2015 AFC Asian Cup. Yay.

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

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

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

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

Australia

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

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

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

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

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

Goalkeeper: Ryan

Defenders: Franjic, Sainsbury, Spiranovic, Davidson

Midfielders: Jedinak, Bresciano, McKay

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

Korea

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

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

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

Goalkeeper: Kim Seung-gyu

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

Midfielders: Lee Chung-yong, Ki, Koo

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

Uzbekistan

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

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

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

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

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

Saudi Arabia

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

China

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

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

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

North Korea

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

Iran

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

Japan

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

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

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

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

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

Defenders: Sakai, Konno, Yoshida, Nagatomo

Midfielders: Endo, Hasebe, Kiyotake, Kagawa, Honda

Forward: Okazaki

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My love-hate-love feeling for Australia

Since Honda & Kagawa won't do this.

Since Honda & Kagawa won’t do this.

They were the big boys of Oceania – an artificial region composing Pacific area outside Asia. Asia itself is a broad definition – from Syria to Japan and Indonesia. In the past Oceania served as a bin for associations with political complications, like Israel and Taiwan.

In Oceania, however, Australia didn’t make it to the World Cup apart from 1974. New Zealand made in in 1982, and in other occasions they lost the playoffs against Europe (Scotland in 1985), South America (Uruguay in 2001), and even Asia (Iran in 1997). At the same time, the question of Australia’s place in Asia Pacific arose again, at it had been in 1980s and 1990s (and now). Asian students had become a part of Australia’s capitals, Asian Australians were growing in numbers (propelled by Southeast Asians from children of Vietnamese boat people to Malaysian students securing permanent residency), and Sydney stock market is comparable to Shanghai’s (after 2000s), Singapore’s, and Seoul’s.

When I arrived in Australia a decade ago, football was a messy affair of South European rivalry. South Melbourne were a Greek club as Sunshine were Croatian. Just a decade ago, football was seen as a Euro sport, although Anglo-Irish players had appeared, like Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton. Australia did really well in the 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup (the last time Japan beat them in 90 minutes, 1-0 by Hide Nakata), but the team continued a heartbreaking streak of losing the intercontinental playoffs. I remember them went down to Argentina in 1993 (Diego Maradona vs Ned Zelic), Iran in 1997 (equalized from 0-2 down in the first half), and the start of bitter rivalry with Uruguay in 2001 (total 7 yellow cards for the hosts in Montevideo). And that was before Luis Suarez.

So Australia, who held world record for 31-0 (insert verbal noun) over American Samoa, thought it’s better to work their way up against Syria, Uzbekistan, and Thailand before jostling for a ticket with Japan and Saudi Arabia (hey, this was a decade ago. OK, Iran then). Rather than steamrolling Vanuatu, knocking New Zealand on the head, and only to go down again in intercontinental.

They did get their wish in 2005 when Mark Bresciano scored against Uruguay in Sydney, equalizing the aggregate to 1-1. 35 year old Mark Schwarzer failed Dario Rodriguez (who beat him in Montevideo) and Marcelo Zalayeta (Uruguay had withdrawn Alvaro Recoba and didn’t play Diego Forlan), and the overjoyed running of John Aloisi entered the lore of Australian sports. He was seen, thanks to the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup, as a better forward to Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell (who had become a winger at this time). At the same year, the A-League was launched, to close curtains on the semi-professional quality and ethnics division of Australian football.

Luckily Konami Australia chose this over when he celebrated against Japan.

Luckily Konami Australia chose this over when he celebrated against Japan.

Then the crack came. As a representative for Oceania, they belonged to the same pot with South America and Africa in the draw – and were put in Group F with Japan. The plot was that Brazil (featuring the ‘golden square’ of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka, and Adriano) would breeze through with Croatia came second. The third place would be either Australia or Japan.

Looking back, the air of confidence between Australia and Japan were quite difference. Australia put in the air of defiance, even portraying Japan as a better favorite. But they didn’t care. Nike chose Mark Bresciano (“More than happy to be there”) while adidas promoted Harry Kewell (“+10”). Japan also had big confidence, but outside Japan only Shunsuke Nakamura was considered dangerous enough. This assumption held on the match day. Masashi Oguro played in a minor club in Serie A. Hidetoshi Nakata was seen as a has-been. I spoke to some Japanese students a week before the match and I was more optimistic on Naohiro Takahara than they were. Actually I worried that captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto raised the nation spirit by organizing a futsal match between Morning Musume vs JAL stewardesses instead of increasing his training regime.

But I felt happier living in the otaku (anime geek) world in contrast to the manly Aussie sports world. At this time I felt I had been lost in touch with the Asian part of Australian life that I enjoyed, and so Japan represented that Asian joy, while Australia represented the reality of Western civilization that I was living in. It was a classical East vs West battle.

And I hated Australia for that. And I knew that everything I counted on Japan was wrong. Cahill was better playmaker than Shunsuke. Schwarzer was a better keeper than Kawaguchi. Alex was always ineffective as an attacking forward. And that Japan’s substitutes were lack of quality. The early morning chants of Australian supporters when they passed to the Round of 16 was the worst rude awakening I ever had (my life’s pretty uneventful, huh?).

When Italy defeated Australia and Fabio Grosso became the Dirty Diego of the tournament, Chinese match commentators screamed ecstatically, cursing Australia to the point of being racist. That’s what many Asian males feel about Australia joining AFC. We have no problems with Iranians or Uzbeks, but you ‘whities’ don’t belong here in Asia.

A year later, I was back in Indonesia and Australia were favorites to win the 2007 Asian Cup. In Thailand, Australian supporters wore the bamboo farmer cone caps, something that Thais or any other Southeast Asian supporters never wear (and all the Aussies were white). Indonesia hosted Korea, who played badly against Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Korea needed to defeat Indonesia to pass and Koreans in Jakarta supported them from behind…faaar behind from the safety of gated communities and bulgogi joints. While the Australians felt comfortable in Bangkok (they also did badly against Iraq and Oman), eating rambutan and drinking Chang beer, the Koreans were too terrified to visit the stadium. Too many ‘brownies’ for their comfort. Korean expats are happy for a family outing in Doha or Dubai but not Djakarta.

Australia, in the end, counted their first Asian Cup as bad experience. Aloisi repeated his achievement in scoring against Japan, but Takahara came back with a vengeance. Kewell and Neill failed to defeat Kawaguchi, but Takahara threw away his chance. Australia did have a hope, but Nakazawa scored. With the ousting, David Carney and Nick Carle failed to become Australia’s next big stars. Japan later found out that while Australia had no desire to kill them, Korea did. The next year, Adelaide United reached the AFC Champions League final, only to be shot down 0-3, 0-2 by Gamba Osaka. 2008 proved to be the zenith point for both J-League and A-League in Asia.

My hatred for the Socceroos continued in the FIFA World Cup qualifications, but two things happened. 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup was forgettable because Asia was represented by Iraq. Secondly, watching Australia facing Bahrain, Qatar, and Uzbekistan, part of me wanted them to lose and part of me were irritated with the quarrelsome and vain West Asians and their stadiums that were devoid of women. I began to see the common point between Australia and Japan. It was in Japan’s interest that Australia went well against the West Asians. I also always want Japan to play as passionate and dominating the way Australia do (Australia scored 12 goals, two on Japan, while Japan scored 11. The big difference was Australia conceded only one – the scorer was Tulio Tanaka).

Then came the day Australia’s supremacy and defiance ended. Schwarzer was looking forward to face the country of his parents and Tim Cahill was one of the best playmaker in England. They scared Germany in the first five minutes. Three minutes later, Podolski scored. Then Klose. Then forward Cahill received red card. Then Muller scored again. Kick off, then it’s the turn of substitute Cacau.

Looking back, Australia did as well as they did in 2006 – draw with Ghana and victory over Serbia, with Brett Holman came into prominence. Problem was Ghana had the better goal aggregate. And so Pim Verbeek was deemed as a failure.

Was I happy? Absolutely. Of course, United States vs Australia would have become an ultimate soccer game. But everyone needed a lovable African team and they were Ghana.

In 2011, my dilemma of Australia vs West Asia returned. Disappointed that Korea failed to defeat them but happy that they defeated Bahrain, Iraq, and destroyed Uzbekistan. Tim Cahill, as always, could become Japan’s nemesis. He came close to score but he didn’t, and Tadanari Lee’s volley made Japan, once more, the Kings of Asia. Unfortunately, Lee’s moment failed to spark renewed respect for the Korean-Japanese. Worse, his fellow Korean-Japanese girlfriend left him for Okinawan geek girl’s god Gackt and he failed to settle in Southampton.

Two other things happened recently. The hostile nationalism gripping all Asian nations, including Japan and Korea, and their disdain for liberalism and green issues, has made me wide awake at nights. Australia has become a standard for everything right about society and politics (compared to Japan, Korea, and Singapore, my Australian friends).

Second, I’m teaching Australian cultural studies and I’m loving it. I prefer Girls’ Generation but I play Gotye and Sia. My students enjoyed Packed to the Rafters that I showed while I like Dream High and Working!! better. From advising nervous and excited teenagers how to enjoy life in Australia, I’ve come to fall in love with it again.

The cordial atmosphere between Japan and Australia last week has become a point where I’ve come to accept Australia as one of the East Asians. But not yet. Australia still have no footballer from Asian background. Australia still has almost no athlete from East Asian background (only diver Melissa Wu comes into mind, plus some badminton players). The only Asian Australian footballer I know (discounting those of Lebanese backgrounds) is Brendan Gan, who played for Sydney FC and now is with New South Wales Premier League’s Rockdale City Suns (formerly a Macedonian club). If the chance comes, he opts to play for Malaysia rather than Australia.

And so the quest for Soccer Australia’s Jeremy Lin still afar. It can be ten years from now, or it can be soon after 2015. Or much longer, the way United States still yet to find the heir to Brian Ching and Canada with Issey Nakajima-Farran (and both players are half-white). When he comes and plays for the green and gold, I’ll completely support the Socceroos.

2012 in Asian Football

I want love in a peaceful world.

I want love in a peaceful world.

January

  • The earliest (and latest) cup in global football is lifted every 1st January in Japan. FC Tokyo win the 201..1 Emperor’s Cup by defeating Kyoto Sanga FC 4-2. Second Division FC Tokyo win a spot in the 2012 AFC Champions League.
  • Tim Cahill ends his goal drought after 34 matches (he passed 2011 without any goal, including in Asian Cup) by scoring for Everton against Blackburn Rovers. The match ends 1-1.
  • Arsenal teenage winger Ryo Miyaichi is loaned to Bolton.

February

  • Adelaide United and Pohang Steelers qualify to 2012 AFC Champions League by defeating two Southeast Asian hopefuls – Persipura of Indonesia and Chonburi of Thailand. Buriram of Thailand is the sole SE Asian representative in the ACL. With SE Asian federations underperforming or in legal problems, Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan fill a spot in the East Asian division.
  • Shinji Okazaki scores with a bicycle kick for Stuttgart against Hannover 96.
  • China end hope to qualify to Brazil 2014 despite defeating Jordan 3-1 at home. Its doom had been pronounced in Autumn 2011 thanks to back to back defeats against Iraq and Jordan. The Economist‘s Christmas 2011 edition runs special article on why Chinese football sucks.
  • On the other hand, Asian champions Japan qualify as runner ups without able to defeat Uzbekistan and lost the away match in North Korea, where coach Al Zaccheroni complains that the custom seizes his soy sauce.
  • Still on road to Brazil: demoralized Indonesia are torn apart 0-10 by Bahrain. Bahrain, however, fail to qualify as rival Qatar fight to the end to hold Iran 2-2 and pass the group undefeated. While Indonesia field players only from the official Premier League (leaving veterans playing in the Super League), Bahrain also ban Shiite players from the team.

March

  • North Korea qualify automatically to 2015 AFC Asian Cup after defeating other minnows such as Philippines, Tajikistan, India, and Turkmenistan. At that time NK are ranked 15th in Asia, far above non-Challenge Cup participants such as UAE and Thailand.
  • Woeful year for Japanese powerhouse Gamba Osaka begins as they go down in the ACL to Pohang Steelers 0-3 and to Adelaide United 0-2.
  • Australia end its quest for Olympics gold finishing bottom of Group B without scoring any goal and ended four matches 0-0. The Matildas had failed to qualify in 2011 after falling one point short below North Korea. The duel between Japan and Korea U-23 in London is anticipated.

April

  • Brisbane win the A-League Grand Final due to 90+7th minute penalty kick by Albanian Besart Berisha into Perth Glory’s goal. Man of the match award for Perth’s Jacob Burns is for a while incorrectly awarded to Brisbane winger Thomas Broich.
  • Japan and Korea begin their 2012 league season in the familiar manners – taking in Australians and few Japanese players for the Asian Player spot in Korea, and taking in Koreans and few Australians for the AP spot in Japan – along with South and North Koreans who were born in Japan. Both leagues also use Brazilian players extensively and are still reluctant to draw big names from Europe.
  • No such qualm in China, where Nicolas Anelka, fresh from enjoying a late summer period in Chelsea, moved to Shanghai. In February he scored 40 seconds in the friendly against Hunan. In April the club is in crisis and he becomes player-manager.
  • Meanwhile, Guangzhou Evergrande ace the ACL group stage by defeating ex-champions Jeonbuk Hyundai 5-1 and Kashiwa Reysol 3-1. Except for Gao Lin, however, all the goalscorers are South Americans Cleo, Muriqui, and Dario Conca. Still, credit for their defense team.

May

  • Shinji Kagawa completes his glory in Germany by scoring against Bayern Munich in the DFB Pokal final. He scores 13 goals in Bundesliga, 3 in DFB Pokal, and 1 in the Champions League – against Arsenal.
  • Kagawa’s rival Keisuke Honda scores consolation goal against Rubin Kazan. After missing much of the season to injury, Honda fails to help CSKA to qualify for the Champions League as rival Spartak take them over with two points.
  • Tim Cahill ends his career in Everton with a sour note after being sent off for fighting with Yohan Cabaye, who pushed an Everton ball boy.
  • Internazionale signs a loaned player from Cesena, Yuto Nagatomo. Smaller than average (compared to other Japanese players) Nagatomo becomes the most successful player in Serie A in the last five years. He is also the first Japanese player to play in the city of Milan.
  • J. League lose all representatives in the ACL with Nagoya, Kashiwa, and Tokyo all shot down. K-League also only spare Ulsan Hyundai alive, while Guangzhou and Adelaide United stay on course.

June

  • Keisuke Honda returns to Samurai Blue with the goal against Oman and hattrick against Jordan.
  • Big moves for Asian players – Kagawa to Manchester United (where porn star Ameri Ichinose is mistakenly identified as his girlfriend), Hiroshi Kiyotake to Nuremberg, Kim Bo-kyung to Cardiff City, Ki Sung-yueng to Swansea, Maya Yoshida to Southampton, and Eiji Kawashima to Standard Liege.
  • The transfer headline is on Didier Drogba. Fresh after taking Chelsea to become the kings of Europe, money and Anelka lure him to Shanghai. The French star fights with a fan after he refuses to follow the customary bow toward Shanghai’s supporters.

July

  • Controversy in Cardiff after its Malaysian owners change the crest and the home shirt color to conform more with feng shui – from blue and Blue Birds into red and the Welsh red dragon.
  • Another Malaysian-owned team, Queens Park Rangers, also looks forward for a better EPL season. They sign Park Ji-sung (Korea) from Manchester United, Julio Cesar (Brazil) from Internazionale, and Ryan Nelsen (New Zealand) and Junior Hoillet (Canada) from Blackburn Rovers, distinctively becoming probably the only team in the world with players from all confederations. The shirt sponsor is changed from Malaysia Airlines to owner Tony Fernandes’ own Air Asia.
  • Unfortunately, by the end of this year Asians who love Air Asia for their travels are too embarrassed to wear the jersey.
  • More than they wear the MU’s red tartan jersey.
  • Korea and Japan pass Olympics’ group stage in minimalist manners – Korea with 2-1 victory over Switzerland and 0-0s against Gabon and Mexico, while Japan steal headline after defeating gold medal favorite Spain 1-0. The rest is unconvincing – 1-0 to Honduras and 0-0 to Morocco. The women team also draw 0-0 with Sweden and Africa after defeating Canada 2-1.
  • Swiss player Michel Morganella is sent home after sending racist tweets against Koreans. North Korea is also angry as organizer shows their future flag of Taegeukgi in the match against Colombia. Heck, even they complained that there was the flag of Korea in the stadium along with the flag of Cameroon and Sweden. Are they Koreans or not?

August

  • Shinji Kagawa scores his first goal for Manchester United past Asia’s best goalkeeper – Fulham’s Mark Schwarzer.
  • Anelka and Drogba’s partnership in Shanghai result in astonishing 3-3 draw with Shandong Luneng.
  • Arsenal loans number nine forward Park Chu-young to Celta Vigo, sparing him the horror of wearing number 30 after 9 is given to Lukas Podolski.
  • Nadeshiko Japan defeat favorite Brazil 2-0 and France 2-1. Unfortunately they go down to United States 1-2 and get silver medal. Turbine Postdam’s Yuki Ogimi scores three goals.
  • Project Team Great Britain go down in typical English manner – lose penalty shootout in the quarter finals, this time to Korea. Chelsea’s Dean Sturridge fails to score while Korea put five past Jack Butland.
  • Korea win the bronze medal after Park Chu-young and Koo Ja-cheol score against Japan. Defender Park Jong-woo sport a banner written “Dokdo is Ours!” after the match, winning critics outside Korea and praises from Koreans. Since then Korean TVs have gone too hard in putting Dokdo in every context and criticizing celebrities who refuse to join the chorus, especially those who are being popular in Japan.

September

  • Both Korea and Australia are in crisis mode for their World Cup qualification as Uzbekistan hold Korea and Australia’s defeat to Jordan condemn them to zero win from three matches.
  • Park Chu-young becomes the first Korean to score in La Liga against Getafe. Lee Chun-soo was the last Korean to play in La Liga a decade ago.
  • Korean Army team Sangju Sangmu Phoenix walk out from the Relegation round of K-League after AFC requires professional contracts for players in every club. The club serves as a host for players serving their military draft. Even without the drama, SSP are already relegated. Recently some other players prefer to join the Korean Police FC for their national service.
  • The Championship round in K-League is switched from playoff rounds between the top six (Australian style) to the mini league involving top eight teams (Russian style).
  • Both Guangzhou and Adelaide fail their first tests against West Asian teams. Ulsan pass through favorite Al-Hilal 5-0.
  • Consadole Sapporo secure relegation from J-League Division 1 with two months to go.

October

  • Keisuke Honda scores his fifth goal from eleven Russian Premier League matches. He failed to move to Lazio, probably for the better. He might be play in Liverpool next month.
  • Alessandro del Piero moves to Sydney FC, while Western Sydney Wanderers recruit Shinji Ono. Sydney also sign Chinese-Panaman Yairo Yau.
  • Shinji Kagawa provides his second assist in the Champions League and then twists his knee. The injury lasts for two months.
  • For second year in the row, a Hyundai-owned team is in the ACL final after Ulsan defeat glamour-less Bunyodkor. The national team of Uzbekistan keep their hope alive by defeating Qatar 1-0. Korea end 2012 in sour note with 0-1 defeat to Iran.
  • S-League authority announces that in 2013, the team that finishes last will have to pay heavy fine for being a loser, continuing the fine tradition of the fine city.

November

  • A drop of Asian players’ presence in the English Premier League with Kagawa injured, and so does Park Ji-sung, and Southampton’s Tadanari Lee and Sunderland’s Ji Dong-won nowhere in sight. Maya Yoshida passes every match day painfully with Southampton. In Bundesliga, on the other hand, Son Heung-min, Koo Ja-cheol, Shinji Okazaki, Hiroshi Kiyotake, and Takashi Inui provide goals and assists now and then.
  • Korea recovers the AFC Champions League trophy as Ulsan defeat Al-Ahli 3-0. Japan defeat Oman 2-1 and need to wait for March 2013 to defeat Jordan to secure a ticket to Brazil 14.
  • Hiroshima win J-League title, breaking the hearts of Sendai. Hisato Sato hopes that he can return to the national team. Al Z’s favorite Ryoichi Maeda continues his Maeda’s Curse by condemning Gamba Osaka to the Second Division, ironically despite Gamba’s 67 goals for compared to Hiroshima’s 63. Gamba’s best hope is to flourish in Division 2 in 2013 and return in 2014.
  • Ian Crook resigns from Sydney FC management. Club’s and fans’ expectation for del Piero is cited as the main reason. Sydney languish at the bottom while uglier sister Western Sydney are in the top four.

December

  • Substitute Brian Ching fails to save Houston Dynamo in the 2012 MLS Cup, a fitting farewell for David Beckham. American soccer is still waiting for its Jeremy Lin.
  • FC Seoul win the 2012 K-League, with Colombian Mauricio Molina providing 18 goals and 19 assists.
  • Australia qualify for 2013 East Asia Football Federation Championship by destroying Taiwan 8-0, scoring five goals in 30 minutes. They win aggregate goals against North Korea.
  • Indonesia, Philippines, and Singapore field teams composed of naturalized players in the ASEAN Football Federation Cup. Indonesia lose to Malaysia 0-2 and draw with Laos 1-1, and Indonesian fans treat the news apathetically.
  • FIFA extends its deadline for Indonesian FA to settle its internal dispute for three months, Sepp Blatter gleefully says that he’s giving a holiday gift to Indonesia.
  • The resurgence of Thai football is annulled by Singapore, whose 30+ years old foreigners help the Lions to win the AFF Cup. Singapore’s best players, however, are Shahril Ishkak and Khairul Amri. Both of them play for Singapore LionsXII, a guest team in the Malaysian Super League (and the runner ups of the 2012 season).
  • Ulsan Hyundai become the first Asian team to fail to qualify to FIFA Club World Cup Semi Finals after lost 1-3 to Monterrey. In the fifth place match against Hiroshima, Hisato Sato proves that he’s the better striker than Lee Keun-ho and Kim Shin-wook.
  • Shinji Kagawa win AFC’s first ever “International Player” award, effectively the award for the best Asian player in the world. His competitors are forty years old Mark Schwarzer and Yuto Nagatomo. In Asia, the best player is Lee Keun-ho, and below him are Ali Karimi and Zheng Zhi.
Happy Holidays everyone. Thank you for reading.

Five things we learnt from AFC Olympics qualifications

Football at the Olympics

1. Japan have plenty of talents

What do you know. There was a chance that Japan would bottle the group and have to qualify to London through intercontinental playoff. Instead they top the group with the best goal aggregate and the best point. Past that fumble against Syria, Japan are simply the best U-23 team in Asia. Well, they are officially, after the gold medal at the Asian Games.

The biggest headache for Japan now is to choose their forwards. There are so many choices – All-European Otsu, Ibusuki, and Usami? Or tried and true J. Leaguers Nagai and Yamazaki? (Sorry, I still have some reserve on Yuya Osako). They certainly don’t want to be like Senegal which came with six forwards for the African Cup of Nations and lost all matches.

Certainly everybody has learned to stop calling a team “the Golden Generation”. Certainly pessimistic Japanese fans can recite these names: Shoji Jo, Yanagisawa, Robert Cullen, and sigh, Sota Hirayama. But the Japanese are happy to know that they are not Australians. Or Italians.

2. South Korea and Japan can alternately being unstable

Should I start call them Tweedledee and Tweedledum? Certainly they fight alot in many issues, they have host World Cup together and many Koreans grind themselves in the J. League. And like magnets, they often move to opposite direction (disclaimer: I suck at sciences). Korea played Qatar in Seoul National Stadium. Japan played Bahrain in Tokyo National Stadium. Qatar and Bahrain, are of course, the dee and dum of the Gulf. Certainly when you play in Seoul National Stadium you give your all and you don’t play half-ass, even if your club needs you for weekend K-League. Even when your rival for that position is arrested (sorry, can’t resist). And yet, Korea let 20 thousand supporters down. They come to see a goal. On the other hand, it was the turn for the Japanese to make the 30 thousands Tokyo residents proud. The lesson: Never, never assume that South Korea are more solid than Japan.

3. What shall we do with Australia?

Jesus. Four draws out of six games, which includes, of course, all home games. And here’s the now famous punch line. No goal. Even Malaysia could score three, all of them at Bahrain. The agony of the Olyroos would be too cruel and only could come from the fantasy of a Socceroos hater (there are many of them in Asia). I wonder if Australia couldn’t score a goal because they faced West Asian (including Uzbekistan) teams. No myth about physical advantage. Hostile and unfamiliar away matches, not to mention tiring. But how they could go down 0-2 at Tashkent is beyond my Acomprehension.

Australian media, luckily for the Olyroos, are both too optimistic and aloof about youth football to scream in panic. The women team also failed to qualify, ranked below Japan and North Korea at the final group stage. Now, the Australia U-23 team for the match against Iraq was drawn totally from A-League teams. Certainly, as a non-fan, I think Australian fans need to be somewhat panic with the state of their leagues and young talents. No one can deny that the Socceroos are still formidable, but I’m somewhat puzzled that young Aussies don’t play in Europe while young Japanese and Koreans are. Heck, if Europe’s too far, then play in Japan or Korea or China.

4. There’s still hope for UAE football

You cannot blame Star Sports to skip on Japan’s match yesterday. Of course the priority was for Malaysia, which match ran at the same time with Japan’s and Korea’s. The Uzbekistan v UAE match ran immediately after that, and it was really and dead or alive match. UAE’s senior team have taken severe batterings lately, and the junior team looked to be disappointed as well as Uzbekistan played before, er, 7500, are having a rising senior team, and led 1-0 at halftime. Made that 2-0 two minutes later. Theeen….Ahmad Khalil scored two goals in the space of two minutes. UAE held on for a draw…no, for a win, their fourth win in the group. The emirates achieved what their Gulf rivals failed to do, heck, even what Saudi failed to do, and condemned Uzbekistan to the torture of Play-off round. UAE have a decent league and AFC rules might check their clubs’ dependencies on Brazilian and aging European imports. Although, don’t expect the crowds to come. They are too beautiful to watch open air local football.

5. Malaysia are not Southeast Asia’s finest, but they have the flair.

Malaysia finished their group with total defeats and sixteen goals. But they often punched above their weights. Their national team were not supposed to win the AFF Cup. The Young Tigers were not supposed to win gold medal at the Southeast Asian Games. They were not supposed to aim for London. But they defeated Lebanon and braved long trips to Bahrain and Jordan and the prospect of being bullied by Japan (which happened well, in Kuala Lumpur). But they were not afraid.

Because apparently other Southeast Asian teams couldn’t bother with qualifying. Thailand carelessly fielded ineligible player for a narrow 1-0 win over Palestine. Singapore lost twice to Yemen when they should have won. Indonesia threw away games against Turkmenistan. Well, it was Vietnam’s bad luck to be pitted against Saudi Arabia. In short, lack of motivation and skills from the players, and more importantly, self-defeatism from their NOCs and football federations, disguised as realism. “We wouldn’t get a gold medal so why bother.” Ugh.

Malaysian national pride and willingness to improve and to compete, fortunately, trumped the apathy. They represented Southeast Asia, they lost badly, but they had tried with all their hearts.

Six best Japan’s victories

Pele is my Homie

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

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

1. Japan 15-0 Philippines, 1967 Olympics qualification

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

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

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

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

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

2. Japan 3-2 China, 1992 Asian Cup

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

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

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

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

3. Japan 8-1 Uzbekistan, 2000 Asian Cup

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

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

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

4. Japan 1-0 Russia, 2002 World Cup

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

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

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

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

5. Japan 3-1 Denmark, 2010 World Cup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

oh my god what the hell was that

Welcome back, Do.G

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

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

Group A: Iraq, Jordan, China, Singapore

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

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

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

Group B: Korea, Lebanon, Kuwait, UAE

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

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

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

Group C: Uzbekistan, Japan, North Korea, Tajikistan

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

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

Group D: Australia, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Thailand

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

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

Group E: Iran, Qatar, Bahrain, Indonesia

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

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

Get Ready

Please qualify. Please.

Asian football federations have announced their squads for upcoming World Cup qualification, and the preceding friendly match. Well, most of them. As Australia has no friendly schedule, they are yet to announce the 23 men sent in to face Saudi Arabia. Australia can get easy, but they don’t want to disappoint the good people of Melbourne and Thailand. And Oman.

Thailand. If they win against Oman in Muscat (not easy. But in Bangkok they really psyched out Oman which scored an own goal to complete a 3-0 win for the home team), and Saudi Arabia lose to Australia, then they will become the only Southeast Asian team to enter the final round. The last Southeast Asian team to do so were Indonesia in 1985, which lost to South Korea in the semi finals of Zone B, which determined the qualifier from East Asia. After defeated Indonesia, South Korea defeated Japan and went to Mexico.

So that  was 27 years ago (I just remembered that although Thailand lost intercontinental playoff round against England in 2001, that was in my version of FIFA 2002 rather than actual history). As a Southeast Asian, I really hope that Thailand can make a miracle and join the last ten teams, since Singapore and Indonesia are eliminated already. Thailand will face Maldives in friendly match on Friday (not sure on the venue). They should prevail. Here’s my Thailand XI:

G: Hathairattanakool (Chonburi) D: Phanrit (Muangthong), Samana (Chonburi), Siriwong (Pattaya), Sukha (Chonburi). M: Thonglao (Muangthong),  Choeichiu (Muangthong), Nutnum (Buriram), Kaewprom (Buriram). F: Winothai (BEC), Dangda (Muangthong).

No dashing name, and none of them plays overseas (Hathairattanakool played in my hometown Bandung, and Sukha played in second hometown Melbourne. Nice, eh?). Winothai and Dangda must give all they have to outwit al-Habsi.

Japan will employ 100% local stars to face Iceland in Osaka. Their European players are scoring, although not always winning. Havenaar scored again as a sub, although that was Vitesse’s goal when they went down 1-4 to Twente. Okazaki’s goal also was not enough to save Stuttgart from 2-4 loss to Hannover. He’s only one goal short from matching Kagawa’s tally, mind. On the other hand, Yoshida hit one when VVV put down de Graafschap (unfortunately, Bob Cullen failed to grab this easy opportunity). Miyaichi could become a new hero for Bolton as he led them to FA Cup’s Quarter Finals. And yeah, Kagawa is injured for two weeks :p. So he might be not playing against Uzbekistan. Nor is Honda, as CSKA still can’t include him for Champions League showdown against Madrid.

Anyway, here’s my Japan XI against Iceland.

G: Nishikawa (Hiroshima). D: Komano (Iwata), Konno (Gamba), Inoha (Kobe), Iwamasa (Kashima). M: Endo (Gamba), Kengo (Kawasaki), Abe (Urawa). F: Okubo (Kobe), Maeda (Iwata), Fujimoto (Nagoya).

Sorry, no Cerezo recruit :(.

Korea (there’s only one) is supposedly on good mood. Quite. Ajax reject Suk Hyun-Jun did good service for his old club by scoring two past PSV’s defense. Two! At the week when Hiddink decides that he’s tough enough to live in Dagestan Moscow!  Ki Sung-Yueng scored as Celtic demolished fellow Catholics Hibernian of Edinburgh. Martin O’ Neill was too nervous that he forgot to send in Ji as Sunderland handed Arsenal another humiliation. Park Chu-Young, as usual, was spared from the humiliation as he wasn’t on the list.

They should be pumped up enough to face Uzbekistan at noon in Jeonju, yes? They should be. Show Uzbekistan what kind of storm they will experience against Japan. And show Kuwait that they deserve to top the group, even if now they have the same amount of point with Lebanon. Sheesh.

My Korea XI against Uzbekistan & Kuwait:

G: Sung-Ryong (Suwon). D: Bom-Seok (Suwon), Jung-Soo (Al-Sadd), Tae-Hwi (Ulsan), Hyo-Jin (Phoenix). M: Sang-Sik (Jeonbuk), Sung-Yueng (Celtic), Do-Heon (Police), Keun-Ho (Ulsan). F: Chu-Young (Arsenal), Dong-Gook (Jeonbuk).

I’m yet to find the Singapore‘s roster for Friday night friendly with Azerbaijan in Dubai. They will hang around the Gulf before next week’s match against Iraq in Qatar. They are as hopeless as Next World Leader China, which will host Jordan in Guangzhou. Maybe because the Chinese think that it’s pointless too, so that I’m also yet to find the roster for friendly match against Kuwait in Hangzhou for….Wednesday.

Finally, Indonesia, in the spirit of purging players who are not in the Premier League employing the glorious U-23 team, will face Bahrain with completely newbies who are never playing for the national team! And expecting to draw a point! Qatar certainly not happy as they have to play Iran in Teheran, while Bahrain will demonstrate A-level football to the Indonesian boys at home in Riffa.

Here’s my Indonesia XI, which is the hardest one to make.

G: Samsidar (Semen Padang. Yes, I put in the Indonesian word for ‘cement’ for your amusement). D: Wijiastanto (Bantul), Michiels (Jakarta), Dwi Cahyo (Arema), Rahman (Semen. Alright, Padang). M: Taufiq (Surabaya 1927), Irawan (Surabaya 1927), Nurcahyo (Bantul). F:  Bahcdim (Malang), Sinaga (Padang), Arif (Bojonegoro).

God be with you, young men. God be with you.

5 Things We Learned from Road to Brazil 14’s Matchday Five

Yes, in the style of Guardian Football’s favorite dish. At this point three matches are still running in West Asia but I only look at East and Southeast Asian teams. The AFC qualifications to Brazil 14 take a three months break after tonight, with cliffhangers still abound.

1. South Korea can’t function without Park Chu-Young

So Park Chu-Young got his second yellow against UAE. Big deal. They got other emerging names trading in England and Germany, not to mention Japan and Western Asia. To replace his position there would be Son Heung-Min (Hamburg), Ji Dong-Won (Sunderland), and Lee Keun-Ho (Gamba Osaka). And those were just the forwards. And South Korea are in an easy group.

Not quite. With 2011 ending and Park Chu-Young is still the region’s top scorer, South Korea have to give all they’ve got next February. After starting the campaign with owning Lebanon 6-0 at home, the Cedars hit back with a 2-1 surprise. Even with a surging Lebanon and a South Korea that went easy with its starting lineup, the Reds should have done better. Their supposedly solid defense, consisting of Cha Duri and ACL winner Lee Jung-Soo broke down in the first five minutes, as if the Lebanese were Nigerians in Durban. The golden boys of Qatar, Yoon Bit-Garam and Koo Ja-Cheol struggled  badly as if they were playing for Gyeongnam and Wolfsburg instead of South Korea, and yeah, thanks Koo for that penalty kick.

If South Korean press and fans are worried, they should be. Ji had a full 45 minutes to save the day, Nam Tae-Hee is an investment made in France, and Lebanon was just a small taste on what an away fixture to Iran or Jordan could taste like.

2. Even a giveaway game for Japan  raises the alarm.

Japan was expected to throw away the Pyongyang fixture. Why risk sending in the A-team to the Bizzaro planet of Republic of Korea? Similar quality, same hatred to Japan, only with worse pitch, ruder opponents, and very hostile laws. The expectation, however, that Zaccheroni Japan could hold a draw. Perhaps a header from Konno in the dying minutes to payback Jong Tae-Se’s screamer. Perhaps a bland 0-0 where the Japanese endured boos and everything for one and half hour. Or perhaps, North Korea had been that bad that Mike Havenaar could score the winning goal through a deflected shot.

Actually Zaccheroni did well in composing his team. Okazaki paired with Maeda, just like in the Asian Cup. Solid A- midfield line with Hasebe, Hosogai, Kengo and Kiyotake. Giving experience point to Nishikawa. The defense is bit dubious but no need to make Yoshida and Uchida working hard.

And so they lost to the Stalinists. While Jong Tae-Se had left the field early. What worrying was both Lee and Havenaar needed more that 15 minutes to score a hypothetical goal. Uzbekistan could do the better job, but then again they were not detained for four hours upon arrival, had no their national anthem booed (and who knew if someone made a tsunami reference? Even Belgians did it to Kawashima), and had no  the spirit  living and ever-present embodiment of Kim Il-Sung fighting against them.

Japan’s alarm is called Uzbekistan. A small mistake next February could cost them the group’s leader position. And that could go a long way in the fourth round.

3. Australia can survive when they have to

The impatient press and fans were at it again, when the Socceroos were still locked down with fifteen minutes to go. A winless back to back matches would be unacceptable. Then Holman headed the ball in. Rather than the single goal, it was the three points that count. Australia go to the next round, again later than Japan but earlier than South Korea (and while Saudi Arabia are still struggling). The surprise loss to Oman had raised calls to replace Osieck with a more high-profile manager with stronger record, a Hiddink Mark II if you like (so what’s Turkey’s Hiddink is called?). But now Osieck is safe, at least until the next surprise defeat. Don’t hold your breath, it won’t be against Japan.

4. Naturalization in Southeast Asia doesn’t work

Singapore began the craze about four-five years ago, following Hong Kong’s habit in the 20th century. The squad that fought in the group stage of Road to South Africa were romantic tragic warriors, composed of Africans, Englishmen, Balkans, and Chinese that had become the new bullies in Southeast Asia. They fought hard and fought well even thought Uzbekistan hit them eight times, they could hit back three. Even though they won by walkout and lost twice because nobody in the highly-disciplined Singaporean bureaucrats checked if Qiu Li was eligible to play.

Fast forward to 2010. Indonesia naturalized senior Uruguayan forward Cristian Gonzalez and recruited an array of half-Dutch and half-German kids. Philippines went further, miraculously found dozens of half-American and half-European boys who have Filipino mothers and are playing soccball (what’s the odd of them to be male on young age, and playing football instead of acting or being nerds?).

November 11. Philippines are nowhere to be found (actually they went down to Kuwait. Better result than in 2008, when they weren’t bother to join at all). Singapore fielded in only two naturalized players, both are above 30 years old. Duric made good impression in the narrow loss in China, but that was all he had done in this campaign.

Indonesia stuck to Gonzalez, but it wasn’t him who scored (yes, I asked for him instead of Boaz. Huh). Indonesia fast-tracked citizenship for a pair of Nigerians but their whereabouts are unknown (either they are in Nigeria for family reasons or they were clubbing in Jakarta). Irfan Bachdim quickly fell out of grace with the FA and the fans and won’t play football for the rest of this year. Not that he was playing in Indonesia’s first matchdays.

So if you want a half-Westerner player, follow Japan’s example. Hope that a son of a foreign parent is good at football and wants to be a footballer. In Indonesia and Thailand that is unlikely since all the half-Western boys are recruited to be actors (well I have a half-English friend who played cricket in school…he’s an engineer). As for Singapore, see how its U-15 team will shape up four years later. If Philippines want its investment to yield, then it’s better for its half-Western players to aim to play in the A-League, the S-League, or lower leagues in Europe. Neil Etheridge can train with Fulham, but he really needs to play 90 minutes under the post.

5. East Asia is still composed of three countries.

That’s the depressing side of watching Asian Football and being a proud East Asian. If you want your Captain Tsubasa, your Asian Goalscoring Superstar Hero, then actually there are only two instead of three teams that wear the jersey: Japan and South Korea. Australia, as always, are the white and big and muscular and rough Asians that occasionally eat pad thai and hit on Asian girls, but they are not Chinese. The only Asian-Australian player (in the East/Southeast Asian sense) I know was Brendan Gan, and he’s not in the A-League anymore. I’m not sure if in the next ten years the Socceroos will have a player from East Asian heritage.

Essentially, the Fourth Round will be a West Asian affair. Most of the East Asian teams have been eliminated ever since the first round. Southeast Asia did pretty well, slipping in three out of ten. And Thailand, although are likely to lose to Saudi Arabia (it’s still 0-0 against Oman, anyway), have done well to bounce back after the Suzuki Cup 10 disaster. But while three West Asian teams, namely Jordan, Lebanon, and Uzbekistan are getting stronger, East Asia shows that it cannot and does not want to catch up. I still believe in Japan, South Korea, and Australia, but I worry that other teams like China, Singapore, and Indonesia are content to watch English Premier League clubs and hosting their Asian tours in summer. As for North Korea, well, you can’t reason with Bizzaros.

Anyong North Korea and Other Happy Thoughts

Thanks to a spam comment, I found an English K-League blog. And yet, as usual, it’s written by Westerners instead of Koreans :p. The long quest to find fellow English-speaking Asian football fan continues (that’s also a reason of the long inactivity in this blog).

Anyway, matchday 4 of WCQ tomorrow. Yesterday read this report from Pyongyang, and after reading it, I’ve grown to hate North Korea more. Who thought that even Uzbekistan players were not only more accessible, but were also scared with the atmosphere? Tomorrow it was the turn of North Korea to see the lighter version of their dystopia. Uzbekistan, ironically, like other Central Asian states, looks upon South Korea as the um, strategic economic partner.

The deal is simple. If Uzbekistan win and Japan also defeat Tajikistan, both are likely (to understate the latter – thank you FIFA for kicking out Syria), it’s anyong North Korea. Perhaps the post-South Africa punishment left deep scars for the team that even their Japanese and European based players couldn’t regain the glory of 2008 qualifications…up to that game against Brazil. Of course, the 0-7 defeat to Portugal wasn’t a sudden fall from grace. Like the trip to Pyongyang suggest, homegrown North Koreans could be trained to run fast and tackle hard and to keep in line, but only the Japanese know how to improvise and to make personal judgment. Perhaps the point of whole story is this: Jong Tae-Se has passed his prime in the national team (and this is a man who is a regular at 2. Bundesliga. But the Southerns play at THE Bundesliga, haha).

Move on with other previews. Jordan will ace the group of life (in the sense that there’s no big bad boy here) against The Old Lions Singapore (which did great job of preventing Malaysia to experience six international matches) 2-0. The Deebs are that potent, evident in their away 2-0 victory to Iraq. Iraq would win 1-0 against China in Qatar, so much for the Spanish revolution. Unless the Guangzhou players could show their stuff – then 1-1 then.

Powered by Park Chu-Young, South Korea should have it easy against UAE, which would go down with a fight. 1-2 maybe?  Kuwait have been improving lately and are still unbeaten, but Lebanon are not pushovers anymore, at least in the last two games. So it can be a high-tension 2-2. Or a bland 1-1.

On second thought, Japan might have not that easy against Tajikistan, although even an uneventful 0-2 victory is enough for them. Uzbekistan might also have hard time unlocking North Korean defense, although eventually they will,  even if only once. Even if through penalty kick.

Australia would also have fun with non-performing Oman, where Kennedy would continue his winning form. Saudi Arabia might have their first win to Thailand, unless the Elephants, fueled to present something for the nation in distress, could be so fired up and hold the declining former powerhouse to a satisfying draw.

Ah, Bahrain v Iran. Now that’s one Western Asian match I’d like to see (it might be broadcasted in Indonesia, tho). Will Bahrain recover from their pummeling? How would the host keep their nervous smile in front of the Shiite visitors? Would, performance-wise, Bahrain become the North Korea of West Asia? We’re talking about a team which narrowly almost went to South Africa and still gave hard time to Australia and South Korea last January.

Finally, Qatar versus Indonesia. Like the previous match in Jakarta, the outcome will be decided by Indonesian terrible defense and Qatar’s scoring inability. This time Indonesia bring in two naturalized Nigerians. Don’t think they can do better than Jeonbuk Motors player, by the way.