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

The Tigers and the Hello Kitty

We’re so 2014, Godzilla is so 1990 and late

2012 season is over for Japan and Korea.

Wah.

So, how did they go? The easy answer is of course – so-so. Still, Olympics semi-finalists and still the big boys on the block. But the feeling can be more complicated if you are an Australian supporter. With the failure to qualify for Brazil 14 still a good possibility (Japan, however, are there to give a hand), Australia will still relish tonight’s victory over a K-League Korean team, with the scorer, Rukavytsya and Cornthwaite (yep, needed some effort to spell their names) are under 30 years old. It’s been a very tough year for them, having failed to qualify for the Olympics and coping with life after…um…Harry Kewell and John Aloisi?

And Japan was close to get another bad verdict from me. First, was quite in bad mood after all chance to get a 2010-11 Japan jersey (the one worn by Honda in Qatar and Sawa in Germany) was closed. Should I order that gorgeous blue pajamas, although with it Japan failed to win an Olympic gold? Why it’s so hard to find Adidas stuff related to Blue Samurai around? And of course, Japan looked horrible in the second half away match against Oman – Yoshida played as bad as he is in Southampton these days and Honda seemed too tired to direct any build up.

Add that with the typical minimalist presentation by ESPN Asia/Star Sports – a pair of British with bland and pointless (as in having a point can offend anyone and they are told not to do that) comments and I have no chance to see them during half time and full time. As if I was watching an illegal video streaming or watching a pirated DVD – no extra and no perk of cover sheets.

So, Yasuhito Endo, 32 years old, 122 games for Japan (Steven Gerrard. Meh), leaped and aligned the ball toward the center, passing Ali al Habsi who anticipated his shot. Okazaki drove it home and for the next three minutes the stadium went silent. Cheerful Japanese girls lifted up a Hello Kitty float. Hello Kitty! Where else you can see it in a football stadium? Japan are yet to go to Brazil, but they will not finish the group in rank 4 or 5 for sure. And putting Australia in rank 2 with better goal difference to Oman (0 to -3, actually). I ended up ordering a scarf and a ‘Japan Soccer’ long sleeve.

Last Saturday, the Ulsan Munsu stadium featured a tiger that really looks like a menacing tiger, not the cutesy one like the Seoul Olympics mascot. Al Ahli supporters strengthened their players’ hearts with a cardboard saying something about Allah, but at full time, it was Kim Shin-wook and several other Koreans who kneed and raised their hands into the air, praising Jesus. Korea have won the Asian Champions League again and Ulsan will look forward to pummel the champions of Japan next month – Hiroshima, Sendai, Urawa, or Nagoya.

That Ulsan tiger must be menacing. But Japanese supporters should employ that Hello Kitty float more often – it will become the terror from the East. Really East, the place where the sun rises. Except when facing Korea, the message will be like this – I can be less manly and acts cutesy and I still kick your ass.

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.