Much has been made of the success of the trio of Thailand stars currently shining in the J.League but not much light has been shed on the broader strategy behind those moves and the motivation of those running Japanese football to try and help raise the overall level of Asian football.
Following on from the successful loan move of playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin to Consadole Sapporo last year his national teammates in Teerathon Bunmathan and Teerasil Dangda moved to Kobe and Hiroshima this year and all three have been key contributors to their clubs early in the new season.
More than just on the field though the relationship between Japanese and Thai football is now booming off the field as well according to one of the key players behind the J.League’s push into Southeast Asia.
FOX Sports Asia visited the league headquarters in Tokyo this week where we spoke with Kei Koyama (pictured), from the J.League’s International Department, a man who spends as much time traversing across Southeast Asia as he does at home in Japan and he was clear in his message that the success of Chanathip, Teerasil and Teerathon is a win-win for all parties involved.
"Since Chanathip came to Japan everything changed, especially in Thailand, and he’s kind of a pioneer who has been very successful as the first Southeast Asian player who has played really well in Japan and even at the highest level in J1.
"It took time to find a real pioneer like this in the same way that when Japanese players, such as Hidetoshi Nakata, did really well in the Serie A there were more that followed.
“After Chanathip’s success all Thai people know about the J.League and all Thai players dream to play in the J.League like Chanathip and because others such as Teerasil and Teerathon are also playing well many people in Southeast Asia can see what is happening here.
“That’s, of course, good for the J.League but I also think it’s important for Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries because still the J.League is at a higher level than most other countries in the region in terms of the environment, the players quality, the professionalism and so on and since this is the first case for Thai players abroad at this level they can bring back that experience to the national team so that will help the Thai national team to improve a lot.”
The buzz generated in Thailand by the moves has certainly been impressive with four J.League matches a week now broadcast in Thailand and the Thai language J.League Facebook page proving more popular than even the native language one in
Japan and the hope now is that even more players may try their hand in the J.League with the competition hoping to lure other Southeast Asian players, particularly from Indonesia and Vietnam, in the coming years.
This has been made possible largely through the J.League’s ‘Partner Nation’ program that allows any J1, J2 or J3 club to sign and play an unlimited number of players from the eight nations involved in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Qatar.
FOX Sports Asia understands that another Thai player is close to completing a move to a J2 club whilst one of the stars of the Vietnamese national side, Nguyen Quang Hai, was also close to securing a move earlier this year only for an inflated transfer fee demanded by his V.League club – in excess of US $1 million – to scupper the move.
Koyama though remains confident that the number of Southeast Asian players being lured to the J.League will only continue to grow and argues that what Japan is trying to do is vastly different to the approach of many European clubs trying to crack the ‘Asian market’ who are often far more interested in what they can take rather than what they can give.
“Our strategy is different to that which European nations may have in Asia because we are trying to grow together with those nations.
“We’re not trying to take a fan base or market from the current situation, we’re just trying to improve Asian football and raise the level of Asian football as Japan is thehighest level in Asia and that’s at the core of our strategy.
“Since we’ve started there have only been a few clubs that have used it so we’re trying to work together with those clubs that are interested and Sapporo have been a good case because they are very aggressive in these kind of things.
“In Southeast Asia the population is still young and growing as is the economy and football is the king content in Southeast Asia and luckily Japan is at one of the highest levels in Asia so the players can respect Japanese football and the J.League and so our strategy is trying to be like the Premier League of Asia and bring the top players of each country so the many fans and supporters from that region will all be able to see the benefits when those players return to their national teams.”
In that regard Koyama, who has spent countless hours traversing across Southeast Asia, scouting for talented players sees almost unlimited potential in the region.
“I think the potential is huge, even bigger than Japan. In Japan football is popular but not as much as Southeast Asia where, for almost every country, football is always the most watched and popular sport and the people are so young.
“In order for us to develop Japanese football it’s necessary to develop Asian football – Japan has now gone to the FIFA World Cup for six times in a row but every time we haven’t been able to go past the Round of 16 and that shows there’s still a huge gap between Asian football and the rest of the world so we always think that it’s very important to raise the level of Asian football.
“Now, there’s a lot of money in Asia taken by European football and all the money goes to Europe and Europe is getting stronger and bigger and bigger – maybe we need to change the structure.
“As the leader of Asia, the J.League should take the initiative to change the structure and use Asian money in Asian football to make it bigger and then if the market is getting big I think the football level is also growing up."