By Suresh Nair
HAVE you ever wondered why only a handful of Asian professional footballers ever make it to the English Premier League (EPL), ranked the most competitive in the world?
Ironically, Asia is still growing to be an increasingly important source of revenue with big-name clubs like Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool regularly coming for pre-season tours.
A quick hand-count will clearly show a dearth of Asian players in England’s top flight, simply because the work permit rules for non-EU (European Union) players have been tightened, says Greg Dyke, the Chairman of The FA, to open more doors for English players to play on home ground.
Singaporean players, for starters, will never have a chance to play in the EPL, not even for the next century, as one of the primary football-criteria is that your country must be ranked in FIFA’s top 50 and the player must have played 75 per cent of full internationals in the previous two years.
FAS (Football Association of Singapore) ranking at 170 makes it impossible for a Singaporean to make an EPL dream come true and only Iran (32) and Australia (39) make the cut. Japan is next at 55, with South Korea and China at 59 and 60 respectively.
But some of the EPL clubs try and circumvent the EPL rules by signing players who don’t meet requirements and then farm them out to Holland or Belgium until they qualified, as Manchester United did with Dong Fangzhou and Arsenal with Ryo Miyaichi.
“But usually this doesn’t work and it is not a path the best young talent like to take when there are easier ones elsewhere in other parts of Europe as Fandi Ahmad did with FC Groningen in Holland and V. Sundramoorthy having a stint with FC Basle in Switzerland,” says former award-winning Singapore coach Jita Singh. He was a Singapore defender when the Lions went to England for a three-week tour in 1972.
A noteworthy recent example is China striker Zhang Yuning, first signed by West Bromwich Albion but immediately loaned to Bundesliga club Werder Bremen because he is not good enough to get a work permit in England.
The transfer, both clubs essentially admitted, is as much about marketing than actual football potential – and it says much about the strange world of Chinese investment in European soccer.
CHINA SUPER STAR
Zhejiang-native Zhang is the only Chinese player playing at a decent level in Europe, having moved from Hangzhou Greentown to Vitesse Arnhem in Holland as an 18-year-old.
But global agents want to seize the chance to sign more Zhangs as he could be a piece of the footballing equivalent of a Yao Ming (National Basketball Association (NBA) legend) – a player to attract an army of patriotic Chinese fans ready to open their wallets.
But Zhang has a long way to go to make such an impact, if he ever will. He mostly warmed the bench in the Dutch Eredivisie, one of Europe’s weaker professional leagues.
At worst, Zhang boosts West Bromwich’s brand and can be flogged on to a Chinese club if he fails to make the grade in Europe. At best, the Midlands club has got in early on the most talented Chinese player in decades, a potential goldmine.
“I’m very proud to have the chance to play for this team,” says Zhang. “Werder is a big club in China and I’m really excited about this opportunity. My dream is to play in the Bundesliga and I hope to be able to showcase my skills at some point in the near future.”
Yet some more talented Asian players who have made it to the “Land of Football” include Ki Sung Yueng at Swansea City, Shinji Okazaki at Leicester City, Crystal Palace’s Lee Chung-yong and Moya Yoshida at Southampton.
Forget about Singapore.
It is much harder for the likes of South Korea and Japan to consistently stay in upper echelons of FIFA’s table simply because Asian teams have to play all their competitive games against other Asian teams (apart from World Cup qualifiers) and many of these are ranked pretty low. For example, when South Korea and Japan take on Singapore, Laos, Myanmar and Afghanistan in qualifications for the 2018 World Cup, there is little opportunity to climb the ladder.
Football correspondent James Richards from London says to use FIFA rankings in such decisions is to penalise the best Asian nations for geographic location. He adds: “This means the best of South Korea and Japan will go to the German Bundesliga, where they will continue to show they are more than capable of handling life in the big leagues.”
He also notes that the EPL may be the “longer-term loser and could suffer not only on the pitch where the league will not get the best the continent has to offer in the future, but financially too”.
Richards explains: “In East Asia, say China, Japan and South Korea, the presence of home-grown lads doing well drives a lot of interest in whether fans want to watch English football. If the Asian presence reduces even further, it could affect the amount of money that some broadcasters are willing to pay.”
But skilful players like Shinji Kagawa offer some sparkling hope as he became the first Japanese player to lift the Premier League trophy as well as being the first Asian player to score a hat-trick in the league for Manchester United. He is currently back in Germany with Borrusia Dortmund, where he has established himself as one of the fan favourites with the German giants and last month became the leading Japanese scorer in Bundesliga history with 38 goals.
BEST ASIAN STAR
Undoubtedly the most successful Asian in the Premier League would be South Korean striker Park Ji Sung, who has won almost every major honour in English club football. Park’s immense contribution to Manchester United during his seven-year career will be remembered.
“Three-Lungs Park”, as he is affectionately known, was the first Asian to captain Manchester United and also the first to win the Champions League. Currently a global ambassador for the Red Devils, his appointment is a testament to the immense contribution to the club during his career at Old Trafford.
Now the Asian “darling” is Tottenham Hotspur striker is Son Heung-min, who arrived at White Hart Lane from Bayer Leverkusen as the most expensive Asian player in football history at £22million. The previous highest was Shinji Kagawa at £16milllion from Borussia Dortmund.
Even British Asian prodigies find it tough-going in England. Pakistani Zesh Rehman, the first British Asian to play in the Premiership, says breaking down what he describes as “negative stereotypes and stigmas that have been going on for years.”
He added: “Coming through the system was very difficult for me. There was a lot of negativity I had to deal with, there was a lot of doubt from coaches as to whether I would make it and I had to get through that.
CAN THEY SUCCEED?
“For most young players, doubts whether they have the capacity to succeed at the highest level or not are commonly focused on their desire to succeed or simply their ability. For me though, it was directed more at my cultural heritage. Coaches would always tell me to take up cricket instead of football, it was a recurring theme that Asians don’t play football, that our diet is not suited to the demands of the game.”
Rehman, who made 21 Premier League appearances for Fulham between 2004 and 2006, adds: “My brother Riz (who was on the books of Brentford before a leg break cut his career short) and I were told directly to our faces by an FA coach at the ages of 9 and10 that we would not make it because we had the wrong diet, scared of the weather and assumed we like cricket more.”
FIFA rankings aside, the best Asean prospect now to knock on Premiership door may well be Chanathip Songkrasin with two AFF Suzuki Cup titles – in which he also won the Most Valuable Player award on both occasions in 2014 and 2016 – to his name.
But the man known as ‘Messi Jay’ and reportedly wanted by the Thailand-owned Leicester City, still has some improvement in his game, with the only query whether he can handle the high physicality of the English game.
Nonetheless, ask anyone where the best place in Asia is for an up-and-coming footballer to learn and improve in all aspects of their game. Chances are the answer will be Japan, the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’.
Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who strongly believes the English Premier League (EPL) is not the right ground for any prodigy player from Asean.