Asian football is developing, but there are many factors who can slow down the process. The origin of issues start from the format of international competitions, AFC Champions League and AFC Cup. In the next article we will talk about the format of the two competitions that is creating a hierarchical contest where is impossible for some nations to emerge. ACL and AFC Cup have a limit on foreign players that clubs can display in the starting XI: 3+1, that means three foreign players plus one from an AFC Country. This politic should encourage countries to develop their talents instead of buy expensive foreign players from South America or Europe. But what about if this limit on foreign players is a limit for the development of Asian football?
Because of this restriction, most of Asian leagues have a similar inner politic about foreigners: China for example can allow clubs to sign 4 foreign players (but only three can play), South Korea use the 3+1 rule like Iranian League, while UAE allow to use four foreign players (doesn’t matter the nationality). A little more liberal are Qatar, Malaysia and Uzbekistan: the Qatar Stars League used the 3+1 rule, bust since last January added a slot for a player from UAFA (Arab) country. Malaysia have a similar politic and the fifth slot is used for a player from Asean (south east Asia) country. The Uzbekistan Super League also have five slot, but use the 4+1 rule.
The more liberal countries are Japan, Thailand and Saudi Arabia, that are trying to develop a process -with no take in consideration the limit imposed by AFC competitions- to improve the quality of the league. J-League allows clubs to sign how many foreign players they want, but only five can be used in a game. This limit is not valid for players from Asean countries, who count as native. Thai Premier League allow clubs to use the 3+1 rule and give three extra slots for players from Asean countries. Saudi Arabia is even more aggressive and allows clubs to sign and start on the pitch 8 foreign players at the same time.
Who is right? Countries who follow the rules of AFC Competitions in a very similar way, or Japan, Thailand and Saudi Arabia with their liberal politics? Because I’m Italian, we can see at the history of Serie A: when in 1966, after the elimination at the group stage of world cup, the Italian football federation decided to close the market for foreign players, Italian clubs in Europe started to decline and at the begin of ‘80s, Serie A was ranked 12th in UEFA Clubs Ranking. The same thing in Europe recently happened to Turkey and Russia, the two countries tried to put a limit on foreign players to focus more on local talent, but they failed to achieve results both form clubs and National team perspective.
Also, a limit on foreign players means that you need to choose carefully who are you going to buy, because must be someone who can improve significantly the quality of the team. For this reason most of clubs focus on Brazilian players and then from Europe and also Africa. There may be a young talent form an Asean country, but why a club with limits have to risk when he can sign an experienced player from an European League? So, is this the limit that we are talking about? That young quality players from developing countries like Asean (Thailand and Vietnam in particular) can’t find place in the highest quality League in Asia because of these rules? Is it possible that a talent like the 21 years old, Nguyen Quang Hai still play in V-League? Does not he risk to waste his talent in a low quality league?
With more liberal rules, in Thai league for example we can find 9 players from Philippines, 2 from Vietnam, 5 from Myanmar and others from Cambodia, Singapore and Indonesia. All of these players have the chance to play in a more competitive league and give benefit to the development of their National Team. Then, remaining always in the East Zone of Asia, with the new rules, clubs of J-League signed four players from Thailand that were part of the recent Asian Cup, while Saudi Arabia hosts players from Syria and Australia.
Also, a more liberal market see the realization of the inverse process: in Thai Premier League we can find Japanese and south Korean players. The biggest name is the one of Mike Havenaar, 18 caps with Japan NT and a lot of experience in Holland, signed for Bankok United at the age of 31. This bilateral exchange, can increase the interest of both parts for the leagues and for the path of clubs in international competitions.
An Asean player can improve himself if he has a concrete chance to play in one of the top 4 East Asian league? Of course yes, because he play a more competitive football. Asean leagues and clubs can improve if they have no limit to sign Japanese or Korean players? Even in this case we think that the answer is positive, because more quality Asian player can improve the value of the club and young local players have the chance to play with and against stronger opponents and be ready quickly for a step in a major league.
Of course, there is also the risk, that Leagues with a lot of money, sign a lot of foreign players, like Saudi Arabia is doing right now. Maybe this process at the beginning will be negative for local talents, but it also mean that they have to improve and perform always at their best to don’t lose their position in the Starting XI and also their contract. Saudi Arabia is in the middle of a process that is the opposite of the one promoted by Chinese Super League, where clubs are forced to display U23 players even if they are not ready: the result for China is evidently negative, because there was a big inflation on the prize and salary of young players, who didn’t had the necessity to improve because their slot was guaranteed by the rules. Indeed, China U23 in the last Asian CupU23 didn’t pass the group stage while in Asian games was eliminated at first round of knock out stage.
So, what can be the solution to prevent a stagnation of talents? It is correct to put a limit on non-AFC foreign players (3 as now enough), but AFC should , starting from his international competitions, to increase significantly the limit for AFC Players. Open the market and allow Asian players to play everywhere in the continent. In this way the AFC can have more chances to speed up the developing process of football in the continent.