Saturday, July 2, 2011
Asian heads turned west
There are, very broadly speaking, three stages involving the attitude of Japanese and Korean clubs and media when it comes to losing players to Europe. The first, which has now passed, is: "It's brilliant to see our lads in the big leagues, let's do all we can to make it happen." The second, which is coming to an end, goes: "While we won't stand in the way of our players, we would like a fair price for the talent we have developed. It's not like you are doing us a favour." And now the third stage is arriving. This is when people start to ask: "Now young prospects are also leaving, what does this mean for the league and is it in the best interest of the players, especially those in, or barely out of, their teens?"
The trickle from the early part of last decade when Park Ji-Sung and Shunsuke Nakamura went west became a steady flow with the departures of the likes of Makoto Hasebe and Park Chu-Young a few years later. Since the last World Cup when both Korea and Japan reached the last 16 it is now something of a deluge. Those performances and the success of the early pioneers have dispelled doubts about East Asian ability and European suitability. This is a double-edged sword as these days it is not just the established internationals that are leaving; the stars of the future are too, or making it known that they are open to offers.
"This is the reality of our current situation," K-league deputy general manager Kwon Sung-Jin told ESPNSoccernet. "We are an international league and at the moment at least, it is our fate to see young players want to leave for the big leagues." Many others are in the same situation but this is a first for Asia.
Yoshiaki Takagi is just 18 but has left for Utrecht, Arsenal's loaned-out star Ryo Miyaichi is the same age and never even played in the J-league and in the same week at the end of June, two bright hopes of the future - 19 year-old Takashi Usami and 20-year-old Ji Dong-Won - joined Bayern Munich and Sunderland respectively.
The reaction of Chunnam Dragons to the sale of Ji may sound like classic stage one - the cub stating it was "for the sake of the player's future and for the development of Korean football", but it was just lip-service after the club was paid $3.5 million (£2.2 million), three times what they were originally offered. Korean clubs performed better in stage two, receiving decent transfer fees for their players. The Japanese media is becoming increasingly irate with J-League clubs that fail to do so. Cerezo Osaka allowing Shinji Kagawa to go to Borussia Dortmund for €350,000 (£316,000) was a bad bit of business for the Kansai club but it is still more than a number of J-League counterparts have pocketed.
Japan boss Alberto Zaccheroni will not mind that too much. In June, the Italian became the latest in a long line of national team coaches in the region to call for players to head to Europe. Club coaches have not stood in the way of wantaways but that was before they started losing teenagers that had come up through the ranks and barely played a full season. Japanese fans are accustomed to seeing their best Brazilian strikers tempted to the Middle East by big bucks in Qatar and UAE but this is different and now stage three is here.
Dido Havenaar is the assistant coach of J-League champions Nagoya Grampus and a man who moved the other way in the eighties from the Netherlands to Japan. "It is hard to say if more young players moving to Europe is good for Japanese football," Havenaar told ESPNsoccernet. "It can be good for the national team but it may not be good for the fans, but what can you do if the player chooses to go? Twenty-two or 24 is good but if you are 17 or 18, it is better to stay and learn from the head coach. The stadia are good, the level is good and young players can learn a lot and they have a much better chance of playing regular football and it's good for the league."
The former goalkeeper is also the father of one of the hottest properties in the league. Mike Havenaar was the top scorer in J2 last season and already has seven so far in this campaign despite playing for the struggling Ventforet Kofu. "He is 24 and it is good time to go to Europe as he is one of the best at his club and is one of the league's top scorers. There are some possibilities already but maybe he will finish his first season in the J1 and then he will go to Europe in the winter break. He has finished learning."
Shimizu S-Pulse coach Afshin Ghotbi is a former assistant of South Korea's national team. He points to Park Ji-Sung as a player who went west at the right time and adds: "The current trend of young Korean and Japanese players moving to Europe must be carefully evaluated by each player as many young players are moving at the wrong time to the wrong destination." Urawa Reds boss Zeljko Petrovic agrees: "Even players who are 18 or 19 these days want to play in Europe. It is good for the image of Japanese football with the players in Germany and other countries doing well but I think until you are 23 or 24 then it is better to stay in Japan."
Of course, each situation is different and depends on the player, the club, the coach and the country. Taking the first offer that comes along may not always be wise but how do you convince a teenager who has been offered the chance of playing in some of the biggest leagues in the world to wait a couple of years?
Tom Byer, an American who played in pre J-League Japan and then set up the largest chain of football schools for children in the country, knows young Japanese footballers as well as anyone. He understands the demand to go but is also concerned. "In a perfect world it would be great to see young players in Korea and Japan remain at their clubs, improve their game and strengthen the domestic league," said Byer. "But it's also the reality that these young players are growing up with satellite television and watching the best of the English Premier League, Serie A and La Liga every week. It's only normal that they see heading to Europe as their stepping stone for realising their dream, which is to play for the teams they have been watching since they were little kids."
The youngsters chase their dreams but there are consequences for the leagues left behind. "It seems, though, that the national teams are benefiting by having their overseas players gain experience but the domestic leagues seem to be getting watered down," added Byer.
That is a concern in a K-League battling a growing match-fixing crisis. No sooner had Koo Ja-Cheol emerged from the pack to replace departed stars such as Lee Chung-Yong, Ki Sung-Yong and Park Chu-Young then he was off to Germany in January. At that time, Ji Dong-Won was starting to make an impact but less than six months later, the striker has gone. The next big thing Yoon Bitgaram is already talking of pastures new.
Baek Jung-Hyun is head sports producer at Korea's national broadcaster KBS and is worried that the K-League could go the same way as the country's basketball league, one that suffered due to the lack of young stars. "The presence of young, skillful players with potential like Ji and Yoon is important to maintain the popularity and media coverage of the K-League," said Baek. "But from the players' point of view, they must go abroad for their ambitions and experience. It could also prove to be very helpful to the national team as Lee Chung-Yong and Ki Sung-Yong have demonstrated. It's a big dilemma"
It is and now it is the turn of Asia to deal with it.