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The EAFF East Asian Cup – a beginners guide

Formerly known as the East Asian Football Championship, the EAFF East Asian Cup has emerged in recent years as a competition taken somewhat more seriously than straight-up friendly international matches – by China, at least.

The preliminary rounds recently got underway in Taipei, Taiwan, ahead of the final round which will be held in Wuhan, China, between 1st and 9th August next year.

This will be the sixth time this regional tournament between the members of the East Asian Football Federation (EAFF) has been held since the East Asian Football Federation was founded in 2002.

It replaced the now defunct Dynasty Cup, which was played on four occasions during the 1990’s and was seen by many as an unofficial East Asian Championship. But like its predecessor, this tournament is not without its flaws.

The Dynasty Cup was played out between the top four teams of the region, with China, South Korea, and Japan being joined on two occasions each by North Korea and a Hong Kong League team.

ABOVE: Action from the Japan 0-2 China 1998 Dynasty Cup Final

It was a tournament dominated by Japan and South Korea, with both sides contesting three finals each, and Japan being crowned champions three times to South Korea’s single victory. Despite this victory, China finished a runners up to the Japanese.

The format of this tournament, a round-robin four team league, was retained by the EAFF in their new tournament, which was first played in 2003. They also elected to guarantee the ‘big three’ East Asian nations places and hosting responsibilities for the main tournament. But as a new association with ten member nations, including some of the smallest associations in the world, had to find a format that would accommodate them all.

Thus they added a first and second preliminary round to the tournament, which took the same round-robin format, and left the other seven member associations vying for a single place in the final tournament – hardly an inclusive format.

It was an unsatisfactory resolution, which has left the East Asian Cup to be dominated by the ‘big three’ in much the same way as its predecessor. The five tournaments to date, have seen two wins a piece for China and South Korea, and one, most recently in 2013, for Japan.

In that time, only once has another team even managed to finish in the top three, back in 2005 when North Korea finished ahead of their bitter rivals to the south. They have qualified for the final round twice, as have Hong Kong.

The 2013 tournament saw Australia being invited to participate as a guest nation. They were obliged to participate in the Second Qualification round, which they duly won on goal difference from North Korea, with their results including an 8-0 victory of Chinese Taipei and a 9-0 win against Guam. But in the final round, despite playing out entertaining 4-3 and 3-2 defeats to China and Japan respectively, they still only had a solitary point, from a 0-0 draw with South Korea, for their troubles, as they finished in fourth place.

Above: Highlights of China’s 4-3 victory over Australia in the 2013 East Asian Cup.

The round-robin tournament format, in which each teams plays the others in a league format, suggests that the tournament is set up to avoid any unnecessary embarrassing pitfalls for the ‘big three’ that might come with a straight knock-out event. It is the same reasoning, along with obvious financial considerations, that saw the European Cup morph into the Champions League in Europe, and thus make it much harder for the smaller teams to make an impact at the business end of the event.

As a Regional Association, it might be thought that the EAFF would be looking to use this tournament to improve the popularity and success of football in some of its other member nations, which would in turn boost the influence of the EAFF as an Association. But a look at their Presidents to date, all from China, Japan, and South Korea, and it is clear why they might be more comfortable maintaining the existing status quo.

The dramatic differences in EAFF members can be illustrated by the sheer gulf in scale of member nations. Most recent members, the Northern Mariana Islands, have a population of just 53,883. In contrast, China’s ever growing population is currently more than 1.3 billion. It is of course to expect such nations to compete on a level playing field, but to date there has been little or no effort to give the smaller member nations a leg-up.

It is not as if the ‘big three’ all take the tournament particularly seriously. In the 2013 tournament, none of the Final Round participants selected any European-based players, while Japan, South Korea, and Australia all fielded young and inexperienced squads. China’s squad was closer to their first choice one, but with the international team going through a relatively fallow period, the tournament probably held more meaning for them than the rest. (Even so they still only managed to finish second).

Part of the problem is that the East Asian Cup is such a disparate event. The First Preliminary Round to the 2015 event took place in July 2014, more than a year before the final round. The Second qualifying Round is this week in Taiwan. The winners will then have to wait until August 2015 to play in the final round. Such gaps mean that public interest is diminished and the tournament has a poor track record of attracting crowds. In Taiwan, for this week’s Second Preliminary Round, the CTFA has been giving away tickets, but still stadiums are expected to be far from full, even for home team matches. Such a situation hardly encourages the ‘Big Three’ to take it more seriously.

Another big issue, is that this tournament will always be overshadowed by the larger and more prestigious Asian Cup. This much larger tournament encompasses teams from the Middle East to Australia, and has seen all of the East Asian ‘Big Three’ reaching semi-finals and finals over the past three editions. Japan have won three of the past four tournaments.

But with the smaller East Asian sides even less likely to qualify for the finals of this tournament, it seems illogical to deprive them of competitive involvement in their own regional event.

But for all its flaws, the EAFF East Asia has, even this year, provided a staging ground for some remarkable results.

Goals are rarely hard to come by, with the tournament seeing just eight 0-0 draws in its history, and a few cricket scores along the way. In the 2007 event, Guam following up their 10-0 defeat to Chinese Taipei with a 15-0 drubbing by Hong Kong. Even this was an improvement on their 2005 outing against North Korea which saw them succumb to a 21-0 thrashing.

It does provide plenty of highly entertaining football, and there is some evidence of EAFF member nations making progress.

In this year’s First Preliminary Round back in July, Macau ground out a highly credible 0-0 draw with rapidly improving hosts Guam in the opening game. They then undid all their good work by become the first side ever to lose a competitive international game to the Northern Mariana Islands in their next game.

Despite this result, and having pride left to play for in their final game, Macau surpassed themselves again to claim a 3-2 victory over Mongolia. Meanwhile Guam improved sufficiently to have qualified for the Second Preliminary Round with some ease, and have already upset Chinese Taipei 2-1 in the Second Preliminary Round.

Above: Highlights of Chinese Taipei 1-2 Guam, EAFF East Asian Cup Second Preliminary Round – 12 November 2014

The feeling is though that such improvements have been despite of the EAFF and its flagship tournament, rather than because of it and that is a great shame.

My view is that there are three simple steps that the EAFF could take to make the East Asian cup competitive and begin to capture the public imagination again.

Firstly, the tournament should be relaunched as a one-off, bi-annual, knock-out tournament between eight of the member nations. A play-off held relatively close to the final event between the four lowest ranked teams at the start of the year should decide which eight teams make the final event.

Secondly, the ‘Big Three’ should be restricted to fielding an U21 side, with an allowance of maybe three senior players. This should be no hardship to them as they all tend to field young inexperienced squads of their own volition anyway. The tournament will help to give their young players valuable competitive experience, whilst it should also level the playing field with other member nations.

Finally, the hosting of the tournament should be rotated to nations outside the ‘Big Three’. Only one or two stadiums would be needed, and it would provide an opportunity for football infrastructure investment in some of those member states where it is badly needed.

For now, there is little sign that the EAFF is interested in a revamp, so attention will again turn back to the existing format and this week’s Second Preliminary Round takes place this week in Taipei, Taiwan.

With Guam taking their place alongside the hosts, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, and North Korea, it should as always be an unbalanced but entertaining event. North Korea will start as clear favourites, whilst it will be Hong Kong’s first games since their 7-0 reverse to World Cup Finalists Argentina in a friendly in October. Both sides will still be expecting to comfortably see off Chinese Taipei and Guam, meaning North Korea’s 2-1 victory as the sides met in the opening match is likely to prove decisive.

Above: Highlights of North Korea’s 2-1 victory over Hong Kong in the opening match of the Second Preliminary Round in Taipei – 12 November 2014.

Whether the eventual winners can spring a shock result in the final round next summer remains to be seen. But the format of this event means that the status quo in East Asian football looks unlikely to be shaken up for some time yet.

Main picture: Guam v Macau (Copyright Guam Sports Network)

Freelance writer and commentator based in Taiwan

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