For China and North Korea, the East Asian Cup can be a confidence builder
The East Asian Cup is an unusual tournament.
The trophy itself doesn't really matter; few fans would be able to describe what it looks like much less name the nations to have lifted it since it came into existence in 2003 (China and South Korea have won it twice and Japan have one win).
Yet, lose the three games against close, in all senses of the word, rivals and coaches may find that their positions are not as secure as they think. And if you asked fans in South Korea, Japan, China and North Korea which three other countries they really don't want to lose to then there is a fair chance that each will name the others.
This, then, is a four-team, round-robin tournament where competing teams may not have to do very well but you really don't want to do especially badly. The 2015 version, to be held in the Chinese city of Wuhan, kicked off on Sunday as North Korea beat Japan and South Korea overcame China. It takes just one week to complete but, even in so short a period, much can happen.
Back in August 2005, South Korea manager Jo Bonfrere had already clinched qualification for the 2006 World Cup but, on home soil, a poor East Asian Cup started a process that ended in his dismissal less than a month later. Three abject performances in the space of a week and resultant fraught relations with the media pushed the existing doubts of federation officials up to a whole new level.
In 2010, Japan coach Takeshi Okaka was also preparing for a World Cup but losing to South Korea and only avoiding defeat to China due to a late penalty save on home soil amplified worries that he was not the right man to take the team to South Africa. Had it not been less than four months before the big kickoff, his dismissal would have been likely.
Good results can have the opposite effect. China winning the competition in 2010 on Japanese soil ensured that Gao Hongbo would be in place for the team's ill-fated Asian Cup campaign almost a year later where the team failed to get out of the group stages with only four points.
The four competing nations are all using this week as preparation for the continuing qualification campaign for the 2018 World Cup. China are tournament hosts and, mainly because of a relatively unsuccessful history, tend to attach more value to winning the trophy than Japan or South Korea. China, like it has for most of the past, has selected its strongest team, unlike the powers from Seoul and Tokyo.
Aside from the recently departed Zhang Chengdong, who is unavailable after joining Rayo Vallecano, China coach Alain Perrin has plenty of options as he seeks to continue building on a solid year. The Red Dragons reached the last eight of the Asian Cup in January, avoiding a first-round exit hat trick at the continental competition. It was a youngish team and the good form has led to a winning start in qualification for the World Cup.
With the Chinese Super League making waves in the world due to the recruitment of the likes of Robinho and other well-known foreign stars, this will be a great opportunity for China to show old rivals that football in the Middle Kingdom is not all about big-name foreigners.
North Korea are similar. The team is almost all domestically-based with a couple of players in Japan and one in Switzerland and this is a great opportunity for to get what they lack; international experience in a low-priority tournament with matches that are as competitive as possible.
The Chollima started qualification for the World Cup excellently, defeating group favourites Uzbekistan 4-2 in Pyongyang and then picking up three points away to Yemen. Japan are the team North Korea loves to beat more than any other -- apart from their obvious rivals to the south -- and so Sunday's win was a great start to their campaign.
Japan and South Korea are in a different situation to the other two teams. Both have seven players in their squads hoping to make their international debuts and only six with over 10 appearances for their country. It's all about the European players, or absence thereof.
As this is not a FIFA recognised competition, so clubs are not about to let the likes of Keisuke Honda or Son Heung-min miss the final preparations for the new season. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it gives opportunities to others. For coaches Vahid Halilhodzic (Japan) and Uli Stielike (South Korea), the tournament is not about winning but looking and learning.
A lot is also expected of Takashi Usami for Japan while Halilhodzic has also included in his squad the Urawa Reds' Yuki Moto, who scored vs. North Korea, as well as Wataru Endo of Shonan Bellmare and Gamba Osaka teammates Koki Yonekura and Shu Kurata. In all, 11 of the 23 called come from Gamba and Urawa.
"This is a tournament in which the new players have to show what they are capable of. For the domestic players this will be a very good test," said Halilhodzic.
Stielike upset some of the Seoul media by overlooking Joo Min-kyu, the goalscoring sensation of 2015, albeit in the second division. Since being transformed into a striker by his club coach Martin Rennie at Seoul E-Land FC earlier this year, Joo has been making headlines, rewarding his manager with 16 goals in 20 games,. Although Stielike has not been averse to selecting lower tier players, the new man did not make the cut.
With a lack of goalscorers, this week would have seemed like the perfect time and place for an international debut for the striker. Joo scored for his club against the national team last week in a practice match, only for the goal to be disallowed.
Time will tell if Stielike regrets his omission. It is to be hoped he does not. The East Asian Cup is not a major part of the continental calendar but it can still trip the unwary and unready.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.