Saturday, July 31, 2010
Asian leagues enjoying upsurge
''The future is Asia'' Asian Football Confederation (AFC) boss Mohamed Bin Hammam is fond of saying; it is the governing body's slogan after all. He repeated the words on Wednesday morning in the business hub of Singapore, as the Qatari talked of a time around 2025 when the continent will be a football hub to rival Europe and attract the best players in the world.
A few hours later, just a short flight to the east, there was an interesting glimpse of a more short-term future in a Seoul game that demonstrated how Asian clubs are at last waking up to the talent on their own doorstep.
At one point on a sticky evening in the semi-finals of South Korea's League Cup between FC Seoul and Suwon Bluewings, 2008 Asian Player of the Year Server Djeparov of Uzbekistan clashed with former Chinese captain Li Weifeng. Japanese star Naohiro Takahara watched from the sidelines ready to make his debut while the fans were treated to great goals from Montenegrin marksman Dejan Damjanovic and Korean internationals Lee Sung-Ryeol and Yeom Ki-Hun.
For the first time ever, there is an Asian transfer market under construction. It is not yet fully operational, but can certainly shake up the old order once it finds its feet.
In the past, much of the intra-Asian market consisted of a few Koreans heading to Japan, a smattering of Iraqis in Qatar and Iranians making the short move to UAE. Most clubs looked to Brazil for their overseas needs. Hundreds of South American stars have strutted their stuff all over the continent - especially at the western and eastern reaches - helped by the fact that in Asia at least, the word 'Brazil' holds special resonance and means special salaries. Some, such as Marquinhos at Japanese powerhouse Kashima Antlers, contribute year after year but too many, signed by lazy and unimaginative clubs and pushed by unscrupulous and uncaring agents, land in Asia and soon samba out.
The upsurge in recent Asian activity is due in large part to the introduction of the 'three plus one rule' in many leagues in 2008. This rule allows clubs to sign another AFC player outside of the common three-foreigner rule. Some leagues have made more use of it than others but, slowly, Asian stars are shining all over the continent.
The Chinese Super League has long been more varied than most in its import policy, but stars from Honduras, Scotland and DR Congo are now supplemented by veteran Koreans as well as Australian players that come fairly cheaply due to the strict salary cap in the A-League. In Korea, Li Weifeng at Suwon Bluewings has seen off the central defensive challenge of Juninho from Brazil and Aussie giant Sasa Ognenovski has become an integral part of Seongnam's side. Those two are hugely popular with the fans, as is Socceroo striker Josh Kennedy in the J-League with Nagoya Grampus.
Even the cash-rich West Asian clubs, who often buy their Brazilians from Europe or Japan, have been adding continental counterparts to their ranks. Korean defenders are the flavour of the month and have been swelling squads in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar. It can be argued that Lee Jung-Soo at Al Sadd and World Cup central defensive partner Cho Yong-Hyung, reportedly on his way to Al Rayyan for two years, are moving to inferior leagues for superior salaries but how long the former can be said in light of the investment undertaken by some Arabian clubs remains to be seen.
There is little movement the other way due to wages that are comfortable even before the tax-free effect kicks-in, meaning that players from Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia rarely leave the region. But at least West Asia is involved in the Asian transfer market.
The big barrier begging to be broken is that surrounding the nations located in the south and south-eastern regions of the continent. Few players from this region move east or west as, unfortunately, prejudice at those extremities exists. There is still a view in East Asia that players from nations such as Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia are too small and/or lazy - the legendary exploits of Thai striker Piyapong Pue-On in the K-league in the mid-eighties are seen as the exception and not the rule. The rich West Asian teams who can afford the likes of Fabio Cannavaro are not interested in unheard of midfielders from the Thai Premier League. When players from Asia's developing nations start to be in demand all over the continent then we really will be getting somewhere.
Australia could provide the answer and a bridge for players from poorer nations to break out onto the continental scene. Unable to afford the top East Asian stars, some A-League clubs are starting to recognise the potential nearer to home. Indonesian players are not only much cheaper but, just as importantly, see a move Down Under as a step up and perhaps as a step to showing the bigger and richer Asian clubs what they are capable of outside their home region.
It is at an early stage. Thai star Sukee Suksomvit spent 2009 at Melbourne Victory, though struggled with the team's physical and direct style. If that was the wrong club for the player, A-League new boys Melbourne Heart have been making the right noises in Asia and seem to be serious about the continent with a forward-thinking coach. Indian defender Gouramangi Singh recently underwent a trial at the club. Wellington Phoenix have been looking at Indonesian star Bambang Pamungkas. Sooner or later, such a player is going to be a success on the pitch.
If he brings success off it as well then so much the better, though European clubs have found that signing Asian players rarely brings rich rewards. There are other benefits to be had however. If the likes of Djeparov and Pamungkas can increase awareness and understanding between the confederation's members, then that is a significant improvement on what has gone on before.
Li Weifeng's exploits in Suwon are widely followed in China and the presence of Lee Young-Pyo at Al Hilal has seen the first reports from the Saudi Arabian league ever to appear in the Seoul media. Greater cooperation and contact not only leads to faster development but it also provides players from weaker nations with a visible path to a successful career, especially important in Asia where football is not always seen as the right career choice in societies that can be ultra-competitive.
As Bin Hammam is also fond of saying, the AFC is home to over half of the world's football lovers. Before Asia can hope to be a hub, these Asian football fans must become fans of football in Asia. It may take longer than 15 years, but there are signs that they are taking a step in the right direction.