What exactly is the East Asian Championship?
The cultural, sometimes political hotbed of East Asia is a fascinating place. I should know; I live here now. As I found out, Asia is pretty darn big. The AFC has a difficult job governing the area’s football, especially considering that Australia also plays in the Asian confederation. A flight from one extremity to another could last 13 hours (Australia to Jordan), yet you’d still be within the continent's footballing jurisdiction.
Facing such a mammoth task, the AFC created some sub-confederations. The EAFF is one example.
EAFF host a biennial tournament for nations in the region. Twelve teams contest a three-tier league format. More modestly ranked sides such as Chinese Taipei, Mongolia, Macau and the Northern Mariana Islands enter at the first preliminary round. Hong Kong, Guam and North Korea await in the second round - the winner of that stage advances to the final competition.
This year’s competition will be held in Tokyo, with all the games taking place over the space of a week at the Ajinomoto Stadium. It’ll be contested by the hosts Japan, along with China, South Korea and North Korea.
The first games kick off on Saturday, followed with matches on the proceeding Tuesday before the tournament’s climax on 16 December. Each team go head-to-head once. The table toppers lift the trophy. Which nation will emerge victorious?
China is coached by Italian legend Marcelo Lippi, who famously won the 2006 World Cup with the Azzurri. Lippi can't score his team's goals, though. He will be relying on some key players. None more so than Yu Dabao. The former Benfica youth prospect is an interesting prospect for the Chinese contingent. He has already netted 15 goals for his country. The opportunity to increase that tally against bitter enemies will surely spur him forward.
South Korea has decided to recall the veteran Lee Keun-Ho. He is well known for his electric pace and passing ability. The midfielder is potentially the David Beckham of the K-League. His performances for the Taegeuk Warriors have been sporadic in recent times, though. Given his advancing years, the upcoming East Asian Championship may be Keun-Ho's swan song. He’s amassed 80 caps for his nation and will want some silverware to show for it.
Manager Shin Tae-yong is no stranger to success having previously won the AFC Champions League with Seongnam. He isn't lacking confidence. The 48-year-old recently stated that his side will successfully defend their title as East Asian Champions.
North Korea has neglected to release its squad up to now. It should include Jong Tae-Se. He became famous after an image was sent around the globe showing him sobbing with pride at the 2010 World Cup. The striker has been playing with Japanese side Shimizu S-Pulse for the past two years. Arguably the nation’s best player to date, he is the one his side rely on to find the net.
Coach Vahid Halilhodzic gave the nod to the J.League, selecting a side exclusively from those playing in Japan. He’s trusted youth and inexperience. Although he usually picks internationally-based players, the Bosnian is using the tournament as an experiment to unearth home-grown talents capable of making the cut for the World Cup squad.
After finishing as the top scorer in the J.League with 23 goals, Yu Kobayashi is one to watch for Samurai Blue. He also won the title with Kawasaki Frontale on the season's final day.
The 2017 East Asian Championship will be a wholesome occasion. Two teams testing out national pools for the riches of the world cup, while the other two play for pride against bitter foes. It should be a fascinating tournament.
Saturday sees China vs. South Korea in the early kick-off. History favours the South Koreans in this fixture having gone on a 27-game unbeaten streak between 1986 and 2010. The Chinese, however, won the last encounter earlier this year in Changsa.
Japan take on North Korea later the same day. Despite Japan's superior FIFA world ranking, as well as more honours and accolades, North Korea is definitely a bogey team. Blue Samurai have lost eight times against their next opponents, including the last two, and won only seven. It’ll be interesting to see whether Japan can set the record straight on home soil.
Keep a watch on the IRAIW site for further East Asian Championship updates.