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Jakarta Post

World Cup failures, Asian failures?

  • Mario Rustan

    The Jakarta Post

Bandung   /   Thu, July 3, 2014   /  10:29 am

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil has been the worst cup event for Asian teams since 1990 in terms of performance, as they netted zero wins.  Indonesians, however, hardly think about this as they care more about whether Luis Suarez was a crook or a victim of conspiracy.

That is because Indonesians expected it. Many of us grew up with Captain Tsubasa and we admire Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa. But face it: the World Cup is about Europe and Latin America.

How did it come to this? How come North and Central America qualified 75 percent of its World Cup representatives? How did Africa put two teams in the Round 16 for the first time ever while the world cheered for South America? Meanwhile, Asian teams could not post a single win against 12 different teams?

The Asian teams could not score goals, and in kicking and heading the ball while running around for 90 minutes, the essence of the nations'€™ sporting ethics were revealed.

Three of the four teams that passed the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) qualification in 2013 '€” Japan, Australia and South Korea '€” sit on the Pacific Rim and are rich. A new member of ASEAN Football Federation, working-class Australian boys eat nutritious food, are coached and monitored by the best sport scientists in the world, and train in pristine fields; just like the Japanese, but very unlike the Southeast Asians.

What about China? The Chinese are interested in following (and betting on) European soccer, not in playing the sport. Rich Chinese clubs rely on European and Latin American attackers and the Chinese national team has trouble even handling Indonesia.  

And then there is Southeast Asia, our home. Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam have difficulties negotiating second-rate west Asian teams like Lebanon and Syria, or even Hong Kong. Like in China, millions of Southeast Asian boys sleep with posters of soccer icons around them and use every spare moment in school to play soccer. But becoming a professional soccer player is not an ideal aspiration in the region.

In the end, Asia relies too much on Japan and South Korea while Australia is still somewhat unwelcomed.

Saudi Arabia, which logged two wins in the 1994 World Cup, destroyed itself by forbidding its players from playing overseas, lest they be tainted by foreign ideas. By the 2002 World Cup, their team had become a joke.

According to the FIFA men'€™s ranking system, Iran has the strongest team in Asia, and indeed they have been strong defending, but not in attacking. Their sole World Cup victory against the United States in 1998 was more motivated by the desire to humiliate the '€œGreat Satan'€ than by securing three points.

Iran and Australia got past British journalists'€™ verdicts intact, comparing favorably to Japan and South Korea who went home in disgrace. Australia, supposedly the worst team, earned respect at home and online with their aggressive play against top-level teams and with Tim Cahill'€™s amazing volley against the Netherlands. The young squad, which has no one playing in Europe'€™s elite clubs, is deemed ready to host the 2015 Asian Cup.

So, what is wrong with Japan and South Korea? Granted, Honda and Kagawa had terrible seasons with AC Milan and Manchester United, but forward Shinji Okazaki scored 15 goals in last season'€™s Bundesliga, and goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima came close to lifting the Belgian Pro League trophy.

Many people have the false perception that the Japanese are fearless warriors. In fact, they are worriers. They worry about making mistakes and letting down the nation, their coaches and their teammates. Finally, they worry about standing out. The same charge can be applied to South Korea, who played as timidly as Japan in the first two matches.

Both Japan and South Korea have long-standing problems of lacking a goal scorer, a number 9. Perhaps it is because the goal scorer gets all the attention and has to play selfish '€” and physical. But more importantly, he has to make the decisive act of shooting the ball into the net.

Former coach Alberto Zaccheroni did not trust Okazaki to spearhead Japan'€™s attack. But Okazaki might have worried more about what his teammates and the nation would say about him if he failed to score, or if he was hogging the ball. He had no such worry back in Germany.

In Asia, Iranian and Australian physicality can be tempered by Japanese and Korean technical skills. In 2010, it seemed they had enough capital to take on the world with wins against second-tier European teams, but now they seem to be back at the drawing board. Australian manager Ange Postecoglou, however, is more popular than ever among fans, while his counterparts have resigned or are on the verge of resigning.

If these teams are the best this continent of billions has to offer, then we should stop saying we are soccer fans. We are just spectators, because we know that playing is too difficult.

It is not that we lack men. It is that we lack the love for sports. Not watching them, sponsoring them, or making money from them, but in playing them as a way of life.

The writer, who teaches English and Australian cultural studies at Uni-Bridge, St. Aloysius High School, Bandung, blogs on Asian soccer.