Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Korean success a downer for ACL

Four South Korean teams in the quarterfinals of the Asian Champions League tells its own tale while the failure of any of Japan's club to progress to the last eight underlines the sea change that has taken place in the continental club game over the last two years.

Kashima Antlers, once again, failed to deliver on the regional stage despite their status as triple J.League winners. The myopia that has long dogged the Ibaraki-based club continues to blind their leaders from the benefits success at Asian level can bring.

Gamba, meanwhile, are clearly not the team they were two seasons ago and their disappointing showing in the ACL mirrored their troubles so far in the J.League. The failure of Kawasaki Frontale and Sanfrecce Hiroshima to advance from the group stages was in some respects unsurprising given the clubs were under new management or lacking in experience respectively.

So the Koreans have benefitted with Seongnam Ilhwa, Pohang Steelers, Suwon Bluewings and Jeonbuk Motors joining Qatar's Al Gharafa, Saudi Arabian duo Al Hilal and Al Shabab and Mes Kerman of Iran in the quarterfinals.

It's a line-up that does little to excite and ultimately it will lead to a decline in interest in the tournament when it resumes in September.

The domination of the tournament by clubs from one country can do it little good, but when that nation is one in which viewing figures for last year's competition were among the lowest in the region, then it can't be positive - and that was despite Pohang emerging from the 2009 final as champions.

The ACL receives little by way of media attention in Korea, despite the sustained success of the country's clubs in the competition over the last 15 years in its various guises. Outside the nation, K-League clubs lack the glamour and presence of many of their counterparts in near-by nations.

At a time when the AFC and their commercial partners are looking to enhance both the profile and the value of their biggest annual competition, the absence of clubs from Japan, China and Australia - as well as Iranian giants Esteghlal - will hurt the ratings and, in turn, lower the value of the event.

Four K-League clubs in the quarterfinals of the ACL may suggest strength in depth within Korean club football, but for the profile of the competition itself it brings little positivity at all.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Okada leaves Ono at home

Despite having had an impressive start to life back in the J.League, Shinji Ono will not be making a fourth appearance at the World Cup finals after being left out of Japan's 30-man preliminary squad for South Africa.

Ono's Shimizu S-Pulse lead the league - thanks in part to Ono's fine form - but that has not been enough to encourage Okada to take a belated look at the former Feyenoord and Urawa Reds midfielder.

As a result, there are few surprises in Okada's line-up and it will be no shock, therefore, if the Japanese exit the competition at the end of the group stage.

Japan in recent months have lacked thrust in midfield, with no pace in place when the team has been making the transition from defence to attack. As a result, Japan rely too much on set pieces and the fading creative powers of the likes of Shunsuke Nakamura.

The team's only real hope lies in Keisuke Honda continuing the form he has shown for CSKA Moscow in recent months - but even that can only be of any consequence if Okada puts his trust in the former Nagoya Grampus midfielder. So far, he hasn't done that although he has made some encouraging noises recently to suggest he has had a change of heart.

Another player who needs to step up is Takayuki Morimoto, the youngest member of Japan's squad. He now has a chance to put his experience gained at Catania in Serie A to good use for the national cause.

Should Okada, however, choose to stick with the kind of line-up that saw Japan qualify for the finals - featuring the anaemic pairing of Yoshito Okubo and Keiji Tamada in attack - then the aim of a place in the semifinals will be laughably lofty.

And even if everything clicks into place for the Blue Samurai, that target of a berth in the last four is little more than wishful thinking.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Japanese focus on 2022 but Qatar's in pole position

Following the advice of FIFA president Sepp Blatter, the Japanese have decided to ditch their attempt to host the World Cup finals in 2018 and concentrate solely on trying to acquire the hosting rights for 2022.

But in the eyes of many, the JFA are wasting their time even with a bid for the later of the two tournaments.

With the Europeans seemingly having lobbied hard to ensure they fight it out amongst themselves for the right to host the 2018 edition, the battle for 2022 will come down to Japan, South Korea, Australia, the United States and Qatar.

However, having hosted the World Cup as recently as 2002, the chances of either the Japanese or the Koreans winning the vote in December are, at best, slim. Both nations would be better served saving their money and not wasting everyone's time with futile bids.

The real contenders for the 2022 World Cup are the Americans, Australians and Qatar, with the Middle Eastern nation the most likely bet despite the obvious logistical issues that would otherwise prevent the country from hosting a tournament in the middle of the desert summer.

If the promotional literature is to be believed, temperatures in the high 40s will have little bearing on their ability to host the event, with plans afoot to produce stadium cooling technology that will see games played in a relatively cool 26 degrees.

But more importantly - within FIFA circles at least - the Qataris are leading the political battle to secure as many of the 24 votes on the FIFA Executive Committee as possible.

Asian Football Confederation president Mohamed bin Hammam is believed to have brokered a deal that will see him set aside his ambitions to become FIFA president next year in return for Sepp Blatter's backing for the Qatar bid, something Blatter alluded to on a recent trip to Doha.

Blatter is desperate for a fourth term as FIFA president and is willing to cede to Hammam's desire to be seen as the man who secured his home nation the rights to the World Cup. That should leave Hammam with the chance to run for president in 2015, when he will be 66 years old - still young enough (just) to do the job for at least one term.

How this has all played out within the other bids is open to debate. The Australians are known to be unhappy with Hammam's involvement in supporting Qatar's bid, believing he should be impartial given his position as president of the confederation.

Hammam will now use his considerable political clout to hoover up as many votes as possible for Qatar. He is well connected in Africa so should do well there, while he will also be likely to secure half of the votes from Asia - his own and that of Thailand's Worawi Makudi. That will be more than enough to take Qatar into the second round of voting and from there anything can happen.

Should Qatar win they will then have the perfect showcase for their abilities at the 2011 Asian Cup finals, which they will host in January next year. The preparations for that have begun in earnest and the country is sure to do a more than decent job in a nation where the facilities are second to none.

Monday, April 05, 2010

North Korean strikers leading the way

Understandably, no one is giving North Korea any hope of doing anything at the World Cup finals in June.

But take a look at the scorers' charts in the J.League and you'll see two of the country's strikers are leading the way in what is unquestionably Asia's finest league.

The sight of Chong Tese (or Jong Tae-se as the North Koreans spell his name) in second place comes as little surprise given his performances over recent years since breaking through at Kawasaki Frontale several years ago.

But the sight of Ryang Yong-gi's name at the top of the rankings with four goals in five games for newly promoted Vegalta Sendai is a surprise.

Ryang, like Chong, was born and bred in Japan but, at least partially because of the country's attitude towards what they see as non-Japanese ethnic groups, they have grown up with a greater allegiance to North Korea and both have opted to play for the Stalinist regime as opposed to the land of their birth.

That, particularly in Chong's case, is a major loss for the Japanese. While he's not the world's best striker, he does offer a physicality that is lacking within the Japan team at present and he would certainly have been in contention for a place on the plane to South Africa.

Ryang, however, has come to the fore only in recent times. He played just once during the World Cup qualifiers but was in the DPRK team that won the Asian Challenge Cup and was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. Clearly the prospect of joining the rest of the North Korean side in South Africa has seen him raise his game this season.

Of course, it's still early days in the current J.League season but the North Koreans will no doubt be taking great heart from the performances of two players who are almost certain now to be on their way to the World Cup to take on Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Thais going back to the future?

Thavatchai Sajakul is nothing if not charismatic and now, it seems, he's making an attempted comeback into the world of sport in Thailand.

A wealthy businessman, Thavatchai always knew how to court the media by being readily accessible to the press and always willing to talk about everything and anything relating to Thai football. He was the face of the Thai teams that established the nation as South East Asian football's standard bearers in the mid-90s before a move into political office saw him vanish from the sporting landscape.

Now he's trying to return at a time when the country is split politically, a scenario that is threatening the immediate future of the country's football league, among other events.

Can Thavatchai pull everything back together? Who knows...but he can at least be guaranteed to be able to secure an audience in the media, although he has been guilty in the past of telling the press what he thinks they want to hear (he is a politician after all).

The downside is that Thavatchai is one of the old guard and is that really what Thai football needs at a time when the national team is struggling because of a lack of professionalism within the game in the kingdom? A new start with fresh faces makes more sense than dragging up the old ghosts of the past.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Surprise, surprise...

Anyone who has followed Indonesia's farcical attempt to host the 2018 World Cup finals can hardly be surprised that FIFA have finally pulled the plug on what was always little more than a pie-in-the-sky project.

While Indonesia can lay claim to being the first Asian nation to qualify for the World Cup - in 1938, when they were known as the Dutch East Indies - they have done nothing on the global stage since. The country recently missed out on a place at the Asian Cup finals while the nation's game has long been mismanaged and riddled with corruption; quite simply, Indonesia never had the infrastructure, the political support or the finances to make their bid a serious one.

On Friday, the PSSI received a letter from FIFA informing the federation that the bid was dead as they had been incapable of securing government support, a situation which had been clear since day one but had been reinforced following the successful reelection of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono late last year.

SBY had made it clear long before winning a second term that he had no intention of backing the plan and the only hope the bid had would have come if Jusuf Kallah, SBY's former vice president and a close associate of Nurdin Halid, had won at the elections.

That, though, was never likely to happen and, as SBY comfortably retained the presidency, the bid was dead in the water. Not that that stopped those fine people at the PSSI from continuing to talk about the bid and spending money as if it was going ahead.

There have been whispers behind the scenes of all sorts of skulduggery involving those pushing for the bid; the president of the FA - Nurdin - is far from a saint, having already served jail time for corruption. His position now is under serious threat, with a conference due to be held in Malang later this month before government-backed moves to reform the PSSI are discussed in April.

How FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation view those moves will be interesting in the coming months. The game's governing body usually reacts negatively towards what it sees as government interference while the Indonesians are believed to have been one of the few South East Asian nations to have backed Mohamed bin Hammam during last year's tense FIFA Executive Committee election.

Nurdin's criminal record should see him removed from his post under the FIFA statutes but, as yet, he has managed to somehow negotiate his way around that particular regulation.

The next few weeks will be of great interest in Indonesia.

Friday, March 19, 2010

So much for the afterglow...

No sooner has Hong Kong football started to earn some praise and improve its profile than the city's clubs shoot themselves in the foot in the AFC Cup.

The second half of last year was impressive on many levels for Hong Kong, from the national team knocking World Cup-bound DPR Korea out of the East Asian Championship through to South China reaching the semifinals of the AFC Cup and the national side's gold medal win at the East Asian Games.

The disappointing results at the East Asian Championship in Japan in February were to be expected, but there were at least a number of positives, not least the performance of several younger, inexperienced players who were given a chance to perform by coach Kim Pan-gon.

But since then, things have taken a turn for the worse. Perhaps it's too early to be too critical, but the results achieved so far by Hong Kong clubs in the AFC Cup have been poor. South China are staring at elimination already with a draw and a loss in two games - they're going to need to pick up three wins in their next four games to have any realistic hope of going through.

Tai Po, Hong Kong's other representative in the competition, are in a similar position, sitting at the bottom of Group H with a solitary point.

All this comes at a time when the Hong Kong government has announced plans to back the further improvement of the game in the city, with proposals including a new professional league and a vastly improved youth development structure. Included in the proposal is a new training centre, which the Hong Kong Jockey Club has suggested it is prepared to fund.

The goals are to enhance Hong Kong's standing on the FIFA Rankings list, moving them into the top 120 in the next two years before eventually moving in to the Top 80 in the next decade. Possibilities remain, too, for Hong Kong to field a team within China's professional league set-up.

There's a very real chance that Hong Kong football is starting to move in the right direction after years of poor management by the Hong Kong Football Association and government ambivalence. Let's hope South China and Tai Po can pick up their performances to ensure none of the momentum gained in the last nine months is lost.