Three-plus-one: the equation Australian football can’t ignore

At some point the Australian football industry will have to get over itself and realise that the future, whether we like it or not, is Asia.


Former Newcastle player Ma Leilei (L), former Wester Sydney player Shinji Shini Ono (C) and former Melbourne Victory player Sutee Suksomkit (R) Source: Getty Images

No more lip service. No more mission statements. No more positive sentiments. No more “engagement”. No, it’s time for actual engagement. Singapore Slings at Raffles and shopping trips in Dubai do not pass this test.

I’ve been in Thailand in recent weeks and, funnily enough, the A-League has a surprising presence here. Broadcasters are pumping Australian content – mostly highlights shows – in all sorts of places. Airports. Bars. Hotels. Cafes.

That this has happened with virtually no effort on Australia’s behalf is quite remarkable. It does make you wonder: what if we actually tried?

Yes, I’m fully aware that we have a milieu of problems to fix at home – and I totally agree we need to fix them first. Which we will.

And I realise that Tony Sage’s comments about taking games to Asia irritated many. Despite his good intentions, he misread this poisonous climate (especially in Perth, where the wagons are being circled) and put his foot in it. Timing is everything.

But raise your eyes for a moment, if you can. We may never get a better opportunity to finally get to grips with Asia than right now.

We’ve all talked a good game about providing more opportunities for Asian players in Australia but here’s the bottom line: it won’t happen. Not until we legislate for it. There is no other way.

Until now, we’ve been lured to Europe and South America for three reasons: habit, networks and cultural cringe. And the hope of securing lamb for mutton prices. But with the flat-lining Australia dollar, it’s not so easy.

Perhaps A-League clubs have cottoned on to this fact. This season, only Perth and Western Sydney have allocated all five of their visa slots (excluding injury replacements).

It’s been mentioned before that we need to recruit less journeymen and more top-end foreign talent to the A-League – Sydney FC’s elite trio of Bobo, Milos Ninkovic and Adrian Mierzejewski are exactly the level we should be seeking. There’s your blueprint.

By adopting the Asian Football Confederation’s three-plus-one rule, not only would we fall into line with the majority of the continent’s top leagues, but it would coerce a reluctant football community to take the plunge and finally embrace Asia. That's right, we'd finally have to conduct some proper scouting and form real networks.

It’s been said that Australian clubs can’t compete with continental teams for talent. Sure, only if you’re trying to grab Son Heung-min, Shinji Kagawa or Omar Abdulrahman.

That Australia was defeated 1-0 by Vietnam at the AFC under-23 Championships shouldn’t really surprise anyone. Vietnam, as outlined by Olyroos coach Ante Milicic, have been pumping resources into youth development for years.

Still, there’s never been a Vietnamese player in the A-League. And you can count on one hand the number of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) players in 12 years of the A-League's existence: Surat Sukha, Sutee Suksomkit and Safuwan Baharudin. Honestly, how embarrassing.

The J.League did the numbers recently and realised what a huge opportunity existed if they could tap into this market. Now the first wave of ASEAN players are hitting Japan and the buzz is truly massive. Contrast that with Australia's uninterest and unease.

Asia is full of talent but we need to look with a fresh pair of eyes and leave our stereotypes where they belong.

For example, while we’re not going to lure the best talent from Qatar or UAE, there’s five or six nations in west Asia who produce international-standard players – the same who spook the Socceroos every qualifying campaign – who earn significantly less money than they would in the A-League. China and Saudi Arabia are privately eager to move young players abroad (and may even help to offset costs).

There’s also the ridiculous amount of teenage talent now coming out of Japan and Korea; much of it stockpiled as canny veterans cling to their careers. These ambitious youngsters want to play in Europe and the A-League is a fabulous launch pad (and a place to hone language skills).

Unfortunately, many Asian players who’ve come weren’t up to scratch in their own countries, coming only because of agent connections or they fancied a backpacking holiday. That’s unacceptable in 2018.

Let’s be frank: our relationship with Asia so far has been all take, no give. Australian players take blockbuster visa salaries, our league has soaked up millions of dollars of Asian investment, we pocket World Cup qualification and a grab few Asian Champions League slots each year. Donald Trump couldn’t strike a better deal.

If you’ve always wondered why our political stock in Asia is so low, there’s a meaty part of the answer.

Funnily enough, we’ll extract even greater value from Asia – commercially, politically and economically – the faster we extend the goodwill of our footballing hand.

The time for talking is over. With only two clubs having more than four visa players, there’s never been a better time to move on a rule that will kick-start the process of finally integrating Australian football into the region from which it has benefited so greatly.

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5 min read
Published 17 January 2018 at 5:28pm
By Sebastian Hassett