Sunday 28 June ~
While the daily papers are full of transfer gossip, one recent summer trend has been noticeable by its absence this year. Hardly any English clubs seem interested in bringing over footballers from south-east Asia any more. The only player who has been linked with a move so far is South Korean midfielder Lee Chung-yong who is supposedly the subject of interest from Bolton and Manchester City.
For a while, player recruitment in Asia seemed to be de rigueur for any club possessed of what they liked to think of as a marketing strategy. It was widely agreed that a whole country full of new "customers" awaited any club who signed up a young Korean, Chinese or Japanese player. Yet in 2008-09 just one such footballer, Park Ji-sung, was playing successfully in the Premier League.
Arguably Man Utd and the other members of the top four have less direct motivation for recruiting Asian players because they generate a lot of support in the region already, as demonstrated whenever they turn up for tour matches. Indeed while Man Utd and Arsenal have signed young players who subsequently failed to make the grade, in Chinese striker Dong Fangzhuo and Japanese midfielder Junichi Inamoto respectively, Liverpool have rarely even been linked with Asian signings.
The crux of the matter is that with a few exceptions – Park and perhaps the Chinese duo of full-back Sun Jihai, now with Sheffield Utd, and striker Zheng Zhi of Charlton – players from the region have failed to make the grade even at Championship level. This may be as much to do with the difficulties of adapting to a very different type of football as their playing ability. Nonetheless, clubs have recognised that they can't afford to carry squad players who aren't going to contribute significantly for the sake of possibly selling more replica shirts in the players' home country.
And there is the issue of football's popularity, or the lack of it, in China. At the start of this century it was assumed that football was about to take off in the world's largest country. But China performed poorly at the 2002 World Cup, for which they only qualified because Asia had more places than usual with Japan and South Korea hosting. Meanwhile the domestic league is of a poor standard, not helped by the widespread importing of moderate European players, and has been riddled with corruption.
Additionally, basketball has proved to a more popular than football partly due to the fact that several Chinese players are now active in the NBA which sold its Chinese TV rights very cheaply in order to gain maximum exposure, unlike the Premier League whose contractual haggling left it being shown by a network with only one million or so subscribers.
South Korea and Japan clearly have a lot of good, if not outstanding, players and it's conceivable that some will be signed up by English clubs after 2010. But whether they will ever again be seen as a crucial element in "brand building" must be open to question. John Waite