Japanese Football Comes of Age

Following a fine run at Russia 2018, Rohan Kaushik looks at the future prospects for Japanese football.

By Rohan Kaushik

It is the 92nd minute in Rostov as Keisuke Honda lines up to take a free kick. The ball is a comfortable 40 yards or so from goal and very few would dare to shoot at goal from that distance. Unknown to the Belgium & Chelsea shot-stopper in goal, Thibaut Courtois, those few individuals include… Keisuke Honda. With a short run-up, Honda strikes at goal. His knuckle-ball free-kick dips wickedly and Courtois scrambles away the ball in the last moment to prevent an embarrassment for Belgium.

Courtois then collects the ball from the ensuing Japanese corner and launches a deadly counter. The counter proves fatal for Japan as most of the blue samurai are caught high up the pitch. After a terrific run and incisive pass by De Bruyne, Thomas Meunier hits a low ball across the goal from the right flank. Romelu Lukaku then cleverly lets the ball run through his legs to super-sub Nacer Chadli in front of a wide-open net. Despite a valiant dive from the Japanese goalkeeper Kawashima, Chadli makes no mistake to put Belgium ahead 3-2 on the night. A few moments later, the referee blows his whistle to call time on arguably the best match of World Cup 2018 and what will surely go down as an all-time world cup classic. None of this matters to the Japanese team who appear shocked and in despair.

Yet, strangely enough, there is a feeling of joy among the fans of the beautiful game, world over. They had just witnessed 90 minutes of end to end attacking football in a world cup knock-out game. This game was a representation of football at its finest; a match played in the true spirit of the game with none of the dull, defensive, bad-blood filled cynical gameplay that has engulfed the game in modern times. Japan for one, may look back at this game as a missed opportunity. At the same time, they can be proud of the fact that they went toe to toe with Belgium’s golden generation; a team that has world class stars in literally every position on the pitch and then some more.

The implications of this match and Japan’s performances in Russia could have far reaching effects on the future of Japanese football…

Japan’s Run in to The World Cup

Not much was expected of Japan going in to this world cup. Japan had gone through a fairly turbulent world cup qualifying campaign with coach Halilhodzic never really sure of his starting eleven. To make matters worse, many of the established Europe-based stars were often dropped, especially the ‘Big 3 of Japanese Football’ (Kagawa, Okazaki and Honda). While it is true that these stars are ageing and not what they used to be, it is safe to assume that they are still a cut above much of the young talent coming through. Halilhodzic certainly had the right intentions with using fresh talent but his approach was far too chaotic and rubbed many the wrong way, not least the Japan Football Association (JFA). Unsurprisingly, Halilhodzic was fired 2 months before the World Cup.

While this certainly created a problem for Japan and might have rendered their world cup preparations moot, it appeared to be the right call. Many of the team’s players had felt alienated and there certainly seemed to be more to the issue then a string of bad results. So, the JFA made a very bold call by appointing Akira Nishino.

Nishino-840x440

With less than two months to go before the World Cup, Nishino’s task appeared a herculean one. However, that said, Nishino is a coach with vast experience in the J-league. The first move he made was to recall all the Europe based stars. His final 23-man squad for the World Cup included very few players from the J-League. His reasoning was that Japan needs players who can perform in the big moments and not freeze up.

Nishino just had three games to get his team ready and firing for the world cup with friendlies lined up against Switzerland, Ghana and Paraguay. Japan’s games against Switzerland and Ghana ended in defeat but their play appeared to be strong and attack-minded. They did eventually manage to beat Paraguay 4-2 in their most encouraging performance in some time.

So, the stage was set for a very interesting world cup that no one had given Japan any chance so far. Japan were in for a stern test against Colombia in their first game.

Japan Surprises All

Jose Pekerman’s Colombia entered this World Cup looking to better their quarter final finish in Brazil 4 years ago. With Radamel Falcao finally back to spearhead the attack, it looked like Colombia were ready to announce their arrival on the big stage in style. Add to that, a star-studded team with the likes of James Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado, Carlos Bacca, Yerry Mina and Juan Fernando Quintero, it looked like Colombia might even be a ready for a tilt at the World Cup. In life though, things rarely go according to plan.

Five minutes into their opener against Japan, Yuya Osako raced away on a counter and his shot on goal was blocked by David Ospina. Shinji Kagawa followed up on the rebound and his goal bound shot was blocked by Carlos Sanchez’s outstretched hand. The referee didn’t hesitate to point to the spot and send Sanchez off. Kagawa calmly tucked away the following penalty to give Japan the lead. While Colombia did equalise through Quintero, their man disadvantage rendered their attack toothless. Colombia had shifted into a defensive mindset and it started to tell on their stamina as the game wore on. Japan would eventually get the winner after super-sub Keisuke Honda’s corner was headed in by Osako. It was a lead Japan would never relinquish and claim their (and Asia’s) first ever victory over South American opposition at the World Cup.

Japan’s second game against Senegal would turn out to be another see-saw game with each side periodically trading blows over 90 minutes. The match would finish 2-2 with substitute Honda once again doing the damage with a second half equaliser. With Japan needing just a draw in their final group game against Poland, Japan fielded an experimental line up. Coach Nishino made 6 changes to the team that had played against Senegal. The move however backfired and Japan lost 1-0 to the already eliminated Poland. Yet as fate would have it, Japan would still progress to the round of 16 despite being tied on the same points, goals scored and goal difference with Senegal. In another first, Japan would become the first team to progress to the knock out rounds on the basis of a better disciplinary record.

The dream knock out fixture with Belgium was set as history beckoned for the men from the land of the rising sun.

Japan vs Belgium – A Match for The Ages

Japan vs Belgium

Belgium were widely expected to win this game comfortably after their stellar group stage performances and the fact they were tipped as World Cup contenders. What panned out though had Belgium in shock for a good portion of the game and turned into an absolute roller coaster of a game.

Although Belgium generally looked dominant in the first half, Japan were organized defensively and looked to attack on every opportunity they could get, throwing numbers forward in attack. Additionally, Japan looked very composed in possession when they had the ball. When the whistle blew for half time, it appeared as though it would be a matter of time before Belgium took total control over proceedings. Japan clearly had other ideas.

The blue samurai raced into a two-goal lead within the first ten minutes of the restart through Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui (who was having a stellar World Cup). All of a sudden, it seemed as though Belgium were staring at a shock exit. Credit must however go to Belgium’s gaffer Roberto Martinez for recognising Japan’s age-old issue with physical play. Off went the speed and silky dribbling skills of Carrasco and Mertens and on came the physically imposing Fellaini and Chadli. In an all too familiar turn of events, Belgium started bombarding the penalty area with dangerous crosses. The pressure soon told and Belgium were soon level through a freak header from Vertonghen and a powerful point-blank header from Fellaini. It was here that perhaps Akira Nishino made his only mistake as Japan’s coach in the world cup. There appeared to be a hesitation on his part to bring on fresh legs and perhaps he waited a little too long to bring on Keisuke Honda.

The roller coaster nature of this game still served up enough chances for Japan as well as Belgium to win it. The fatal blow for Japan eventually arrived in the most cruel fashion in the 93rd minute and Chadli made no mistake to put Belgium through to the quarter finals. Many, including Fabio Capello felt that Japan were perhaps a bit too naive after taking a two-goal lead and should have been more cynical. While there is certainly an element of truth to that, the game could so easily have ended differently. Such are the fine margins of sport at this level.

The Positives & The Japanese Way

Russia 2018 was the third time in history that Japan had made it to the Round of 16 at the World Cup and got knocked out, just the same. Something definitely felt markedly different this time around though. When Japan’s golden generation made the cut in 2002, their performances were solid and it was on home soil. Granted, Japan won two games in the group stage but Troussier’s approach to the game was more conservative. The very fact that he dropped future national team legend Shunsuke Nakamura and regularly deployed the defensive minded Myojin and Toda serve to highlight this.

When Japan repeated the feat in 2010 in South Africa, the brand of football was once again defensive. Although Japanese football had progressed significantly enough since 2002, Takeshi Okada’s inability to coax the best out of the team’s talents, led to him reverting to his trademark defensive style. Even though Japan performed well in South Africa, a huge portion of the credit must go to arguably their best ever central defensive pairing of Yuji ‘Bomberhead’ Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka (Japan’s version of Beckenbauer). This was probably the only time in their history that Japan didn’t look susceptible to crosses.

Fast-forward to 2018 and it appears as though Japan have finally embraced their true identity. For the first time in all their world cups, Japan played with the fast-passing, team work and flair that has come to characterise their play over the years. All too often, Japan have fallen apart on the big stage. Coach Nishino clearly recognised Japan’s short comings from previous World Cups and picked a team that knew how to handle the pressure on the big stage. At no point did Japan appear fazed or mentally rattled. This was particularly highlighted in the game against Senegal when Japan twice came back from behind to level the scores. Throughout Nishino’s coaching career, he has always chosen to go all out when the odds were stacked against him. Gamba Osaka’s 3-5 loss to Manchester United in the FIFA Club World Cup several years is a case in point. So, what then of individual performances?

Individuals Matter

Unsurprisingly, a good chunk of Japan’s best play came from its top-class midfielders. Veteran super stars Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda showed they still had something left in the tank and were decisive in Japan’s most crucial moments. Captain Makoto Hasebe had a fine world cup in central midfield and kept the team’s shape and balance. However, it is fair to say that he was outshone by his central mid-field partner Gaku Shibasaki. Shibasaki has quietly become one of Japan’s best players in the last few years. He first came under the spotlight when his 2-goal performance for Kashima Antlers against Real Madrid nearly pushed the Galacticos to the brink in the FIFA Club World Cup final. He then moved to Tenerife in the Spanish Segunda where his great performances earned him a move to Getafe. Shibasaki had a terrific world cup with his energetic all round displays and ability to dictate the game from deep.

Above all these performances though, the biggest surprise came from wide midfielder cum winger Takashi Inui. He was arguably Japan’s star performer and his pace & ability to cut in from the left flank caused opposition defences no end of problems. He was justly rewarded with 2 terrific goals for his efforts. The most surprising part is that at 30 years of old, Inui is no spring chicken or the latest find. Strangely, in this last decade of ‘Kagawa-Honda-Okazaki’ dominance, Inui has largely been ignored for national team duties. He has quietly made a name for himself in Europe with strong performances in Germany and then with La Liga surprise package Eibar. It is only fitting that high flying Real Betis have signed the tricky winger.

Other noteworthy performances also came from the likes of Fortuna Dusseldorf winger Genki Haraguchi with his tireless running; and from the evergreen Yuto Nagatomo. The long-time Inter Milan and current Galatasaray left wing back provides such a 2-way presence on the flanks that he can never be ignored. It is hard to imagine Japan getting this far without his lung bursting forays into the attacking third. Hiroki Sakai also ran himself into the ground on the right side of defense.

So where does Japan go from here?

The Future Looks Bright

With Honda, Hasebe and Gotoku Sakai all announcing their retirement after the World Cup, it looks as though Japan is set for an exciting new era. It is expected that the likes of Kagawa, Maya Yoshida and Okazaki will be eased out over the coming years. The time has come for the likes of Shibasaki and the highly promising Gen Shoji to don the mantle and take Japan forward. Players like Takashi Usami, Takuma Asano and Shoya Nakajima could have very important roles to play over the next few years.

Hajime Moriyasu

The announcement of former Sanfrecce Hiroshima and current Japanese Olympic team manager Hajime Moriyasu as the new national team coach is a step in the right direction. It is an indication that Japan has well and truly started embracing their true identity; perhaps a sign that all answers lie within and not externally.

Could the sun finally be rising over the land of cherry blossoms? Exciting times lie ahead…

The J-League Revolution

The success of Japan’s revolutionary J-League is an embodiment of time and effort. Yet, how Japan got to that point is quite something in itself. It is a story that every true football aficionado must know.

By Rohan Kaushik

It is truly amazing to witness the heights that humanity can scale when several people are united by a common vision. The success of Japan’s revolutionary J-League is an embodiment of this and is a sporting model that so many can follow. Yet, how Japan got to that point is quite something in itself. Far from being Japan’s most popular sport, football’s meteoric rise in Japan is a story that every true football aficionado must know.

Japanese football in the 80s was a semi-professional affair. The pre-cursor to the J-League was the JSL (Japan Soccer League) and it only had company based teams. So football players were essentially company-employees first and only played football now and then. Japan’s only real tryst with professional football came courtesy Yasuhiko Okudera who plied his trade with FC Köln in the 1980s. His German experiences and desire to see a professional league in Japan would eventually lead to the formation of the J-League.

The Japan Professional Football League (As it was known then) was eventually formed in November 1991 with Saburo Kawabuchi as the founding chairman of the league. He played as a forward for the national team and Furukawa Electric in the JSL in the 60s. However, it would be as a footballing administrator that Kawabuchi would have a lasting impact on Japanese football. While on a national team training camp in Germany in the 60s, he was surprised to see the extensive sporting infrastructure through which people could enjoy sport. He longed to establish a similar sporting environment in Japan where people could easily take part in sport and have fun. Three decades later, he would serve as the chairman of the J-League from 1993 to 2002 and then as the president of the league from 2002 to 2008. He would eventually be honoured for his efforts in steering the J-League when the Japanese Football Association (JFA) inducted him into the Japan Football Hall of Fame in 2005.

The Planning Phase

The planning process involved in the formation of a successful professional league was a huge task at that time, given that football did not enjoy anywhere near as high a fan support as baseball and sumo wrestling did. Moreover, the company based nature of football meant that people would not be able to relate to the teams.

Despite this huge transitional challenge, the people tasked with the planning process were an ambitious lot. They decided that a key factor in the success of the league would be investing huge sums of money on former World Cup stars. This would draw crowd support, as the only footballing exposure the common Japanese public had at the time was during the FIFA’s prestigious competition.

Another crucial aspect in sustaining and building a solid fan base for football relied on two things. One was making all the teams in the league community and region oriented. All the league teams would have unique logos and be given names based on its location and not have the company name. Although a team could have significant financial backing from a corporate giant (which effectively meant that the company would have a major say in all decisions), it could not completely own the team and also would not be advertised that way. Teams would also be involved in friendly community based activities such as holding a football camp for kids.

The second thing was merchandizing & marketing. The JFA cut deals with dozens of companies just to ensure that the J-League insignia would be slapped across many products. ‘Sony Creative Products’, a subsidiary of Sony Music Entertainment was given the license to manufacture & market logos for all J-League teams.

j-league-logos
J-League teams (L) & their team mascots (R)

As important as capturing the public’s imagination was, the core concept of the league was professionalism. For a club to be a part of the league, it would have to meet some essential criteria in every aspect. Some of these included having a reserve team (Satellite team), under-18, under-15 and under-12 teams, transparency in declaring a club’s profits for a fiscal year and having a minimum stadium capacity of 15,000.

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Verdy Kawasaki & Yokohama Marinos battle it out in the first ever J-League match on May 15, 1993

To set the tone for the start of the new league, Japan won the right to host the AFC Asian Cup in 1992 in Hiroshima. Japan won the tournament for the first time in history beating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final. Football was now in the public conscience and going to remain in memory for a while at least. After all the planning, money, European-inspired professional ideas and American style marketing, the stage was set for the J-League explosion.

Twenty teams from the JSL had applied to become members of the new professional league. Of these, only the ten that met the criteria set by the JFA (as mentioned earlier) were accepted.

J-League Name JSL Name
Gamba Osaka Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd
JEF United Ichihara Furukawa Electric Soccer Club
Nagoya Grampus Eight Toyota Motor S.C.
Sanfrecce Hiroshima Mazda SC
Urawa Red Diamonds Mitsubishi Heavy Industries
Verdy Kawasaki Yomiuri FC
Yokohama Flugels Yokohama Tristar SC / All Nippon Airways
Yokohama Marinos Nissan Motors FC
Kashima Antlers Sumitomo Metal Industries
Shimizu S-Pulse N/A

Prior to the start of the J-League, the Yamazaki Nabisco J-League cup was held in September 1992 and Verdy Kawasaki emerged victors. The tournament was quite successful as a pre-league tournament and had relatively large crowds as recounted by former Verdy player Tetsuji Hashiratani.

The Fiesta Begins

The J-League eventually kicked off on May 15th, 1993 in front of a packed Tokyo National Stadium crowd of 59,626. A glitzy opening ceremony with colorful flags, lasers, an airship beaming pictures from above and a guitarist strutting around in a bandana made the whole extravaganza resemble a rock concert, rather than a football match. Shortly after, Verdy Kawasaki kicked off the J-League against the Yokohama Marinos, with the Marinos coming from a goal down to win 2-1. In the end though, the result mattered little.

This was best summed up by Marinos player and longtime Japan International, Masami Ihara: “At the moment I came out onto the pitch and saw the full stadium, I thought to myself, this is what I had been waiting for, that this is what playing in a pro league is like. When I went out onto the pitch, it was the happiest feeling in the world.”

Never before had a Japanese football match been associated with such a dreamy and surreal atmosphere.

Verdy Kawasaki emerged as the champions of the inaugural season as the J-League turned out to be a runaway hit. The attendances at the end of the season totaled 3.2 million with an average attendance of 18,000 spectators a game over 180 games. The first season sales of tickets, TV rights and merchandise totaled a whopping $1 billion with TV broadcasting rights alone at 10 million yen. Also, the sales of J-League goods marketed to 100 official J-League shops amounted to $291 million (30 billion yen). This was a figure not expected to be reached for many years. From J-League burgers to J-League watches; J-League was written over pretty much everything. The brand had been marketed so aggressively that it had literally been blasted into public consciousness.

The J-League was played in a two stage format with a fall stage and a summer stage. The winner of each stage would play each other in home and away games to determine the ultimate winner. A peculiar feature of the J-League at the time was the absence of points for victories. Only the number of victories counted.

japanese-players
Clockwise: Tetsuji Hashiratani, Tsuyoshi Kitazawa, Nobuhiro Takeda, Kazuyoshi Miura

The introduction of several overseas players and former World Cup stars kept attracting huge crowds to the stands in the league’s early years. The plethora of stars included Gary Lineker, Patrick Mboma, Dragan ‘Pixy’ Stojkovic, Oswaldo Ardiles, Dunga, Zico, Pierre Littbarski, Ramon Diaz and many others.

In 1995, the league reached its then peak attendance of 6.5 million at the end of the season. Some of the stars were more than just crowd pullers. They built the identity of clubs by mentoring players and instilling a winning mentality in the club. A classic example of this was Zico and Kashima Antlers.

foreign-players-j-league
Clockwise: Gary Lineker, Patrick M’Boma, Dragan Stojkovic, Dunga, Ruy Ramos, Ramon Diez, Pierre Littbarski, Oswaldo Ardiles; Center: Zico
End of the Honeymoon Phase

Just as the J-League hit fever pitch in 1995, the economic downturn in Japan caught up with the league as well. The league attendance in 1997 dropped to less than 3.5 million. A key event that took place in this period was the change to a single stage format in 1996 and it was a flop. The average attendance for that season was 13,350 per game. The decision to revert to the original 2 stage format in 1997 didn’t arrest the downfall either. It wasn’t just the league that suffered as a brand and hit the clubs as well. Verdy was the worst affected as their inability to pay huge salaries to aging players hit them hard. This sent the club on a downward spiral that they still have not truly recovered from.

Reforms & Rebuilding

After the highs of 1995, interest in the J-League started to sag. This led to some important changes by the JFA. The league had expanded to 18 clubs in 1998. The expanding nature of the league made the JFA introduce a second division in 1999 with promotion/relegation. The second division consisted of 10 clubs taken from the semi-professional JFL. Another important structural change in the league was the introduction of the points system 2 years earlier.

Breaking into the World Stage & Return to Glory

The league’s positive effects were starting to tell on the national team. Japan qualified for the World Cup for the first time at France ‘98. Despite losing all its group stage games, Japan put up a respectable performance even scoring its first World Cup goal.

Then in 2002, Japan co-hosted the World Cup. This had a salutary effect. The national team reached the knock out rounds for the first time and only narrowly missed out on a quarter final berth after a 0-1 loss to Turkey. By now, the league had also started exporting talent to Europe with Shinji Ono (Urawa to Feyenoord), Junichi Inamoto (Gamba Osaka to Arsenal) and Shunsuke Nakamura (Yokohama F Marinos to Reggina) showing just how far the league had come since its inception. Attendances steadily started improving and once again reached the highs of 1995.

japanese-trio
(L) Junichi Inamoto, (Top R) Shunsuke Nakamura, (Bottom R) Shinji Ono
Expanding its Reach

The league has gone from strength to strength ever since. They signed a deal with Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam in 2012 to broadcast J-League games and increase its reach in Asia. In the same vein, the league has also inked deals with the aforementioned countries and a few other South East Asian nations to promote football development through exchange programs. The league’s ties to South East Asia is not limited to exchange programs alone with Albirex Niigata’s satellite team (reserve team) players plying its trade in the S-League to gain experience.

More recently, the league has started a digital streaming platform in partnership with DAZN to broadcast the league in select countries and is expected to grow over the coming years. Former J-Leaguers are also starting to play in other Asian countries including the likes of India, further increasing its reach across Asia.

Future Perfect

The league now has 3 divisions and is steadily moving towards its 100 year vision of having 100 professional clubs by 2092. It has proved to be a fantastic model for professional, sporting and community development. Not many leagues in the world can boast of having a centre and service to help players prepare for a life after football. It has produced many fantastic adventures and also become a scouting hot spot for the German league; the national team’s fortunes in the 2010 World Cup playing a huge role.

So where next for Japan? The obvious answer is world domination and becoming a global brand. However, there is a bigger question that Japanese football has to answer. The J-League was founded on some core values and they have managed to introduce commercialism while staying true to its roots for the most part. They have managed to develop in a way that has made it a sustainable brand. Yet the likes of China and Qatar are now pumping in huge amounts of money in order to become globally relevant.

Japan has also stated its intention to be world champions by 2092. Will they sacrifice their core values to achieve that? Time will surely tell.

Asian football’s match-fixing issues rise again

As the Asian football scene continues to grow at a vast pace, it seems to have become an easy target for match fixers. We look at the recent incident involving South Korea’s K-League’s Jeonbuk Motors.

By Ed Wade.

It is not very often, especially at the top of football, where a match is tampered with for gambling purposes.  It hasn’t been much of an issue, and other sports suffer much worse than football, as players, coaches, and referees all make decisions to change the course of the game for financial benefit. Football isn’t immune though, of course.

The Calciopoli scandal was enough to strip Juventus of two league titles and relegate them. Former Blackpool striker DJ Campbell was accused of match-fixing games and new Chelsea boss Antonio Conte has only recently been given the all clear after being given similar charges from his time with Siena.

Football in general is very well organised and has mostly avoided match-fixing. However, some regions don’t have the same security as Europe. In countries where football is not the national sport, it is sometimes known to be easily influenced by crime gangs.

Asia is where the game is suffering the most. Over the past 10 years there has been one scandal after another. The sport has never been spectacularly popular in the east, which perhaps suggests why it is such an easy target for fixers. Football has long been behind, basketball, badminton and gymnastics in terms of popularity. With such little protection surrounding the game, it has been increasingly easy to influence matches.

What has become especially concerning for the game is just how simple its become to change the outcome of matches. It has also now spread to the top of the game. Korean champions Jeonbuk Motors were the latest team to come under scrutiny in South Korea’s K-League. The team faced Melbourne Victory in the Asian Champions League back in 2013, before it came to light that team scouts for Jeonbuk had bribed the referees. The astonishing thing was, that it took as little as $1,000 dollars.

It was an intriguing story considering where the team were at the time. Jeonbuk were owned by Hyundai Motors, top of the league, outspending everyone, and had highest wage bill. The team was driving forward. They had no real need to get involved with match-fixing, and it highlights how easy and tempting it is. There was no need for the team get involved with scandalous activity, yet they chose to do so because it was such a viable option.

At the moment it looks like there will be no end to the match-fixing. With the sport at an all-time low, football has an incredibly negative view in the public eye. The public know that match-fixing occurs, yet because the game has such little popularity, scandals are rarely covered by the media.

Korean football hero Cha Bum-Kun was named as one of the greatest footballers of the 1980’s by German kicker magazine. He was well-remembered for his thunderous striking ability. This didn’t stop him being and brandished as somebody ‘dishonouring’ football after stating that there should be more thorough investigations into the footballing scandals. This really just highlights the problem in Korea, where there is so much contentious activity, that there are no longer odds available.

Things are spreading though.

Singaporean Tan Seet Eng also known as Dan Tee was accused of being a huge match-fixing syndicate. With operations in Hungary, Italy and Finland, reportedly being involved with 32 different match scandals. Tan had previously served a year’s jail time, for fixing horse races. He was detained in Singapore in 2013 for two years, before being released. Judge Sundaresh Menon claimed that because all the allegations had taken place overseas in Europe, then Tan should not be facing any prosecutions in Singapore.

He said: “The matches fixed, whether or not successfully, all took place beyond our shores. There is nothing in the grounds to indicate, he was working with overseas criminal syndicates or to suggest that such activities are likely to take root in Singapore, by reason of anything he has done or threatens to do.”

It’s quite astonishing really that a man who has former match-fixing allegations was able to get off so lightly. This highlights just how easily brushed aside match-fixing is, showing why it happens more and more. However, until football becomes a more popular sport within the region, it remains to be seen just when match-fixing will be taken seriously.

Given it’s so simple to accomplish and get away with, why would teams, players, or crime syndicates stop doing it?

South Korea’s match-fixing issues are far from being resolved.

China Leads the Asian Football Revolution

A Chinese footballing revolution has taken place over the past year. The landscape may be forever changed, whilst the worldwide economic power struggle only begins to take effect…

By Ed Wade.

The Chinese Super league is now two months into fruition following the winter break. Optimism around the country is at an all-time high following the £200 million net spend on top international players. China ended up spending more than all of the top European leagues and established themselves as being ready to compete financially for the game’s very top players.

Leading the charge for footballing glory is President Xi Jinping. As an enormous fan of the sport, he has laid out a ten-year grand plan in order to make China the biggest sporting nation in the world.

The plans look over-ambitious perhaps, but when China set out to do something, it normally happens.

What does the president want?

President Xi plans to create a Chinese sporting economy worth $850bn by 2025. This valuation is quite astonishing considering that the entire global sports economy is currently valued at around $400bn by Optimistic.

Football is a fantastic opportunity to tap into the consumer lifestyle that absorbs China. With some of the wealthiest people in the world, it is a huge area for further investment and growth.

Xi also wants greater participation in the sport and plans to build 20,000 all-purpose football schools by 2017, with a plan of producing 100,00 players. He then wants this to increase to 50,000 schools by 2025.

With the country concerned by the growing rise of obesity, increasing participation in sport alone is becoming more important. Taking this into consideration, development at grass roots level is almost a necessity. This then becomes a ploy to not only stop health problems, but also develop better footballers in the long run.

Footballing schools would be a massive culture change, as football is not a sport currently encouraged by parents in China. It is certainly not seen as a job and parents want their children to pursue other careers. The development of Manchester City’s training complex is the sort of facility that president Xi wants across the country.

As well as this, there are also plans for China to host and win a FIFA World Cup. Very outgoing for a nation currently ranked 96th in the world, although the prestige of football is certainly growing in the country, as more high profile managers are beginning to make their trade in the East.

Brazilian World Cup winner Luiz Felipe Scolari, Ex England manager Sven Goran Eriksson and Alberto Zaccheroni who won a Scudetto with AC Milan, are all currently managing top teams in China.

Eriksson, who is currently leading Shanghai Shenhua towards an AFC Champions league, holds a similar view with Xi.

Eriksson recently said ‘Ten years ahead, 15 years ahead, I am quite sure the China national team will compete to win the World Cup.’ He also stated that ‘everyone should be worried’ about the emergence of China as a football powerhouse.

What about the current players?

Despite the grand plan and obvious ambition of China, some players believe it will only remain a place for semi-retired footballers and will never have the same pull or stature as the leading European leagues.

Former Chelsea and Newcastle striker Demba Ba was confident in the progress that the Chinese Super League was making. The Senegalese forward who now plays for Shanghai Shenhua said that people want to play in China and not just for the ‘millions and millions.’ He did, however, admit that it would take ‘years and years’ before the CSL is at the same level as the Premier League.

Didier Drogba, who played in both the MLS and the CSL, sbelieves that more players would choose to go America over China. The MLS also has a reputation for recruiting players who are past their best. The Ivorian believes that America is ahead in terms of Development and quality.

No I don’t think China is ahead of the MLS’ said Drogba before moving to Shanghai Shenhua.

Despite some of the incredible signings made by the CSL, Maurice Ross a former Rangers player, believes that it is only short term gain. He believes that a lack of structure and knowledge of the game, means that it is being built on a false premise of money as appose to desire and hunger for the sport.

‘So many deals are short-term because of the environment,’ said Ross ‘You have to really adapt to their lifestyle. ‘It’s not a good place to play football.’

Tim Cahill’s bizarre transfer episode further proved this further as his contract with Shenhua was terminated, before he signed with Hangzhou Greentown. He claimed that China was ‘crazy like a revolving door.’

What do the fans think?

For fans in Europe it is hard to see them changing their mind on the CSL. Europe is definitely the place to go in order to see top quality football. The television rights for the Premier League alone, show the pull of the competition and just how popular it is worldwide.

European competitions also have massive prestige and a global recognition. The clubs are steeped with history and are continuing to grow on a competitive and financial front. Players who move to the CSL are seen by many as ‘mercenaries’ and just in the game for the money.

On a domestic scale the popularity of football has never been greater in China. Stadiums are averaging 23,000 fans per game which is currently at a record high. However, popular culture in China is to follow a hero in the game, which is why the new influx of top quality stars should help drive fan engagement forward.

So what might actually happen?

There is no doubting there is massive potential in China. With president Xi on a 10-year tenure, Chinese football will theoretically have government backing for a while yet to come.

Arsene Wegner says clubs should be ‘worried’ by what is happening. ‘Because China looks to have the financial power to move the whole game to China. We know it’s just a consequence of economic power and they have that.’

If Alex Texiera is worth £37.5 million and Jiangsu Suning were reportedly willing to pay £75 million for Oscar, surely it is only a matter of time before the £100 million bracket is breached.

It is easy to imagine all of the Chinese clubs offering astonishing fees for players over the course of the summer, as they continue Chinese footballing revolution continues.

Taeguk Odyssey: Looking Back on South Korea’s March to Football History

An in-depth view at South Korea’s mercurial journey during the 2002 World Cup they part-hosted.

By Chris Weir

“FIFA rules do not allow co-hosting of the World Cup. As long as I am FIFA President that will not change.”

Joao Havelange was not a man to be taken lightly. The Brazilian had revolutionised FIFA in his 22 years at the helm, turning it into a commercial monster with the World Cup as it’s flagship product. His word on football was almost always the last.

It was a surprise, then, when South Korea and Japan were announced as co-hosts of the 2002 World Cup in May 1996.

The bid decision didn’t sit well with the Japanese, who until the eleventh hour had been confident of securing the rights on their own terms. Kenji Mori, the J League’s managing director, put it bluntly:

“This is the worst case scenario.”

The co-hosts were far from friendly neighbours, with Koreans having lived under the colonial rule of the Japanese for nearly fifty years, only being liberated after World War Two. With this announcement, a centuries-old rivalry would now be played out in a footballing arena.

Granted automatic qualification as hosts, both were expected to perform by their associations.  Japan had Parma’s Hidetoshi Nakata, the poster boy of Asian football, whilst Jun-ichi Inamoto had become the first of his country to play for Arsenal.  Shinji Ono, meanwhile, had just won the UEFA Cup with Feyenoord, and the nation were hopeful of a respectable showing on home turf.

South Korean expectations were equally high, if a little less realistic. Seol Ki-Hyeon had struggled for Anderlecht despite becoming the first player from the country to score in the Champions League, while Ahn Jung Hwan hadn’t set the world alight with Serie A’s Perugia.  Most of the squad was still based in Korea, including stalwart and captain Hong Myung-Bo, in a league that was busy finding it’s feet.

There were also questions off the pitch, some suggesting that coach Guus Hiddink wasn’t approaching the job with the gravitas it needed.

According to the New York Times’ Jeré Longman, his relationship with girlfriend Elizabeth was met with raised eyebrows in a country that favoured discretion and deference, while Hiddink’s decision to pick players based on their ability rather than background irritated rather than inspired. It was typically singleminded – part of the reason he was sacked from the Real Madrid job two years before was for stating publicly that Los Merengues lacked professionalism under president Lorenzo Sanz.

Hiddink’s lack of popularity wasn’t helped by his team losing most of its games as a guest in a CONCACAF tournament a year earlier, as well as being spanked 5-0 by the French at the Confederations Cup. His reputation was already wavering after a bitterly short spell with Betis followed the disaster in Madrid.

The future, for all parties, wasn’t clear.

Certainly, nobody expected footballing history to be made. France were heavy favourites for the tournament, with the top scorers of Serie A and the Premiership in David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry being fed by Zinedine Zidane. The latter had just scored that goal to win the Champions League for Real Madrid at Hampden,and was at the peak of his imperious powers.

Argentina were the other hot ticket. Everywhere you looked they had experience and quality, even on the bench where Marcelo Bielsa – demigod to footballing hipsters the world over – directed matters in his inimitable style.

With the draw made, the Koreans were placed in a difficult group alongside Poland, Portugal and the United States. Everybody expected the Iberians to qualify, but second spot and a ticket to the next round seemed achievable. Despite being ever present since 1990, the Americans had qualified from the group stage just once, while a weak Poland team was making its first appearance since 1986.

It was the latter who lined up against Team Korea on the 4th of June, the Europeans starting brightly with some early attacking forays.  The wall of noise greeting every Korean attack was deafening, something akin to the roar facing rockstars as they walk on stage at a concert.

Still, it was nothing compared to the hysteria unleashed in the 26th minute, when Hwang-Sun Hong swept in a cross from the left hand side. Where his marker was is a question that remains unanswered.

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Hwang-Sun Hong celebrates scoring against Poland

Joy turned to euphoria in the 53rd minute, Jerzy Dudek palming Yoo Sang-Chul’s screamer into the top corner. The Koreans had arrived, with Polish coach Jerzy Engel admitting his side had been bested by an energetic and enthused display.

After one game Korea were top of the Group, with Portugal coming unstuck 3-2 against a dogged USA. The hosts found the Americans a similarly tough nut to crack, only salvaging a late draw with Ahn’s 78th minute equaliser after Clint Mathis had opened the scoring.

As reported by Andrew Salmon in the Korea Times, the game itself was dominated by the recent death of two schoolchildren in a road accident involving American troops stationed in the country. It made for a tense atmosphere, but a draw suited both teams.

Portugal’s 4-0 trouncing sent Poland packing, but in truth it was a solitary highlight in a tournament that embarrassed the Selecçao. In their final game where a draw would do, Luis Figo, Rui Costa et al. failed to turn up , with Park Ji-Sung scoring the type of skilful finish that would see him earn a subsequent move to PSV. A one-nil victory for South Korea and passage to the next round.

The Japanese had also managed to progress, two wins and a draw meaning they finished ahead of Belgium and Russia in Group H. Sadly for the Samurais, however, they were then eliminated by a potent Turkish side inspired by Hasan Şaş. Ümit Davala’s 12th minute goal meant Korea stood alone as Asia’s last hope.

By this stage, their skill and fitness was winning many plaudits. Hiddink’s ability to spend the three months prior to the tournament fine tuning his squad was paying handsome dividends. The Koreans were hungrier, fresher, imbued with the confidence the Dutchman had instilled in them.

Still, everybody expected normal order to be restored when they faced Italy in the second round. The eager Korean attack would surely fire blanks against the world’s best defence. Even if Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta were both missing for the Azzurri, Gianluigi Buffon would stop the shots that Paolo Maldini deigned to let through.

It wouldn’t be long before the celebrations turned into accusations.

Korea signalled their intent from the off, winning a penalty in the opening minutes which Buffon managed to claw away, before Christian Vieri silenced the home crowd with a typically forceful header. What followed was an archetypal Italian performance right up until the 88th minute. After Christian Panucci failed to clear a simple cross, Seol swept a left footed shot gratefully home. Extra time and the golden goal loomed.

Given the cynical nature of the Italians throughout, it was perhaps a surprise that the only red card came for Francesco Totti, with referee Byron Moreno showing him a second yellow for diving. The Italians were apoplectic, but fury turned to despair when Ahn nodded in a whipped cross from another future PSV player in Lee Young-Pyo.

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Francesco Totti having been sent off against South Korea.

The fireworks crackling overhead were matched by the wild celebrations on the pitch, as the Korean bench ran to embrace their hero goalscorer. The result cost Giovanni Trappatoni his job, and a nation it’s pride.

It would be the highlight of Ahn Jung-Hwan’s career. 24 hours after that fateful goal, the  Perugia chairman cancelled his contract in perhaps the world’s worst case of sour grapes. Still, Ahn had other things to focus on, like a quarter final clash with Spain.

Before they won everything, the Spanish had an unshakeable tag of underachievers on the biggest stage. Chock full of quality yes, but too prone to failing under pressure and the hot lights of expectation. If you were to ask any Spaniard about the game in Gwangju today, you’d no doubt be greeted with a flurry of Latin profanities. Iván Helguera summed up the mood of a nation when he bemoaned “what happened here was robbery“.

Looking back on the highlight videos would make even Ashley Young wince at the lack of fair play. Spain were denied two clear goals, the first off the shoulder of Kim Tae-Young after Helguera was penalised for shirt-pulling. The second was a ruled-out header from Fernando Morientes. Despite frantic Spanish argument, The Egyptian referee agreed with his linesman that the ball had run out of play before being crossed. The highlights, which have surely been played in many a Spanish household since, showed otherwise.

The game went to a penalty shoot out and, after an ill-looking Joaquín missed, the talismanic captain Hong-Myung Bo fired Korea into the semi final. Whilst Hiddink gushed about dreams coming true, Iván Helguera admitted the torture that game had inflicted in a later interview with AS ;

“In my clenched fist, I had all the helplessness I felt inside, and I think that of the 39 million Spaniards who had watched that game.”

The debate about the apparent favouritism displayed towards the home side would continue, and still lingers today 14 years on.

Despite it though, Korea were now in a World Cup semi-final, in their home country, just 18 months after being rolled over 3-1 in the Gold Cup by Paulo Wanchope’s Costa Rica. The footage from the time speaks for itself, as a whole nation exalted in a state of unequalled, unfiltered joy. “Hidonggu” had led his youthful charges to footballing history.

Still, there’s wasn’t much time for celebration. Whilst few could argue that this was the worst German team in a generation, they had a dangerous amount of talent in their squad. Bernd Schneider and Carsten Ramelow had been part of the team that reached the Champions League Final with Bayer Leverkusen a few months previously, whilst their star player Michael Ballack was also a fixture. Oliver Kahn would go on to win the award for the tournaments best player, whilst Miroslav Klose was on the upward curve of an astonishing international career that would see him against Turkey to win the trophy 12 years later in Brazil.

It was here where the music stopped. Germany are the experts at ruining everybody’s fun, and Michael Ballack’s bittersweet strike (a booking meant he would miss the final) condemned the Koreans to a painful exit in a game that had the entire country gripped.

In the aftermath of the match against Turkey, president Kim Dae -Jung publicly thanked Hiddink and his men for their heroic display, whilst Korean Air guaranteed the coach four years of free air travel after the unprecedented events on the field. A divisive figure a month before, Hiddink was granted honorary citizenship as well as having Gwangju stadium renamed in his honour.

Nobody could have expected such success to last, but still many were left deflated when South Korea exited the 2006 World Cup at the first hurdle, edged by Switzerland and Raymond Domenech’s France.

The dream was over.

By that time, Hiddink had returned to PSV, winning three Dutch League titles and bringing them to the semi-finals of the Champions League. Only the away goals rule helped opponents AC Milan into that final in Istanbul, with Park Ji-Sung’s displays earning him a move to Manchester United in the summer.

Still, Korea’s run to the semi-final will forever be remembered, albeit with different emotions depending on whether you find yourself in downtown Seoul or at the Plaza Mayor in Madrid.  But for Hiddink, Hong Myung-Bo and the vibrant Red Devils, this was a time where Eastern Promise well and truly delivered.

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