Any doubts about the wisdom of inviting Australia to participate in the 2013 East Asian Cup should have been dispelled on Tuesday as the national team coach Holger Osieck revealed that the Socceroos had discussed boycotting their debut tournament. The German was angry at the hassle involved in getting Japanese and Chinese clubs to release his players. "After some internal discussion and in the spirit of fair play, we decided to go... although the spirit of fair play is unilateral," he said memorably. Bickering on and off the field is a time-honoured East Asian tradition. Australia are entering into the spirit of things and dipping their toes in a football region of considerable history and intense rivalry.
The East Asian Cup, which permanently features China, Japan and South Korea and one qualifier (this time Australia) who play each other in the round-robin style, is a strange tournament. It is supposed to be a biennial affair but two of its five editions have ended up being delayed a year. Nobody really notices when it's not there but when it actually kicks off, it can sometimes really kick off with passions running as high as some of China's tackles in the infamously bruising 2008 edition.
It all reminds a little of England's big boys meeting each other in the early rounds of the League Cup. The trophy is not that important (Japan don't really care that they have never won it; South Korea fired their coach shortly after winning the 2003 edition), most of their stars are missing but they certainly don't want to lose to their rivals. South Korea love nothing more than beating Japan, China love nothing more than beating Japan and South Korea, while Japan love nothing more than pretending to be above it all. And Australia? That remains to be seen.
Not all would have been too downbeat at a Green and Gold boycott. North Korea and Hong Kong, who have to qualify for the competition, were not too keen on the invitation being sent down under in the first place. The bigger boys felt however that Australia would add to the value of the tournament and have perhaps been proven right with the fact that the addition of the Socceroos means that three of the four teams involved will be at the 2014 World Cup. The coaches of South Korea, Japan and Australia will have an eye and a half on Rio while in Seoul. They will also be glad, for different reasons, that European-based stars are absent.
Osieck has been accused of sticking by the old guard and not giving youth a genuine chance. The criticism ebbed after a strong finish in qualification diluted memories of earlier struggles and if the German can coax some strong performances from an untested team, his stock will rise higher than Tim Cahill at the far post. Brazil 2014 may be distant on the horizons of A-League youngsters such as Connor Pain, Trent Sainsbury and Mitchell Duke, just three of eight uncapped players, but at least it is visible. Some competition for the aging central defensive pairing of Lucas Neill and Sasa Ognenovski would not go amiss and a genuine goalscorer and a left-back would be nice too. After the trials and tribulations of qualification, Osieck will welcome three relatively-pressure free games in a week against decent opposition.
Saturday's match in Seoul will be a tough introduction for any young Socceroo as it is the first in charge for South Korea's coach Hong Myung-bo. The captain of the 2002 World Cup was a legend of Asian football even before he led the Under-20 team to the last eight of the 2009 World Cup and the Olympic team to bronze in 2012. He now takes over a divided squad that limped over the line to Brazil in a forgettable qualification campaign.
Korean football is still reeling at the storm – somewhat overblown- around English Premier League midfielder Ki Sung-yeung and Hong's predecessor Choi Kang-hee. Two days after Hong took the job on 1 July, Choi revealed splits in the Taeguk Warriors between Europeann and Korea-based players. The next day, 18-month old postings on the Facebook account of Swansea City's Ki Sung-yeung were made public. "…I bet everyone now knows that the team needs players from overseas," Ki had written. "He [Choi] shouldn't have touched us, and I hope he doesn't show his proud face again. Watch out." Ki's time, and inevitable apology, in front of the Seoul media will come but, fortunately for the new boss, not just yet.
Some have blamed Ki's attitude, relatively brash for a Korean player, on a three year stint spent as a schoolboy in Brisbane but that is not going to add any extra spice to the opener. Since joining Asia in 2006, it is with Japan that the Socceroos have developed a rapport. Their meeting next Thursday in the sleepy Korean city of Hwaseong will not have quite the same intensity as their 1-1 draw last month when Japan qualified for the World Cup and Australia turned their campaign around. The Samurai Blue's road to Brazil was much smoother than their rivals but coach Alberto Zaccheroni is suddenly on the backfoot after the whitewash in the Confederations Cup and one win in the last seven. Zac, like Osieck accused of being overly faithful to a group of players, has named an experimental J-League squad.
China have no World Cup to prepare for and no big-league European stars to be shorn of but this experienced squad does have a great desire to put a terrible June behind them. The last of the three home losses was a 5-1 thrashing handed out by a young Thai team. That was not even the real surprise. What really shocked was the fact that there was room for the stock of the national team to sink even lower among fans and media. It was the straw that broke Jose Camacho's back and the former boss of Spain and Real Madrid was finally fired. Fu Bo is the caretaker but the China FA wants Marcello Lippi, currently in charge of champions Guangzhou Evergrande, to take over but the Italian does not need the hassle. If China can repeat 2010, all will be happy. Three years ago in Japan, lifting the trophy was overshadowed by a first-ever victory over South Korea. It only took 29 attempts – no wonder the Chinese media talked of curing 'Koreaphobia'.
There are other memories that stand out since it all started a decade ago. Lee Eul-yong's slapping of Li Yi of China in 2003 is still talked about to this day by fans in South Korea. The same supporters also cheered on their northern brothers to victory over Japan in 2005 on a dramatic night in Daejeon. In 2008. China's roughhouse tactics, especially against Japan, made the eyes water and Chong Tae Se, North Korea's hotshot who became famous for public tears at the World Cup in South Africa, announced his arrival on the continental scene with scorchers against the Samurai Blue and the Taeguk Warriors. The 2010 version came just four months ahead of the World Cup and the anger inside Tokyo's National Stadium in 2010 as Japan lost 3-1 at home to South Korea and barely scraped a draw against the boys from Beijing was palpable.
That's the East Asia Cup - the tournament that nobody cares about until it actually starts. Australia already seem to have it sussed off the pitch, it remains to be seen what happens on it.