J.League remains relevant

The number of Australian players plying their trade in Japan has dropped dramatically, it's a shame because both the J.League and A-League could benefit.

There once was a time when the J. League was by far the best league in Asia. Crowds were booming, the Japanese national team was stacked with domestic talent and the quality of foreign stars was high.

Japan even became an attractive destination for Australian players in the late 1990s when a slew of Aussie talent like Ned Zelic, Tony Popovic, Matt Bingley and Aurelio Vidmar began to call The Land Of The Rising Sun home.

But after a lull of Australian transfer activity to Japan, it wasn-t until the likes of Eddy Bosnar, Josh Kennedy and more recently Alex Brosque moved to the J. League that Australian fans had much of a reason to take an interest in Japanese football.

Brosque has of course moved on to Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates and his departure from Shizuoka club Shimizu S-Pulse is symptomatic of some of the issues the J. League currently faces.

Once home to a high-quality selection of Brazilian talent - owing in part to the 100-year-old links between the two nations - these days plenty of Samba stars are taking their talents to rival Asian leagues.

The oil and gas-rich Gulf States have always been an attractive destination for South American stars but nowadays the increasingly competitive Chinese Super League is also attracting its fair share of talent.

By logic there should be a gap in the market for Australian players to exploit, but just as it has been a struggle to convince A-League clubs of the value of Japanese players, so too are J. League outfits slow to realise the benefit of bringing Australian players on board.

Language barriers and cultural differences play a role, but so too does a simple lack of imagination, and it doesn-t help when players from certain countries fail to immediately succeed.

The struggles of regular Socceroos squad members Mark Milligan and Jade North to establish themselves at genuinely competitive Japanese clubs proves just how tough it is to make it in Japan, even if Japanese players themselves are moving to Europe in increasingly large numbers.

As it stands, the towering Josh Kennedy is the only Australian currently plying his trade in the Japanese top flight and his persistent back problems have prompted club side Nagoya Grampus to sign Macedonian youngster Nikola Jakimovski as another attacking option.

Kennedy was not in the squad which drew 1-1 with Jubilo Iwata in Nagoya-s season opener at the weekend and the fact the Aichi side have signed one-time Freiburg flop Kisho Yano suggests there-s little faith the Socceroos striker will play a decisive role this season.

That-s a shame, because a greater player exchange between Japan and Australia would benefit both leagues.

It defies belief that an A-League club could turn down the opportunity to sign a player like Kashima legend Mitsuo Ogasawara - by far a more influential player in the J. League than Shinji Ono ever was - yet that-s exactly what happened last year.

Ogasawara-s much-vaunted Antlers side have slipped down the pecking order in the last couple of seasons and they could only draw 1-1 away at last season-s surprise package Sagan Tosu on the opening day of the new campaign.

In fact, most of the opening matches ended in stalemate and Urawa-s surprise 2-1 win away at defending champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima was perhaps the only shock result of the round.

A-League clubs and coaches would do well to take heed of some of these results because the J. League remains a hotbed of talent - even if rival Asian leagues are slowly making ground.