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World Cup 2018

World Cup 2018: The Phenomenon of Asian Players

There is no way of getting around the fact that football is a Euro-centric sport, and the World Cup will only serve to further highlight this. Whether it is the number of European teams that are present, the number of times the competition is held in Europe or even the club bases for most of the players that will feature, Europe is number one, and number one by a long way.

Champions of the Copa Libertadores

South America, particularly their big three countries – Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina – contribute a great deal to the tournament. Those three nations will have squads that contain very few players that have not yet travelled to Europe, and some household names amongst them.

Champions of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s premier club competition, are Gremio. Pedro Geromel is the sole representative of the Immortal Tricolor at the World Cup, though it is not news that players from that continent travel around the globe to seek their fortunes, often from a young age. It is worth noting, too, that there are more Peruvians who play in their home league than the other South American countries, an illustration of strength perhaps.

South Korea and Japan

This phenomenon is somewhat different in Asia. The South Korean side that went to the Mexico World Cup in 1986 contained just one player who plied his trade outside the country; Cha Bum-Kun, then of Bayer Leverkusen. Cha was retired by 1990, so the next players from outside South Korea to represent them at a World Cup had to wait until 1994; Noh Jung-Yoon was playing in Japan by then, and Kim Joo-Sung was in Germany, with Bochum.

From this years’s squad, the South Korean side features just over half (12) home-based players, with the rest scattered around Europe and Japan. The number of Japanese players who represent J-League clubs is even lower, at just eight.

The Asian Champions League was won by a Japanese side last season, Urawa Red Diamonds. The Reds have only three non-Japanese players in their own squad, but despite their huge success over recent seasons, are providing only two players to Akiro Nishino’s squad. One would think it might stand to reason that the best side on the continent would be more visible than that, but there will actually be more Huddersfield Town players at the World Cup than there will be from Urawa Red Diamonds.

Just the three picks

In some ways, this could be a detrimental factor to the Japanese side. While not exclusively the case, National sides that feature a cohort of players from the same clubs are able to exploit their knowledge of one another’s game to their benefit. As it is, that two of Urawa is matched by a number of other clubs (though only Kashima Antlers from within Japan – the Antlers remain in this seasons Champions League) but not bettered.

The make-up of the South Korean squad is not dissimilar. Outside Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, there is no club that has given Shin Tae-Young any more than a single player. Jeonbuk are meeting Suwon Bluewings in the next round of the Champions League; two very successful K-League sides, just the three picks for the national side.

Carlos Quieroz has selected six players from the two Iranian sides who are still in the Champions Leauge, so perhaps there is better to be said for this method of squad choice in different nations, even if it is difficult to envision Esteghlal or Persepolis winning the big prize.

Asian players are now at Europe’s top clubs

What does all this mean in practice? Well, put simply, the best Japanese and South Korean players are now in Europe in a way that never used to happen. They are at some top clubs, but not often the same one. There are others who have either not been performing well enough to secure such a move or find themselves staying in their home country.

This isn’t to say there is no quality in the South Korean side, though they did lose pretty heavily to Bosnia-Herzegovina in a recent friendly. What that game demonstrated was a defence that very definitely needed some working on, but an attack that seemed to know what it was doing.

It might not have been playing the sumptuous football of Jeonbuk – check out some of their Champions League victories on YouTube – but there is certainly the start of something there, though if there is time to get it together before the start of the World Cup is impossible to know.

One of the best aspects of this is that there are still a few teams who will enter the tournament as a mystery package. Nobody will expect much from either Japan (200/1 to win the World Cup*) or South Korea (500/1*), but that is because while they may know a handful of their players, there is likely to be just as many or more who have never been seen outside the J-League or K-League. The mystique for so many of those European teams has dissipated with familiarity.

Will mystery be enough? Have South Korea got enough about them to qualify? Only time will tell.

*Odds correct at the time of writing

Editorial credit: AGIF / Shutterstock.com

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