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It’s time the A-League got real about Asia

Palestine were off to a flyer with a thrashing of Malaysia. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)
Expert
15th January, 2015
52
1776 Reads

The Asian Cup has been a joy to behold – the crowds, the passion, the quality and the personalities. But hopefully the best thing to come out of Australia hosting the tournament is a new respect for the neglected Asian import.

Since the A-League kicked off in 2005, we have seen 61 nationalities represented. It’s a broad spread, with nations as obscure as Curaçao and Uganda featuring.

Yet the most damning statistic is the heavy reliance on players from the British Isles and South America, and an apparent Asian snub.

An astonishing 36 Brazilians have tried to crack the A-League, and you would be doing well to count the successful ones on more than one hand. From Britain – including, for the sake of geography, the Republic of Ireland – there have been 54 representatives

From the entirety of Asia, there have been just 29 players. If we take out Sergio van Dijk (born in Holland) and Brendan Gan (born in Australia) that number is whittled down to 27.

Seven have arrived from China, eight apiece from South Korea and Japan, two from Thailand and one apiece from Iraq and Bahrain.

Yet there have been 22 Dutchman, nine Argentineans and even six Costa Ricans. So why the snub of our closest neighbours and fellow members of the Asian Football Confederation?

It’s not as if Asian imports haven’t made a good impression in the A-League. Of course, as with a lot of imports, there have been some flops, most recently the Mariners’ Kim Seoung-yong, but there have also been some eye-catching signings too.

Shinji Ono is the most obvious one, and that really was a smart bit of business from the Western Sydney Wanderers. Then there’s Ali Abbas, the most consistent Asian import the league has witnessed, and who has been one of Sydney FC’s best performers over the past few years.

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There’s also Shengqing Qu, who scored seven goals for Adelaide United during his first spell for the club. Unfortunately, injury curtailed the possibility of a successful return following a brief stint in China.

Mohammed Adnan, the sole Bahraini to appear in the A-League, played a key role in the start of the Brisbane Roar dynasty, winning the 2011-12 championship in a defence that conceded just 28 goals in 27 regular season matches.

Song Jin-hyung was a success at the Newcastle Jets, and when he left to try his luck in Europe the fans were rightly disappointed, despite his lack of composure in front of goal. Ryo Nagai was also recently a favourite with Perth Glory before his loan deal was terminated due to injury.

Byun Sung-hwan scored the winning penalty for Sydney FC in their 2010 grand final triumph, and even Japanese forward Kazuyoshi Miura left an impression with two goals in four games during a short stint with the Sky Blues.

Seo Hyuk-Su (Brisbane Roar) and Surat Sukha (Melbourne Victory) were other players that can be identified as successes during their time in the A-League.

Many of these imports never even played international football, displaying the reality that A-League clubs don’t have to aim for the established superstars, who are way out of our reach in terms of wages anyway.

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That’s 10 players that have had a positive influence on Australian football. That’s from 22 players when knocking off the New Zealand Knights’ five Asian signings – given the disaster in Auckland, it seems unfair to include their recruitment drive – which is a damn impressive success rate.

However, with the amount of visa spots about to come under scrutiny, there’s a big chance for the Football Federation of Australia to take a positive step in ensuring the country’s relationship with Asia continues to grow, as well as keeping everyone happy.

FFA want to eventually reduce the visa quota from five to four spots, an admirable ploy to get A-League coaches playing more Australian youth. Though whether the coaches will plumb for youth or just extend older players’ contracts is debatable.

What’s not debatable is that this development presents a fantastic opportunity to get us more in tune with the Asian Football Confederation.

Most Asian countries employ the 3+1 rule, which states the club can have three visa spots from any nation in the world, with an extra spot open for a player from a neighbouring Asian nation. The same rule applies for participants in the Asian Champions League, which means Australian clubs can only use three of their five visa players when competing in the prestigious tournament.

Changing A-League visa rules to a 4+1, and slowly moving towards a 3+1 (if FFA is determined to reduce the total number to four) would be a smart move, and could open up a lot more doors for clubs wanting to cash in on the fastest-growing region in the world. With current foreign imports signed to multi-year contracts, it’s certainly not a short-term option, so planning needs to start now to give clubs a chance to prepare.

The idea has been floated around FFA before, and David Gallop has admitted the advantages of the move. He realises that our links with Asia need to strengthen.

Visa spots are not only vital to marketing for Australian clubs, but also in terms of results. If you look across the A-League at the moment, the clubs doing well in the table this season are those who have filled their visa spots the best.

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Picking the two most influential players from each side, Perth Glory have Andy Keogh and Nebojša Marinković, Adelaide United have Marcelo Carrusca and Isaias Sanchez, Melbourne Victory boast Guilherme Finkler and Fahid Ben Khalfallah, while Wellington rely on the partnership of Albert Riera and Roly Bonevacia.

None of these players are Asian, but it gives you an idea of how crucial filling visa spots can be. They’re often the clubs’ best players, so why not ensure at least one of the best players from each club is from Asia?

The Asian Cup is a chance for us to open our eyes and witness the pull football has in AFC member nations.

Two participants have already entertained the idea of a move to Australia – Kuwait’s Aziz Mashaan and Uzbekistan’s Server Djeparov. Dejeparov in particular would be a major coup, the two-time Asian player of the year and Uzbek captain is out of contract and has impressed in Group B so far.

The focus on Britain and South America has produced some gems, no doubt. But there have also been a lot of flops. I’d rather see more players from our own confederation get a chance to impress than a Latin American who has been picked up from YouTube videos.

We are part of the AFC, we take part in the Asian Champions League. Put more Asian players in our league and it will be spark more interest from Asian fans – a considerable and lucrative market.

Japanese and Chinese fans are going to take more notice if they see Japanese or Chinese players on our team sheets. Argentineans and Brazilians aren’t going to give a toss if they see one of their countrymen in Australia.

It will be difficult to tempt the top talent, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t attainable quality players out there. We can probably offer players in the K-League similar wages, though China, Japan, Qatar and the UAE are way off in terms of finances.

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But the pull of the Australian lifestyle should mean a few decent players are willing to give it a crack. The more players that arrive and impress, the bigger Australia’s reputation grows.

The Wanderers are already taking advantage of their success in the Asian Champions League – something Adelaide United failed to do – and have signed two quality Japanese players for their next ACL campaign. It will be very interesting to see how playmaker Yojiro Takahagi and fullback Yusuke Tanaka, who could yet be included in this season’s A-League squad, adapt to Tony Popovic’s squad.

Before the Asian Cup, Australians would have struggled to identify a player on many of the participating countries’ team sheets. Now we’ve been exposed at a wider level, and Asian nations are getting a glimpse into our country.

Introducing an Asian import into the A-League would be an obvious next step to improve relations with the AFC. Increased television coverage of the Chinese Super League and J-League would also help, but that’s largely down to Fox Sports.

Let’s look at places such as Iran, Iraq, Oman and Bahrain more intently, and identify those from Japan, China and Qatar that could be financially viable. An open mind is all that’s needed, and dipping into the Asian market will only strengthen football’s pull in this country.