Stars absent, but opportunities abound at East Asian event

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The absence of Premier League golden boot winner Son Heung-min and other stars from South Korea and Japan gives local players a late chance at the East Asian Championships to stake their claims for a World Cup.

South Korea coach Paulo Bento is preparing for games against China, Hong Kong and host Japan in the coming week but is thinking further ahead to games against Uruguay, Ghana and Portugal when the World Cup kicks off in November.

“We will approach this tournament as preparation for the World Cup in Qatar,” Bento, who has selected eight eight uncapped players in his 23-man roster. “The newly selected players have been playing well in the K-League recently.”

Son has been involved with his English club Tottenham’s tour to South Korea and will miss the EAFF men’s championship which kicks off in Japan on Tuesday with the home team against Hong Kong. South Korea’s men’s team is set to open against China on Wednesday.

“It’s a pity that the period for new members to train in the national team is short,” Bento said. “But we will make sure that they can better understand the tactics and philosophies pursued by the national team.”

One such new player was Lee Ki-hyuk.

“I was having lunch at home and a cup of coffee and, when I heard that I was selected for the national team, I was dazed,” the 22-year-old midfielder said. “Looking at the list, I couldn’t believe it. It’s good just being selected, but on the other hand, I’m greedy… I want to make my name known.”

Japan, preparing for a seventh successive appearance at the World Cup, stepped in to stage the East Asian tournament in the cities of Kashima and Toyota after China relinquished hosting rights in April because of Beijing’s restrictions in place for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu selected a roster for the tournament that is entirely domestic-based. Takehiro Tomiyasu of Arsenal, Real Madrid’s Takefusa Kubo and Takumi Minamino of Monaco are just three of more than 20 Europe-based Japanese players busy with pre-season with their clubs. Eleven of the 23 have never appeared for the senior national team before.

But the tournament isn’t World Cup preparation for all participating teams. China and Hong Kong will not be in Qatar but have the 2023 Asian Cup to prepare for.

China endured a dismal World Cup qualifying campaign and has entrusted this tournament to Under-23s coach Aleksander Jankovic. He selected just four players in his roster who have prior experience of representing the national team.

“We are just focused on ourselves and representing the country with honor,” Jankovic said. “We respect all our opponents but we will look to play our own style and are looking forward to the tournament.”

Hong Kong is on a high after qualifying in June for the 2023 Asian Cup, a first appearance on the continental stage since 1968.

The women’s tournament, which also kicks off Tuesday, will serve as a useful warm-up for the 2023 World Cup for China, Japan and South Korea. Taiwan completes the quartet.

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