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.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Time for Park to be given some credit

In a World Cup year, it's little surprise that the English language media around the globe is being dominated by tales of daring-do by Wayne Rooney.

The media in England - whether the rest of us like it or not - by and large set the journalistic agenda in the football world (and not just for those who speak English) and with Rooney in such blistering form, it's no surprise that every time you click on a website or open a newspaper, the Scouse marauder is being lauded once again.

Rooney has, without question, been in astonishing form. It's not just his goalscoring but his all round play that seems to have gone up several notches now that Manchester United have stopped mourning the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo and started to hit top gear.

But while Rooney has earned all the plaudits, the efforts of others have gone unnoticed - or at least unheralded.

Park Ji-sung falls into that category, with the South Korean in the kind of form that proves he will be just as important to his country's hopes as Rooney will be to England's at the World Cup.

Of course, the Koreans are not harbouring hopes of winning the tournament (and some think England should not be so lofty in their ambitions either) but if they want to achieve their goal of progressing into the second round, then Huh Jung-moo needs Park to carry his current form into June.

On Saturday he set up Dimitar Berbatov for United's third against Fulham in an impressive cameo appearance as a second half substitute while his strike against AC Milan in the UEFA Champions League earlier in the week highlighted his ability to find space, his movement and his normally unheralded finishing ability. And the goal came on top of a performance in which he managed to keep Andrea Pirlo unusually quiet.

Park was long ago recognised by fans of the Asian game as his generation's best player from the region. Sadly, the Asian Football Confederation seem incapable of doing likewise, refusing to consider him for their Player of the Year award despite being part of the Manchester United team that won the European Cup in 2008 and playing in the final in Rome 12 months later.

To his credit, Park seems less than bothered. But while the English media have an excuse for their myopia, isn't it time the AFC finally paid tribute to Asian football's finest ambassador?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Nakamura back with a bang

A lack of investment in their team over recent years means Yokohama F Marinos are unlikely to pose a serious threat to the main contenders for this year's J.League title, but the return of Shunsuke Nakamura ensured not only a win on Saturday over newly promoted Shonan Bellmare but a huge amount of media exposure for the club.

Nakamura had a hand in the first of his team's three goals against Bellmare but, even if he hadn't been so influential, it's hard to believe the Japanese TV directors would not have spent more of their time focusing on the former Celtic man than on the game.

Anyone who has had the dubious pleasure of watching sports coverage on Japanese television will attest to the frustration that comes with it. The obsession with celebrity in Japan far outstrips that in most other nations and that includes sporting events. As a result, television directors are prone to focusing more on meaningless little flicks and tricks or the gestures of one or two particular players than on aspects that have a much greater impact on the outcome of the game.

Nakamura received the full treatment on Saturday and his return will be something of a fillip for the J.League at a time when the game in Japan is threatening to stagnate. The poor performances of the national team have seen attendances and TV audiences fall for the Japan team even though the country has qualified for the World Cup.

And while Nakamura may have brought his star power to bear on the J.League once again, it's unlikely his return will see a vast improvement in the national team's fortunes over the coming three months.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Will he stay or will he go?

The prevailing wisdom in Australia is that Pim Verbeek has no plans to hang around with the Socceroos once the World Cup is done. But, despite the speculation, the man himself refuses to confirm either way what he intends to do.

Leaving after South Africa would make sense but so, too, would continuing on for another seven months to take the nation to the Asian Cup finals. After all, Verbeek did qualify the country for the finals - just as he did for the World Cup - and it would bring a certain amount of symmetry to his reign. The Dutchman took over, after all, from Graham Arnold after the Socceroos' disappointing debut showing at the tournament in 2007.

The Australians have been becoming increasingly vocal about their concerns over the lack of a new generation of players coming through to replace the likes of Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill and the rest, few of whom are expected to still be playing internationally by the time the next World Cup comes round in 2014 in Brazil.

So why not allow - or encourage - Verbeek to remain in charge until January 2011 as the Australians look to banish the memories of what was an inauspicious start to their life in Asia. Few who encountered the Australian contingent during the Asian Cup had anything positive to say about the attitude either of the team or many within the media and this would be the perfect opportunity to rebuild some bridges.

The Asian Cup could then be the swan song for the team and Verbeek...and that tale could end with victory in the final in Doha on January 27. Let's face it, the Asian Cup is a title the Aussies could win; the World Cup isn't and what would be better for all concerned than going out on that kind of high.

Chinese showing early ACL promise

Maybe it's a little too early to get excited, but perhaps 2010 is going to bring a new dawn for Chinese football after all.

Following on from the national team's success at the East Asian Championship, the country's clubs have had a decent start to the 2010 edition of the Asian Champions League. And all this comes in the aftermath of the government's attempts to finally rid the game of the scourge of match fixing.

None have impressed more than Beijing Guoan, who have won their first two games and sit level on points with former continental champions Seongnam Ilhwa at the top of Group E. With Melbourne Victory and Kawasaki Frontale yet to pick up any points, the battle for a berth in the second round in that group could be all but done by the next round of games.

Shandong Luneng and Changchun Yatai, meanwhile, have had a mixed start while Henan Jianye came back from the disappointment of drawing with Singapore Armed Forces at home to pick up a point on the road against Gamba Osaka on Tuesday evening.

For a country that has not had a team reach the knockout phase of the competition since 2006, these results are a step in the right direction. And their hope has to be that the performances will only improve once the players gain greater match fitness when the Chinese Super League kicks off later this month.

The first two weeks have also been a bit of a mixed bag for the Japanese. No one expected much from Sanfrecce Hiroshima in their first appearance in the competition but better things were hoped for from Kawasaki Frontale. However, under new coach Tsutomu Takahata they have lost both of their opening games and will now struggle to match their run to the quarterfinals in both 2007 and 2009.

Former champions Gamba Osaka have been disappointing but face Singapore Armed Forces next in a game that should net them three points. Kashima Antlers have at least put on a showing worthy of the Japanese champions by claiming back-to-back wins to move three points clear at the top of Group F.

Of the eastern nations, it's the South Koreans who have impressed most with Seongnam and Suwon Bluewings topping their respective groups while defending champions Pohang Steelers at least came back from their surprise loss against Adelaide United with a win over Sanfrecce.

In the west, Al Gharafa, Al Hilal and Bunyodkor are the only teams to have perfect records after two rounds of matches with inaugural champions Al Ain picking up only one point so far, in a draw against Sepahan on Wednesday.

The tournament also claimed its first casualty on Wednesday when Henk Ten Cate stepped down as head coach Al Ahli from the UAE after their 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Al Sadd.

Monday, March 08, 2010

You've got to laugh...

Thailand have just missed out on qualifying for the finals of the Asian Cup for the first time since 1988 and the talk has already turned to not only qualifying for the 2014 World Cup finals but on how much of a bonus players will receive should they manage to make it to Brazil!


The problems in Thai football - and indeed throughout the game in South East Asia - run much deeper than not being able to find enough financial incentives for players to perform at their optimum level (and surely being the first Thai team to qualify for the World Cup should be enough of a carrot in itself).

Instead of offering players 1 million baht per man to qualify, perhaps that money should be put into further developing the game, increasing the professionalism of the FA and allowing the coaching staff and the players to have the support they need so they can concentrate on the game.

Just a thought...

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Calisto the big winner despite Vietnam's failure

Failing to qualify for the Asian Cup has not done Vietnam coach Henrique Calisto any harm at all...not only has he signed a new contract but, according to press reports in Hanoi, he has almost doubled his salary. Not bad work if you can get it!

Of course, too many countries are too quick to pull the trigger on their coaches, but the question has to be asked if Calisto deserves to be so extravagantly rewarded after a campaign that has ended in failure. By all means keep him on if you think he's the right man for the job, but increasing his salary so significantly hardly sounds like a sensible use of resources.

Remember, Vietnam have failed to qualify for the 2011 Asian Cup despite reaching the quarterfinals of the 2007 edition under former coach Alfred Riedl. That hardly represents progress, even if the country did win their first ever ASEAN Championship in 2008.

If the Vietnamese are serious about improving then they should have made a better fist of trying to qualify for the Asian Cup in a group that featured China, Syria and Lebanon. There's no denying it was a challenge for the South East Asian champions but these are the nations they need to be taking points off if they are serious about being successful beyond their own backyard...but one win - against Lebanon in Hanoi - was all they could muster.

The next few months are going to be interesting for the various South East Asian national teams, with several forced to make decisions over the fate of their coaches.

Benny Dollo has already decided to step down from his position in Indonesia, although his dismal record since taking over means he will hardly be missed. K Rajagopal will no doubt remain in charge of the Malaysian team by virtue of winning the gold medal at the SEA Games while Raddy Avramovic has already extended his contract in Singapore.

Questions, meanwhile, will no doubt be asked about the future of Bryan Robson in Thailand.

Robson had the unenviable task of taking over from Peter Reid midway through the qualifying campaign for the Asian Cup and, despite a good start against Singapore, he was unable to take his team through to the finals.

After Thailand also failed to win the gold medal at the SEA Games, the pressure will be mounting on the Football Association of Thailand to take action, and with the press - particularly SiamSport - holding significant influence (many would say a disproportionate amount), it's not beyond the realms of possibility that the FAT will be forced into making changes in the national set up. Whether that extends as far as Robson remains to be seen, and it may prove too expensive for the FAT to fire the former England international.

WIth the ASEAN Championship being held in Indonesia and Vietnam in December, those nations planning to make changes to their coaching set ups will be keen to do so soon.

Indeed, 2010 is certain to see a large number of coaching changes across the Asian game.

Takeshi Okada has already said he will stand down as Japan coach after the World Cup while Pim Verbeek is expected to make an announcement on his future with the Socceroos next week. It's unlikely Huh Jung-moo will remain with South Korea post-South Africa 2010 while it's anyone's guess what the North Koreans will do before - never mind after - the World Cup.

Anyone fancy a job in Pyongyang?

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Cunning linguists find success

There are several things that have made Park Ji-sung and Hidetoshi Nakata stand out from the other Asian players who have gone to Europe and principal among the reasons for their success has been their ability to adapt to life in the country in which they have played.

This article in The Korea Herald (http://www.koreaherald.co.kr/NEWKHSITE/data/html_dir/2010/03/05/201003050101.asp) sums up what it is that makes these players stand out from many of the other Asian players who have gone to play in the European leagues. Park has shown his determination to fit in whether it be in Japan, the Netherlands or England by learning the language of each country effectively from scratch.

A similar story exists about Nakata when he joined Bolton Wanderers from Serie A for the final season of his professional career in Europe.

At the press conference to unveil him as the club's new signing, Nakata was asked by a Japanese reporter whether they should address him in English or in Japanese. Nakata, by then already fluent in English as well as Italian, turned and answered in the most cutting of tones: "English. Remember where you are." It's fair to say Nakata's relationship with the majority of the Japanese media was never the most cordial!

Of course, talent is the most important commodity and without it neither Park nor Nakata would have been successful. But being able to understand what is going on around you on a day-to-day basis makes it much easier to fit in both on and off the pitch. A happy life off the pitch contributes greatly to success on it.

Too many Asian players - particularly from the east of the continent - have gone to Europe and cocooned themselves in their own little worlds, socializing only with members of the expatriate community of their homeland, watching TV shows from back home either on the internet or on DVD. One player - China's Li Weifeng - even flew his mother to England so he could have her home cooked food every day! Needless to say, he only lasted six months at Everton before returning to China for good.

Some, of course, have managed well without the need to speak the local lingo fluently. Shunsuke Nakamura's English remains limited at best, despite his successful stint at Celtic. Although there will no doubt be some who think it makes little difference if you speak English or Japanese in Glasgow...

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Wake-up call for South East Asia

The final list of qualifiers for the Asian Cup is complete and, less than three years after the region hosted the last event, not one nation from South East Asia has progressed to the finals of the continental championship.

Singapore, in the end, went closest but were eliminated by a 61st minute winner in Jordan from Bani Yaseen while Thailand lost out to Iran in Tehran to end their hopes. The rest of the region's national teams were eliminated long ago.

And yet, come December, the likes of Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam will all become hot under the collar at the prospect of going head-to-head against one another in the Asean Championships and, for many, their lack of involvement in the continent's biggest tournament will be all but forgotten. Heads will be buried in the sand and lessons will not have been learned.

One need only look at Malaysia to see how shortsighted the football authorities of South East Asia tend to be. An overhaul was promised of the entire system after their dismal performance at the Asian Cup in 2007, only for the country to continue to be mired in the nonsense that has stifled the development of the game there for decades.

Sure, they won the gold medal at the South East Asian Games, but as the performances of the region's national teams in qualifying for the Asian Cup has now proven, that means next to nothing.

It's time the nations of South East Asia forgot their obsession with one another and started to aim higher while still setting achievable goals. The Thais can talk about qualifying for the World Cup all they want, but if they can't make it into the Asian Cup - which features the top 16 nations in Asia - then what hope do they have of taking one of Asia's four World Cup berths?

Indonesia, too, must take a long hard look at itself. These results mean the country's unlikely bid to host the World Cup just took another pounding - for a nation of its size and which has such an unquenchable passion for the game, why can they not produce a team capable of being competitive at any level?

It's time for fans and the media in these countries to rise up and make it known to the self-serving administrators who run the federations in many of these nations that they will stand for this ineptitude and lack of professionalism no longer.

There's a passion for the sport in South East Asia that matches - and at times surpasses - that shown elsewhere in Asia. That love for the game deserves better results and more professional performances. It needs federations to be implementing proper grassroots development, setting goals higher than merely beating their local rivals.

What it requires is selfless leadership, properly financed coaching programmes and professionalism from top to bottom. Of the quintet of SEA nations that missed out, only Singapore has a template in place to achieve higher levels of performance. Size, rather than ambition, is what has hurt the Lions more than anything else.

But that defence does not hold for the rest. There will be those that claim professionalism is starting to creep into league football in the region - and there can be no denying the advances made in Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand on that front - but it's still not enough. More needs to be done.

Reports in Australia claimed the Indonesian players had to pay for their own visas to enter the country for their game against the Socceroos in Brisbane on Wednesday evening. That's unacceptable and symptomatic of the problems that exist. Similar stories are regularly told across the region - of players paying toll fares for team buses going to training and the like. If there is a lack of professionalism at that level, then you can be guaranteed that it permeates the entire set-up.

Things need to change, but will they? Failing to qualify for the Asian Cup does not sting the sense of national pride in many of the SEA nations - even though it should - so holding out for major improvement is perhaps a forlorn hope.

But it needs to happen and perhaps now it's time for the fans to take action and push for those changes once and for all.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Aussies off to Doha

Australia - as expected - booked their place in the finals of the Asian Cup with a comfortable 1-0 win over Indonesia in Brisbane on Wednesday evening. Needing only a draw to ensure qualification for January's continental championship, Mark Milligan scored the only goal of the game to seal Australia's place at the finals in Qatar

Young winger Tommy Oar made a major impression on his debut on the left side of the Australian midfield but, despite all their possession, a Socceroos side made up largely of A-League players struggled to break down the Indonesian defence for major chunks of the game.

The Indonesians frustrated Pim Verbeek's team throughout the first half without really presenting much of a threat, despite playing some pretty football on occasion and it took an Australian set piece to unlock the visitors' defence late in the first half.

Australia were dominant in the second half but were unable to find a way past Markus Harison, highlighting the lack of creativity that exists within Australian football when the leading Europe-based players are not available, particularly in central positions.

It was a missed opportunity, too, for many of the Indonesians.

With a number of A-League coaches in attendance, here was the opportunity for the country's top players to put themselves in the shop window. Few, however, shone (with the exception of central defender Charis Yulianto, who managed to keep the towering Josh Kennedy relatively quiet) and it's unlikely there will be a flow of Australian Dollars into the coffers of any of Indonesia's leading clubs any time soon.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Odds favour Jordan

In two days' time, the line up for the Asian Cup finals in Qatar will be determined when the last three slots at the finals will have been filled. The outcome of two groups remains undecided - the second qualifying place in Group E and both slots in Group B.

Iran have already taken one of Group E's berths but that has not deterred head coach Afshin Ghotbi from selecting a strong squad, recalling Ali Karimi as well as England-based Andranik Teymourian and Spanish based duo Javad Nekounam and Masoud Shojaei for their meeting with Thailand. It's a strange decision and one that will likely have a serious impact on the group.

The Thais go to Tehran without Teerasil Dangda and Narongchai Vachiraba while it's highly unlikely that Bryan Robson's team will be relishing the conditions they will endure in Iran for the game. While it's not expected to be too cold, temperatures in the low teens are significantly more chilly than they're used to - and often exploit to their fullest advantage - in Bangkok.

Much the same goes for Singapore as they prepare to take on Jordan in the group's other crucial game. Both sides need to win to progress, so that should ensure an open and entertaining game in Amman.

The Singaporeans are aiming to play at the Asian Cup for the first time since playing in the 1984 tournament as hosts and qualification would be another significant milestone for a nation that has continually improved over the last eight to 10 years. Much of that has been related to the policy of naturalizing players who were born overseas.

Singapore won the last meeting between the two on home soil but this will be a significantly different encounter against a team now coached by former Asian Coach of the Year Adnan Hamed. Hamed was the man who guided Iraq to the semifinals of the Olympic Games in 2004 and he took over in Amman a little over a year ago. His predecessor, Nelo Vingada, was elbowed out of his position after the loss to Singapore in January 09.

Hamed oversaw Jordan's 1-0 win over Iran in Amman in their previous Asian Cup qualifier and it was that result which threw the outcome of the group wide open. There is every possibility he can pull off something similar against the Singaporeans and qualify the Jordanians for the Asian Cup for the first time since they reached the quarterfinals at the 2004 edition in China.

In Group B, a draw against Indonesia in Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium would be enough for Australia to go through - although its hard to see anything other than a win for the Socceroos - while a fascinating contest awaits between Oman and Kuwait.

Oman, the current Gulf Cup holders, are on a high at the moment and have the added advantage of playing at home, but Claude Le Roy's side cannot afford to be complacent. The Kuwaitis, who lead the group going into the last round of matches, only need a draw to book their place at the Asian Cup finals after missing out on the last edition of the competition in 2007.

The draw for the finals will be made in Doha on April 23.