Saturday, March 31, 2012
Asia's Fab Four
The noughties were heady times for Asian football. They say that if you remember the decade then you were there to witness some of the best footballers that the continent has ever produced at the peak of their careers. The zenith was 2006, the summer of love, when four stars from the East all gathered in the skies above Germany. That World Cup would be the only tournament they would ever appear together in. There should be a plaque in Germany to mark Asian football's Abbey Road moment when the Fab Four all came together: Javad Nekounam, Park Ji-Sung, Shunsuke Nakamura and Mohammed Noor.
You can argue among yourselves which midfielder is John, Paul, George and Ringo. Noor from Saudi Arabia has had his problems with authority, been accused of liking to party a little too much and rubbed some coaches up the wrong way, but his supporters are fiercely loyal. South Korea's Park is serious and quiet, in public at least, but the most successful in terms of honours, prizes and profile. Nakamura from Japan is enigmatic, creative and perhaps a little introspective, while Nekounam's dark intensity is popular with ladies all around the world - or so the Iranian team general manager told me - and, in terms of productivity, he is still going strong on all fronts.
Germany 2006 wasn't actually a great tournament for Asia but the stars shone, for a while at least. Park and Nakamura got on the scoresheet against France and Australia respectively. Nekounam mixed it with a much-vaunted Portuguese midfield, earning high praise from Deco and Cristiano Ronaldo, and Noor, who was battling a fever at the time, was the best player on the pitch as the Saudis let a last-minute lead slip against Tunisia. If the man dubbed Asia's Patrick Vieira had been completely fit, things could have been very different.
'What ifs' play a bigger part in Noor's career than any of the other three. What if the all-action midfielder had been allowed to follow up on interest from European clubs in 2006 and again in 2007? What if Saudi giants Al-Ittihad had kept the mighty 2005 Asian title-winning side together with Noor at the heart? What if a number of coaches over the years - and, this being Saudi Arabia, that number is high - had put their complete trust in the player? What if Noor had been as constantly focused on the game as the other three undoubtedly were and still are? Even with all that, his performance in the second leg of the 2004 Asian Champions League final for Al-Ittihad will forever be remembered.
In terms of accomplishments at a club level, Park has done it all. A star at PSV Eindhoven, he cemented that reputation at Old Trafford and now has four English Premier League medals to show for it with a fifth on the cards. He is the only Asian to play in the Champions League final, a competition that he often saves his best performances for. His international record is not bad either, with 100 appearances, a World Cup semi-final and the distinction of being the only Asian to score at three successive global tournaments.
At 33, two years older than the Korean, Nakamura has faded from national team consideration and, while he made the plane to South Africa, he didn't make the pitch. He will be remembered in Europe for his time at Celtic. Especially in his first couple of seasons in Glasgow, he was a sensation and, in the words of manager Gordon Strachan, "a genius". As well as the medals in the cabinet, he had a whole number of awards on the mantelpiece from fans, writers and fellow professionals alike. Celtic fans had cheered Asian players in the past but none could rise above the frequently frantic fray like Nakamura.
Never one to seek out the media yet polite and professional when talking to journalists, a trait that all four share, a move to Espanyol in Spain just didn't work out and a few months later he was back in his hometown of Yokohama with the Marinos. Never fast, he had slowed down by then. Now, he is a talented midfielder in a land of talented midfielders and there's nothing wrong with that as he helps the three-time champions try to rebuild their powerhouse credentials.
Nakamura is no longer a Blue Samurai and Noor's career as a Green Falcon is probably over at the age of 34 following the elimination from 2014 qualification. Park would still be captain of the Taeguk Warriors had he not called time on his international career after last year's Asian Cup, which would appear to leave Nekounam as the only one with a realistic chance of appearing at the 2014 World Cup. The Osasuna star wants to right the wrongs of 2006, when a divided team struggled, and 2010, when they didn't even qualify.
Playing the unspectacular role of defensive midfielder for a fairly unfashionable Spanish club, the 31-year-old doesn't get the international recognition he deserves. He has been one of Asia's best for a decade, having racked up 125 appearances for Iran and counting, and he has done what few others from the continent have: established himself as a solid and respected player in the world's strongest league.
Despite their careers, the four have rarely appeared on the same pitch, with European commitments keeping them away from all but the biggest national team games. Even Park and Nakamura have met only rarely.
The most intense rivalry on the pitch has been between Park and Nekounam. During the quarter-finals of the 2004 Asian Cup, Ali Karimi took the headlines with a memorable hat-trick in a thrilling 4-3 win over Korea, but Nekounam also caught the eye. There were other games too, but the pair really came to the fore as captains of their respective continental powerhouses during the battle to reach South Africa.
Before the game played on a gloomy November afternoon in Tehran, Nekounam promised a fiery reception: "Even Park Ji-Sung, with his high level of experience, will face a different kind of atmosphere in Azadi. It will be hell." Park responded coolly: "It could be hell; it could be heaven. We will see when the match ends."
At times the game seemed to be solely about these two legends of the Asian scene - forget the Beatles, this was Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards appearing on the same stage to jam for their lives. The Prince of Persia fired home an unstoppable free-kick to give his team the lead. He ran towards the bench, repeatedly banging his chest and screaming his name. Park's celebration after a late equaliser was different but to the point. The King of Korea simply cupped his ear and raised a quizzical eyebrow to the suddenly silent supporters.
By the time the return match came along in June 2009, Korea were already checking out places to stay in South Africa while Iran needed a win. Before kick-off, Park talked of getting a result in Seoul to help North Korea qualify. The Iranian bristled. "Park talked of letting North Korea qualify instead of Iran but it wasn't down to Park whether we qualified or not," Nekounam told me later. "It was down to us." In the end, it was down to Park, whose late goal ended Iranian hopes.
Now Nekounam is thinking about the 2014 World Cup. If he goes, it will be the last appearance of a Fab Four member on the biggest stage of all. All good things come to an end, but the memories live on.