FOX Sports Asia’s Scott McIntyre reveals how the relaxing of visa rules in the J.League could benefit footballers across the region.
Here’s a question: Which Thai football star had the greater number of goals and the most impressive end to the domestic season just finished in Japan?
Few, even in Thailand, are aware that national team star Chanathip Songkrasin wasn’t the only player from the country turning out in Japan. Although they played at different levels, there’s a case to be made that Under-23 starlet Jakkit Wachpirom made just as big an impact in his loan spell as Chanathip did.
Having signed a half season deal at FC Tokyo from Bangkok United in July, it took the 20-year-old little time to settle and he ended up starting seven of the last eight matches for the club’s B side (an assortment of U23 and overage players) that turns out in J3.
Largely deployed as a right wingback in the team’s 3-4-2-1 setup, he was an impressive sight for the club over the season’s closing stages at both ends of the pitch.
Moreover, having found the target in the final match of the season earlier this month, he also notched up the honour of being the first Thai to score in the Japanese professional leagues (after 22 seconds of the match no less) – a feat that Chanathip has yet to achieve despite his impressive start at J1 outfit Sapporo.
Although it’s unclear if the loan arrangement will be extended into 2018, the confirmed arrival of forward Teerasil Dangda at Sanfrecce Hiroshima and the mooted switch move of left-sided wonder Teerathon Bunmathan to Vissel Kobe (although it’s worth bearing in mind the club has sent enquiries to virtually half of Asia) there is likely to be a strong Thai flavour in Asia’s strongest league next season.
It’s worth noting though that none of these moves fall under the traditional ‘plus one’ slot reserved for AFC players across most of Asia, but rather as a quota-free slot within the J.League’s ambitious ‘Partner Nation’ policy.
That agreement allows clubs to sign any number of players from the nine (Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Singapore, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia and Qatar)‘partner nations’ and then include an unlimited number in the matchday squad.
Just why a forward-thinking club hasn’t thought to assemble a team full of gun Iranians, for example, is a larger question, but what the policy does do is clearly open the door for those players at both ends of the spectrum across Southeast Asia to try their hand in Japan.
The end-game might well be more about financial and marketing aspects rather than pure altruism, but you won’t hear the likes of Chanathip, Teerasil, Teerathon and at the other end, Jakkit, complaining. Their success should help pave the way for others to follow.
Of course, this agreement is now also the case in Southeast Asia, where both Malaysia and Thailand have adopted an ASEAN slot that will be included outside of the normal ‘visa’ spots. This has already seen plenty of confirmed and rumoured moves involving players from a host of other regional nations looking to test the waters in bigger leagues.
It’s worth debating whether players from Vietnam (in my opinion the third strongest Southeast Asian league behind Australia and Thailand) will stand to greatly benefit, but for most other nations the experiences will likely enrich both the individual players and the resulting national teams.
That’s especially the case for those moving to Malaysia where the requirements are quite strict in that only players with 30 or more national caps (with a degree of discretion) are eligible to fill those ASEAN slots. It could well mean that a nation that struggles to produce players of even passable technical quality could soon have a dozen new arrivals to take the league by storm.
It will likely also prompt other nations to follow suit and the first of those should really be Australia where the A-League has flown against the face of all others by not even implementing the ‘plus one’ visa slot.
Vietnam’s V-League currently contains only two visa spots in total and, as many influential figures within the country have argued, that’s something that needs to change. If, as is likely, they see their best young talents flee to Thailand, you can bet they will quickly have to adjust their import situation to maintain the standard of the league.
These are certainly fascinating times right across Asia as many leagues look to aid the movement of players within the confederation. While few would like to see things go down the path of the English Premier League where locals have been largely frozen out by higher quality imports, a collection of the best in one league is pretty much a win-win for all involved.