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

Five Things about J. League 2014

You don’t need Nike or adidas to win the league.

J. League 2014 has wrapped up this month, with Gamba Osaka resurrected from death to ascend to the top. Just like the birthday boy (yea, actually He was born around May and 25th December is actually the birthday of Roman god Invictus Sol). I was going to call J. League the ________ League of Asia but that won’t work. Premier League? Not enough international stars (more on this later). Bundesliga? Might work ten years ago, plus now the best of J. League play in Bundesliga (ten years ago it would have been Serie A), but Bundesliga is now waaay better than Premier League.

Serie A then? Let’s see…famous names who are terrible in Champions League? Yes. A shadow of their 20th century selves? Yes. Corruption and match fixings? No, that would be China. Openly racist and sexist directors? Racist and sexist yes, but not openly. International fans who never abandon them? Yes. Fertile pool for future superstars? That works for Japan but not Italy.

So J. League is not even the Serie A of Asia. Because J. League it’s better, although it’s true that Honda looks more dashing wearing adidas’ Milan shirt than Umbro’s Gamba Osaka shirt (hey, you don’t see him playing for Urawa, do you?) Now he only needs to score several more goals for Milan and everything will be alright.

So, what’s 2014 about for Asia’s most popular league?

1. Like Japan, J. League is getting insular.

Japan’s response to the rise of China and Korea? Retreat to the mountain. The corporate owners of J. League teams don’t like how the world put their brands as an option besides (even behind) their Korean and Chinese competitors. Panasonic, owner of Gamba, experienced a resurgence in the 2000s from Lumix digital cameras, but now non-Japanese smartphones have put pocket cameras out of business, and professional photographers prefer Canon and Nikon (fellow Japanese, thankfully) for the big guns. Hitachi, owner of Kashiwa, has stopped making TV.

As J-pop refuses Western influences in contrast to K-pop and Japanese fanboys cling to the infantile AKB48 (mature-looking Korean girl bands are too scary for them), Japan is also cutting ties with its traditional Korean connection. Sagan Tosu were a serious contender for the championship thanks to coach Yoon Jung-hwan and playmaker Kim Min-woo. Could not bear the idea that a Korean could bring a traditionally minnow team to lift the trophy, the club fired Yoon on August. Tosu ended up not going to Champions League 2015, but the Japanese face of Sagantus is saved. I wonder if chairman Minoru Takehara or the governor of Saga was just aware of the Korean history epic Roaring Currents that summer.

So J. League clubs decreased the number of Koreans (on the other hand, many Koreans looking for international experience seem to prefer Arabian clubs. Plus, J. League teams still prefer Koreans over Australians for their Asian Foreign Player slot) but keep the Brazilians as acceptable foreigners. Sure, there are exceptions from Europe, but no African and Argentine played in 2014 J. League Division 1. Credit though, to Shimizu, who employed a Croatian-Canadian, a Slovenian, and a dark-skinned Chinese-Dutch.

 

2. Big Name Foreigners Cannot Flourish in J. League

J. League was the first Asian leagues to feature European legends – some continued to coaching like Zico, Dragan Stojkovic, and Guido Buchwald. But Japan was out of money by 1997 and never recovered its glamor, and now China and the Gulf have it.

Cerezo Osaka tried a play from Shanghai and Guangzhou clubs and recruited Diego Forlan – best Uruguayan footballer before World Cup 2010 – and Brazilian-German striker Cacau who was also in South Africa 2010. The result? Seventeen losses. Cacau played only eleven matches and scored five goals, while Forlan scored seven goals and a couple in Asia. Still, very disappointing for a man who played in 2014 World Cup. A Manchester United fan who scoffed at him in 2004, saying he’ll only good enough for an Asian league in ten years time, couldn’t get any more accurate than that.

So, why can’t big name foreigners flourish in J. League? First, only one club tried it. Cerezo’s town rivals Gamba won the league using two forwards who were benchwarmers back in Brazil.

Second, the money. If Patric and Lins would be good enough in 2015 AFC Champions League, they will be approached by richer Arabian or Chinese clubs (the Arabs from oil and sovereign funds, the Chinese from property and trade networks) . Thanks to their disastrous responses to the rise of Korea and China (instead of studying what works), Japanese conglomerates are struggling to keep their business afloat, and thus cannot be generous with their football clubs’ budgets. On the other hand, Australians and even English envy Japan’s talent development – at least the academies are working.

 

3. Will J. League Blow Again in 2015 AFC Champions League?

This is like the English and Italian problems. The world sings their clubs’ names. Children on the farthest corners of the world wear club jerseys bearing names like Oscar, Gerrard, Totti, and Vidal. But they have the slim chance of winning the 2015 UEFA Champions League (it’s zero for Liverpool). Worse than Japan, England and Italy have the slimmer chance to win the continental cup.

So why Japan keep on losing in the ACL? Let’s blame it first on distance. Do you know that compared to the distance of St. Petersburg and Madrid, the distance between Hiroshima and Dubai is…aw, forget it. They even could not hold a night in Seoul or Guangzhou, let alone Sydney.

Actually in 2014 Japanese clubs held themselves well in the group stage. Kawasaki were better than Ulsan. Hiroshima prevailed over Beijing. Cerezo defeated not only Buriram but also Shandong. Yokohama were unlucky enough to be grouped with both Jeonbuk and Evergrande. But if they could not handle flight fatigue to Guangzhou and Sydney, how could Korean clubs and Western Sydney prepared themselves for trips across India and the Arabian Sea?

So it went down to money and motivation. I don’t think club owners ordered their teams to throw away the match. But maybe the players and the managers themselves were not that interested with Asian tours. Since the double years of 2007 and 2008, it seems that Japan saw no point of Asian adventures – just like how they treated the competition in 2004. Ironically, once more Japan let the Koreans took the glory – and now even the Australians.

 

4. Do Japanese next best things need J. League?

There is Son Heung-min and there is Ryo Miyaichi. Both skipped local competitions and tried their luck in Europe. Miyaichi is lucky to be listed for the provisional Asian Cup squad, but I don’t blame him if he enjoys the abuses against Arsene Wenger. Son, on the other hand, gets all Cristiano Ronaldo’s perks at least in Korea.

Of course parents of non-European football prodigies worry if Europe will be the nightmare of their sons’ careers. It happened to Takayuki Morimoto and Hiroshi Ibusuki. Sota Hirayama made a career suicide when the sleepiness of Almelo killed him. Now he won’t wear the three-legged crow crest again, but at least he can see the lights of Tokyo every night.

So it’s better to see if you’re good for J. League first, then for the national team. Like Okazaki or Uchida. The miracles of Kagawa and Honda won’t happen to everyone (Honda was practically unheard of outside Japan when he was playing for Nagoya). Then again, we have enough Okubos and Usamis to show that J. League might be the final frontier for the rest. The twist is that the world’s best Asian footballers (or even athletes) play outside the system. That’s why they are specials.

 

5. What will Happen to J. League in 2015?

J. League 2015 will return to the two parts system, Latin American style, topped with Korean or Australian style championship play-offs, in an attempt to draw back spectators and sponsors. British commentators are skeptical and football hipsters mourn the loss of its volatile nature. Maybe that’s what actually the suits want to settle. Maybe they want two Kanto clubs to act like Chelsea and Arsenal and two Kansai clubs (hmm…bit difficult now, eh?) to act like Manchester United and Manchester City. Nagoya can play Liverpool.

How it will effect Japanese football quality remains to be seen. I mean, look at Australia. Where have they gone wrong? To market their clubs well, however, club owners have to market their corporate brands better. I love Panasonic earphones, but of course they are jokes for Beat and Audio Technica wearing students. Pajero drivers are increasingly seen as dicks (female drivers included) in Southeast Asia, and uh, Sumitomo, what are you selling again?

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.

 

 

The Chosen 23 – who will be there Part 1

A dog doing his guard

A dog doing his guard

Thanks to my nephew who asked who Spain’s forwards will be for World Cup 2014 – and if Fernando Torres is among them*.

So with the World Cup coming in one and half months, it’s time to check and speculate on the top 23 picks for Japan, Korea, and Australia (but not Iran, sorry). And who should be on waiting lists.

*My takes: Pedro, Diego Costa, Negredo, Soldado, and David Villa. Torres is a possibility backup along with Llorente.

 

Japan

Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima is Japan’s biggest improver for this season. Already the safest pair of hands in Belgium, he has the good chance to lift the Belgian Pro League trophy. Behind him would be the safest hands in Japan (but not so in Asia, at least last year) Shusaku Nishikawa, who had moved from Hiroshima to Urawa. Number three is trickier. Usually they are Tokyo’s Shuichi Gonda and Hiroshima’s Takuto Hayashi, but Hayashi is crap in Asia and so is Gonda in Japan this season. If Al Z is interested in archeology, he could pick Kashima Antlers’ 34 year old Hitoshi Sogahata, who had deserved a decade worth of international appearance.

Defenders: Atsuto Uchida (Schalke), Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), and Hiroshi Sakai (Hannover). Japan’s four backs are covered. The reserves would be…all from J. League. I’d pick Kobe’s Takahiro Masukawa, Kashima’s Gen Shoji, and Sagan Tosu’s Michihiro Yasuda. Wild card: Tsukasa Shiotani (Hiroshima) and Wataru Hashimoto (Kashiwa).

Midfielders: Besides Kagawa (recovering) and Honda (falling), we have Nagatomo (who can be either left back or midfielder), we have Hajime Hosogai (Berlin), Hiroshi Kiyotake (Nurnberg), his compatriot at the club Makoto Hasebe, Takashi Inui (Frankfurt). Outside Germany, I reckon 33 year old Shinji Ono, leaving Western Sydney as a hero, deserves a place. Finally, Bochum’s Yusuke Tasaka. J. League picks would be Shoma Doi and Yasushi Endo (Kashima), Akihiro Ienaga (Omiya) and of course, Yoichiro Kakitani, who performs better in Asia than in Japan so far with Cerezo.

Forwards: Shinji Okazaki (Mainz) deserves the top bill. As I want Japan to try to have two forwards instead of one, we should go with Mike Havenaar (Vitesse) as the tandem. Yuya Osako (1860 Munich) shows great potential and should be included in with four goals from six appearances. The local dudes I’d pick are among Yohei Toyoda (Tosu), Yoshito Okubo (Kawasaki), and Yuu Kobayashi (Kawasaki). Still uncertain about Hiroshima’s Hisato Sato.

 

Korea

Goalkeepers: Gosh, going all locals. Okay, play safe and go with Kim Yong-dae (Seoul), and his lifelong rival Kim Young-kwang (Gyeongnam). Actually, for Yong-dae’s rival I pick Cerezo’s Kim Jin-hyeon, one of few Korean top players who are still playing in Japan. In fact, I might replace Young-kwang with Ulsan’s Kim Seung-gyu or Pohang’s Shin Hwa-yong, seeing how good Pohang are in both Korea and Asia.

Defenders: Okazaki’s mate at Mainz Park Joo-hoKwak Tae-hwi (Al Hilal), Hong Jeong-ho (Augsburg), Kim Jin-kyu (Seoul), Kim Young-kwon (Evergrande), Hong Chul (Suwon), and Yun Suk-young (Queen Park Rangers). Can’t think of any good reserve at the moment. 

Midfielders: Park Ji-sung? The Guard Dog has little desire to return to the national team, although at 32, he’s still the greatest footballing Korean in the world. If he refuses the spot, then it’s up to Koo Ja-cheol (Mainz), Lee Chung-yong (Bolton), Ki Sung-yong (Sunderland), Kim Do-heon (Suwon), Kim Nam-il (Jeonbuk), Kim Bo-kyung (Cardiff), Ji Dong-won (Augsburg), Ha Dae-sung (Beijing Guoan), and Lee Seung-gi (Jeonbuk). Reserves are Jung Hyuk (Jeonbuk) and Kim Jae-sung and Lee Myeong-ju (Pohang).

Forwards: Lee Dong-gook, obviously. And obviously he has to stay smart this time. Then Son Heung-min (Leverkusen), Kim Shin-wook (Ulsan), and Yeom Ki-hun (Suwon). I’m not sure about 34 year old Seol Ki-hyeon, so I’d go for Kim Seung-dae (Pohang), and Lee Keun-ho (Sangju, as he’s in the Army at the moment). And there’s always Park Chu-young :p.

 

Australia

Oh Socceroos, what has happened to you. At this rate you won’t cut it for the World Cup, trailing behind Uzbekistan.

Goalkeepers: Luckily there’s Mathew “Mat, not Matt” Ryan (Club Brugge), Kawashima’s nemesis in Belgian Pro League. Since we have to cross Mark Schwarzer, then Ryan’s deputies would be Adam Federici (Reading), and two bench warmers in great clubs, Brad Jones (Liverpool) and Mitchell Langerak (Dortmund).

Defenders: Luke Wilkshire (Dynamo Moscow), Rhys Williams (Middlesbrough), Lucas Neill (Doncaster), Chris Herd (Aston Villa), Ryan McGowan (Shandong Luneng), Matt Smith (Brisbane Roar), and Matthew Spiranovic (Western Sydney). Reserves are Sasa Ognenovski (Sydney), Alex Wilkinson (Jeonbuk), and Jason Davidson (Heracles).

Midfielders: Cahill of course, then Brett Holman (Al Nasr), Mile Jedinak (Crystal Palace), Robbie Kruse (Bayer Leverkusen), Matt McKay (Brisbane Roar), Thomas Oar (Utrecht), Mark Milligan (Melbourne Victory), Dario Vidosic (Sion), and Adam Sarota (Utrecht). Harry Kewell has just retired so the wild card is James Holland (Austria Vienna).

Forwards: How can you tell Australia is an Asian team? When they are out of strikers. The best we can recruit are Mathew Leckie (FSV Frankfurt…what’s with Australian parents and Mat(t)hew for a son’s name? Just like Japanese with Shinji), Scott McDonald (Millwall. Yes, him, please), Adam Taggart (Newcastle Jets), and James Troisi (Melbourne Victory). Well, none of them is a household name in Europe so far. I also consider Ivan Franjic (Brisbane Roar), Joel Griffiths (Newcastle Jets..but he’s 33), and David Williams (Melbourne Heart).

Those are the names that if, they are fit and healthy enough, might play in Brazil this June. Let’s see how the Australians are doing with the final matches of A-League, and the Japanese and Koreans (and Australians too, great showing this season) with the group stage of AFC Champions League coming to an end.

Keep Calm and Freak On

For the team, put in a goalkeeper who has the safest pair of hands in Belgium, a versatile side defender who delivers mean crosses in Serie A, a pair of above average attacking midfielder – one who has journalists and Manchester United supporters behind him in his feud against David Moyes, and another who stays on with chilly Moscow for at least three seasons. For the forward – a young talent who tore down Manchester United defense in an exhibition and was certainly the most hated Japanese in Korea (after Prime Minister Abe) last July.

And what do you have? A team who cannot score. The best team in the continent who are on their seventh loss this year.  Against a decent European side who do not qualify to Brazil 14.

It was just not Japan’s night. At least they were not Australia or Hungary. They lost to the same score to Korea the next night.

But well, alright, maybe after all I am among those who overrate Japan. If they were in Europe (Kazakhstan and Israel do), they will not qualify to World Cup either, just like Serbia. Actually they are as strong as Serbia according to this month’s FIFA ranking, so there. Otherwise, they are still comparable to other losers of the European qualification – Norway, Czech Republic, and well…Romania…who still have a slim chance to qualify.

So, what do we make of the prominence of Japanese players in European clubs? Individually, some of them are exceptional – Kagawa, Honda, and Nagatomo. Below them, Kawashima, Uchida, Kiyotake, and probably Havenaar.

Now comparing with Serbia: the defense play in top tier English clubs. Some of them play together with the Samurai – Subotic with Kagawa (this is a past and future statement), Tosic with Honda, and Kuzmanovic with Nagatomo. Serbia’s strongest point lie in its defense, while Japan’s is in its attacking midfielder.

So what’s the difference? Serbian players, apart from the defense, do not play in European giants themselves. Tadic and Jojic, the goal scorers, played for Twente and Partizan respectively. But Japanese players beside Kagawa and Nagatomo, are essentially demoted. From Wolfsburg to Nuremberg. Stuttgart to Mainz. Southampton to Tokyo.

Secondly, the dreadful 4-2-3-1. Which forces Kagawa and Okazaki to play in sides, while Japan can certainly do better with Okazaki and Kakitani up front with Honda and Kagawa behind them. It can certainly could have helped them dealing with Ivanovic and Nastatic better. Eleven years on, and I still cannot understand why Japan think they can win with single striker.

So, Japan’s next international match is again Belarus, the bottom of Group I in this World Cup qualification. Which they have to win – big. Sometimes I get sleepless nights thinking about Japan meeting Belgium in Brazil.

Now, what about Korea?  Well, nothing much you can do with Brazil enforced by Neymar and Oscar. Apart from the shunned Park Chu-young, Korea have got everyone, including Ki Sung-yong. With 4-4-1-1, it’s arguable that they have employed two forwards. What they need to do now is to defeat Mali next Tuesday. This year they only have won three times out of twelve matches. They simply have no one in the caliber of Kagawa and Honda – Son Heung-min’s father preferred him to spend more time with clubs than with the Devils. Actually I might have to be worried about Korea more than Japan – I might be standing up for them on Guardian Football Fans’ Network next year, and again I want and need to perform better than Japan.

Actually this is an interesting situation: Japan have better players but Korea have better clubs. Hm, at least the situation isn’t as hard (and painful) as Australia’s.

 

East Asians in Europe Prospect for 2013-14

New season in Europe and bigger competition for Asian players to win the starting 11 position (or at least being the steady sub). At the stake is the call up to represent their national sides in Brazil 14.

Australia certainly have less footballers playing regularly in England and Italy compared to ten years ago (and on the surface, more of them play in the Middle East and Asia), but that don’t necessarily mean they are out of Aussies playing in Europe.

Mark Schwarzer is certainly still be Australia’s number one in Brazil, and he is willing to sit for Petr Cech if that means he can train with Chelsea (more importantly, Chelsea was willing to grab him. Seems they really don’t have any sub goalkeeper left besides Hilario.

The big daddy

The big daddy

Similarly, Mitchell Langerak is the understudy of Roman Weidenfeller, who will certainly become one of Germany’s prime choices. He is yet to play for guard the posts for Australia. Matthew Ryan, formerly a Mariner, is the first pick for Club Brugge in Belgium and is competing tightly with Japan’s Eiji Kawashima (more on Japan section). No such luck for Adam Federici, now the sub goalkeeper at Championship’s Reading. Similarly Brad Jones wishes that he’d have more air time with Liverpool, seeing that Belgian Simon Mignolet (with big ambition himself) has settled well in his debut at Anfield.

Top three: Schwarzer, Ryan, and Langerak or Jones. Their toughest competition would be Eugene Galekovic.

Luke Wilkshire is playing his sixth season in Dynamo Moscow but the competition is tough with younger locals. Michael Zullo is struggling to get into the Utrecht bench, while Rhys Williams is having less competition in Middlesbrough – ditto for Jason Davidson.

Top four: Well, that’s all we have. David Carney is in New York, Lucas Neill is in Omiya, Japan, and Jade North is in Brisbane.

Tommy Oar has secured his winger position in Utrecht and how many rivals you think James Holland can get in Austria Wien? Mile Jedinak look strong in Crystal Palace. Tom Rogic is still hoping for his Celtic moment, Nikita Rukavytsya must fight for his position at Mainz, and Terry Antonis is developing in Parma. Carl Valeri hopes he can do something with newly promoted Sassuolo, Ben Halloran must try harder in Fortuna Dusseldorf, and finally Adam Sarota is still recovering from injury in that Little Asia club called Utrecht.

Top four: Oar, Jedinak, umm..well, not very promising is this? Cahill is in America while Bresciano is in Qatar. Holman is in UAE while Nichols is playing for Melbourne. Victory.

Robbie Kruse is of course Australia’s great hope, that if he can prevail over the Sam-Kiessling-Son trio. Mathew Leckie is steady with FSV Frankfurt, while Eli Babalj is waiting for his star to fall at AZ.

Top two: Kruse…and Leckie. A-League’s best are Thompson and Duke, while Kennedy is still in Nagoya and Brosque is still in UAE.

_________________________________________________________________________

Samurai Blue is still in terrible form with only two players standing out: Kagawa and Honda. And Okazaki now and then. Still, it doesn’t hurt if they keep their German conversation club going.

Eiji Kawashima bounces back from his humiliation with Japan in the Confederations Club and friendly against Uruguay with four clean sheets with Standard Liege, now number one in Belgium. Looking forward for Liege vs Brugge.

Top three: Nothing much here – Kawashima, Nishikawa from Hiroshima and Gonda from Tokyo. With Hayashi from Sendai trailing, but he’s pretty old.

Atsuto Uchida is one of the most high profile right back in Bundesliga and is now linked with Arsenal. It’s all up to him (remember that I wrote that Wenger disrespects his Asian players). Yuto Nagatomo hopes for a better year with Internazionale with him performing. Gotoku Sakai is the prime right back for Stuttgart. Maya Yoshida, however, faces a tougher second year with Southampton. Hiroki Sakai enjoyed a promotion to the first team with Hannover.

Stay. In. Gelschenkirchsence...Germany.

Stay. In. Gelschenkirchsence…Germany.

Top four: With all these boys, we wonder how the hell Japanese defense was terrible.

Makoto Hasebe is sitting pretty for Wolfsburg’s bench, Hajime Hosogai holds Berlin’s midfield, Takashi Inui is playing for Frankfurt, Yuki Otsu is staying with VVV in Eerste Divisie…and welll….Ryo Miyaichi and Arsenal. Ah-ha.

Top four: Hosogai, Inui, it depends if you think how VVV fares against Nagoya or Kashiwa. Otherwise, there are Aoyama and Takahagi from Hiroshima and Yamaguchi and Ogihara from Cerezo.

These are the best bits: Depends on the month, Kagawa and Honda can be forwards or midfielders. The surprise is that Keisuke Honda stays in CSKA, but he knows damn well he’s the best in Russia. Shinji Kagawa, on the other hand, didn’t show his super-ness in Manchester United’s Japan tour and had better times with the national team (thank God). Remains to be seen if he’ll get a place in Moyes’ scheme. With Bony in England, now Mike Havenaar is Vitesse’s point man. Time for him to work on his magic. Hiroshi Kiyotake has scored for Nurnberg while Shinji Okazaki faces the similar gauntlet to Havenaar – being the main striker – for Mainz.

Top two: Honda and Kagawa, with sadly somebody gotta give for Brazil. Not to count that there at least one player from J. League. I’m among the Sato faction, but he can turned out be Kakitani.

_________________________________________________________________________

Finally, Korea. Which are in deep shambles. If Guardian Football recruits fans again for Brazil 14, I’ll go for Korea again seeing there are plenty British covering Japan. And Australians covering Australia. Heck, sometimes I do the explanation for Koreans in Indonesian media as this big expat group is too silent to explain themselves.

There’s no Korean keeper in Europe.

Park Joo-ho plays with Okazaki in Mainz. If Nikita can return to form, then Mainz have the complete Asian outfit. Yun Suk-young isn’t a part of Queens Park Rangers’ new Empire image (they defeated Ipswich Town with 9 English, 1 Irish, and 1 Canadian last week. Not that any Southeast Asian cared).

Top four: Euh, can I talk about how Korea recruited all Japan-based defenders instead for the friendly against Peru? At least they were tight.

Koo Ja-cheol looks good in a Wolfsburg shirt (just ask Makoto), the Welsh Kim Bo-kyung and Ki Sung-yueng look OK despite their defeats, and Lee Chung-yong stays loyal with Bolton.

Top four: Nobody nobody but them.

Son Heung-min looks alive in Hamburg, unlike Ji Dong-won and Park Chu-young.

Top two: Son and well, shall we give Park another chance?

Yes please.

Yes please.

 

 

 

It’s not you, darling. It’s your confederation

Japan's defense makes me despaired!

Japan’s defense makes me despaired!

The worst Confed Cup. Ever. No, not you Brazil 2013. You’re great. Neymar. Julio Cesar actually having clean sheet. Torres might claim the Golden Boot. Protests.

I’m talking about Japan’s results. Discounting King Fahd’s Continental Cup (1995, Japan were owned by Nigeria and Argentina), here are Japan’s previous results: Finalists in 2001, win over Canada, Cameroon, and Australia, draw with Brazil. 2003: win over NZ. 2005: Win over Greece (we were talking about Pirate Ship Greece, the terror of Europe), draw with Brazil (in which Ronaldinho and Robinho scored).

It’s easy to pinpoint Japan’s cause of fall down this year: Terrible defense. Still, facing re-surging Brazil at home is not easy. Italy – okay, that’s very terrible defense. And with Mexico…if Japan won that one, it’s doomsday for Javier Hernandez. He would have been remembered as another failed Mexican striker like Guillermo Franco or Carlos Vela (not in their overall career, but in representing Mexico in the shadow of Hugo Sanchez).

Actually I can see while many Brits sympathize with Japan. On international stage, Scots can sympathize with Japanese ability to depress and occasionally impress (can we have a Japanese movie with a sex scene set in January 2011? Like Mark Renton remembering Archie Gemmill?). Actually for the Scots, Japan can win something and only have their star club relegated, not under administration.

While for the English, how the media treat the Japanese national team is like England. While for the ‘mainstream’ it’s full of “England expects”, “date with destiny”, and Page 3 girls in England body paint, for the comedians it’s the self-deprecating jokes unthinkable in United States and Australia. In Japan, it’s “Ganbare Nippon!”, Kirin and Asahi commercials in every window of opportunity, and cute, innocent-like girls in Adidas jersey squealing and clapping. Again, for comedians (and expats) it’s sarcasm and despair.

Actually, June 2013 is despairing time in Asia. Because Japan, Australia, and Korea qualify. My, where would we have been had Australia defeated Japan and the Agony of Doha repeated itself. If Iraq held Australia and Oman had more wins? If Uzbekistan had scored much more goals or if Iran did so? 2014 seems bleak for the Asian qualifiers. Japan need better defense, Australia need better forwards (and a stable, mature goalkeeper. Not Brad Jones, certainly). Korea need..uh…Park Chu-young? Certainly Son Heung-min is not good as he thought he was. They need more friendlies. Even Iran worry about their goalscoring ability.

What happens in Asia is that West Asia (including Uzbekistan, if you will) are catching up with the slow-moving Northeast Asia (including Australia and excluding China). Maybe it’s the physics. Maybe it’s the pride. Maybe it’s the atmosphere, the space where Amman and Beirut are macho worlds away from Urawa, Suwon, and even surprisingly, Melbourne.

On the other hand, while the power gap inside the confederation is decreasing, that’s not the case globally. The lesson from 2010 World Cup was the world belonged to Europe and South America, but CONCACAF (United States, actually) and Asia (Japan and Korea. No, not Bizarro Korea) could eclipse Africa (except Ghana, which actually defeated USA). The African World Cup demonstrated the free fall of African football, in the age of Didier Drogba, Obafemi Martins, and Benoit Assou-Ekotto.

What’s the lessons of 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup? Well, it shows that Brazil can rise up when Nike needs them and that OFC is such likeable, whether in the form of New Zealand or Tahiti (even I did, as Steevy Chong Hue is the first ethnic Chinese to play in FIFA Confederations Cup), and Japan are Japan, even when their defenders and keeper have played regularly in the Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, and the Premier League. Panicked, timid, awkward, and frustrated.

The biggest fear of Japanese fans is if Kagawa and Honda are actually not that great. Well, they are 83-81 out of 100 players, in a world where many footballers are above 85. Had not for the terrible defending, the Italy 2 Japan 3 match would have been remembered for Kagawa’s sublime volley, Okazaki’s talent as a right winger, and Balotelli’s red card out of frustration. Oh, that’s also a glaring problem. Either Japan have no functional striker since times immemorial or they needs to abandon 4-2-3-1 or its predecessor a decade ago, 4-5-1, which had made Masashi Nakayama, Masashi Oguro, Keiji Tamada, Ryoichi Maeda, and even Shinji Okazaki as unhappy as Charlie Brown. Even Australia are having the same problem. It works in Asia, but not globally.

In any case, we have witnessed that world football belong to Europe and South America and this tournament as predictable and straightforward and it can get. If Asia cannot break the domination, then the three Northeast Asian powers need to lengthen the gap with their West Asian rivals. No more defeats during trips to Oman or Jordan, and full control in home matches. The supporters have done more than enough, it’s the team who have to raise the roof.

One more thing. I don’t think anyone is happy with their confederation now. It’s all corruption, self-congratulatory, and passion for mediocrity in every confederation now. It’s certainly has done unspeakable damage for Africa and humiliated CONCACAF. It’s no surprise if Australian, Japanese, and Korean influences are kept at arm length in AFC politics. Therefore, as hard to accept it, maybe the point of supporting the Brazilian protests is to tell FIFA that it cannot live in its own corporate world (as much as I am proud of more Asian corporations featured in the stadiums, I do feel the global and continental sponsors completely kick out the local taste and business out of the picture). What Australia, Japan, and Korea can do (much better than relying on Toto and Samsung) are playing hard and playing to kill. If it’s too hard against Brazil or Italy, then do it at Qatar and Uzbekistan. Do it at each other. Because Belgium and United States won’t wait.

Drink when they're winning. Hey, is this from 2010? OK then!

Drink when they’re winning. Hey, is this from 2011? OK then!