A-League teams made some interesting signings over the course of the Asian Cup break.
Western Sydney Wanderers signed Japanese pair Yojiro Takahagi and Yusuke Tanaka, while Melbourne City FC signed Singaporean Safuwan Baharudin. The beleaguered Newcastle Jets have jumped on board and signed Korean defender Lee Ki-je until the end of the season, following the end of his contract with J-League side Shimizu S-Pulse.
Perhaps this is a legacy spill-over from the Asian Cup, where more eyes – including those of scouts – have turned towards the continent rather than Europe and South America. Perhaps Australia’s professional clubs are finally starting to see the benefit, both cost and performance-wise, in looking towards the neighbours.
One thing’s for sure: A-League clubs can’t make this a short-term switch. Commitment to Asia and its players needs to remain and continue growing.
The benefits are there for all to see. Several players from the region have lit up the A-League in its past, from Adelaide United’s Qu Shengqing and Western Sydney’s Shinji Ono to Sydney FC’s now-naturalised Australian Ali Abbas. Getting players like these for the modern A-League needs scouts to look at the region and scour it with a fine-toothed comb, rather than a hedge clipper.
There is also the matter of the league’s foreign quota. While the policy may change in the future, the A-League currently allows for five foreign players of any nationality. The AFC Champions League, restricts participating clubs to three foreign players plus an additional player from an AFC member nation in order to promote continental development.
As a result, signing at least one Asian player allows for greater squad depth, and reduces the need for new signings, when an Australian club qualifies for the ACL.
In the current market, Asian players are also an advantage to clubs sparring with the league’s current salary cap. While former Sydney FC coach Ian Crook’s woes in trying to sign an unnamed J-League Division 2 player – a reportably notable striker who asked for too much money – it’s clear that looking for the right player, at the right time, with the right promotion can lead to great things. Western Sydney’s success in signing their two new Japanese signings proves this.
If nothing else, clubs should be swayed by the massive potential for marketing opportunities. While a big name like Alessandro del Piero was able to capture the attention of the world and create huge opportunities, including TV deals, in Italy, cut-price signing Shinji Ono achieved similar results for Western Sydney in Japan with arguably better results on the pitch. After all, for all the uniforms he sold, Del Piero never brought Sydney FC to the Champions League.
Success in continental competition has been significant for the recognition of A-League clubs in Asia. Not only are people across the continent aware of the Socceroos, but they also know the likes of Western Sydney and Adelaide United for their achievements in the tournament. Tapping into that recognition, along with the other benefits of playing across an Australian summer, should be seen as big selling points.
Australians love to complain about the money flowing around more affluent parts of Asia and the high price tag on the region’s best players. It’s no different from complaining about the injustices of an A-League club never being able to afford a Cristiano Ronaldo or a Steven Gerrard on their own.
The reality is that A-League clubs, coaches and backroom staff all need to hone their recruiting skills for what is still a relatively unknown market. The more they try to understand the region, the better their outcomes.
Now that they’ve surely seen the benefits of their short-term efforts, the A-League must make their engagement with players in Asia a long term project.