It’s a damning number for a country that likes to tell itself it is part of the ‘Asian Century’, with countless papers dedicated to exploring just what Australia can ‘get out of it’.
And perhaps that is our issue; we view it through the prism of what benefit we can get, rather than a more holistic approach of not only what benefit we can get, but also what we can contribute.
That the FFA have not introduced the +1 rule for the A-League almost a decade after the rest of the continent is an indictment. What are we waiting for? Australian players have benefited enormously with increased opportunities across the continent, with players in Indonesia, Japan, Korea Republic, China, Thailand and United Arab Emirates to name just a few.
But what about players coming the other way? In the 12-year history of the A-League the number of Asian players has never been as low as it is now, with 2007-2008 the previous lowest season when just two were on the books (Song Jin-hyung at Newcastle Jets and and Seo Hyuk-su at Queensland Roar), while we reached a peak in 2009-2010 when eight were plying their trade across the league.
It was pleasing to see reports last week that FFA and the A-League clubs were considering the introduction of the +1 rule for forthcoming seasons, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Was it just a clever piece of PR on the eve of a visit from AFC and FIFA? We’ve seen FFA use that playbook before with promotion and relegation.
The fact is, however, that while there is no +1 rule in place, there is also nothing stopping clubs from signing players from Asia.
Sydney FC coach Graham Arnold is apparently one of those championing the introduction of the +1 rule, telling the Sydney Morning Herald last week: "I'm a fan of an Asian spot, 100 per cent. In Shanghai (at the AFC Elite Coaches Conference) this was a big discussion among the coaches, most of them think it's a fantastic idea and they're surprised we don't have the plus one in Australia.
“Getting the plus one also means we coaches have to do our homework in Asia a lot better. There are good Asian players out there – if you do it properly you're going to get a younger player than most of the foreigners who do come here, and in some cases they'll be a lot more motivated."
While that is undoubtedly the case, the question has to be asked – what’s stopping them from doing that already?
Only one current A-League coach seems genuinely interested in scouting and recruiting Asian players, and that’s Tony Popovic. Since he was announced as coach of Western Sydney just over four years ago he has signed Shinji Ono, Yojiro Takahagi, Yusuke Tanaka and most recently Jumpei Kusukami.
Takahagi is now a regular in an FC Seoul that will contest the semi-finals of this year’s AFC Champions League. How and why he wasn’t signed by another club after being released by the Wanderers remains a mystery, just as much as the Wanderers not extending his contract.
Danny Choi, the Korean-Australian whose wonder strike in this year’s FFA Cup went viral, looks set to join Adelaide United but only after receiving his citizenship, with no club seemingly interested in signing him as a foreigner.
Choi, and fellow Korean-Australian Sunny Chang, were the feature of a documentary (‘Aussie Chuk-Gu Dream’) based around last year’s AFC Asian Cup. In it he made this poignant comment: “Whenever I play games against other teams, I can feel them looking down on me because I am of an Asian background.”
There is a view across parts of Asia that Australia has a superiority complex, looking down on Asia as being inferior and not up to standard. Speak to any of the Australians playing and coaching across the region and they’ll tell a different story, extolling the quality that exists across the continent.
Clubs have undoubtedly improved their recruiting across the globe, with the quality of foreigners improving markedly over the last few years. But we have a blind spot when it comes to Asia. The quality is there, the effort to uncover it is not.
Given the dwindling numbers in recent years it sadly appears as though it needs to introduction of the +1 quota to change the mindset of coaches, clubs and fans. Perhaps only then will we realise the potential that exists right on our doorstep.
Five players A-League clubs should be targeting:
1. Theerathon Bunmathan (Thailand)
Thailand’s current captain has been one of the standout players in the Premier League of Thailand over the last few years. An attacking full-back who loves getting forward, the 26-year-old is deadly from the set piece which would be a significant boost for many A-League sides.
2. Ahmed Yasin (Iraq)
The Iraqi attacker currently plays for one of Sweden’s biggest clubs, AIK. He looked lively against Australia in Perth recently, creating a number of opportunities for both himself and his teammates. Only 25 years of age, the attacking midfielder is now a mainstay in the Iraqi team.
3. Masoud Shojaei (Iran)
While he is getting on in age, the 32-year-old oozes class in midfield. Having spent six years playing in Spain for Osasuna and Las Palmas, he is currently on the books of Greek Super League side Panionios. Experienced, silky, classy, he possesses everything you would want from an attacking midfielder.
4. Ryu Seung-woo (Korea Republic)
One of the standouts of Korea’s junior teams in recent years, he impressed in patches during Korea’s recent Olympic campaign. He first came to prominence at the 2013 Under-20 World Cup which was followed by a move to German side Bayer Leverkusen. He’s spent the best part of the last three-years on loan, and is currently playing for Ferencvaros in Hungary.
5. Teerasil Dangda (Thailand)
Teerasil has been one of Southeast Asia’s best strikers for the last few years. His goal scoring record for club (Muangthong United) and country is impressive, with 114 goals in 186 matches at club level and 34 from 76 at national team level. A brief spell on loan with Almeria in Spain didn’t go as planned, but there’s no doubt the striker is good enough to play abroad.