Ono must be the standard bearer
Shinji Ono needs to succeed in the Hyundai A-League, if for no other reason than to show others Asian players they can succeed here.
Brett Emerton reckons Shinji Ono is the best player he's ever played with.
Yes, you read that right. True enough, that assessment was made from their time together at Feyenood nine years ago. But quality endures, and although we haven't seen the best of Ono just yet, don't despair. As the season gets going for Western Sydney Wanderers, be sure Ono will emerge as the team's most influential figure.
Not that he's being singled out by the club that pays him. Not that long ago, foreign clubs signed Japanese players not necessarily because of their ability, but because they could sell shirts.
Remember Junichi Inamoto and Arsenal? Times have moved on, and these days Japanese - and indeed South Korean - footballers are playing in the Bundesliga, or English Premier League, or Serie A, purely on merit. So when Wanderers boss Lyall Gorman insists the start-up club wants Ono to concentrate on being a footballer, and not a mannequin, you can believe him.
Conceivably, Western Sydney could have made a six-figure sum already by flogging Ono shirts direct to the 30,000-strong Japanese community in Sydney. The interest is certainly there. The Japanese consul-general attended the recent derby, the managing-directors of two major Japanese firms were in the executive lounge at the same game, and Japanese media crews have been descending on Blacktown to record Ono's thoughts and movements in forensic details.
But making a quick buck, Gorman insists, is not what this project is about. ''We've deliberately decided not to sell branded Ono shirts,'' he says. ''It's not really our culture to build our brand around one individual. The way we see it, we're all in this together.''
So instead of being measured as a clothes horse, or a box-office entity, Ono will be judged by the Wanderers in the same way as any other member of the team. For instance, every time a players' photograph appears in a newspaper he has to pay a fine towards the end-of-season trip.
Ono has been in the papers a lot lately, and the way it's going he'll virtually be funding the tour by himself. But he's happy to oblige, because it means he's being treated equally. Thus it's his football which will do the talking, and that's exactly how he wants it.
Nonetheless, while Ono carries his own scorecard, there will be a wider benchmark for his Hyundai A-League venture. He's got the chance to become a standard-bearer for East Asian players, who have largely struggled to adapt to our competition. If Ono succeeds, players of similar stature may follow. That's the real prize on offer.
Ono is one of three Japanese players currently employed by A-League clubs. The others - youth internationals Yuji Takahashi (Brisbane Roar) and Ryo Nagai (Perth Glory) - have barely been glimpsed.
Previously, we've had five Japanese players in the Hyundai A-League, most notably the legendary Kazu Miura, who had a brief guest stint with Sydney FC. The Sky Blues also employed Hiro Moriyasu, while Naoki Imaya (New Zealand Knights), Hiro Ishida (Perth Glory) and Kojiro Kaimoto (North Queensland Fury) were the other Japanese imports. None, not even Miura, have managed to leave a lasting impression.
It's not just Japanese players who have struggled to adapt. There have been seven Chinese imports over the last seven season, including four full internationals - Zhang Yuning (Brisbane Roar), Li Yan (New Zealand Knights), Shenqing Qu (Adelaide United) and Zhang Shuo (Newcastle Jets). Qu sparkled, but the rest failed abysmally.
As for the South Koreans, they've mostly fared better without setting the world on fire. Shin Tae-yong was clearly past it when he arrived at Brisbane Roar - famously confirmed when his legs gave way inside the six-yard box with the goal at his mercy in the club's very first game, forcing his prompt retirement.
Of the other five South Koreans we've seen, Hyuk Su-seo (Brisbane Roar) had his moments, as did former Sydney FC and Newcastle Jets fullback Byun Sung-hwan - the only player apart from Shin to have arrived having already been capped by his country. Former Newcastle Jets midfielder Song Jin-hyun clearly had potential, and two months ago made his national team debut in a friendly against Zambia. But despite that latent promise, Song was mostly in-and-out of the Jets side - underlining how difficult the transition for East Asian players has proved to be.
Why this matters is simple. Just as the leagues of Japan, South Korea and China are becoming a favoured destination of A-League players, so it's important we develop a profitable trade in the opposite direction. It won't be money which will lure these players to Australia, it will be a sense of ambition.
What needs to happen to make it work is for an East Asian player to boss the Hyundai A-League to prove it can be done. Ono, hopefully, becomes that man.