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Aussies moving to Asian leagues - Good or bad?

by Ben Somerford on Jul 04, 2012

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Indeed, there's now a long, long list of Australians plying their trade in Asian leagues, from as far west as Dubai, heading to far flung Tashkent, and all the way to the far east via Shanghai, Seoul and Sapporo. We're not far off South-East Asia emerging as a player market too.

It's come about naturally since Australia's move into the Asian Football Confederation with leagues around the region having 3+1 foreign quota rules, whereby teams can have four foreigners only, one of which must be an Asian.

It's also intensified in recent times off the back of the success of players like Sasa Ognenovski in Korea and Joshua Kennedy in Japan, and China – with the newfound investment in the Chinese game – appear to have noticed that too.

Now to be precise, there's seven Aussies currently in each China and South Korea, five each in Japan, one in UAE and Uzbekistan and another, Sasa Ognenovski, is set to head to Qatar this week. That's more than 20 players, enough for a pretty strong A-League squad!

Of course, analysing whether the situation is good or bad must go beyond the effect it has on the domestic competition; there's the case for the national team, but first and foremost it's all about the players.

The Players
There's plenty of positives about this trend for Australian players, none moreso than the financial opportunities. The current growth of money in the Chinese game is truly phenomenal, and far greater than anything the A-League could currently offer with its salary cap restrictions as well as the domestic game's lack of genuine financial power. That's a huge, huge plus for players.

The trend also presents more opportunities for Australian players, particularly given the limited numbers of spots available on A-League rosters these days. This kind of 'contract competition' allows players to get good deals too, even if they stay in Australia.

The opportunities also apply to Australians heading back from Europe, with former Bundesliga striker Joshua Kennedy a prime example, along with Busan I'Park's Matt McKay. Playing in these leagues, which are perceived as stronger than the A-League, rather than returning home, has helped prolong their Socceroos careers. Just compare the aforementioned two's international careers to players who've returned home like Dario Vidosic and Bruce Djite.

However, one argument you often here bandied about is using Asia as a stepping stone, although that's more a myth at this stage for Australian players. While there's a growing contingent of Japanese talent moving from the J.League to Germany (Hiroshi Kiyotake and Hiroki Sakai are just the latest), there's been no examples of Australians having the same luck.

Sasa Ognenovski was a player who won the AFC Player of the Year while with Seongnam Ilhwa yet could never earn his dream European move. It seems age worked against him and when you look at the K-League talent which has recently moved to Europe, such as Sunderland's Ji Dong-Won, Celtic's Ki Sung-Yueng or Wolfsburg's Koo Ja-Cheol, they've all gone in their early 20s. Luke DeVere, for example, first arrived in Korea when he was 21 in early 2011. He's now established himself at Gyeongnam but are European clubs interested in players beyond their early 20s? At this stage, the stepping stone seems a myth.

The A-League
Looking at the domestic competition, the big positive out of all of this is transfer fees. Of course, that only applies if the clubs are getting good value for their assets, although Central Coast are an example of a club who offloaded Matt Simon and Rostyn Griffiths to help balance their books.

And the possibility of selling players encourages a stronger focus on youth development at club level which is good for not only the A-League, but the whole Australian set-up. In any industry, more demand is good for competition and creating better products.

On the contrary, the obvious downside is the immediate player drain, which is beginning to grow to the levels of the old NSL days. Naturally that lowers the standard of the competition, which is one of the A-League's greatest challenges in terms of maintaining and building public interest. This is clearly the greatest problem this situation presents.

The Socceroos
Finally, the national team must be considered, but we must keep it in context. When you look back at the 2006 World Cup squad you'll see players listed from all sorts of top European clubs such as Liverpool, PSV Eindhoven, Parma and Newcastle. The current crop simply aren't as good, and our expectations must be lowered.

Asian leagues, such as the J.League or K-League, provide a standard currently above the A-League and that is good for the Australians who cannot find regular game-time in Europe, such as Kennedy. However, the quality of leagues in China, Qatar or UAE remains in question. And when you hear talk about prospect James Troisi being offered a lucrative deal in Qatar (he has also been linked with Juventus), you begin to wonder about what the lure of these leagues could do to careers of future national team regulars.

Last but not least, it must be noted that the influx of Aussies into Asia must be good for the national team in terms of knowledge of regional opponents in World Cup qualifying. Also players will be familiar with not only opponents, but conditions and given the close proximity of most Asian leagues in comparison to Europe, travel times for Socceroos games shouldn't be such a burden.

So to conclude, there's all sorts of spin-off effects from the recent trend of Australian footballers moving to Asia. Clearly the big winners are the players, while the biggest issue stemming from the trend is the lowering of standard in the A-League. As for the effect on the Socceroos, that remains to be seen, but right now, it seems there's no stopping the trend. Whether it's worth trying to, seems highly debatable.