2015, then

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thrown by toffees...of love.

Thrown with toffees…of love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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?