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.