Sunday, February 28, 2010

DPRK bound for Qatar

North Korea's win in a penalty shootout over Turkmenistan in the final of the AFC Challenge Cup means they will be among the 16 teams playing at the Asian Cup in Qatar early next year.

Both DPRK and India - as winners of the 2008 edition of the competition - have qualified for the finals and the line-up for the 2011 Asian Cup will be completed on Wednesday when the final three places are filled.

Australia, Kuwait and Oman are fighting it out for two places in Group B while Thailand, Singapore and Jordan will battle for the one place left in Group E with Iran having already progressed.

Having already qualified for the World Cup finals, DPR Korea's absence at the Asian Cup would have been something of a travesty but, despite sending a youthful squad, the country has proven that they now have the depth of talent to be able to impress at most levels within the Asian game.

The draw for the Asian Cup will be made in Doha on April 23 and the following nations have already qualified;

Qatar (as hosts)
Iraq (as defending champions)
Saudi Arabia (2007 runners-up
South Korea (2007 third-place finishers)
India (2008 AFC Challenge Cup winners)
DPR Korea (2010 AFC Challenge Cup winners)

Troussier for Cote d'Ivoire?

Vahid Halilhodzic has been sacked as head coach of the Ivory Coast with speculation that Guus Hiddink will step in to replace him. But the whispers during the East Asian Championship earlier in February were that former Japan and Qatar boss Philippe Troussier was waiting in the wings to take on the position.

Troussier, who was in Tokyo during the regional tournament, built his reputation in the African nation, both at club and national team level and it is where he earned his nickname, The White Witch Doctor. Sources close to the Frenchman claimed he has been approached.

However, Troussier does have a habit of linking himself to positions which he may or may not be associated with. He claimed recently that he had talked to the authorities in Pyongyang about taking on the North Korea job, but that has so far not come to fruition.

No matter who takes over in Abidjan, the North Koreans will be interested observers as they have been drawn to face Cote d'Ivoire as well as Brazil and Portugal at the World Cup.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Karimi returns to international fold

Can there be a more frustrating player in all of Asian football than Ali Karimi?

Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi has taken the decision to recall the former Asian Player of the Year for the country's Asian Cup qualifier against Thailand next week. For the Iranians, the game means little as they have already qualified but for the Thais it is crucial as they embark on a three-way battle with Singapore and Jordan for second place in their group and a slot at the finals in Qatar next year.

No doubt Thailand head coach Bryan Robson and his assistant Steve Darby will be less than pleased that Ghotbi has chosen to recall a player of such raw talent, a man who can rip teams apart on his own with his mesmerizing dribbling skills and powerful running. Karimi could singlehandedly destroy Thailand's Asian Cup qualification hopes.

The call-up is the beginning of a return to the national team for Karimi, who has - by all accounts - been playing well in the Iran Pro League since signing for Steel Azin, where he was lured by the club's deep pockets along with a number of other current and former national team players such as Mehdi Mahdavikia.

Karimi retired from international football after Iran missed out on a place at the 2010 World Cup finals but Ghotbi has now offered him the chance to pull on the Team Melli shirt once again, which he has accepted ( and his return will certainly strengthen the Iranian squad as the country seeks to win the Asian Cup for the first time since 1976.

The 31-year-old is far from conventional and that is one of the characteristics that makes him so fascinating and frustrating. It's not just the fact that he looks to beat another player rather than passing the ball to a team mate, it has been his body swerving career choices that have left many scratching their heads.

When there was an offer on the table to go to Atletico Madrid, he chose - puzzlingly - to move to the UAE to play for Al Ahli. Money, no doubt, talked very loudly on that, as did Dubai's proximity to Iran and its large Persian expatriate population. When he did move to Europe, four years later, he went to Bayern Munich, but only stayed for two seasons before the Bavarians - frustrated at his inability to fully realise his potential - cut him loose. Since then he has played throughout the Middle East, even though his phenomenal talents deserve a much grander stage.

That, though, won't be at the World Cup in June and, now that he's in his 30s, he's unlikely to return to European football. So, perhaps he can lead Iran to their first Asian Cup success in 35 years. His ability deserves to reap such success for a nation that is probably the most obsessed with the sport in Asia, even if the willful Karimi hasn't always been the best guardian of his unquestionably prodigious talent.

Nakamura's Euro legacy lacks greatness

Shunsuke Nakamura's move back to Japan has been completed and the midfielder will now return to Yokohama F Marinos, the club where he started his professional career.

The 1.2 million euro transfer from Espanyol brings to an end an eight-year European career for Nakamura, who was hugely successful while at Celtic but who, it has to be said, fell short of hitting the serious heights of the game while in Scotland, Italy and Spain.

Celtic fans might disagree, but Nakamura's time in Europe was less successful that than of a number of his compatriots, most notably Hidetoshi Nakata and Shinji Ono.

Both Nakata and Ono won major titles - Nakata the Serie A title with Roma and Ono the UEFA Cup while at Feyenoord - while Nakamura was an integral part of the Celtic side that dominated Scottish football in the latter part of the decade. But being a member of a team that won regularly in what is little more than a two-team league and who failed to excel at European level means Nakamura fell some way short of the achievements of his compatriots.

Of course, there were moments of wonder, such as his perfectly struck free kick against Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League ( Nakamura's deadball delivery was - and arguably remains - second to none, but in open play he has often been found lacking, particularly in matches played at a high tempo.

In Spain and Italy - home to two of the game's toughest leagues - he rarely shone and the return to Japan was inevitable after starting so few games in Barcelona since his move to Espanyol last summer.

With the World Cup on the horizon, Nakamura has clearly taken this decision to ensure he's in peak condition for South Africa - playing week-in, week-out for Marinos will at least have in tuned up for the finals before he winds down his career in front of the fawning fans Marinos tend to attract.

In many respects Nakamura's career in Europe has been disappointingly anti-climatic. Had he made a move to one of Europe's stronger leagues after his second season at Celtic - when he was at the height of his powers - we could have seen whether he was really good enough to be compared to the true greats of the Asian game.

As it is, he's destined to sit at least one step below the finest players the region has produced.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chinese controversy rekindles bizarre memories

Over the last few days, much more has come to light about the match fixing scandal in China with two clubs relegated from the Chinese Super League and one second division side banned.

The story involving Qingdao - and their desperate attempts to score in their own net - brings to mind the bizarre happenings at the Tiger Cup in 1998, when Indonesia and Thailand tried to lose to one another thanks to the poor handling of the tournament by the ASEAN Football Federation.

Everyone remembers how the story ended, with Indonesia's Mursyid Effendi scoring with what would have been a fine strike had it been at the other end to hand Thailand all three points in their final group encounter in the Vietnam-based tournament.

But had the AFF not allowed local politics to get in the way in the first place, the issue would never have occurred. That was because some bright spark decided to pander to the wishes of the Vietnamese government and allow football convention to be turned on its head. Normally, when a team wins its group in a round-robin tournament that ultimately is decided by several knockout rounds, they have the advantage of being allowed to stay in the venue in which they have played all of their previous games. The reward for winning the group is a minimum of fuss and hassle before the next round.

However, local political sensitivities were such that the Vietnam Football Federation - under pressure from the government - wanted to ensure Vietnam played at least one game in Ho Chi Minh City. Having been drawn to play their group matches in Hanoi that would normally have meant Vietnam would have to finish second to do so. So the rules were changed, with the winners of each group required to travel to play the runners-up. Had everything panned out as hoped, Vietnam would win Group A and travel to Ho Chi Minh City to face off against the runners-up in Group B.

Singapore, though, didn't play ball and - inconveniently for the organisers - won the group. That mean Vietnam would stay in Hanoi, with the backing of a extremely lively home town crowd behind them. Neither Thailand nor Indonesia - who were both already through before meeting in the final round of matches - relished the prospect. So both set out to lose so they would finish second in the group and would entertain a Singapore side believed to be the easier opponents.

The first half was a farce with neither team doing much to warrant their presence on the pitch so, at halftime, the captains and coaches were called together by the match commissioner, who issued a stern warning to all about the manner in which the game was developing. Local fans who had paid good money for their tickets, meanwhile, were baying for blood.

The second half started off in markedly different fashion as both teams looked like they had decided to put the issue behind them and play for the win...but that was until the final 10 minutes when the defences of both teams ended up defending the opposing team's goal.

It was only a matter of time before one team scored - with Thai defenders working in front of the Indonesian goalkeeper (and vice versa at the other end!), Effendi thumped the ball home from the edge of the penalty area and ran off to celebrate as if he had just scored the winner in the World Cup final! Truly bizarre stuff...

So Thailand won and travelled to meet the Vietnamese, who prevailed to set up a final showdown in Hanoi with Singapore, who had defeated the Indonesians. Justice had been done on the field while off the pitch fines and bans were handed to Thailand, Indonesia and Effendi, who was given a lifetime ban by FIFA from the game (although he was back playing again several years later once the dust had settled and the uproar had died down).

Qingdao's behaviour doesn't quite much those dubious heights but at least the Thai and Indonesians were acting in the way they did in a misguided attempt to improve their team's chances of winning the tournament. At Qingdao, it was all about lining the chairman's pockets!

Nakamura's misfortune gives Okada chance to change

Kengo Nakamura suffered a broken jaw in Kawasaki Frontale's ACL loss to Seongnam Ilhwa on Tuesday, leaving Japan boss Takeshi Okada with a question mark hanging over another one of his squad members as the countdown to the World Cup finals continues.

Despite being knocked out and no doubt in some serious discomfort, Nakamura played on after regaining consciousness before being checked over by a doctor in Yokohama, who confirmed the broken jaw and arranged for immediate surgery.

Nakamura is now expected to be out for several weeks, meaning both he and Yoshito Okubo - two of Okada's likely starting line-up - are now sidelined as the team prepares for the finals. Japan face Bahrain in an Asian Cup qualifier on March 3 but, with both teams having qualified, neither is likely to be overly concerned about the result.

The Bahrain game, however, is now the perfect opportunity for Okada to overhaul his starting line-up. Nakamura, despite being among the nominees for the Asian Player of the Year Award, is simply not good enough to play against the best players in the world - he's fine at J.League and Asian level, but he's not strong enough physically or psychologically to handle the tests that await at the World Cup. Much like the rest of the Japanese midfield, he's also a little ponderous in possession.

The hope has to be that Okada will now look to try out some different combinations against Bahrain. Junichi Inamoto proved he's back to somewhere approaching his best form at the East Asian Championship (one of the few plus points for Japan at that tournament) while Shunsuke Nakamura is returning to Japan for the game, whether he has signed for Yokohama F Marinos by then or not.

A midfield featuring Inamoto, Shunsuke Nakamura, Keisuke Honda and Makoto Hasebe might actually have the strength and guile to do more to opposing defences than what the Japanese have been doing recently. That, of course, would mean Asian Player of the Year Yasuhito Endo also sitting on the bench, but Endo - much like Kengo - doesn't tend to cut it against the world's best. Honda, by contrast, can pass but also has a steely determination and is prepared to put his foot in where other Japanese players might back out.

In attack, Okada has tended to stick with Okubo even though the striker has failed to come close to realising the potential he had as a youngster. He's become arrogant but has not turned into the game changing player he promised to be in his youth. Alongside Keiji Tamada, he presents little threat at all.

Instead, perhaps, Okada should be looking to use Takayuki Morimoto - a player with a direct style and the skills required to utilize it to something approaching the fullest effect - while alongside him Naohiro Takahara could make a return. Takahara has barely featured for the national team in recent years and has also been in and out of form at Urawa Reds, but he can hold the ball up better than many other strikers in Japan (something the technically inept Sota Hirayama still struggles to do) and has a decent physical presence that he's not scared to use. He would also give Japan a bit more leadership up front, which is something that has been lacking throughout the whole team lately.

Anti-football earns Adelaide victory

Adelaide United's win over Pohang Steelers in the first round of group games in the Asian Champions League will undoubtedly have the A-League apologists scrambling to heap more criticism on national team coach Pim Verbeek.

How, they will say, can Verbeek be so dismissive of the league when the team that finished bottom of this year's standings has just handed the Asian champions a 1-0 defeat in the ACL? If you look at the result only, then that's a fair question.

But according to the match statistics, the thoughts of Pohang coach Waldemar Lemos and independent observers who were at the game, the manner in which Adelaide achieved the win did little to enhance the league's reputation.

Adelaide's defensive, spoiling tactics allowed them to disrupt the flow of the game and Lemos was understandably irked. Having watched Melbourne's loss to Beijing Guoan on the previous evening, the Brazilian spotted similarities in the approach of both A-League teams.

"I wanted to play offensively when we went a goal down but they did not let us,” he said. “There were a lot of fouls. I know Australia's style but I don’t like this."

Adelaide do deserve to be congratulated because, whether they played negatively or not, they picked up the win they wanted to start their ACL campaign.

And they did so with head coach Aurelio Vidmar relegated to the position of assistant thanks to the AFC's misguided - if correct to the letter of the law - move to enforce their regulations relating to coaching certificates (never mind that Vidmar took his team to the final of the ACL in 2008 - when there was no mention of his lack of the AFC A license - and was named AFC Coach of the Year at the end of the same season).

But will this kind of football be enough to guarantee success for the Australian clubs in this year's ACL? It's doubtful - and this one result is unlikely to change Verbeek's opinion.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Bunyodkor signal intent early

Luiz Felipe Scolari's decision to exclude Stevo Ristic from his Asian Champions League squad looks to have been vindicated after Bunyodkor hammered Al Ittihad 3-0 in their opening match in this year's competition.

The omission of the Macedonian, who played a major role in Pohang Steelers' ACL win last year, had the potential to be controversial but any thought that it might come back and bite Scolari has now evapourated with such a comprehensive victory.

The result is an impressive one for a club that has yet to really take advantage at Asian level of its huge financial resources. One appearance in the semifinals and one in the quarterfinals is a fairly limited return for the huge sums being spent by the Tashkent club.

Of course, it could be argued that the club didn't even exist seven or eight years ago, so even those results are remarkable. And while that is true, Bunyodkor's climb to the top of the ladder in Uzbekistan has been relatively straightforward - even if has been achieved by buying up all the best players from Pakhtakhor and supplementing them with some very good foreigners and a decent coach.

Succeeding at Asian level, though, is proving to be more difficult and that speaks volumes about not only the standard of the Asian club game now but also about how difficult it is to counteract the numerous different styles coaches and players encounter when they participate in a competition of this nature.

But could this be the season when all that money finally buys the Asian title? It's certainly a very good start, which is made all the better when you think that the Uzbek league has yet to kick off. On top of that, Bunyodkor were playing against an Al Ittihad side that is in the middle of their own domestic league (and they also reached the final of last year's competition).

However, it's still early days and nothing is ever won this early in the piece.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Return of the ACL

Tomorrow sees the Asian Champions League - as well as the AFC Cup - return for the new season, and not before time! Things were starting to get a little dull without it...

As always at this time of the year, everyone's full of the usual optimism and many eyes will be on champions Pohang Steelers after what has been an eventful winter transfer window. A new coach and a relatively new strike force will make matters interesting. How long it takes new coach Waldemar Lemos and the likes of Seol Ki-hyeon to settle in will have a major say in how they fair in the competition.

One thing that works in their favour - and is to the benefit of all the teams involved - was the AFC's long-overdue decision last year to introduce an additional knockout round. As a result, the top two teams progress to the second round rather than only the winner, as was the case in the past.

The tournament is now more balanced in that regard, with less riding on matters such as who has scored the most goals against the weaker teams in the group.

The tournament's far from perfect however. One of the genuine strengths of Asian football - and this is from the perspective of an observer or fan rather than assessing the technical side of the sport - is the huge diversity that exists right across such a vast and fascinating continent. Allowing four teams from Japan, Korea, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia access to the group stages dilutes that diversity.

While it may be the right thing to do to make the overall competition stronger, it removes from the competition one of Asian football's finest qualities. Perhaps if the bigger nations sacrificed one berth each and those went to teams from Syria (Al Karama have proven to be more than capable of holding their own in the past), Kuwait, Jordan and a few other nations it would add more colour to the competition.

It would also allow AFC president Mohamed bin Hammam to defuse those allegations he faced last year that he is pushing too much of the confederation's income in the direction of the nations that already have more than most.

Having just overhauled the tournament last year, the chances of any changes - minor or major - are slim. But wouldn't it be nice to see a little bit more of the diversity Asia is famous for in its leading club competition?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Verbeek vs the A-League

It seems the BBC have - finally! - caught on to the story that has been running for some time in Australia regarding national team boss Pim Verbeek and his battle with the A-League.

There's not a lot new in here but for those who have watched the A-League, it's difficult to argue with the Dutchman's assessment. Workmanlike is probably the best way to describe the standard in the domestic league in Australia and the lack of success for the country's clubs when they have played in the AFC Champions League has only served to underline that.

Adelaide United's run to the final of the ACL in 2008 was something of an anomaly and both before and since there has been little to shout about at continental level for the Australians.

League football in Australia has long lacked the finesse and technical quality that exists in the likes of Japan, South Korea or even in the places such as Thailand, Indonesia or Vietnam, but the A-League does have a significant amount of potential. It could and should be operating as a talent incubator for not only the best young up-and-coming players from Australia, but from around the region. And while some clubs - most notably Melbourne Victory - have dipped into the talent pool in South East Asia, more could be done that would be mutually beneficial in both the mid and long term.

Of course, that doesn't really concern Verbeek who will either leave after the World Cup or possibly continue until the Asian Cup finals in Qatar early next year (he's not commented yet on his future but given there's little over six months between the two competitions it is feasible he will stay until Jan 2011). Understandably he just wants his best players playing at the top of their game so they're fit and sharp for the kick off in South Africa. That's not likely to happen if they're playing in the A-League.

When Verbeek has been forced to pick squads made up exclusively of A-League players for Asian Cup qualifiers, the Socceroos have struggled. Take, for example, their loss at home to Kuwait last year. Verbeek's concerns are completely justified, perhaps his only failing is that he could be more diplomatic in how he has expressed his opinion.

But that's not Verbeek. If he's anything, he's a straight talker and if you don't like what he has to say then that's your problem. And for many within the A-League, that's the biggest issue of all.

Hong Kong looking to the future

When Hong Kong kicked off their appearance at the East Asian Championship with a heavy defeat against South Korea, head coach Kim Pan-gon was asked if the loss signaled the end of the optimism from his team’s gold medal win in December’s East Asian Games.

“I hope our confidence hasn’t disappeared, but this is our situation,” said Kim. “We are still too far from Korea and Japan and, just because once you get the gold medal, you can’t change much.

“It has just given us confidence, but now we need to invest more than before. Given the quality of our football and the football culture in Hong Kong, we still are too far behind these countries.

“It’s not going to take 10 years, it’s going to be 20 or more if we want to catch Korea or Japan. We have to change the league system; everything has to change.

“One gold medal can’t change it but I hope it can start because of that.”

The mood in Hong Kong since Kim’s team defeated Japan in a penalty shootout in the final of December’s East Asian Games had been buoyant to say the least, even if the standard of the competition fell far short of that on display in Tokyo earlier this month.

In December in Hong Kong, the Japanese, Chinese and North Koreans were represented by what were essentially U-23 teams while the South Koreans sent a squad of semi-professional players from the nation’s second division.

Hong Kong, too, was represented by a youthful squad – as per the rules of the competition – but the gold medal success led to a vastly improved mood within the game in the former British colony, the run to the final provoking an outpouring of pride in themselves and the team rarely seen in Hong Kong.

The gold medal win followed fast on the heels of South China’s run to the semifinals of the AFC Cup – the second leg of which attracted a crowd of close to 30,000 to Hong Kong Stadium – but, as Kim pointed out, football in Hong Kong still has a long way to go.

Over the course of the next two games at the East Asian Championship – a 3-0 loss to the Japanese and a 2-0 defeat at the hands of tournament winners China – Kim took the opportunity to introduce a new generation of players to the rigours of international football.

Principal among the players who shone when given the chance to play against the region’s leading nations was goalkeeper Yapp Hun-fei who, at just 19 years of age, proved himself more than capable of flourishing at international level. A string of fine saves against both Japan and China kept the scoreline in both games respectable.

“Our goalkeeper played at the East Asian Games and he was one of the key players when we won the gold medal,” said the Korean. “At the East Asian Games he did a brilliant job and so we gave him a chance against Japan and he improved a lot so we decided to use him again.”

The future of the team remains uncertain, though, with Kim’s contract only covering his side’s final Asian Cup qualifier against Yemen next month, a match which means little as both sides have already been eliminated.

And while Hong Kong are not likely to challenge the major powers of Asian football any time soon, superficially things are moving in something approaching the right direction.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Huh hands Ahn Korean recall

As expected, Ahn Jung-hwan has been selected for the South Korean squad to face Ivory Coast at the start of next month as Huh Jung-moo looks to add some experience to his squad.

Ahn hasn't played for the national team in almost two years and there have to be doubts over just how useful a presence he will be, now that he's hit 34 and is playing in the weakest of the three major leagues in east Asia.

However, Huh loses nothing by having a look at him and he is among the 13 overseas-based players selected for the game, which will be played in London. Others include Russia-based central midfielder Kim Nam-il, Al Hilal's Lee Young-pyo and a raft of J.League-based players.

Korea's strength in depth marks them out clearly as the best equipped of Asia's four World Cup qualifiers to succeed in South Africa later this year. The draw has also been relatively kind - certainly compared to the other three.

While Argentina should be strong enough to win the group - despite Diego Maradona's meddling! - second place is definitely up for grabs against a Nigeria side that is still looking for a new coach and a physical but technically limited Greece.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Nakamura to head home?

The speculation has been mounting for the last few weeks, but it looks like the rumours that Shunsuke Nakamura may return to Japan to ensure he's playing regularly in the run-up to the World Cup have some credibility after all.

Nakamura has struggled to gain a regular starting spot at Espanyol since moving from there on a free transfer from Celtic last summer and it would make a lot of sense for him - in the short term at least - to return to Yokohama F Marinos, the club where he started his career.

Without Nakamura in their starting line-up at the East Asian Championship, the Japanese struggled but - if truth be told - the floppy fringed left-footed midfielder is no longer the creative force he once was. While he still retains a significant threat from set pieces, in open play he can look pedestrian.

A return to the J.League could at least arrest his descent for long enough for him to be able to exert some influence on the national team and drag them back up to a level where they won't be embarrassed in South Africa.

Should Nakamura return to Japan, it will further reduce the number of Japanese players in the top leagues in Europe. Currently, the only other players likely to be in Takeshi Okada's squad who are playing in Europe are Keisuke Honda (CSKA Moscow), Daisuke Matsui (Grenoble), Takayuki Morimoto (Catania) and Makoto Hasebe (Wolfsburg)

AFC amend kick off times

It took them a while, but the Asian Football Confederation has realised the error of its ways and amended the kick off time of the crucial Asian Cup qualifier featuring Iran and Thailand as well as that between Jordan and Singapore.

The two games - which will determine which nation joins Iran from their group at next year's Asian Cup finals and will be held on March 3 - were due to be played at different times, with the Thais set to meet Iran in Tehran first.

That would have left Jordan and Singapore with an advantage over Bryan Robson's team, hence the request by Football Association of Thailand president Worawi Makudi for the AFC to abide by its own rules.

Only one point separates the teams in second, third and fourth in Group E with just one match remaining.

Now, at least, all three teams will go out looking to win.

Hammam and Chung go public

Mohamed bin Hammam and Dr Chung Mong-joon have finally gone public with their new-found love for one another.

The pair held a press conference in Seoul earlier this week and extracts from it were posted on the Asian Football Confederation's website yesterday.

They make interesting reading...especially Hammam's comments relating to the FIFA presidency and towards Chung. While stopping short of a declaration of his intention to run for the top post in world football, it's not hard to read between the lines.

While the two have now gone public with their alliance, the build-up to this has been going on since the votes were counted to determine who won the bitterly contested battle for the FIFA Executive Committee seat in May. The pair had been on opposite sides of the divide but, within weeks, rumours were filtering out that Hammam and Chung had met for lunch on at least two occasions to discuss the possibility of working together in the future.

On Hammam's side, the catalyst for those talks lay at his sense of being betrayed by FIFA president Sepp Blatter, a man he has long referred to in glowing and deferential terms. Hammam worked exceptionally hard behind the scenes to ensure Blatter won the presidency in Paris back in 1998 - securing, for example, the Emir of Qatar's private 747 for Blatter's use during his campaign. However, those days are now long gone with Blatter having lobbied in the background against Hammam last year.

For Chung, the motivation is simple. The South Korean has been one of Blatter's most outspoken critics and he has long harboured a desire to remove him from office. He backed - unsuccessfully - the candidatures of Lennart Johannson in 1998 and Issa Hayatou in 2002, so he will be hoping that his support of Hammam will be third time lucky. The showdown between the two - and that's assuming no other candidates throw their hats in the ring - will be held in mid-2011 at the FIFA Congress.

Those within the Hammam/Chung camp already believe they will have enough support to defeat the incumbent but there's still a long way to go in this contest.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Kids play for North Korea

Well, it looks like the North Koreans aren't taking the AFC Challenge Cup as seriously as they might - despite the comments of coach Jo Tong-sop ahead of their meeting with Turkmenistan later today.

The very fact that Jo - who works as Kim Jong-hun's assistant with the full national team and was in charge of the team that represented the nation at the East Asian Games in Hong Kong in December - is in charge underlines just how the country views the tournament, particularly in relation to their World Cup preparations.

While Jo made all the right noises about wanting to win the competition so they can qualify for the Asian Cup finals in Qatar in January next year, had such an outcome been of any real significance the North Koreans would not have sent what very closely resembles their U-23 team.

There are many who question the need for the AFC Challenge Cup, and certainly the idea that the winners can qualify for the Asian Cup finals is absurd. India, who won in 2008 to book a berth at the next Asian Cup, will undoubtedly be one of the weakest teams in Qatar, despite the very obvious talents of their experienced head coach, Bobby Houghton.

North Korea, in contrast to the Indians, are playing in the tournament by a quirk of the AFC's making and there's little Kim or Jo can learn about their team for the upcoming clashes with Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast by playing India, Turkmenistan and the like. Perhaps they've made the right decision to send the kids.

As it stands, then, the North Koreans have only three warm-up games remaining ahead of their first World Cup appearance in 44 years. On March 3 they play Chile in Santiago before travelling north to face Mexico two weeks later. Then they meet Greece on May 25. No doubt more games will be arranged.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

JFA to stand behind Okada

It came as little surprise that Japan Football Association president Motoaki Inukai came out on Monday in support of national team boss Takeshi Okada despite his team's disappointing showing at the East Asian Championship. (

With four months to go to the World Cup finals, the likelihood of the Japanese going on the hunt for a new coach at this late stage was always going to be slim. Not only would finding a new man to lead the team within such a timeframe be problematic, Inukai is unlikely to risk his own position at the head of the JFA by pulling such a stunt.

Inukai's current two-year term as president comes to an end just after the World Cup and, should he be seen to intervene now and install his own man at the helm, the responsibility for whatever happens in South Africa will fall on his head.

Okada, however, was appointed by his predecessor, Saburo Kawabuchi, and, as a result, any failings at the finals can be deflected towards the man known as 'The Captain' when Inukai seeks reelection. Indeed, having been responsible for the disastrous hiring of Zico for the 2006 World Cup, Kawabuchi has the kind of track record that will make it easy for any criticism to stick.

The certainty is that Okada will be gone after the World Cup, no matter what happens (even if the team achieves his extremely lofty goal of reaching the semifinals), leaving Inukai to install his own man for the Asian Cup finals, which will kick off in January 2011.

Given his former position as president of Urawa Reds, the smart money is on Japan's next coach being a German, with Guido Buchwald - the man who won the Asian Champions League title with Reds in 2007 - a firm favourite. Jurgen Klinsmann is also likely to be a name linked with the position when it becomes available.

That, though, won't be any time in the next four months.

China's win - what does it mean?

Two days after China's East Asian Championship victory, it's time to reflect on just what the success means for a country that has long flattered to deceive on the international scene while domestically the game has been a shambles for longer than most people care to remember.

The positive outpourings from Beijing were to be expected although it would be foolish to suggest the new regime at the Chinese Football Association had any real hand in what transpired in Tokyo. The people who deserve all the credit are Gao Hongbo and his team, who played in a style that had long looked lost to the Chinese. The confident, vibrant counterattacking display against the South Koreas, in particular, was a revelation.

But where does Chinese football go from here? When the national team won the same competition back in 2005, having also failed the previous year to go through to the final phase of Asia's World Cup qualifying tournament, there was little or no progress. Depressingly, China slipped back into the old habits that have, for so long, seen football struggle to realise its potential in the world's most populous nation.

The hope for the Chinese game - and through it the further development of Asian football as a whole in the future - has to be that the win will instill a degree of confidence that has long been missing, not only within the national team but also in the country's clubs.

Next week will see Changchun Yatai, Beijing Guoan, Henan Jianye and Shandong Luneng kick off their Asian Champions League campaigns and how they fair will perhaps provide a better indication of the health of the Chinese game than three games played in Tokyo in February.

No one within China will want to see a repeat of last year's disappointing performances, when none of the nation's clubs progressed to the knockout phase of the competition, even though qualification from the group stages was made easier with the insertion of a Round of 16. That change in the format of the competition allowed the top two teams from each group to advance, but none of the Chinese Super League sides were good enough to qualify.

A repeat of those performances will eliminate much of the positivity that is currently being felt in China. Add in the potential of more unseemly revelations as a result of the investigation into bribery and corruption, and it's fair to say Chinese football is a long way from being out of the woods.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Next up...North Korea

As Japan and South Korea completed the latest matches in their preparations for June's World Cup, North Korea were gearing up for their next tune up games ahead of their trip to South Africa.

However, while there was little hinging on the outcome of the East Asian Championship - other than the $500,000 first prize on offer and regional bragging rights - North Korea will be targeting a successful run at the AFC Challenge Cup in Sri Lanka. Only victory in the final on February 27 will be enough to earn them a place in next year's Asian Cup finals.

Given how contrary our friends from Pyongyang can be, there's the very real possibility they will not care too much about qualifying for the continental championship. It's been 18 years since they last qualified for the tournament - when they were knocked out in the group stages in Japan in 1992 - but on several occasions they haven't even bothered to enter the competition.

With the seedings for the various AFC tournaments made prior to their surprise qualification for the World Cup finals, the North Koreans remain rated in the lower tier of Asian countries by the confederation and, as a result, were not even permitted to enter the qualifying rounds for the 2011 finals. Instead they were shunted into a competition that also features India, Tajikistan and Bangladesh - hardly ideal preparation for a team that will be going head-to-head with Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast at the World Cup!

Kim Jong-hun's team take on Turkmenistan in their opening game on Wednesday before meeting Kyrgyzstan and defending champions India later in the competition. The top two teams from each group progress to the semifinals.

China crowned East Asian champions

China have won the East Asian Championship for the second time in five years, with Gao Hongbo’s team securing their success with a 2-0 win over Hong Kong.

Qu Bo scored twice – including one from the penalty spot – to give China the expected win against the former British colony and leave Japan needing to defeat Korea by two clear goals to have any chance of claiming the trophy for the first time.

Despite taking the lead through a Yasuhito Endo penalty, Japan lost 3-1 to Huh Jung-moo’s side – a result that takes the pressure off Huh and puts it squarely on the shoulders of Japan coach Takeshi Okada.

Huh was a relieved man at the post-match press conference while Okada declared he had no intention of standing down from his position and that, ultimately, the decision regarding his future rested with the Japan Football Association.

JFA president Motoaki Inukai, however, told Japanese media he had no intention of firing Okada so close to the World Cup finals.

After a series of disappointing displays, though, Okada needs to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk if Japan are not going to be embarrassed in South Africa in June.

St Valentine’s Day love-in

It hardly seems as if it was a year ago that Asian Football Confederation president Mohamed bin Hammam was fighting desperately to retain his seat on the FIFA Executive Committee.

The ballot – which the AFC president won by just two votes – was held in May, but the serious vitriol from the anti-Hammam camp started to appear around 12 months ago, building into a nasty cacophony of bitter accusations.

Hammam, to his credit, not only won the election but maintained a degree of dignity despite facing allegations that he misused the confederation’s funds and that he was unfit to lead an organisation of the stature of the AFC.

One of the greatest slurs, though, came from Dr Chung Mong-joon, the powerful president of the Korean Football Association (as he was at the time).

Just days before the vote in Kuala Lumpur, he proclaimed his fellow FIFA Exco member was insane and that he should be “taken to the hospital” rather than returning to his position in Zurich.

It was an astonishing claim and underlined how bitter the battle was to become in its final days. While Hammam’s rule has been far from perfect, Chung’s attack was unnecessarily personal.

Perhaps one of the most astonishing aspects of the campaign was that such comments were allowed to go unchallenged as Hammam continued to maintain his silence until election day, when he won.

In some respects, his victory was against the odds as Hammam had amassed against him the might of east Asia, a substantial number of west Asian nations as well as the Olympic Council of Asia and – perhaps most significantly of all – FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who was lobbying behind the scenes.

Blatter, being the wily old politician that he is, smelt blood in the water and was circling Hammam, ready to strike an early blow against a potential opponent in the 2011 battle for the FIFA presidency.

His plan, however, may well have backfired because Hammam’s narrow win has served to strengthen his position within Asia.

The differences that surfaced so acrimoniously last year have been more than patched up and there is now a concerted effort being made by Hammam and Chung to work together against Blatter.

That was evident for all to see at the final round of matches at the East Asian Championship in Tokyo on Sunday because, sat in the VIP box at Tokyo’s National Stadium, was Hammam with Chung, Thailand’s Worawi Makudi and various Japan Football Association and East Asian Football Federation luminaries.

Bridges have been mended, Hammam and Chung are now allies and the sights are being trained on Blatter.

Hammam’s declaration to run for FIFA president won’t come for some time yet – most likely after the World Cup is completed – but when it is made, the gloves will be off.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

China - a new dawn?

Victory over Hong Kong in Tokyo today will all but seal the East Asian Championship title for China, something few would have expected a little over a week ago when the tournament kicked off. For a nation where the football scene is mired in all manner of negativity, their reemergence over the last week has been the most compelling story of what has, otherwise, been a rather dull competition.

But while there will be some who will wax lyrical about China's achievement should they win the title (others will no doubt use it to lambast both the Japanese and Koreans), their performances in Japan only serve to highlight the folly of decisions taken in Beijing several years ago. Because, had the Chinese sporting authorities not been so blinkered by their impending hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games, China could well be on the way to this year's World Cup finals.

In the run up to the Beijing Olympics, China's central government was so blinded by the Olympiad that it became the focus for everything going on in the nation, to the detriment of other areas - including the nation's bid to reach the 2010 World Cup. The penultimate phase of qualifying for South Africa was held at a time when Olympic fever was building in China and the authorities chose to take resources away from the national team and put them towards the U-23 squad and their attempt to make an impression at the Games. A place in the semifinals was the target and no expense was to be spared in ensuring it was achieved.

The plan, however, backfired. First, the less-than-perfectly-prepared national side was eliminated from qualifying for the World Cup. Admittedly they were in a tough group that featured Iraq, Australia and Qatar, but the debacle surrounding head coach Vladimir Petrovic and the man in charge of the Olympic team - Radomir Djukovic - turned the whole scenario into a dog's dinner and deprived China of any real hope of posing a serious threat to the other teams in the group.

To some, that failure would have been viewed as a worthy sacrifice had the Olympic team prevailed, winning a medal in the world's most popular sport under the glare of the global spotlight. The problem was, they didn't. China's Olympic team were unable to progress from the group stage and since then the country has been thinking about what might have been.

With west Asian nations such as Iran and Saudi Arabia in a slump and China not having progressed to the final phase of qualifying, North Korea were the nation that benefitted most from the current malaise in Asian football. It could - and perhaps should - have been China. Another opportunity lost for a nation that has - on the football field at least - an uncanny knack of shooting itself in the foot.

Perhaps victory in the East Asian Championship- coupled with the bloodletting exercise that is ongoing in China at the moment - will change all of that. But Chinese football has been here before, winning the 2005 edition of the competition after missing out on the final phase of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.

Hopefully this time, the lessons will be learned.

Crunch time....or is it?

There's been a lot written over the last two or three days about how tomorrow's East Asian Championship meeting between South Korea and Japan could see the coach of the losing team heading for the exit door just four months before they take their respective teams to the World Cup finals in South Africa in June.

But with such a short time lag to the finals, replacing either Huh Jung-moo or Takeshi Okada would be little short of madness. The feeling is, no matter how poor the Japanese have been in front of goal, that the Japan Football Association is unlikely to pull the trigger on Okada. It's just too close to the finals to be indulging in the task of looking for a new coach.

It's harder to be so certain with the Koreans, however, and the news on the ground is that there has been a significant increase in late applications for accreditation from Korean media companies seeking to attend tomorrow's game just in case there's a repeat of the surprise loss to the Chinese on Wednesday.

Sure, the Koreans weren't particularly impressive against China, but that's also failing to acknowledge that this was one of the best Chinese performances in years. Personally, I've not seen China play with that level of confidence or verve since they qualified for the 2002 World Cup. For a country mired in many football-related problems, it was a joy to behold despite the extremely unpleasant conditions at Ajinomoto Stadium.

Games between Japan and South Korea don't usually need to be hyped up - especially amongst the Koreans - but the pressure around this one is building and if the Koreans lose, then there will undoubtedly be a campaign to oust Huh from his position. Following the loss to the Chinese, the KFA's website apparently crashed under the weight of traffic from angry fans trying to post hyper-critical messages. Would an anti-Huh campaign be successful? Previous KFA administrations have given into fan groups before - Jo Bonfrere, for example, fell victim to just that kind of move after Korea failed to win the East Asian Championship in 2005.

Huh, though, is no Bonfrere (while he's not perfect Huh's certainly a more pleasant person to be around than the obnoxious Dutchman!) and his team did play well in qualifying. Given that he's missing several starting players - Park Ji-sung, Park Chu-young, Lee Chung-yung, Ki Seung-yung and a number of others - there shouldn't be a lot read into this. A sensible KFA would keep Huh in his position.

But once any mob turns angry, it's a hard thing to pacify....