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.

 

 

 

 

So, was it good?

Baby, you’re a star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homare Sawa: Still Unsung

The Number 10 wears kimono

It’s the picture that should have made headlines across the world: Lionel Messi next to a Japanese woman in kimono. He is the best footballer in the world. Actually, he’s the best man in the world in playing football. She is the best woman in the world to play football.

The news that Homare Sawa wins the award, the first Asian to do so, still does not ring outside the following circles in English-language media: international Japanese media, mainstream American sports media, and official sites of football authorities. For the rest, there’s only Barcelona with Neymar’s goooooollllllllll on the side.

In many macho part of the world, report on Sawa’s victory follows to only what Reuters and AP have provided. Here in Indonesia, some ever omitted the news, as a headline on Messi and Barcelona is really what the readers are after. I guess maybe for Westerners the image of a champion footballer is a roaring amazon in her black sports bra, while for the rest of the world (China included), it is Ronaldinha. Not a Japanese in kimono.

On second thought, let alone Sawa, Neymar also had his fame put very, very, sidelined. Before showing his rampage with Portuguese commentary, ESPN Asia had to maintain its English-centric view and ran Rooney’s scissor against City (not there was anything wrong with it).

The problem, of course, lies with the appeal of women football.  In the Promised Land of women football, Women’s Professional Soccer only has five active teams, with the team with most catchy name magicJack (in an Asian mall it’s a good name for a frozen yogurt outlet) is already defunct. That is why the world champions stick to semi-professional L. League (well done Japan, now Latvia and Lebanon can’t rebrand their leagues). Well, that the Proper Ladies of Japan had their time in America were handy, so that American media could say “she played for Washington Freedom”. United States’ best player, Abby Wambach, is currently without club, and even last season in magicJack she was the player-manager. So even despite Americans’ high interest for the last World Cup, and the inclusion of women football in American nationalism, Americans still don’t see the appeal of watching a week in week out of women football. Maybe after all, Americans still see that their national teams serve only one function: to pummel out the world during random summer. Maybe that what is what “USA! USA! USA!” is about.

On the other hand, I can only *imagine* that the Homare Sawa craze in Japan is less subdued than the past exposes…like for Miwa Asao or volleyball stars like Saori Kimura and Megumi Kurihara (let’s not go into Megumi Kawamura). Certainly it’s less like Korean craze for Kim Yuna. Sawa’s a national hero alright, but facially she’s less attractive* than the mentioned stars (hey, even America has soft spot for Hope Solo). But considering the hype Japanese media can build for the flavor of the week, maybe the normal level of exposition of Sawa is alright. But already there’s a scam (here’s another Japanese tradition) for ‘photo opportunity with Sawa/Nadeshiko’. And yes, this year is Olympics’ year. duh.

*Well, I found it’s hard to advertise other players like Ayumi Kaihori or Aya Miyama to people who would assume that they look like Ayumi Hamasaki and Aya Ueto. Personally my favorite is Karina Maruyama. Since she was sporting cornrow.

I think the most well-developed female league in business is Frauen Bundesliga. Already three Nadeshiko playing there – Saki Kumagai (Frankfurt), Kosue Ando (Duisburg), and Yuki Nagasato (Turbine Postdam). Aya Sameshima and Rumi Utsugi, meanwhile, play for Montpellier in French D1 Feminine. Still, knowing how much sexism still rules Japanese and Korean business and societies, I’m still astonished which how much women football a) raises little objection from males compared to the general attitude in the West and b) how good are Korean and Japanese women at it, something that still evades the Europeans and Spanish-speaking Americans.