Feature

Asia's growing influence on the Copa America

It speaks to the changing landscape of world football that eight players at this year’s Copa America Centenario, which begins this weekend, play their club football in Asia.

Lavezzi Campos Rodriguez

Argentina's Lavezzi, Bolivia's Campos and Costa Rica's Rodriguez Source: Getty Images

A further four were included in their nations’ preliminary squad, but missed the cut when final squads were submitted on 20 May, while players such as Freddy Guarin, Jackson Martinez (both Colombia) and Jorge Valdivia (Chile), who have all featured regularly for their respective national teams in recent times, missed the cut completely. 

Only in the mid-1990’s, when the J.League was in its infancy and attracting some of the world’s top players, has the number been so high. Six members of the Brazilian squad in 1995 were playing in Japan, while three players at the 1997 Copa America also played club football in Japan.

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But this is different. This isn’t just one country in a boom period. This is across all of Asia – Iran, Thailand, China, India, Vietnam and Kuwait. 



The burgeoning Chinese Super League has three of its stars (Gil and Renato Augusto for Brazil, and Ezequiel Lavezzi for Argentina) heading to America for the tournament, a celebration of the centenary of CONMEBOL involving teams from both CONMEBOL and CONCACAF. 

It would’ve been four if star Bolivian striker Marcelo Moreno hadn’t fallen out with national team coach Julio Cesar Baldivieso (who played at the 1997 Copa America for Bolivia while playing for Yokohama Marinos), prompting his early international retirement at just 28, despite the former Shakhtar Donetsk striker being named in Bolivia’s preliminary 40-man squad. 

One of those who will be at this year’s Copa America Centenario will be Costa Rican striker Ariel Rodriguez.



The 26-year-old had played his entire club career in his native Costa Rica, most notably for Deportivo Saprissa, scoring 54 goals in 151 appearances.

But earlier this year the sharp shooter accepted a deal from Bangkok Glass and now calls the Thai capital home.

“I am very happy in Thailand, Bangkok is a wonderful city,” he told The World Game.

“It’s obviously a very different culture, but it's nice to know that all this makes you grow as a person and enables you to culturally learn from others.

“I love Thai food, (and) football has the same language itself – all around the world, no matter where you go, the ball is round.” 



Just six months out from such a prestigious tournament, many might consider a move to Thailand a risky move for a player still looking to cement his place in the national team. Not Rodriguez, however. 

“The truth is that many people told me if I came to Thailand you can forget about the national team,” Rodriguez, who has scored 10 goals in 12 games for Bangkok Glass, admitted. 

“But I am a very strong minded person and I knew that if I came and worked hard that I would be taken into account because I always trusted my qualities. 

“It was a good challenge for me (and) so far I think it was one of the best decisions of my life.”

EDITOR's NOTE: Ariel Rodriguez suffered an injury in training camp and did not travel to the USA with the Costa Rica squad, and will undergo scans to identify the severity of the problem.



Argentine forward Lavezzi, who made the big money move from PSG to Chinese side Hebei China Fortune in the January transfer window, has faced criticism in Argentina for his decision to move from one of Europe’s top clubs to the Chinese Super League.

But upon arriving in Buenos Aires last week he faced the local media and defended his decision. 

“I am more than happy with the decision I made,” the 31-year-old said defiantly. “I have only been there for a short time but I can sincerely say that the (quality of) soccer surprised me for the better. 

“I am adapting to Chinese soccer and life there.” 

One player Lavezzi and La Albiceleste will face is Bolivian playmaker Jhasmani Campos, who made his national team debut as a19-year-old at the 2007 Copa America, scoring on debut in Bolivia’s 2-2 draw with Peru in their final group game.



Nine years later Campos, who plays his club football with Kuwaiti Premier League side KazmaSC, will play in his fourth Copa America for Bolivia, who have been drawn in Group D alongside Argentina, Chile and Panama.

“Without doubt it is a difficult group,” Campos told The World Game from Bolivia’s pre-tournament camp in La Paz. “But we also know that we have nothing to lose.” 

“It is always a great honour to represent my country, especially at a tournament as special as the Copa America. 

“(Representing your country) is something beautiful which requires a lot of responsibility, because you are representing a whole country, (but) it's the best thing that can happen to a footballer.” 

Before joining Kazma in 2015, the Santa Cruz-born 28-year-old also had stints with Qatari side Al-Mu’aidar and Saudi Arabia’s Al-Orobah, and he says playing in the Middle East was beneficial, personally and professionally, despite originally questioning his move. 



“Playing in the Middle East was a great experience for my career,” the midfielder said. 

“Even if there's not many very well-known leagues, they are still quite competitive (and) football in this part of the world is growing fast. 

“To be honest the first time I got to Qatar I asked myself 'what am I doing here?' But later I realised it was the best for my career, to grow as a person and know another league so far away from Bolivia.” 

With his contract at Kazma SC, winners of the 2015-2016 Federation Cup, ending, Campos looks set to head back to Bolivia to continue his career at the conclusion of the Copa America Centenario.

But as the influx of international stars to the Middle East and Far East continues unabated, players such as Rodriguez, Lavezzi and Campos, international players who choose to play their club football in Asia, will no longer be outliers, for the world football map is being redrawn before our very eyes.

ASIAN-BASED PLAYERS AT COPA AMERICA CENTENARIO

Ezequiel Lavezzi (HebeiChinaFortune, China) – Argentina
Jhasmani Campos (KazmaSC, Kuwait) – Bolivia
Gil (ShandongLuneng, China) – Brazil
Renato Augusto (BeijingGuoan, China) – Brazil
Míchael Umaña (Persepolis, Iran) – Costa Rica
Ariel Rodriguez (BangkokGlass, Thailand) – Costa Rica
Sony Norde (Mohun Bagan, India) – Haiti
Jean-Eudes Maurice (Saigon FC, Vietnam) - Haiti

NUMBER OF ASIAN-BASED PLAYERS AT COPA AMERICA THROUGHOUT THE YEARS

2016 – 8
2015 – 4
2011 – 0
2007 – 1
2004 – 1
2001 – 0
1999 – 0
1997 – 3
1995 – 6
1993 – 0
1991 – 0


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7 min read
Published 31 May 2016 at 10:20am
By Paul Williams
Source: SBS