Marc Pereira has analyzed football casually for over 20 years. Staying at boarding school in New Zealand for five of those, football was his outlet to combat home-sickness. He has lived in South East Asia for most of his life, and has a fair knowledge of Asian football. In this piece, Marc asks why more Asian players do not make it to Europe’s major leagues.
Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kawaga and Son Heung-Min are some of the best-known footballers from Asian in the game today. In the past, Hidetoshi Nakata, Park Ji-Sung and Lee Young-Pyo proved that Asian players are capable of playing in the top leagues in the world. On the other side of the coin, Sun Ji Hai, Li Tie and Fan Zhi Yi are some of the forgotten players that played in the English Premier League. Fandi Ahmad, Cha Bum Kun and Yasuhiko Okudera, meanwhile, you probably haven’t even heard of.
The question is, why aren’t there more Asian players playing in the top leagues in Europe? Perhaps looking at the Asian culture may help to at least partially answer the question.
Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai let alone the Chinese language with its multiple dialects are just a few of the many languages spoken across Asia. English may be taught in schools but without consistent practice, one loses the skill to speak the language fairly quickly, and in Europe, only the United Kingdom and Ireland use English as a first language anyway.
The rest of Europe speak a mixture of different languages making adjusting to living in a country in which you reside extremely difficult. In comparison, Spanish-speaking players from South America would adapt to La Liga without much trouble, or Brazilian players to the Portuguese Liga.
Adapting to a different style of play or new teammates is one thing, but adapting to a new language and culture can be quite another, and make mountains of what would be run-of-the-mill activities. Dealing with bureaucracy, for example, or having someone come over to fix your phone line and WiFi, suddenly become daunting tasks.
Perceived failure and loss of face
“Loss of face” is a big cultural thing in Asia. It equates to returning home with your proverbial tail between your legs. For example, the Japanese goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi joined Portsmouth and played a handful of games for them. Not impressive in his starts, he lost his place not only for Pompey but the Japanese National Team as Seigo Narazaki took his starting spot.
Kawaguchi went on to spend a number of years at the Danish club Nordsjaelland, but only played eight times before returning to Japan where he is still playing at 40 years old. Europe was not a success for Kawaguchi.
“Loss of face” can mean not only personal shame but shame on one’s family if an objective is not met. Asian players might be more reluctant to try their hand (or foot) in Europe if they feel that they might not succeed, or if the comforts of home outweigh the desire to dig deep and face a constant fight for a career.
Academics first policy
How many times have Asian children been told to stop playing sports and study? I can definitely remember many times where I’ve been chased around the house with a cane. Perhaps too many times to develop sporting ability, but let us put a spin on it.
Asian athletes generally don’t earn millions like the elite sportspeople in Europe. Emphasizing education over sports are parents being parents and looking after their child’s future. Getting good grades and going through university are most Asian parents’ goals for their children. Getting a “good, respectable” job closely follows tertiary education. Often, sporting dreams are cast aside from around the mid-teenage years in order to increase focus on academic pursuits.
Perhaps this trend is starting to change, with parents now spending money purchasing designer football gear and sending their children to football camps. But more children are still being sent for “enrichment classes” and tuition to fill their weekends.
Lack of sporting opportunities and proper coaching
Most schools have one team, which means players deemed not good enough end up sitting on the sidelines. Some of the best professional players were second choice players at age-group football; think Kaka and David Beckham. It is not uncommon for late bloomers to improve significantly and adapt to the professional game better than players who were deemed first choices during age-group football. Often, the best athletes and biggest kids excel at younger ages, while those still developing physically struggle to show their talent until later on.
There is also a distinct late of qualified and quality coaches for Asian youth. Its not uncommon for PE teachers with an interest in football but no specific football qualifications to coach teams. If technique and game awareness is not developed at adolescent ages, producing quality footballers is challenging.
There is no doubt that there are very talented Asian players, both in their home continent and plying their trade in Europe, but perhaps making cultural and technical changes to the status-quo would go some way to developing more quality Asian players that can make an impact in the major European leagues.
by Marc Pereira