Osieck's Australians preparing for East Asian Cup
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -Seven years after joining the Asian confederation, Australia moves deeper into the continental scene this weekend when it contests the East Asian Cup for the first time with host South Korea, Japan and China.
China apart, it is a chance for the other three to start preparations for the 2014 World Cup just a month after clinching qualification. With Europe-based stars busy with their clubs, it is also a chance for domestic and Asian-based players to stake their claims for Brazil if they can perform well in the fifth edition of this round-robin tournament.
Already, however, Australia coach Holger Osieck has had a taste of the complexities involved in the region less than a year after the East Asian Football Federation, which established the tournament in 2003, issued the invitation to the Socceroos. Osieck complained about the difficulties involved in making sure that Japanese and Chinese clubs released their contracted Australian players and revealed that boycotting the tournament had been discussed.
"Only after some internal discussion, in the spirit of fair play, we decided to go,'' Osieck told a Sydney news conference as he announced his squad. "It was just a brief thought, but then we thought `no ... we respect the spirit of fair play.'''
Fair play is not always apparent in a competition that may not be the biggest in the calendar for the likes of South Korea and Japan with their regular appearances at World Cups but sees some of the fiercest football rivalries in the world played out on the pitch.
This time, the four competing teams have their own issues to deal with. Australia is perhaps in the most settled position after a strong finish in its qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup. With seven points from the last three games, Osieck silenced many of his critics. Even so, fans Down Under would love to see some new faces challenging the old guard in the build-up to Brazil. Osieck has selected eight uncapped players from the domestic A-League.
Australia kicks off the tournament against host South Korea in Seoul on Saturday before taking on Japan five days later in Hwaseong and then returning to the capital to face China in July 28.
If Osieck has been criticized for putting too much faith in his favorites, then the same has been happening in Japan recently with coach Alberto Zaccheroni. The Italian coach is aiming to bring the trophy to Tokyo for the first time since the tournament was established in 2003 but, more importantly, he wants to relieve some of the pressure that has been building since the Asian champion lost all three games in the Confederations Cup.
"This is an experimental squad,'' said Zaccheroni, cautioning against expecting too much with a squad containing seven players selected for the first time. "And if I had to choose between winning with the players not being able to show what they can do, or not winning but finding that one or two of them have what it takes to play for the national team, I'd take the latter.''
Host South Korea also has plenty to deal with. Saturday's opener is the first in charge for new coach Hong Myong-bo, who was captain of the South Korean team which reached the 2002 World Cup semifinals. Immediately after taking the reins on July 1, he had to deal with reports of splits in the team and a social media storm unleashed by Ki Sung-yeung. The Swansea City midfielder was found to have criticized coach Choi Kang-hee, the man who led Korea unimpressively through World Cup qualification before stepping down in June.
Hong has vowed to improve discipline, instill a dress code and restrict the use of social media. He also has to increase confidence, cohesion and organization.
"I am sure the players will realize the magnitude of playing for the country,'' Hong said. "I also had a chance to reflect on myself. Training these players is important but I will also focus on bonding with them as their head coach.''
China may not have the World Cup to look forward to but the holder of the East Asian trophy is looking for a new coach and a new beginning. After less than two years at the helm, Jose Antonio Camacho left the position as head coach after a 5-1 defeat to Thailand in June on home soil. The China Football Association is looking for a replacement with Marcello Lippi, the Guangzhou Evergrande coach who won the 2006 World Cup with Italy, reportedly top of the list.
For now, Fu Bo is in temporary charge of an experienced squad with just one uncapped player. China may not have the World Cup to prepare for but victory over its rivals will certainly help some fans forget recent bad results.