A-League missing the boat in Asia

Paul Williams Columnist

By Paul Williams, Paul Williams is a Roar Expert


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    Jumpei Kusukami’s recent departure from Western Sydney Wanderers would’ve barely registered on the radar of most A-League fans.
    The Japanese winger mostly frustrated during his 18-month tenure with the Wanderers, showing glimpses of his undoubted talent but never producing the consistency to make his a first-team regular and fan favourite in the mould of the Wanderers original Japanese star, Shinji Ono.
    But his loss is a sad one for the A-League and lays bare a statistic that is an indictment on the entire league – there are now no Asian players in the A-League. Zero. Zip. Nada. Not a single one. And this after being a member of the Asian Football Confederation for well over a decade.
    Yes, Ali Abbas is at Wellington, but he has been a naturalised Australian for many years now and is classified as such for A-League regulations. He doesn’t count as a foreigner. The sad reality is, if he was still counted as an Iraqi then he wouldn’t be playing in the A-League.
    How is it that after 12 years of playing in Asia, seeing first-hand the talent that exists, not only in the continental giants such as Japan and Korea, but also in the so-called minnows like Thailand, Vietnam and some of the Gulf states, that clubs still remain reluctant to look to our north when it comes to signing foreign players?

    How many times do Australian national teams and club sides need to be ‘surprised’, and why we remain surprised is another point all together, before clubs and fans sit up, take notice and acknowledge the opportunities that exist?
    Some of us have been banging on about this for a number of years. I remember calling for the likes of Thai duo Theerathon Bunmathan and Teerasil Dangda to be considered by A-League clubs many years ago, and now both, having shown their wares on more than one occasion against Australia at international level, will be lining up in the J.League next year.
    Melbourne Victory are crying out for a left back and Theerathon would’ve been a perfect fit with their ACL campaign just around the corner, while there are countless clubs across the league who could use the predatory instincts of Teerasil.

    The AFC U23 Championships kick off this week in China featuring the very best young talent that Asia has to offer. A-League clubs fought tooth and nail to stop their players from participating in what they’ve unbelievably described as a “meaningless tournament”.

    Not only does that add to Australia’s poor reputation in Asia, it also misses the point entirely. How many A-League talent scouts will be in China, or at the very least watching online streams, scouting for young talent to bring to the A-League?

    I hazard a guess the number would be the same as the number of Asian players currently in the A-League – zero.

    It’s not as if the AFC U23 Championship has a history of producing talent either.

    The 2017 AFC Player of the Year, Omar Khrbin, played in the tournament for Syria in 2016 (as well as in 2013), as did Thailand’s Chanathip Songkrasin and Korea’s Kwon Chang-hoon, who has since secured a move to French side Dijon and has been one of the standouts for the mid-table club this season.

    The man who scored the winner for Japan in 2016 was none other than Takuma Asano, who is playing at VfB Stuttgart on loan from Arsenal.

    Meanwhile, the leading scorer back in 2013, Iranian Kaveh Rezaei, is now the equal top scorer in the Belgian Pro League, with ten goals in 20 appearances for Charleroi and looks certain to be included in Iran’s 23-man squad for the FIFA World Cup this year.

    The Olyroos kick off their campaign on Thursday against Syria, and who knows there could be another Omar Khrbin on the pitch staring us in the face. But elsewhere there is talent aplenty, if clubs just dared to look.

    Thai attacker Supachok Sarachat, who at just 19, scored seven goals in 17 matches for Buriram United as they stormed their way to the title, has a bright future ahead of him, as does Iraqi midfielder Hussein Ali who starred at the recent Gulf Cup in Kuwait.

    But one player Australia will see up close is Vietnamese star Nguyễn Công Phượng. The 22-year-old attacking midfielder is part of an extremely talented generation of players to have developed in the Hoàng Anh Gia Lai – Arsenal JMG Academy and is a player Australia should know very well.

    The diminutive midfielder, who spent a season on loan with Mito HollyHock in Japan in 2016, scored seven goals in qualifying for the 2014 AFC U19 Championships, including a brace against Australia in a 5-1 win for Vietnam and followed it up almost 12 months later with another wondergoal against Australia to seal a 1-0 win at the ASEAN U19 Championships in Hanoi.

    Australian fans have marveled at the skill of Chanathip when Australia has played Thailand in recent years, but how many would be happy for their club to give a chance to a player every bit as talented like Nguyễn, from what most in Australia would consider a football backwater like Vietnam?

    The longer we close our eyes, the more talent we miss. Let’s hope someone in club land has the foresight to actually watch the AFC U23 Championships, and not just dismiss it as a meaningless nuisance.

    Paul Williams
    Paul Williams

    Paul Williams is an Adelaide-based football writer. Specialising in Asian football, he writes about the beautiful game for a host of publications including SBS The World Game, FourFourTwo Singapore and Al Jazeera, and is a regular guest on the Daily Football Show. You can follow him on Twitter @PaulWilliams_85.

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    The Crowd Says (62)

    • January 9th 2018 @ 8:02am
      Glen said | January 9th 2018 @ 8:02am | ! Report

      As usual, Australia will probably be beaten by these countries but dismiss it as nothing to do with the potential playing talent they are opposing. Lots of commentary about adjusting to the conditions etc..

      Hope I’m wrong. What would be a good outcome for us?
      – a decent performance going far in the tournament
      – picking up some good young Asian talent for A-League clubs
      – some of our players getting noticed by strong teams in the better Asian leagues

      • January 9th 2018 @ 11:36am
        Kangajets said | January 9th 2018 @ 11:36am | ! Report


        I’m looking forward to under 23 tournament. Will be great to see who cuts the mustard?

    • January 9th 2018 @ 8:07am
      Kangajets said | January 9th 2018 @ 8:07am | ! Report

      The Newcastle Jets have had mixed success with Asian imports

      Ali Abass has cult hero status but van egmond wouldn’t play him

      The 2 Korean fullbacks who played abt 8 years apart .. song and ki Ji lee were both very good players.
      Both Korean players the jets would like to have kept but only stayed one season , citing homesickness or wanting to play in the stronger k league.

      Newcastle now has a good Chinese owner . One of his conditions is the jets use up a visa spot with a Chinese player.

      Last season the jets were only able to recruit ma lei lei who was described as a 3 rd division player . His contributions were occasionally a silky pass but constantly getting bullied off the ball . So far this season that visa spit for s Chinese player is unfilled .
      To get a very good Chinese player would cost way rtoo much

    • January 9th 2018 @ 8:10am
      Kangajets said | January 9th 2018 @ 8:10am | ! Report

      Omar Abdul Rahman , the left foot genius from uae .

      He’s the kind of import I’d love to see , but what club could possibly afford him ?

      • Roar Guru

        January 9th 2018 @ 2:49pm
        spruce moose said | January 9th 2018 @ 2:49pm | ! Report

        Good question.

        Factor in some serious devaluing in the quality of life as well for the Gulf state players, and it’s little surprise none are here.

        They are utterly spoiled over there, not just with wages, but with other perks that are standard to people on those wages that aren’t even close to being able to be replicated here.

        And then they’d have to pay tax! :p

    • January 9th 2018 @ 8:27am
      chris said | January 9th 2018 @ 8:27am | ! Report

      Paul it is amazing that not one Asian player graces our league. By and large though the few players that have played here in the A-League have largely disappointed.

    • January 9th 2018 @ 9:19am
      Kangajets said | January 9th 2018 @ 9:19am | ! Report


      By the sounds of this article these good players are now playing in Europe for clubs where they can get higher wages then in the A league … money talks .

    • January 9th 2018 @ 9:31am
      mattq said | January 9th 2018 @ 9:31am | ! Report

      doesn’t it come down to cost and talent? Is it those from Asian leagues talented enough to play a-league command to top a dollar? and those clubs could afford could just as easily be spent on aussie talent? the visa quota really means those spots need to be best used on the talent you can afford. is it asia has priced itself out of the a-league market in comparative quality to the rest of the world?

      I doubt clubs are deliberately avoiding Asian markets.

      • January 9th 2018 @ 10:04am
        Kangajets said | January 9th 2018 @ 10:04am | ! Report


        You are correct

        Money talks.

        A league clubs can’t afford the good Asian players

        • January 9th 2018 @ 2:37pm
          reuster75 said | January 9th 2018 @ 2:37pm | ! Report

          Some of the players mentioned no aussie clubs couldn’t afford them now, but the point Paul was making in his article was those players would’ve been affordable at the time when they were just starting out. I can’t see why melbourne Victory couldn’t afford Theerathon Bunmathan as after all they are the wealthiest and biggest club in the a-league. We here a lot of whinging from a-league owners about how the FFA is holding the league back and whilst some of it justified there is no excuse for them not having done more when it comes to signing players from within Asia and all the benefits that would bring. I can’t imagine that a lot of players in the leagues in say Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia etc. are on wages that would be out of reach for an a-league side to pay. Imagine if Victory had signed Theerathon Bunmathan ahead of the ACL and the opportunities that could’ve afforded them in engaging with the Thai community in Melbourne. I was at the Socceroos v Thailand game in Melbourne last year and there was a pocket of Thai fans at the game that provided a wonderful atmopshere with their drums and constantant singing so imagine that at a Victory game.

          • January 9th 2018 @ 5:21pm
            Kangajets said | January 9th 2018 @ 5:21pm | ! Report


            Read my above comments on the Jets players from Asia . Mixed success.

            I can’t speak for why Melbourne Victory didn’t buy the Thai player u speak of 6 years ago .

            Ask nemesis..

          • January 9th 2018 @ 5:49pm
            Mark said | January 9th 2018 @ 5:49pm | ! Report

            Victory signed a couple of Thai players many years ago after they looked good in an Asian tournament. On a week in week out basis they were just not good enough.

            Those from Thailand, Vietnam etc that are good enough for the A-League will play in Japan, Korea or other Asian leagues where they can get more money. There’s a reason there’s not many of them, though. Just because the Socceroos could make the Thais look like world beaters doesn’t mean they are.