No downsides to Asian foreign spot

The arrival of Kim Sung-yong at the Central Coast Mariners is cause for optimism.

The arrival of Kim Sung-yong (Kim is OK but calling him Sung-yong is like an English commentator repeatedly saying “Wayne” instead of Rooney, only much stranger) at the Central Coast Mariners is cause for optimism. As has been pointed out, this is a player who was scoring in the final of the Asian Champions League just 18 months ago. This is a player respected by fans in leagues J and K.

While the move doesn-t mean that A-league games will be shown in Korea just yet (the news would have had a much bigger impact if it hadn-t been announced slap bang in the middle of the Chinese New Year celebrations, the biggest holiday of the year in Korea, and just as the national team was playing against Mexico) there will be plenty keeping an eye on the winger to see how he gets on.

Kim lost his automatic starting spot at Ulsan in 2013 - and watched from the sidelines as the Tigers lost the title with the last kick of the campaign - but was impressively consistent for the club since returning from Gamba Osaka at the end of 2011.

While compatriot Lee Keun-ho often took the headlines at the J.League giant, fans in Kansai came to see Kim as a vital member of a slick Gamba team. Great awareness, technique and vision, the 28 year-old has two weaknesses though one he can do little about: he doesn-t score as many as he should and played in a position where Korean national team coaches have been spoiled for options.

He can however help to pave the way for more to follow. For the foreseeable future, it is going to be tough for A-League teams to tempt the best talent from the top Asian leagues. One reason is, of course, financial. There is not as much of a difference between salaries in the Korea and Australia as is often assumed, but it is still significant, especially when the move south is such an unfamiliar one.

Just as much as an issue is the worry among younger players that heading down under could have a negative impact on potential international careers. This is not so much due to the perception of the league-s quality but to a concern that East Asian national team coaches will not make the effort to keep tabs or watch them.

Japan and Korean bosses often make the ten or eleven hour flight to Europe (too often in the minds of some) but can watch plenty of their boys in action. Would they be quite so keen to make the same trip to Australia to watch just one player? And if not, would they be able to follow any progress made down under?

The more Asian players that go to Australia and are seen to perform well, the more better players will be interested, and this is where the Asian quota comes in. Adopting this extra spot in the squad that is exclusively for a foreign player, as long as he hails from an AFC member nation, has really boosted the movement of Asians all over the continent. The debate is being held in Australia but it really shouldn-t be. There are no downsides.

For those that worry about Australia not taking Asian football seriously enough, it could be argued that the seeming reluctance to sign players from the north is actually a good sign as it is following in the footsteps of fellow confederation members. After years of nothing, it is only in the recent past that players have really started to criss-cross all over the giant continent. There have long been some regional transfers such as Koreans heading to Japan and Iranians going to the UAE but now there is a genuine intra-continental transfer market.

At Ulsan, Kim played alongside Australians and Japanese players. Not long ago his homeland, like many others, had little interest in signing Asians yet the majority of teams in the top tiers of China, Korea and Japan will start the 2014 season with an AFC player in their squads. Now they are moving all over Asia from Japanese to Thailand, Indonesians to Japan, Koreans to Singapore, Qatar and UAE and Australians to pretty much everywhere. The Asian quota has played a major part.

It could be argued that if teams wanted to sign Asians there is nothing stopping them from doing so but that ignores reality and recent history. The traditional bias in favour of Europeans and South Americans was, and still is, deeply entrenched. A nudge was, and still is, needed. When there is a limit on foreign talent, selecting those players is hugely important.

The Asian quota works because it is simple: it gives coaches and clubs an incentive to look for and consider Asian players. It doesn-t sound like much, but it really is. From that starting point, knowledge begins to replace ignorance and then, maybe not immediately, but after a year or two, deals start to be done.

The quota helps but it can-t do it all by itself. It needs players like Kim to show what they can do to Australia and show what Australia can do to Asia.