This off-season, A-League clubs should be looking to South-East Asia to fill some of their visa positions. This would provide three benefits – to individual clubs, the league and the overall game in Australia.
1. Clubs can boost attendances and membership numbers
Australia is one of the most multicultural countries in the world, and this history has forged some of our greatest connections to the world game. Yet clubs could better utilise our multicultural society.
Australian Professional Leagues Managing Director, Danny Townsend, recognises this. He recently said one of the aims of the A-League is to target players from other countries “to stimulate migrant populations”. But which countries?
They need to be countries that have significant diaspora populations in Australia, and those populations need to be enticed to the A-League because of the presence of an exciting player from their homeland.
So, while Australia has significant populations from England and Italy, the elite quality of their national leagues means we are unlikely to attract players that excite the diasporas in Australia – other than the odd marquee player at the end of their career. China’s strong local league also makes it a harder nation to target, despite the large diaspora in Australia.
Further, while Australia has a significant population from India, its lower-ranked football status means there are fewer Indian players of high enough quality for the A-League.
For A-League clubs, the best countries to target are the South-East Asian nations of Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.
Vietnam is one of the last 12 nations competing in the World Cup Asian Qualifiers, and the Philippines and Malaysia were competitive in their groups in the previous qualifying round.
Most of their national players play in their domestic leagues, which are each competitive, but the A-League is arguably a higher standard for these players.
If an A-League club recruited an exciting player from one of these countries, it would be able to tap into significant local populations. The 2016 Census recorded 81,045 people in Sydney who were born in Vietnam and 75,480 who were born in the Philippines.
In Melbourne, there were 79,054 residents born in Vietnam. In Perth, there were 28,224 born in Malaysia and 24,624 born in the Philippines.
Add to these numbers those who were born in Australia to parents from these countries. If only a fraction of these local migrant populations started supporting an A-League club, it would be a financial and atmospheric boost for that club.
2. The league can increase overseas audiences
In the way that Australian attention increases towards foreign leagues and clubs when Socceroos play there, A-League audiences in countries outside of Australia and New Zealand are boosted if players from those countries feature in the A-League.
Like the migrant diaspora populations in Australia, this interest is only significant for those who live in countries where the A-League is considered superior, or at least equal, to their local league. As such, South-East Asian nations are again the best target.
With approximately 650 million people in South-East Asia and a similar timezone, the region holds enormous potential for the A-League. However, the J-League and the K League are leading the way on this front.
Japan aims to be the focal point of Asian football. In 2012, the J-League signed partnerships with the leagues in Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar.
J-League clubs have a limit of five foreign players in a matchday squad, but players from “partner nations” are exempt – seven of these eight partner nations are from South-East Asia.
Since 2017, the presence of the “Thai Messi”, Chanathip Songkrasin, at J-League club Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo has generated strong interest in Thailand.
From 2020, the K League dedicates a foreign visa position to a South-East Asian player. This move was made as part of K League plans to ‘establish new business and explore overseas markets’.
3. The game can better align with government interests
Finally, it is in Australia’s national interest to partner with our South-East Asian neighbours across all sectors, yet the Federal Government often struggles to build substantial relationships. Stronger football links to South-East Asia would be an arm of soft power that is supported by the government.
So, with these three benefits in mind, A-League recruiters should be watching the Australia-Vietnam World Cup Qualifier with an eye to bringing the “Vietnamese Messi” and his teammates to the A-League.