The mutual evolution

The relationship between Japan and the ASEAN area is really important for the whole socio-economical balance of the Asian continent, but it’s not just a mere commercial partnership. In fact, football is becoming an area where the ties are getting stronger than before and J. League is a clear example of how developing this conversation would put the Japanese championship in a stronger position.

In the last three years, we’ve witnessed to the “Thai Wave”, with several Thai players coming to J. League and pushing the brand of the championship in Thailand. Not only that, because some of them have done amazingly well in their Japanese adventures (especially Chanathip in Sapporo and Theerathon in Yokohama). But could there be more potential to exploit in the whole ASEAN area?

The suggestion seems to be right. Besides the recent acquisition of the Vietnamese goalkeeper Đặng Văn Lâm by Cerezo Osaka from Muangthong United, could we witness more arrivals of ASEAN players in the Japanese professional football world? That would be great and the commercial domination of J. League in the region could even grow more if J. League would look to the other countries of that area.

To understand how this could be possible, we asked five pundits where this could go and who could be in charge of being an ambassador for their country and causing a breakthrough of the league in that area. It’s gonna be a long ride, but we promise it’s going to be interesting to read. Let’s go!

Irfan Bachdim played three years in Japan between Kofu and Sapporo: he represented an experiment in a 1.0 expansion. Now it’s time for 2.0.

Cambodia: Sieng Chanthea (profile by Ung Chamroeun)

Date of birth: September 9th, 2002

Role: Forward

Current club: Boeung Ket Angkor FC (2020-)

Int’l experience: 8 caps, 1 goal with the senior side, youngest scorer ever for Cambodia national team

The football movement

Cambodia is surely looking for a leap forward in terms of competitiveness and the arrival of a new manager for the national team prompted this kind of change. Although the hire of Keisuke Honda was at least surprising, the Japanese general manager – working hand in hand with Argentinian head coach Félix Dalmás – promised something in terms of development in the long term.

Although the heaviest defeat in the national team’s history looms over their work – a 14-0 away loss in Iran in October 2019 –, Cambodia knows better. They understand their eventual goal is a possible qualification to the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, which is still in the cards and could be pushed by the rise of certain talents. Among them, the name of Sieng Chanthea has to be mentioned.

The prospect and his skills

Ung Chamroeun: “He’s just 18 years-old, but Sieng Chanthea – currently plays for Boeung Ket FC – doesn’t hold himself back: in an interview, he said that he’d love to play in Japan and his ultimate dream is to be a Barcelona player. A product of Bati Youth Football Academy, operated by the Football Federation of Cambodia (FFC), Chanthea has represented Cambodia in different youth and senior level since 2016.

Chan Vanthaka knows something about J. League, since he was the first Cambodian player to have an experience in pro-Japanese football (with Fujieda MYFC).

After making an impression both at the AFF U-16 and U-15 Championships, the young forward became the top scorer for his team in 2016 (Bati Youth Football Academy), which then featured in the second division (Cambodian Second League). He kept representing the national team in the youth ranks and even had a specific training with the U-18 side of Vegalta Sendai in 2019 (alongside two more prospects).

Under Keisuke Honda and Felix Dalmas, Chanthea made his senior debut in the 2-0 win against Pakistan in the 2022 FIFA WCQs match, where he scored his first goal as substitute player.  During the Cambodian Football Awards 2019, Sieng Chanthea clinched five trophies: among them, there was Most Popular Player and Player of the Year for his performances in Cambodian League and Hun Sen Cup. In 2020, he won his first C-League as a Boeung Ket player.”

Perspectives and the right club as a match

Japanese traces are already in Chanthea’s young career. The head coach of both Bati Youth and the U-21 Cambodian national football team is Koji Gyotoku, a past as a player in the reserves team of Werder Bremen and as a coach in Japan, with FC Gifu. At the same time, in the current roster of Boeung Ket Angkor FC, there are two Japanese players who featured in lower leagues, Hikaru Mizuno and Kenta Yamazaki.

A good match for Chanthea could be in JFL, but if we’re looking at a professional level, YSCC Yokohama comes to mind. Yuki Stalph has launched and developed so many talents and he’d surely be the right coach to approach to Japanese football with a specific mentality, the one which helped some players leaping to bigger stages.

Last but not least, after losing Miyamoto and Otoizumi respectively to Fujieda MYFC and Kataller Toyama in the last Winter transfer market window, YSCC would benefit from acquiring a young forward, although the plan of the club is developing local talents rather than foreign additions.

Indonesia: Rudolof Yanto Basna (profile by Football Indonesia)

Date of birth: June 12th, 1995

Role: Center-back

Current club: PT Prachuap (2020-)

Int’l experience: 14 caps with the senior’s side, part of the runners-up’s campaign in the 2016 AFF Championship

The football movement

Indonesia suffered a lot in the last years, given their football federation has been suspended by FIFA twice in the 2010s, but the passion for football is there and it’s been undeniable. You just have to look to any possible reportage made in the last ten years about the driving thrust for football in the country and realize there’s a massive market waiting for J. League, already touched by Serie A and Premier League.

The guys at “Football Indonesia” told us the same: “J. League in Indonesia is quite famous. Currently, every Indonesian young player wants to play there – says Putera, the admin from the page –. Several youngsters had trials with Japanese clubs, but unfortunately deals didn’t materialize themselves. For our players, J2 or J3 could still be a big stage for them. It’s Japan after all: their great facilities and the atmosphere could definitely help them developing.”

Football Indonesia: “In the 1990s, JFA came to Indonesia to learn how to manage football. Right now, they’ve become one of the biggest leagues in Asia: there were also some relationship with J. League clubs, like between Persija with Gamba Osaka. Unfortunately, there was no more than that. In my opinion, for our players to feature in Japan, they need more efforts on and off the pitch: probably only 3-4 players could make it today”.

Indonesia football has taken some steps forward, having hired South Korean head coach Shin Tae-yong in 2019 – at the helm of South Korea in the 2018 FIFA World Cup and Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma when they won the 2010 AFC Champions League – is another way to push the development boundaries forward, just like Thailand did by hiring Akira Nishino (another coach with a solid history behind him in his own country).

The prospect and his skills

Football Indonesia: “Rudolof Yanto Basna is 25 years old, a solid center back, currently playing for PT Prachuap FC in the Thai League. Not only that, because he has been a favorite for the Indonesia national football fans. It has been three years since he moved to Thailand and he gained his spot in the ASEAN Best XI in the Thai League for two consecutive seasons (2019 and 2020).

As a player, he looks very calm and strong, especially thinking that he’s featuring in a really competitive championship. The first division of the Thai League is considered the best championship in South East Asia right now, therefore his achievements in there should be enough to see him eventually playing in Japan.”

Perspectives and the right club as a match

Thai League proved to be a decent link for J. League, given how many Japanese players have moved there over the years and how the “Thai Wave” positively influenced the J. League brand (and the competitiveness on the pitch). We could witness the same by seeing an Indonesian player coming to Japan, since the last player from there to feature in Japanese pro-world was Irfan Bachdim in Sapporo (Japanese-born Ryu Nugraha plays with Fukui United FC).

Starting from a J3 top club could be the right solution for him, giving that many might actually need a solid center back to lock their defense and try to achieve a promotion that might be hard to get this season. According to some fans, maybe Gainare Tottori aren’t at the top, but they had a positive 2020 and lost both Rikihito Inoue and Yo Uematsu, so they could definitely use some new forces within their roster.

Malaysia: Safawi Rasid (profile by Zulhilmi Zainal)

Date of birth: March 5th, 1997

Role: Winger, forward

Current club: Johor Darul Ta’zim (2021-)

Int’l experience: 27 caps and 10 goals with the senior side, already a European experience under his belt (at Portimonense, in Portugal)

The football movement

Malaysia is surely going through a rising wave. COVID has probably interrupted a great growth, since Johor Darul Ta’zim have featured in their first AFC Champions League campaign ever and the national team is fully in contention to access the Third Round of the 2022 FIFA WCQs, with three wins and a general sense of enthusiasm around a footballing movement capable of tangible progresses.

And if the guidance of Tan Cheng Hoe has shown a solid development for the national team, this concept works as well for the players, since some of them moved abroad, trying the leap to the near Thailand or even Europe. In fact, one of them – the match-winner from the last success in an official game for the Malaysian national team – did so and he’s looking for something new.

The prospect and his skills

Zulhilmi Zainal: “Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) arguably have most of the top Malaysian players, and Safawi is definitely the best of the best at the moment. He has been scoring for them regularly in the Malaysia Super League for the past two seasons (including in the AFC Champions League), but found the brief loan move at Portuguese club Portimonense just months ago a change too steep, and has since returned to JDT without making any appearances for them.

However, he has appeared enthusiastic about playing overseas, and someone with his talents may find the Japanese league a more manageable challenge. But any Japanese club interested in Safawi will have to put in extra effort in convincing JDT, as they have been reluctant to allow their Malaysian stars to leave permanently in order to play overseas.”

Perspectives and the right club as a match

In all truth, Malaysia already has a player featuring in Japanese professional world, but the tale of Hadi Fayyadh – class 2000, now on loan at Azul Claro Numazu from Fagiano Okayama – needs a steering to find its own success. Instead, Rasid has the chance of starting over: maybe the European leap happened too soon for him and an intermediate step would do some good to his career.

The twice-MVP of the Malaysian Super League could be a factor in Ehime, for example. Sure, the situation looks bleak for the club and the relegation could be around the corner in 2021, but the environment is a quiet one and it’d give space to Rasid to develop. At the same time, in 2020 it seemed clear that Ehime lacked an offensive joker on the pitch – like Saito or Kamiya in recent years – and the Malaysian winger might be the right piece of the puzzle.

Philippines: Stephan Schröck (profile by Ryan Fenix)

Date of birth: August 21st, 1986

Role: Full-back, midfielder

Current club: United City (2017-)

Int’l experience: 44 caps and six goals with Philippines, one AFC Asian Cup participation and several games with the youth ranks of Germany

The football movement

The 2010s have been amazing for the Philippines, football-wise: they have found new heroes, they achieved some solid results – especially under head coach Thomas Dooley and the ticket booked for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. It was good enough to boost the enthusiasm in the country, although there have been already eight (!) more changes in the dugout and the trip to Qatar ended up with three straight defeats.

Although they’re in full contention to qualify for the next round of the 2022 FIFA WCQs, it’s sure that the retirement of crucial players – the historical Younghusband brothers come immediately to our minds – and all these changes are not helping. Filipino football might need new heroes sooner than later to continue this run and one of them might find a new gig in Japan.

The prospect and his skills

Ryan Fenix: “I think there are two or three players who could do well in J. League. I could mention, for example, Manny Ott and OJ Porteria, who were formerly with Ceres Negros (United City FC) and have a certain reputation within our footballing movement.

But if I have to pick one over others, I guess it’d be Stephan Schröck. He’s 34 years-old, but he surely has that “it” factor to feature in J. League: he played for Hoffenheim and Eintracht Frankfurt before in the Bundesliga, so he could definitely play there. He may be getting on in age, but he has the quality and the fitness to do very well in the J. League, for sure.”

Perspectives and the right club as a match

Because of his incredible experience in the first two leagues of German football for a lot of years, Schröck would be a viable commodity for many teams. Maybe not in J1, but surely in J2 he’d be a game-changer. His ductility is a further perk for a team maybe searching for a joker to insert in the roster. Thinking about that need, there’s a side which could really use him.

That side lies on the beautiful Fukuoka Prefecture, since Giravanz Kitakyushu lost a lot of players in the last Winter and two especially: Kenta Fukumori is off to Oita Trinita and former captain Ryu Kawakami moved to SC Sagamihara. Schröck would fill both those voids, granting experience and a solid amount of technique to Kobayashi and the Fukuoka-based side.

Vietnam: Nguyễn Quang Hải (profile by Scott McIntyre)

Date of birth: April 12th, 1997

Role: Offensive midfielder

Current club: Hà Nội (2015-)

Int’l experience: The star of Vietnamese football, bringing the U-23 side to almost win a continental title, clinching the 2018 AFF Championship silverware and shining at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup

The football movement

Scott McIntyre: “Given that Japanese football has an ongoing partnership agreement with numerous Southeast Asian nations it’s surprising – if not downright confusing – why only a handful of clubs have taken advantage of the program that allows those players to be registered outside of the standard visa cap.

That surprise doesn’t just apply to J1 but equally to J2 and J3 levels where players from across Southeast Asia would do wonders to enhance the league and vastly improve promotion hopes for clubs at all tiers of Japanese football.  With the success of Chanathip at Sapporo and Teerathon at Yokohama F.Marinos, finally connections are being built between Japan and Thailand but it’s arguably Asia’s best nation that still sits empty and untapped.

Vietnam are the current Suzuki Cup – Southeast Asia’s premier national team competition – holders, their U20 qualified for and impressed in the 2017 FIFA World Cup whilst the U23 side finished as runner’s up in the 2018 AFC tournament. This is not some random backwater playing semi-professional club football but rather a huge and heaving nation full of football fanatics and players bred with superb technical capabilities.

Tactically and organizationally the domestic league still has plenty of work to do but in terms of the pure talents that are being created at club and academy level, Vietnam is on a par with the leading nations, including Japan, anywhere in Asia.”

The prospect and his skills

Scott McIntyre: “Language, red tape and perhaps cultural issues that often see players want to stay at home have been factors in why barely a handful of players have ventured far from the Vietnamese borders but hopefully it won’t be long before J.League clubs start to make a serious push to attract players to Japan.

In my opinion, more than a dozen players could easily make the leap to either J1 or J2 level but the crown jewel is a player who has the potential to be the J1 MVP should he move here, such is his talent. Nguyen Quang Hai is not just Vietnam’s best player but arguably the purest playmaking gamechanger anywhere on the continent.

Diminutive but powerful, he’s blessed with mercurial close control that allows him to take on, glide past or simply outwit defenders. His passing range is pure, whether long or short and his finishing strong for a player that can operate anywhere across an advanced midfield three or even deeper in a role that can see him dictate the play as a #6 or a #8.

More impressive than that control, passing and positional flexibility is his sense of awareness: constantly scanning, moving into free spaces and picking out teammates with vision and accuracy.”

Perspectives and the right club as a match

Scott McIntyre: “There are barely a handful of players currently operating in the J. League with these qualities and although I know clubs have made furtive attempts to sign the soon to be 24-year-old, those efforts were barely followed through with any serious negotiations.

This is a player that will – not can, but will – take J1 by storm and any club that has a serious recruiting and scouting department should be doing everything in their powers to persuade Hanoi FC (not an easy task) to let go off their crown jewel for the good of the player, for the good of Vietnamese football and for the immense benefit of any J. League club with the foresight to break the often empty mold of tired South American transfers organized through their agent mates at the big corporations.”

If we could also add a possible club which represents a good match, Cerezo Osaka would be a solid one. In all honesty, we’re surprised about the moves that the club made in the Winter off-season, but Lévir Culpi is a solid choice to develop offensive talents and growing alongside players like Hiroshi Kiyotake could be a formative experience, especially for a talent like the one coming from Vietnam.

A goldmine in the making

There’s no doubt we’re looking at a possible miracle. J. League could really make the next step if they could breakthrough in the ASEAN region. All our pundits confirmed the interest from these countries, who look up to J. League as a possible dream-destination for their players. At the same time, though, Thailand seems for now the only evangelization who’s been completed once for all.

We know how the ASEAN area has been a land to conquer when Italy’s Serie A in the 90s and England’s Premier League in the 2000s thought of expanding their reach all over the world. J. League has already done a lot in terms of expanding their brand, but – as confirmed by Kei Koyama, s – the ultimate goal is still to be reached.

This would benefit everyone: the ASEAN region will get something in return in terms of football experience and awareness, even for national teams. Players who then would have lived a full stint in J. League – whether if it’s J1, J2 or J3 – could even go back to their countries and bring that experience. Just like many Japanese players are moving to the ASEAN region when they want to try something new.

In the long run, could this be the move that grants us the chance of seeing the first participation ever of an ASEAN nation to the World Cup? Sure, Indonesia had a first take, but in 1934 as Dutch East Indies and not as an independent country. Just like someone said once, the growth of these nations could really change the whole scenario of hierarchies in Asian football.

This has been a long ride, but it was worth it. We couldn’t have done it without our pundits, whom we invite you to follow on Twitter. We have really to thank Ung Chamroeun, Zuhlilmi Zainal, Ryan Fenix, Scott McIntyre and the guys at Football Indonesia for their contribution. Who knows, what the future will bring for this relationship between Japan and the ASEAN region?

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