The EAFF E-1 Football Championship 2017 Round 2 kicks off on Sunday as hosts Hong Kong, Guam, DPR Korea, and Chinese Taipei vie for the right to join reigning champions South Korea, China, and hosts Japan in the December 2017 final round.
Since the 2002 founding of the East Asian Football Federation, the tournament has served an important role for both the region’s leading and developing nations. With squads drawn from Asia-based players, the final round has given FIFA World Cup and AFC Asian Cup participants such as Japan and South Korea a chance to evaluate domestic talent ahead of major international tournaments.
Meanwhile the two preliminary rounds, which take place the year before the final competition, serve as a measuring stick for the development of smaller member nations and in recent years have produced increasingly competitive results.
Guam’s national team burst into the limelight last year under the tutelage of English coach Gary White, taking the team to their first ever World Cup Qualification win against Turkmenistan and their highest ever FIFA ranking of 147 in the same year.
While White has since taken over at Chinese club side Shanghai Shenxin, his legacy continues with many of the same coaching staff now being led by American Darren Sawatzky, a former director of the Seattle Sounders Academy where White once plied his trade. Guam will be aiming for their first ever qualification to the EAFF East Asian Cup final, and will be led by the experience of captain Jason Cunliffe and Los Angeles Galaxy star AJ Delagarza.
Kim Pan-Gon’s Hong Kong head into the tournament ready to impress on home ground, having recently shown good form in friendly wins at Cambodia and against Singapore in October, in addition to a 4-2 home win against Cambodia in September.
Observers will be keen to note the team’s multicultural makeup, and indeed the squad boasts many naturalised players such as Nigerian-born Alexander Oluwatayo Akande, striker Godfred Karikari from Ghana, and strong defenders such as Festus Baise, Roberto Orlando Affonso Júnior, and Jonathan Jack Sealy.
But while imports make up nearly 40 percent of the squad, there are still several domestic standouts such as all-time leading national team scorer Chan Siu Ki and midfielder Huang Yang.
DPR Korea will face their first competitive fixtures under head coach Jorn Andersen, their first foreign manager in over two decades. The Norwegian has focused on developing the secretive nation for future competitions, with plenty of young players called up to the handful of friendlies that they have played since the former Mainz coach joined in May.
The team are favourites for the qualifiers after finishing in third place in last year’s final tournament and results have been varied, but youth and inexperience have been reflective of their mixed recent results, highlighted by a 5-2 decimation by Vietnam. Key to their success will be their defensive ability and strong performances by captain/goalkeeper Ri Mong Guk.
Chinese Taipei have a challenge ahead of them as they look to escape a crowded field and reach their first-ever E-1 Championship final.
Under the tutelage of Toshiaki Imai, the 161st-ranked FIFA nation easily qualified for Round 2 after defeating Northern Marianas Islands (8-1), Mongolia (2-0) and Macau (3-2) in Guam this summer. Last month, they reached the third round of 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifying with a pair of 2-1 wins over Timor Leste.
This week the CTFA announced the arrival of new head coach Kazuo Kuroda, a former high school coach and Vissel Kobe academy director who raised future stars such as Shinji Okazaki and Mu Kanazaki. He’ll have a number of local talent available to him, including midfielder and team captain Yi-Wei Chen of Taipower Company FC as well as Hangzhou Greentown striker Po-Liang Chen.
SCHEDULE (Mong Kok Stadium, All matches UTC+8)
15:00 North Korea vs. Chinese Taipei
18:00 Hong Kong vs. Guam
17:00 Guam vs. North Korea
20:00 Hong Kong vs. Chinese Taipei
15:00 Chinese Taipei vs. Guam
18:00 Hong Kong vs. North Korea
(Contributors: Chung-Lan Cheng, Ryan Steele, Dan Orlowitz)