Hyundai A-League should look east
The AFC Asian Champions League might not have grasped the imagination of Australian fans but our clubs could certainly learn a thing or two from some of our neighbours.
Whisper it quietly but Brisbane Roar fans saw Asia-s best team in action in the AFC Champions League this year.
Sadly for Roar supporters it was Ulsan Hyundai who earned the plaudits on April 17, as the K-League side ground out a gritty 2-1 win on the road.
It proved to be an important victory as Ulsan wrestled with Japanese side FC Tokyo for control of their ACL group.
The Tigers won that battle and on Saturday night they became the third South Korean side after Pohang Steelers and Seongnam Ilhwa to be crowned Asian champions from the past four editions of the ACL.
It-s safe to say South Korean teams have dominated the competition since it switched to a one-legged final four years ago - Jeonbuk lost the 2011 decider on penalties - so perhaps it-s time A-League sides started to explore what it is South Korean sides are doing right.
The man who scored the opening goal in Saturday night-s 3-0 win over Saudi side Al-Ahli was also the player who coolly converted the winner from the penalty spot against Brisbane back in April.
Kwak Tae-Hwi is Ulsan-s inspirational captain and he-s also the skipper of the South Korean national team, although the veteran central defender will sit out this week-s friendly against the Socceroos.
Australian fans shouldn-t be surprised by the strength of a South Korean squad comprised entirely of Asian-based players because the K-League is arguably now the strongest on the continent.
That-s a mantle that has traditionally been held by the neighbouring J. League, though a quick glance at Ulsan-s line-up against Al-Ahli reveals that four of their starting side had recent playing experience in Japan, while substitute Maranhao is on loan from Ventforet Kofu.
What several Ulsan players have done - including striker Lee Keun-Ho, who was named the ACL-s Most Valuable Player - is spend time in a tough Japanese league before returning home and improving the standard of their own competition.
Not surprisingly, Ulsan knocked out Japanese champions Kashiwa Reysol in the Round of 16 en route to winning the ACL.
There-s currently little difference between the two powerhouse East Asian leagues and A-League clubs would do well to start picking the brains of Australian players who have spent time in the region.
One such example is Fox Sports analyst Mark Rudan, who after spending a year at Japanese second division side Avispa Fukuoka in 2008, was impressed by the technical standards.
“In regards to technical ability, the first team definitely were more superior to A-League players in general,” Rudan said.
“When I first arrived it took a couple of weeks to understand each players preferred position as they were all technically sound, could play their way out of tight situations had a decent first touch, were mobile and could play a variety of positions.
"That was one of the big aspects of their game that came to my attention immediately,” he added.
The former Sydney FC and Adelaide United defender is quick to point out that facilities in many East Asian nations often exceed those available in Australia.
But how those facilities are used makes a big difference.
“Being so intrigued by (the Fukuoka players-) technical ability, I spent most afternoons down at the youth academy where they had four synthetic pitches,” Rudan said.
“Most sessions ran for no longer than 90 minutes and everything they did was with the ball, from the warm up right through to warm down.
“A lot of emphasis on passing - about 20 to 30 minutes was used each day on different passing drills.
“They trained five days a week from ages 11 to 16.”
Youth players being coached with an emphasis on passing and ball control? Sounds like a plan.
One day it might help us match our East Asian neighbours for skill and hopefully lift an AFC Champions League trophy of our own.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of FFA or the Hyundai A-League.