Players must choose wisely in Asia
Australia’s ascension into Asia opened up the giant continent to its players.
Australia-s ascension into Asia opened up the giant continent to its players. The choices are dizzying, but Korea-s K-League and Japan-s J-League offer the best technical challenge for any Aussie - young or old.
Choosing the right club is obviously vital for any footballer on the move but in Asia, it is even more so. Select wisely, and it can be a rewarding experience in itself, and a step towards bigger and better things. Make the wrong choice, and you can find yourself isolated, ignored and unused.
Bas Van Der Brink (OK, not Australian but an A-League import) was one who struggled to deal with the cultural niceties of Busan I-Park in South Korea. A little advice and guidance and he may still be on the south coast. As it was, both player and club were relieved when his contract was ended just weeks after he arrived.
Agents bear some responsibility. This writer has seen more than one young Australian player arrive in East Asia with no knowledge about the club, the city or why he was bought. Often the club knows little about the player apart from the fact he is Australian and physically imposing. There is no sure thing in football but the odds of success can be reduced by research before the deal is done and communication after.
This year (2013) was a perfect example of the ups and downs. The craze in South Korea for Australians, sparked by the success of Sasa Ognenovski, has died down a little. At the end of the season, only one team in the top half of the table had a man from down under and Alex Wilkinson-s success was something of a surprise.
'Wilko' joined Jeonbuk Motors in July 2012 - at the wrong time with the club going through a period of uncertainly following the departure of long-serving coach Choi Kang-hee to take over the national team. Choi didn-t want the job and was happy in Jeonbuk - where he had taken a mediocre provincial team to become one of the best in Asia. The Korea FA took him out, wined and dined him, appealed to his sense of national duty, and he woke up the next day with an 18-month agreement to go with the hangover.
Wilkinson-s first full season started badly as he wasn-t really in the plans of temporary coach Fabio, a Brazilian who had been in charge of physical conditioning but surprisingly promoted to look after the first team. Results in Asia and Korea were erratic. Wilkinson did not impress, though was far from alone in this, and the club let it be known that they would not stand in the way of the defender-s expected return to Australia at the end of the season.
But then Choi returned, as promised, and started to shake things up. Wilkinson got start and results improved. The title was a little out of reach but before fading a little in the final few games, Jeonbuk started to look like their old selves when they were unlucky not to win the final of the Asian Champions League, after outclassing Al Sadd of Qatar. The fans have taken to Wilkinson, and he has established a fine partnership with Jung In-hwan. The club wants him to stay.
The same can-t be said with any certainty when it comes to his countrymen in the Land of the Morning Calm. Luke De Vere-s season has been the most disappointing. Injury cost him pre-season and quite a few games in the opening few weeks, and he never really made it back into a team that struggled. Popular with the fans in previous years, it was expected that the classy centre-back would be snapped up by the one of the league-s big boys such as FC Seoul. As it was, he spent most of 2013 on the bench or the treatment table.
Brendan Hamill spent time on loan with Gangwon FC before returning to Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma yet didn-t feature for either, while Nathan Burns was another no-show at Incheon United. Adrian Madaschi made just a few appearances for the defence of Jeju United, while Robert Cornthwaite played from time to time at Chunnam Dragons but never looked like holding down a starting spot at the Gwangyang club.
Over in Japan, Australian interest was focused solely on Josh Kennedy for most of the season. Despite missing a few games due to injury, the tall striker had another decent season in front of goal, scoring 12 times. It didn-t quite match the glory days of three or four years ago but then Nagoya isn-t the team it used to be either.
Lucas Neill-s summer move to Omiya Ardija came as something of a surprise though the club-s fall from the upper reaches of the table with 15 losses out of 16 was a good deal more stunning. It was always going to be hard for the Socceroos skipper to adapt to life in the J-League in such a situation. Matters may improve next season if there is still a contract to be had.
A mixed bag then, though it was ever thus with international moves. As agents and players become more familiar with South Korea and Japan - and the clubs become more familiar with the players - it is to be hoped that the success rate of Aussies in Asia-s top two leagues will also start to rise.