Burgeoning links with Asia help both sides

As part of APL’s Harmony Week celebrations, Simon Hill dives into Australian football’s relationship with Asia

It's 15 years since Australia was admitted into the Asian Football Confederation, and while the last decade and a half has had its challenges, it’s fair to say the relationship is more harmonious now than it's ever been.

That is epitomised by the fact that in 2020/21, the A-League features eight players originally from Asian nations - the joint most of any season.  Five of those eight are from Japan.

The evolution has been driven by many factors.  Covid has undoubtedly played a part, but the Aussie lifestyle remains a big draw, according to one of the A-League's very first batch of Asian players, Naoki Imaya.

Imaya featured for the New Zealand Knights in year one of the competition, and now works coaching at an academy in his homeland, after spells assisting Ange Postecoglou (at Yokohama F Marinos) and Pete Cklamovski (Shimizu).

"Japanese players have always had an interest to play in Australia, because they want to learn English.  They want to raise their kids in such countries.  Tomoki Imai for example (Western United) still had a contract in Japan, but he wanted to play in an English-speaking country. Masato Kudo (Brisbane Roar) the same.  Naoki Tsubaki (Melbourne City) wanted to get games, so it was a good option for him." says Imaya.

The fact that legends such as Keisuke Honda, Shinji Ono and Kazu Miura played in the A-League doesn't go unnoticed in Japan either - and the attraction of Australia as a destination has spilled down into the NPL competitions, where players such as Tasuku Tsekiya & Kosuke Ota have made a real name for themselves.

Shinji Ono of the Wanderers celebrates with fans after the round 16 A-League match between the Western Sydney Wanderers and Perth Glory at Parramatta Stadium on January 26, 2014
Shinji Ono of the Wanderers celebrates with fans after the round 16 A-League match between the Western Sydney Wanderers and Perth Glory at Parramatta Stadium on January 26, 2014

The A-League is even benefiting from Asian imports who arrived in the days of the NSL and stayed, long after their careers were over.

Danny Kim (Brisbane Roar) is the son of Kim Pan-Keun, a South Korean defender who played against the likes of Jurgen Klinsmann, Lothar Matthaus, Fernando Hierro and Luis Enrique at the 1994 World Cup in America.  He also once marked Diego Maradona in a friendly between a Korean XI and Boca Juniors.

Kim senior arrived in Australia in 1998 to play for the Marconi Stallions, another attracted by the Aussie lifestyle.  Now, his offspring is carrying on the football tradition, very much of the country of his birth - but acutely aware of his Korean connections.  The epitome of modern, multicultural Australia.

"Mum and dad thought that (the Korean culture) was pretty important growing up.  We speak Korean in the house.  I love it.  I have so many Korean friends, including some who play in the K-League.  In fact, Ki Sung-Yueng (ex Celtic, Newcastle United, Swansea City, Sunderland - now with FC Seoul) went to my dads academy when he was growing up in Australia, and was almost part of the family.  My parents tell me he changed my nappies!" says Kim. 

"I could play for South Korea, but for me I'm an Aussie.  I've been raised here.  Some times I support South Korea on television, but for my career, my roots are here.  The other thing is military service - that would be a whole different level of stress, and if you're not Son Heung-Min, you're doing the two years!" laughs Kim.

Most Asian players - like Kim senior - come to Australia by choice, but for others it is through necessity.

The story of Ali Abbas is well-documented.  An Iraqi international who escaped his war-torn homeland through football by seeking asylum back in 2007, Abbas is one of very few from the west of the continent to play in the A-League.  He says football was crucial for him to survive - not just the war, but in his new surroundings in Australia.

"It helped a lot, because I didn't have to speak the language initially.  It was easy to settle because of the skill I had in football.  I got a lot of support from the Arabic community, although there were difficulties.  I had come from a house with three sisters and six brothers.  Here I was by myself.  The first few months I had those Iraqi friends, but then I went to Newcastle where there aren't so many, so I made friends in the football environment, learning the culture" says Abbas.

Abbas admits he's stumped as to why there aren't more players from the west of Asia in Australia - but says two of his country's biggest stars came close to making the move a few years ago.

"Nashat (Akram) called me when I was playing for Newcastle (first spell) - he was contacted by them around 2011 or 2012, but I don't know why that move didn't go through.  There were also talks between me, Sydney FC and Younes Mahmoud after the Asian Cup in 2015, but I think he was asking for too much money!" laughs Abbas.

Ali Abbas of Sydney FC celebrates scoring a goal during the round 14 A-League match between Sydney FC and the Newcastle Jets at ANZ Stadium on January 9, 2016 in Sydney, Australia.
Ali Abbas of Sydney FC celebrates scoring a goal during the round 14 A-League match between Sydney FC and the Newcastle Jets at ANZ Stadium on January 9, 2016 in Sydney, Australia.

Bringing players into the A-League from Asia isn't always a straightforward process. 

Warren Moon, set his stall out to sign an Asian player when he took over at Brisbane Roar, but got Riku Danzaki only thanks to a stroke of good fortune.

"Many clubs here use a system called InStat.  I filtered in a prototype of the sort of player I wanted, scoured through the list of players and found Riku.  Initially however, Consadole Sapporo (Danzaki's parent club) said it was not possible.  I was chatting to Jade North who reminded me he used to play for Consadole, and he told me he still spoke to the General Manager.  It literally escalated within 48 hours.  They were keen to give him more experience, and before we knew it, the deal was done." says Moon.

Naoki Imaya says this is how deals are forged in Japan especially.

"It's about building the right networks, building club relationships.  There are so many talented young Japanese players - you just need to find the right one with the right character that is going to blend into the culture in Australia.  It's about the right contacts." says Imaya.

Those cultural differences can be tricky to overcome. 

"When I started as a player with Brisbane, we had Hyuk Su-Seo and Shin Tae-Yong, and they were very different." says Moon.

"They were taken aback by what was normal practice here.  But they really embraced it.  With Riku it's language, but also the food.  He ordered a lot of takeaway when he first arrived because he didn't know what you could buy in the supermarkets - the type of veggies that he was used to weren't readily available.  We had to go through an education process, and got him a translator to help" he adds.

While Asian players may not be as plentiful in the A-League as Europeans or South Americans, the history books show that when they commit to Australia, they succeed and make a big contribution.

Song Jin-Hyung, Byun, Sayed Mohamed Adnan, Reza Ghoochannejhad, Surat Sukha, and Shinji Ono, all played in Grand Finals - the first four leaving with winners medals. 

Are there more diamonds to be found?  Warren Moon believes so - and that it's just about putting the work in.

"Yes, there are arguments around the physicality of the A-League, but if you compare Riku with an Aussie of the same age, he is a lot more developed technically." says Moon.

"I find footage of players a lot easier to get from Asia than Europe.  They throw a lot of players at you from Europe, but Asia is a lot clearer. I think it's more of a lottery in Europe.  They (Asians) are also not too expensive - and we would be stupid if we didn't build upon this relationship we now have with Consadole Sapporo.  We hope it's not the last deal we do with them.  We're very happy with Riku, and if there's another opportunity, we'd look at it," he adds.

The relationship with Asia is a two-way street of course.

Aussie players have long benefited from the opportunity to go and play in Asia. In fact, there are 49 male Australians currently earning a living in Asian leagues, plus another 17 in coaching positions around the continent.  Many, like Sasa Ognenovski (AFC Asian Player of the Year 2010), took their careers to new levels in Asia due to their willingness to embrace new challenges.

Naoki Imaya helped take Nathan Burns to FC Tokyo in 2015, and says he adapted brilliantly.

"There are so many little rules here you have to become accustomed to - it's a bit stricter in many ways.  He did really well, was very humble, and Japanese people loved that.  When he left, they did a ceremony on the pitch to farewell him - he was so loved by the club because of his character." says Imaya.

A decade and a half after Australia took its first, tentative, steps into Asia, the relationship is burgeoning.  A better understanding of different cultures through the prism of the beautiful game.  Harmony through football you might say.

Keisuke Honda of the Victory celebrates scoring a goal during the Round 6 A-League match between Melbourne Victory and the Western Sydney Wanderers at Marvel Stadium on December 01, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia
Keisuke Honda of the Victory celebrates scoring a goal during the Round 6 A-League match between Melbourne Victory and the Western Sydney Wanderers at Marvel Stadium on December 01, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia