Hail Japan, champions of Asia

The post’s headline pains me to write it but that’s exactly what happened.

The 2011 Asian Cup ended with Japan, the Blue Samurai, winning the football tournament with a tough win over fellow regional giant Australia. Meanwhile China, after a great opening win, again were eliminated in the first stage after finishing behind Uzbekistan and Qatar in its group. Japan also did quite well in the World Cup last summer where they reached the second round, while China continued its dismal showing at major tournaments (2007 Asian Cup, 2008 Olympics, 2010 Asia Games) of bombing out at the group stage. This is a big contrast between the two historic and regional foes, who in other international arenas seem to be more evenly matched. Still there is a little promise of hope when one looks more carefully at their showing and the circumstances.

While China failed to move on to the knockout stages, they finished with four points, beating Kuwait and drawing with Uzbekistan.  China featured a young team, averaging only 23 years, that had few experienced and foreign-based players. Captain Du Wei, 28, and Qu Bo, 29, both World Cup 2002 veterans, were the only well-known players with previous stalwarts like previous captain and English league and Glasgow Celtic player Zheng Zhi, former Manchester City and 2002 World Cup veteran Sun Jihai and German league veteran Shao Jiayi omitted. In fact, the lone foreign-based player was 23-year-old Hao Junmin who plays for Schlke 04 in the German Bundesliga, their top division. And in keeping with the young trend, coach Gao Hongbo, 44, is also the youngest-ever coach of China’s national men’s football team. I’ve always though that China always seem tentative when they play, especially struggling to score. This time, they scored 4 goals in 3 games, whilst also conceding 4, but it is a decent performance for such an inexperienced team.

However, like many of China’s long-suffering fans, I’ve always been very unimpressed with China’s performances which has been very dismal, besides brief moments of success like reaching the 2004 Asian Cup final and winning the 2010 East Asian Cup, where they finally beat South Korea after over 30 years. There’s been a lot of issues brought up for this malaise, including mismanagement of the national football body, poor domestic standards, match-fixing, corrupt referees and even serious allegations of players buying their way onto national teams (a really sad low). It’s also a mystery why the men’s team is so weak while the women’s team has done quite well, though maybe not in recent years. This actually undercuts my argument, that I can’t really prove right now, that the emphasis on strict, regimented training for sports in China (personified in its state sports schools which enroll children at an early age) and works well for individual events like diving and gymnastics, actually hinders team sports, especially contact sports like basketball and football. Especially when you consider the level of free-flowing and instinctive play in football, as well as the teamwork and cohesion involved. Before Americans and Canadians laugh, realize football is played in 45 minute halves which don’t have timeouts or unlimited substitutions or constant stoppages like basketball, ice hockey, American football and baseball. Now granted, really successful football teams require not just individual skills but great teamwork, like Barcelona’s and Spain’s special tiki taka, so in theory frequent practice and drilling, which Chinese sports (and academics) emphasize, should be good. But this practice requires quick thinking and adaptability on the part of the players, which Chinese culture’s emphasis on strict top-down teaching and repetitious drilling may actually dilute.  *

Of course, China should have played better. The team should not have lost to Qatar in its second match, but it must be remembered that Qatar played Japan well in their quarterfinal match that finished 3-2 after Japan scored in the 90th minute and Qatar was the host nation, which gives a major psychological boost in home-field advantage at every of its games.

It also can’t be ignored that Japan and South Korea, both East Asian neighbors of China and both the standard-bearers of Asian football for the past decade, are very much ahead of China. Both have a plethora of talented and promising players playing in Europe, though S. Korea may have to do without Park Ji-sung, their outstanding captain who plays for Manchester United and retired after the tournament. More worryingly, both countries also have quite a number of good young players, especially Japan. As I was writing this post, I saw this news story that a 24-year-old Japanese player will be headed to Inter Milan, the defending European club champions and one of the top Italian teams. Another 24-year-old is heading to Bundesliga side Stuttgart. China has a young team but they will need to grow up a lot and hopefully make significantly bigger strides soon if they hope to compete with South Korea and Japan and qualify for the next World Cup or two.

Before the tournament began, coach Gao said “At my age I feel I will see the day [when] China will become champion of Asia.” Well, coach, at my age, I hope so too.

* Granted Japanese and South Korean cultures have similarities with Chinese culture, though their emphasis on constant, repetitious drilling may not be as strong. I have no real answer though I’d like to explore this as well.

Also, this NY Times piece from last July also tried to tackle the problem with Chinese football. The opinions by the quoted experts, as well as the commenters are all quite interesting.


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