazaki have to. Belgian Pro League has restarted (at the moment he’s at the rope, having conceded two goals). He also kept clean sheet in UEFA Champions League against Panathinaikos, and must face Athens’ hospitality in three days time. Meanwhile, Okazaki scored the only goal for Mainz 05 in Europa League against another Greek side, Asteras Tripoli.

So far so good – while Kagawa and Honda are in United States, trying to keep their jobs. So let’s see how things are going to be for the rest of 2014 for Asia’s best footballers.

Looking forward for this.

Looking forward for this.

1. Shinji Kagawa (Japan)

Current club: Manchester United

Positions: Attacking midfielder, left midfielder

Club record last season: 30 appearances, 0 goal.

Bad. He’s still on the clean-up list of Louis van Gaal. On the up side, he can be a substitute for Juan Mata.

In my life, however, fact often follows fiction, life often imitates arts. I played FIFA 14 with Kagawa in Atletico Madrid, and the Borussia Dortmund of Spain do have an interest for him. For 14 million pounds. I think he’d better to take the offer. Complication may arise when old love Dortmund calls again.

 

2. Keisuke Honda (Japan)

Current club: Milan

Positions: Attacking midfielder (country), right midfielder (club)

Club record last season: 16 appearances, 2 goals.

Plus, he scored in Brazil. It’s a wonder how come he keeps on ending behind Kagawa. Certainly he has worse time in Milan than Kagawa did in Manchester.

The news is he visited FC Dallas. And that’s about it. Dallas, of course, have their own Designated Players (United States and Australia try to limit the amount of expensive imports while at the same time ensure that some notables play for the club) – Argentina Mauro Diaz, the number 10, Uruguayan striker David Texeira, and Dynamo Kiev’s loan Andres Escobar (yes, he’s Colombian).

So it seems this season Honda will stay in Milan. Whether the number 10 will play enough in the field is another matter.

 

3. Yuto Nagatomo (Japan)

Current club: Internazionale

Positions: Left midfielder (club), left back (country)

Club record last season: 36 appearances, 5 goals.

Now we are talking. Too bad he was helpless in Brazil. Like Kagawa (maybe less with Honda), he’s pretty enjoying his working holiday in United States. Rotations may happen, but he will start the game more often than Honda and Kagawa.

 

4. Ali Al-Habsi (Oman)

Current club: Wigan Athletic

Position: Goalkeeper

Club record last season: 18 appearances

Mark Schwarzer is still Asia’s best goalkeeper, but at this rate he seems vouching to be Chelsea’s goalkeeper coach (Schwarzer may occasionally appear in League Cup – or for some reason Mourinho has some feeling that Courtouis and Cech may be injured at the same time).

Asia’s second best goalkeeper is Ali al-Habsi. Last season he played in the Championship and shared time with Scott Carson. Welcome back to the Premier League, Ali.

 

5. Hajime Hosogai (Japan)

Current club: Hertha Berlin

Positions: Defensive midfielder, central defender.

Club record last season: 33 appearances, 0 goal.

Tell me again, was he injured just before the World Cup? Otherwise it was a total foolishness to omit him from Japan 23. Now sporting the proud number 7, he’s expected to teach some naughty things related to Berlin nightlife (I hope he would) to junior Genki Haraguchi.

 

6. Koo Ja-cheol (Korea)

Current club: Mainz 05

Position: Attacking midfielder

Club record last season: 14 appearances, 1 goal.

Mainz 05 is the most Asian club in Bundesliga, with four players from three countries (added with Australia’s Nikita Rukavytsya). Koo is the club’s main attacking midfielder, and yesterday he played 75 minutes in Europa League before being substituted by Niki Zimling. He’ll do fine this season, as long he’ll score at least five goals (eight is preferable).

Seoul hates Uber

Seoul hates Uber

 

7. Shinji Okazaki (Japan)

Current club: Mainz 05

Positions: Striker, right midfielder

Club record last season: 35 appearances, 15 goals.

If Japan has the closest thing to a number nine, he is Okazaki. He did score in the World Cup, but not enough. As I argued, not only because he might have received better passes and crosses from Mainz team mates than from fellow Samurais, but also because he had much lighter burdens in Bundesliga than in the World Cup.

He’s off to the new season with good start after scoring against Tripoli, and that what made Mainz excited, Bundesliga delighted (you got an Asian fan here. Bye bye overrated Premier League. Bundesliga is the real deal), and Japan can rebound fast toward Australia 2015. What’s more, Okazaki relieved he could break through a Greek phalanx, so he could get over World Cup completely. I’m not sure if he can repeat his 15 goals record this season, but he can come close. It’d be nice if he can score in DFB Pokal – and more in Europe.

 

8. Son Heung-min (Korea)

Current club: Bayer Leverkusen

Position: Left winger

Club record last season: 43 appearances, 7 goals.

Here’s another star that needs to get over Brazil. Leverkusen go to Seoul and Son has the time to get himself a girlfriend, Girl’s Day’s (that’s plenty of apostrophe) Bang Minah. Her name is not flattering at all in Indonesian but I’m sure it sounds sweet in Korean. So, two things. First, it’d be all long distance since a Korean pop idol’s agenda is way busier than a CEO. Second, any show host will make a Son reference to Minah whenever possible. And Son will have much more air time (he’s got plenty) in Korean TVs. He’s also expected to join Korea U-23 in the Asian Games held in Incheon, as Korea want to win gold medal in men’s football so badly. Korea have 3 slots for players over 23, but luckily Son is 22.

We need for Asian WAGs news.

We need more Asian WAGs news.

 

9. Hiroshi Kiyotake (Japan)

Current club: Hannover 96

Position: Attacking midfielder

Club record last season (with Nurnberg): 34 appearances, 3 goals.

The forgotten attacking midfielder, perpetually behind Kagawa and Honda. Actually if Japan go for 4-2-3-1, he can be the right attacking midfielder along with Honda and Kagawa, behind Okazaki. Hannover is a mediocre club and Kiyotake will be a normal player in Bundesliga, which is just fine.

 

10. Mile Jedinak (Australia)

Current club: Crystal Palace

Positions: Defensive midfielder, central midfielder

Club record last season: 38 appearances, 1 goal.

It’s hard to choose the last player. Lee Chung-yong? Another season with Bolton in Championship. Ashkan Dejagah? I would have, if only Al-Arabi, his new club, had been in AFC Champions League. Vitaliy Denisov? I don’t want to know anything that has to do with Russia at the moment (there was a time where I followed Russian Premier League). Ki Sung-yong and Kawashima are also valid options, but I need to insert an Australian.

After all, Australia will host the Asian Cup, where I want the Socceroos to win (it’d be boring if Japan win again). Therefore, it’s important to see which player will lead them. Well, it’d be between Jedinak again, then Robbie Kruse trying to redeem himself in Leverkusen, Cahill, and Mat Ryan who has to stay in Belgium at the moment.

Jedinak was credited as the man who kept Crystal Palace doing well in the Premier League, and was close to achieve the impossibility of playing for 38×90 minutes (injury against Fulham prevented him from unlocking this gold trophy) in the Premier League.

Healed and rested, Jedinak spent late July touring United States with Crystal Palace and I look forward to see how he’s doing in the Premier League.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Not happy to be there

OK, let’s be silent for a moment, or minute.

OK.

In 2006, Nike’s tagline for Australia’s campaign in Germany 2006 (still representing OFC) was “More than Happy to be There”, and the ad campaign portrayed them as super underdogs who didn’t give a damn, even though they were rated below Japan. Both Nike and Socceroos had successful campaigns as they became the only OFC representatives to reach Top 16, probably ever (here’s challenging you, New Zealand).

Eight years later, the spirit of 2006 still rings true. Australia were the first Asian team to be ousted. But you know what’s everyone talking about. McGowan. Cahill. Bam. 1-1.

In few hours they will face Spain and it’s the Spanish who are worried – worried of conceding even a single goal. Worried of a draw. Worried of an ugly 1-0 win. In 2006 it was bit overblown to portray Australia as super (or it’s the other way around?) underdogs. Viduka, Kewell, and Bresciano were household names in Europe and Aloisi was tipped as the next big thing. Cahill had good reputation in Everton and Schwarzer was the steady choice, while Japan couldn’t pick between Kawaguchi or Narazaki.

But Australia 2014 were indeed underrated: Cahill had passed his prime, they did messy jobs in the qualification, they still have no trusty defenders and overall, have to rely on veterans of 2006. None of them plays in European big teams, with many veteran and rookie names are playing in Asian leagues.

I don’t know any Hollywood movie where the heroes die horribly one by one but we don’t grieve their eventual losses – they just dance their way to destruction and looking cool doing it. I’ve come to believe that had Australia traded place with Iran or Japan, they could do some serious damage – and goals.

Nothing to rave about from Japan, although you can praise the improved defense. But both Kagawa and Honda continue their personal and public disappointing acts (which means they often state they are disappointed with their performances, especially Kagawa). I don’t know if Japan looks at sports psychology as serious as United States does, but heavy works are needed for both of them.

And please, put Okazaki as the spear head. He scored 15 goals for Mainz because Mainz trusted him as number 9. Osako can cut his teeth in Bundesliga 2 and Asian Cup 2015, but Japan needs the best striker now (of course, it’s too late to expect so from him against Colombia).

So, why did Cahill score that volley and Kagawa didn’t? They are both under 180 cm tall, Kagawa is almost 10 years younger, and supposedly possesses better football skills (Cahill, of course, has better experiences). Again I wonder if it comes to culture – Australia loves Tim but it does not force him to star in every ad and the media don’t trail him everywhere both in Liverpool and New York City. Japan looked so hesitant because they feared failure, they worried about making mistakes, and so their did make a lot of mistakes. Including passing the chances of just giving it a go.
But the disaster case lies with Republic of Korea. I (and some other people, usually Westerners rather than Asians) love to think of Korea as the antithesis to Japan. Loud and brash. Expressive and Westernized. “The Irish/Italians of Asia”.

But if Japan vs Greece was a 0, then Korea vs Algeria was a -2 rather than +1. Guangzhou Evergrande’s tight defense can be attributed to the central role of Kim Young-kwon, but he can leave all hopes of playing in Europe this season after last night. Algeria celebrated its first World Cup victory since 1982 (when they were robbed by Austria and West Germany), and it’s VERY painful to see Algerian men (not women) honk their rusty rides on the streets of Algiers instead of cool Korean boys and girls raving before Admiral Yi’s and King Sejong’s statues with all of the lights.

What really ticks me off is that Korean media and people lament the loss but seriously don’t care about it. More Koreans are angrier that Sassy Girl Jeon Ji-hyun advertises a Chinese drinking water which is supposedly sourced from a Korean holy mountain (it lies on the border of China and North Korea). In Korea Times, the loss to Algiers is less important to “Bear likes oral sex too” (no link. Google it yourself) and the editorial that Japan risks severing political ties with Korea over World War II’s sex slavery (not gonna happen). The least they could do was celebrating the victory of Korean-American Michelle Wie at the US Open.

In 2006 I was quite crushed to realize that English-language Japanese news focuses too much on sex news (like that bear or starlets doing first pitch on local baseball league), precisely because that the popular news in Japanese are. Eight years later, it takes a heavy loss to Algeria to open my eyes that Korean news are just same.

I scoured again for news on the match from Korean perspective, and all I could find were dull reports on the goals without clear analysis on what went wrong for Korea: Formation? Chemistry? Strategy? Add that with lazy comments from anonymous supporters (on the street, since no one comments on the article) – at least Western anonymous supporters (on the comment section, and on other teams) can be sharp and unforgiving.
I found bits on what I saw last night: the cowardly play in first half (worse than Japan’s performance against Greece), the late introduction of Kim Shin-wook, and the descriptions of Korea’s goals from two familiar sources: blogs and news written by Westerners. It’s just frustrating.

This is from SYDNEY Morning Herald, for Tae-yang's sake.

This is from SYDNEY Morning Herald, for Tae-yang’s sake.

Japan – Ivory Coast was the most watched match worldwide outside the opening Brazil – Croatia match, and it’s understandable that more than 50% of Japanese households watched the morning match. On the other hand it seems that Koreans just don’t care about this World Cup. One can say that Korea is still in grieving mode after the Sewol tragedy, but it seems they are not grieving enough to make fuzz about Jeon Ji-hyun. And bear.

World Cup Debriefing: Match Day 1

This will be brief so we can get back to practice soon.

Australia

The perpetual optimists, blessed them, look forward to hurt Holland for their upcoming match. Naturally this means two things: a) they will do it and score a draw (any chance Ryan becomes tonight’s Ochoa?) or b) it will get worse. On record, Australia’s worst defeat in World Cup was 0-4 to Germany in 2010, and Australia looked tough for the first five minutes.

Certainly Chile were their best chance to score three points, but by all counts it was impossible (same result achieved by my high-tech analytical machine – EA’s World Cup 2014). The good news is, the perpetual optimists (TM) Australians can now look forward to surprise (or annoy) two teams with serious claims for the trophy (and one with serious need to rebound).

Certainly Australians take sports more seriously than Japanese and Koreans. This nation divided between sports buffs and obese, healthy eating and double crispy bacon, does not have to boringly claim “football is war” and yet they looked sober instead of crushed, considering they were the worst Asian team of the week.

Maybe it’s genetic. They knew they were slower and less skillful (this is relative) compared to European and South American contestants at the World Cup. But they are as big and aggressive as these football veterans. They are absolved from other baggage dragging town Japan and Korea – short, weak, non aggressive, boring, etc.

Maybe it’s also cultural. Australians are new to association football (still called soccer to avoid confusion with Australian Rules Football, makes me wondering why Japan calls it soccer although they don’t have to differentiate it to another code). On one side, Australian media and spectators do not put the hope and pressure as high as they might have on Australian swimmers and rugby players.

On another side, since Germany 2006 football, particularly the World Cup, has united Australian public even more than cricket or rugby international (i.e. Mediterranean and East Asian Australians also pay attention besides Anglo-Irish and South Asian/Pacific Australians). It took Japan’s disastrous meltdown after Tim Cahill’s equalized in June 2006 to put football into the main stream of Australian ads and pub conversation (although it might also started from John Aloisi’s penalty against Uruguay a year earlier).

The difference is, unlike Japanese and especially Koreans, Australians don’t put overtly burden toward its players. Chris Herd is a laugh in some forums, but there is no public condemnation against him, accusing him as selfish or whatever. And so Cahill and Mike “Mile” Jedinak left Arena Pantanal walking tall, felt less stung than Japan did in Recife.

Japan

Throughout Asia, everyone (except Koreans, maybe) equates “fighting spirit” with the Japanese. Numerous Second World War references ensue, and strangely in positive way. They were taken as the strongest Asian side, and certainly the sported names notable enough in both the West and East: Kagawa, Honda, Internazionale’s Nagatomo, and Mainz’ Okazaki.

Unlike Australia, Japan had the chance to defeat Ivory Coast. Yes, this is Drogba’s and now Yaya Toure’s Ivory Coast. Gervinho’s and Bony’s. But African teams have patchy records in 21st century’s World Cups thanks to terrible FAs mismanagement, overrated coaches, disparities between local and European based players, and clash of egos.

Yet it took aged Drogba to motivate the Elephants to spring to life, including changing the misfiring Bony. Sadly, Kagawa played like he did in Manchester United and overall Japan played, like, Japan.

Most news and reports on the match focus on Ivory Coast, because not only they won, but because the Toures and Gervinho have made more impact on the Premier League than Kagawa and Yoshida. Japanese fans naturally focus on criticizing the players and Al Z did the same – fuming why didn’t his players attack on the second half.

So, that 1-2 felt much more hurt than 1-3 (minus the foul plays experienced by Australia, and with several Ivory Coast players leaving the pitch limping). Maybe Japan really did not demonstrate the fighting spirit showed by Australia (Leckie’s rushes vs Yoshida’s dangerous tackles). Maybe Japanese fans worldwide set the standard too high – and the Japanese players set their standard too low. Japan’s fate still hangs on the balance – topping this manageable group or be at the bottom.

First half was fun.

First half was fun.

Iran

I want to care about them but I cannot. Maybe it’s the Eastern bias. Maybe because I can’t see anything interesting from modern Iran. Maybe because Carlos Queiroz had to bring Japan (which he referred as “Iran”) and Korea to angrily defend himself.

 

Korea

Heh, just like Japan in 2010 – terrible warm ups, surprising World Cup result. The difference is, this is the first time Korea failed to win its first World Cup match since 1998 (wow!). And they were close to win it. Can we have Kim Seung-gyu on goal for second match, please? He’s not much better, but still better than Jung.

Londoners, meanwhile, make another joke on Park Chu-young, who completed only 55% of his passes. Of course, the bigger jokes fell on Fabio Capello. Which is a good news – if Russia are England 2014, then the Koreans are USA 2014. 2-2 draw with Belgium and 1-0 victory against Algeria. Yippee.

Global media are obliged to show more pictures of Korean supporters. Don't everyone love Asian women?

Global media are obliged to show more pictures of Korean supporters. Don’t everyone love Asian women?

PS: Meanwhile, the Chinese do their own football in a series of friendlies: back to back against Macedonia and against Mali. Rich and strong China can’t pay Serbia or Tunisia to come, heh.

Er, shorts and cans of beer at midnight are bad for your health

Er, shorts and cans of beer at midnight are bad for your health

 

6 Things from Asian Cup qualification final day…and friendlies

Still the boss.

Still the boss.

My gosh, a new post in less than a month! It’s just that yesterday’s international orgy frenzy was so awesome I had to make some notes. Here they are.

1. Cahill: Still the Boss of Asia.

When he ruined Japan back in World Cup 2006, coming in for Mark Bresciano at the 53th minute, Tim Cahill still represented Oceania Football Confederation. Indeed, he had the choice to represent Samoa (like his brother Chris does).  I could not hate Tiny Tim – he did his job, and he did it better than Shunsuke Nakamura and the forgettable Hidetoshi Nakata.

One year later, Australia joined the AFC Asian Cup and many Asians – Arabs, Chinese, Indians, and Malays – did not welcome the white ‘intruders’ well. Oman were close to welcome Australia into the barrack, but Tim saved Australia’s face on injury time. Iraq did the job (3-1), before Australia defeated Thailand soundly 4-0.

Australia came into the knockout rounds as favorites against Japan, and this time Japan prevailed in the penalty shootouts (Cahill scored). Japan’s victory, however, felt hollow after Iraq took all the glory. Seasons afterward, Cahill became a cult player in the Premier League – goals after goals with the football hipster’s (if you can say so) club Everton. Then he thought that’s that and ‘retired’ to United States, where again he used heads and feet to score for NY Red Bulls.

Meanwhile, Australia had no other player like him while Japan produced Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda and Korea released Son Heung-min and Ki Sung-yong. No Australian player took the center stage of European leagues in the past two years.

Not everyone in Australia takes well the news that the 34 year old is still Australia’s prime goal scorer and best player. But with his reliability and relatively lack of drama (compared to Kagawa in Europe and Ki in Korea), how come you don’t love someone who keeps scoring for your team?

Australia 3 Ecuador 4 (Cahill 2 goals. Ryan was subbed for Langerak at second half, who then was replaced with Jones after Langerak was red carded).

2. Who’s Asia’s best goalkeeper? Kawashima or Ryan?

It was Mark Schwarzer. He had mixed records with Middlesbrough and Fulham, but any Asian goalkeeper is lucky enough to be trusted by a European club. Maybe the impression that they are “too short”. Maybe the sense that they are either not aggressive and commanding enough, or too panicked and erratic to guard the posts. Schwarzer, Federici, Jones, and Petkovic were recruited by European clubs because they are European Australians.

Then Eiji Kawashima became the first Japanese goalkeeper to play in Europe since Kawaguchi was booed in England and Denmark in early 2000s. It was not easy – he had to contend with the “Fukushima Kawashima” jeers in 2011 and Standard Liege benched him several times before he survived loan consideration and saw rivals Anthony Moris and Yohann Thuram-Ulien loaned out instead.

Schwarzer still wants to play for Brazil 14, but Australian coaches wanted a younger face. They might have found it in Mathew Ryan. Kawashima might be the safest hands in Belgian Pro League with streaks of clean sheets, but Ryan prevailed over him when Club Brugge defeated Standard Liege 1-0 last Sunday.

Kawashima played for 90 minutes against New Zealand and how he missed Liege’s defense on the second half. Meanwhile, Ryan logged off when it was Australia 3 Ecuador 0 and partly bemused, partly amused, by the sight of his rivals Langerak and Jones messed things up.

O yeah, Jung Sung-ryong restarts the competition with Kim Seung-gyu for Korea’s number one, but one of them has to be able to play in Europe eventually. And that’s a tall order. On Iran? Daniel Davari is just terrible for club and country.

Japan 4 New Zealand 2. Japan scored four goals in 20 minutes then let New Zealand pulled back two in the next 70 minutes.

3. Korea can do better.

Poor, poor Greeks. Losing 0-2 to Korea twice – on neutral and home grounds. Park Chu-young has redeemed himself much sooner than the Greek economy and football have. Korean football is still an anomaly after the 2011 match fixing scandals – plenty of promising stars in Britain and Germany, hidden gems in Japan and the Gulf, and clubs with strong performance in Asia. But put them against Uzbekistan and Iran and I’ll be very stressed out for 90 minutes.

At least now Hong Myung-bo knows that Korea can win without Park Ji-sung. This is not a totally good news, as now there’s a dilemma to call him for Brazil 14 or not. And if he’s called and he heeds the call, should he be a marquee sub or a starter? Is it wise to gamble eternity for the decision, knowing every movement and final result of a World Cup match are remembered forever?

Actually, Korea have nothing to lose. They know they will not win the World Cup and the best possibility is to pass the group stage. Nobody expects Son Heung-min, Koo Ja-cheol, Ki Sung-yong and Kim Young-gwon to become global brands (they even aren’t hipsters’ favorites). The goal of the Class of 2011 is to win the 2015 Asian Cup.

But the expectation and demand of the people of Korea can be overwhelming and burdensome. Forever they’ll curse a player who makes a mistake and make a catchphrase out of a missed opportunity. Korea can do better if only their fans lower the expectation and let things go easier, but no. They will want Korea to win gold.

Greece 0 Korea 2. Park Chu-young returned from disgrace with the first goal.

4. China must stop relying on luck.

Lucky losers China are. Had Zhang Xizhe missed the penalty kick against Iraq, it would have been Lebanon who qualified, leaving no East Asian team to qualify via proper process. China go to Australia 2015 as lucky losers, the best of all third place teams. During the qualification process, China won twice, two 1-0s at home to Indonesia and Iraq. This is not good enough for the country with the supposedly most exciting league in Asia (well, more foreigners will agree with that claim than most Chinese do). Not good enough for players who play week in week out for Guangzhou Evergrande.

In Australia 2015, China might have bit of luck on their side. But that’s not enough. It’s about time they have some players good enough to play Europe by their own merits.

Iraq 3 China 1. China qualify to Asian Cup 2015 as the best third-place team, above Lebanon.

5. Southeast Asia: Some Try, Some Don’t.

One terrible thing for Australia, host to the next Asian Cup, is that no Southeast Asia country coming. Southeast Asians make up a great part of Asian-Australians: Chinese and Indian Malaysians, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Thais, and Chinese and non-Chinese Indonesians. These Asian residents and citizens might not have flocked the stadiums had their teams qualified, but there would be spotlights on both Australia and Southeast Asia. Some European Australians might even support Thailand or Vietnam out of family or social relations.

Malaysia and Vietnam were Southeast Asians who tried hard. Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia did not try hard. Thailand are a puzzling case. I just praised Buriram United, and yet the national team lost all their matches – against Lebanon, Iran, and Kuwait. Lest they could have done were putting a fight against Lebanon and Kuwait. Instead they conceded at least two goals in each match – three goals was the norm. No way the political crisis is a valid excuse.

African stars in Europe have lamented on how corruption, football as political tools, petty rivalries, elites’ obsession for watching European football, and ignoring grassroot development destroy the supposedly promising national sides. It’s the same story in Southeast Asia.

Thailand 2 Lebanon 5. Saudi Arabia 1 Indonesia 0. Yemen 1 Malaysia 2. Vietnam 3 Hong Kong 1. Oman 3 Singapore 1. Only Malaysia finish the group at the third place.

6. Stop AFC Challenge Cup, please.

Ironically, Philippines have the good chance of being the sole Southeast Asian representative in Australia 2015, if they win the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup. The Challenge cup is supposedly a medium for the weakest teams in Asia to get something to care about. But it’s never that. It’s a sneaky ploy to get India and North Korea to play in the Asian Cup although they don’t deserve it. It’s a device to jump the queue.

I get the point if AFC wants India to love football. I get the point if AFC wants Philippines to love football. What I never understand is why AFC loves North Korea (qualified to Asian Cup via Challenge Cup). If money is the answer, then we have a very disturbing situation, because North Korea gets its money through crimes.

Even according to the current FIFA ranking, Philippines do not belong in the Challenge Cup. Now they are the strongest team in Southeast Asia, and I believe it. Indonesia and Singapore (and Malaysia, actually) fit in better to be put into the Challenge Cup, although it won’t be done. It’d be too humiliating for both these football crazy countries and for the AFC. But if the Challenge Cup’s category is “for countries where football is not the primary sport and/or whose national leagues are in um, developing stages” then North Korea do not fit the first category and India don’t fit the second. AFC Challenge Cup is a big fat junk and it should be kicked out.

Otherwise, the winner of the challenge cups must face lucky losers of the proper Asian Cup qualifications – if North Korea or Philippines want to play in the Asian Cup (India, mercifully, were eliminated by Bangladesh), then they have to prove that they are better than China and Lebanon first.

AFC Challenge Cup 2014 is set to begin on May 2014. The winner will qualify to the Asian Cup. “Favorites” are Turkmenistan, Philippines, and Myanmar.