Dreams of Asian soccer glory ended when Japan, tantalizingly leading by two goals in the first half, eventually crashed out 2-3 in their Round of 16 match against 2018 World Cup dark horse Belgium at the Rostov-on-Don in Russia early this week.
The Japanese, the only team from Asia to survive the group stages, characteristically bowed before the crowd after the fall. Then they cleaned up their locker room and, curiously, left a “thank you’ note. In Cyrillic script.
I’ve lived long enough among the Japanese to know. Arigatou, written in a script invented by St. Cyril the Philosopher to proselytize among the Slavs over a thousand years ago, was not just for the cleaners of the Rostov Stadium. It was there, posted for all the world to see.
This is classic Japanese tatemae (literally, façade of a building) or what the Japanese wanted to show to all. But the honne, or what they truly felt inside, was scrutable enough: the Blue Samurais will be back!
It was in their body language, detectable even from the way their coach admitted he may have been the one who lost control of the game. In highly nuanced Bushido language, the code of the samurai, that was verbal seppuku. And seppuku is about upholding honor.
In soccer, it could mean a whole lot more. And that goes for the rest of Asia.
It’s true. Except for Japan, South Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Australia (yes, the Socceroos are Asians, in soccer at least) struggled at the bottom of their respective groups. But all five teams except the Socceroos won at least a match. Only four Asian teams qualified in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and not one registered a win.
In this year’s World Cup, Korea’s Red Devils, fighting with a substitute goalie, humiliated defending champion Germany 2-0 with lightning runs that made the much vaunted Die Mannschaft veterans look like the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation in its dying days – tired, wobbly, and ready for the picking.
This did not buy Korea a ticket to the next rounds but, for a consolation price, it was truly consoling. The Koreans erupted like they won a medal or something.
The Blue Samurais, who shared top posts with Senegal for the greater part of their group matches, won against Colombia 2-1 to become the first in Asia to beat a team from South America. Though defeated by the Belgians, their performance on the pitch gained them global soccer respect.
It's now Europe and South America for the rest of the World Cup but, in Asia, the beautiful game has just began. How’s that?
We all know what money can do, and there is plenty of it in Asia - big money, and parvenus with hegemonic ambitions. It’s heady brew.
I thought at first that Vladimir Putin’s Russia staging the World Cup would be a boost for Asian soccer. However, in the soccer empire, Prince Vlad is, apparently, no Asian satrap. Of the estimated 14 billion dollars that Russia spent as host, not one stadium was built, not one game was played east of the Ural mountains, that geographic feature dividing European and Asian Russia. All the games stop at Ekaterinburg, right in the Urals.
Like all the Russian Tsars since Peter the Great, Putin is thoroughly European. In outlook at least. To them, Asia is hinterland. Strategic yes, but hinterland.
The Russian economy is battered by western sanctions. Its international image suffered gravely from its support of Georgia’s separatist South Ossetia in the Caucasus, and its fairly recent seizure of the Crimea from Ukraine. But now, all these are yesterday’s news.
Putin is all over greeting heads of states, guests and fans with all the grandeur of the Tsar of all Russias and the showmanship of P.T Barnum combined. This is his party. And to his credit, what a party it is turning out to be!
All these are not lost south of the Amur and Ussuri rivers, a region historically contested by Russia and China. Here, equally irredentist Chinese strongman Xi Jingping, who just grabbed practical control of the South China Sea from his smaller neighbors by building artificial islands, and arming them to boot, harbors even more grandiose soccer fantasies.
In soccer, Emperor Xi sees an opportunity to succeed in building China’s soft power and global preeminence where all those Confucius Institutes the world over could not. Apparently, compared to soccer’s global drawing power, the poor eponymous fellow would look like a country bumpkin.
Xi wants Chinese soccer teams (their national team is currently 75th in FIFA ranking) to be the best in the world. They want that soccer World Cup, and they have catching up to do with more successful neighbors South Korea and Japan.
Egged on by this mandate from Zhongnanhai, the Chinese Communist Party heaven, the Chinese are buying shares in European soccer, setting up expensive soccer schools for kids, and are building thousands of soccer pitches all over the country.
Flushed with cash, they are also spending millions of dollars for foreign coaches, trainers and players all over the world, to the horror of established soccer. To get an idea of its magnitude, they reportedly offered Cristiano Ronaldo 105 million dollars to suit up for a Chinese club. Ronaldo allegedly refused (Boy, how much is the man paid right now!)
SOCCER IN THE GULF
Not only east Asia. At the continent’s western end, tiny but uber wealthy Qatar is doing the same and, to the discomfiture of politically estrange Gulf Big Brother Saudi Arabia, is set to host the next World Cup finals in 2022.
The two are in a bitter battle for soccer preeminence, and Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority Chief, Turki Al-Sheik, has openly questioned Qatar’s World Cup hosting rights after allegations of corruption in the bidding were raised.
Saudi Arabia has soccer ambitions of its own. It wants a team from Asia to win the Cup someday, and who else but them. They spent a lot, worked hard, and waited 12 long years to get the Saudi national squad back into the World Cup this year.
And that’s just for starters. They are also trying to get for themselves control of a piece of the global soccer empire by creating the South West Asian Football Federation or SWAFF.
The Saudis deny politics is involved but, the move is curious. Under the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), there is already a sub-regional grouping called West Asian Football Federation or WAFF, headed by Jordan’s Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein.
Curiouser still, it has been pointed out that the SWAFF does not include fellow South West Asian Yemen, and fellow Gulf countries Qatar and Iran. The coincidence is too much. Saudi Arabia is fighting a war against the Iran-backed Houthis in the Yemen civil war. It is also leading a blockade against Qatar, accusing of it supporting extremist groups.
SOCCER AND NATIONAL AMBITIONS
In Asia, the beautiful game has become the great game, a tool of hegemonic geopolitical maneuvers, global and regional, from east to west.
Perhaps, big sports is big sports precisely because of their power to advance bigger national ambitions. Sports bodies and officials play along because that’s how to pump out the big money presumed crucial to success, their own included.
When the Saudi Green Falcons suffered a humiliating 5-0 defeat against host Russia in the opening game of World Cup 2018, Saudi officials were quick to put the blame on their players’ technical errors, saying their performance was not acceptable. They did everything for them, they said.
It is a known fact that money is of no moment for the Saudi team. An entire nation’s ambition weighed heavily on the backs of eleven Saudi youth on the pitch in Russia, and they staggered under it.
Here lies the big question for Asian soccer.
Spain and Germany are among the most technically superior teams in World Cup matches. They almost always dominate possession. But we all know they are vulnerable to so-called upsets by less fancied teams. So many studies claiming to be scientific have been made to determine what makes soccer success. But in the end, it is really simple.
Soccer is called the beautiful game because of its free flows that requires so much creativity, initiative and heart. And these are develop early in children by letting them just play and enjoy the game, without being asked, much less required. You don’t just throw money to produce world champions in soccer, or any game.
You learn to love the game.
(Editor's note: Aside from being a soccer fan, Atty. Angelo 'Jijil' Jimenez is an expert on Philippine labor issues and foreign relations. He served with distinction in the Department of Labor and Employment and Overseas Workers Welfare Administration. He received 2 presidential citations for his efforts in safeguarding overseas Filipino workers or OFWs in Middle East flashpoints, including Kuwait and Iraq. He has also served as labor attaché in Japan. He is currently a UP Regent, the highest governing body of the UP system. Jijil now writes a regular column/blog for news.abs-cbn.com)
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.