Chinese shock 2010 hopefuls
© AFP

Japan and Korea Republic have both suffered a hiccup in their 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ preparations after China claimed regional bragging rights by winning the EAFF (East Asian Football Federation) Championship, which concluded on Sunday. The Chinese went some way towards recovering lost pride, having failed to reach the final stage of South Africa 2010 qualifying, by claiming a surprise victory over their local rivals in the four-nation tournament, which also included Hong Kong.

Playing on Japanese soil meant expectations were high among Blue Samurai supporters, who, as always, turned out in great numbers to support their team despite the absence of European-based stars such as Espanyol midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura and CSKA Moscow's Keisuke Honda. It was a similar story for Korea Republic, who fielded a domestic-based side, though still containing many of the starting team that helped the Taeguk Warriors reach South Africa and also achieve a lengthy unbeaten run last year. However, China overturned the form book to record a resounding 3-1 win, their first in 28 matches against Korea Republic dating back to 1978. The South Koreans then defeated Japan 3-1 in the final match, leaving China victors with two wins and a draw.

In the women’s tournament, Japan, unlike their male counterparts, made the most of local conditions by winning all three matches to claim the championship and continue their impressive international form. Veteran captain Homare Sawa was named player of the tournament, while teen sensation Mana Iwabuchi capped her much-anticipated senior international debut with a couple of goals. China came second in front of Korea Republic and Chinese Taipei, in the lead-up to May’s qualifying tournament for the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™.

Dented pride
Japan showed resilience in reaching South Africa 2010, losing just twice over an elongated and exhaustive 14-match campaign. The nature of the qualification, achieved with two matches to spare, saw Japan coach Takeshi Okada state that the team’s aim was a semi-final finish at South Africa, where they have been drawn into Group E alongside the Netherlands, Cameroon and Denmark.

Japan started with a scoreless draw against China, then defeated Hong Kong 3-0, however a final-day loss in front of a crowd of over 40,000 at the national stadium in Tokyo against Korea Republic proved their undoing. "I am not changing our goal for the World Cup," said Okada. "I don't think it has put pressure on our players. My players keep striving for that goal. We are going to keep challenging as long as we have the chance."

Our ultimate goal is the World Cup, and it was a good experience because we could test what we needed to test and attempt what we needed to attempt.
Korea Republic coah Huh Jung-Moo

Despite not coming home with the title, Korea Republic will take some positives from their second-placed finish. Coach Huh Jung-Moo declared that the tournament had served as a good test before the World Cup.

"This is a part of preparation for the World Cup," said Korean coach Huh Jung-Moo. "We lost against China. Perhaps our team was unstable at times. Our ultimate goal is the World Cup, and it was a good experience because we could test what we needed to test and attempt what we needed to attempt."

Korea Republic have several international matches scheduled over the coming months before travelling to South Africa, where they will face Argentina, Nigeria and Greece in Group B.

Chinese renaissance
The victorious China team received a hero’s welcome on their return to Beijing, with a large crowd at the airport to help celebrate the tournament victory, which occurred on the first day of the Lunar New Year. An undefeated three-match showing, including the win over Korea Republic and a hard-earned point gained against the host nation, was an impressive return for the nation that 18 months ago suffered the ignominy of an early elimination from the race for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

It was a welcome recovery for the world’s most populace nation, who are now building for a tilt at next January’s 2011 AFC Asian Cup under coach Gao Hongbo. The former national team striker, who has only been at the helm since last May, enjoyed his greatest triumph to date as the Chinese regained the title they last won in 2005. "I learned a lot during the tournament, said the 43-year-old Gao. "I think the victory in this championship means there is a chance for Chinese football to change."

The team victory was not the only positive with individual accolades handed out to members of a team whose defence was not breached once in the three matches. Yang Zhi was named goalkeeper of the tournament, while experienced defender Du Wei was awarded the player of the tournament award.