Europe finds Asia a reservoir of talent

It is up to Asian players to meet the challenge and prove they are GOOD ENOUGH to compete at the highest level or fall by the wayside and remain big fish in small ponds, writes NEALE GRAHAM.

The price of success will always be costly to a country that produces good footballers, but has no chance of keeping them. Brazil is a conveyor belt of talent that forever chugs towards Europe, where greater fame and outlandish fortune awaits, the kind only the foolhardy would refuse.

Today, though, the reach of the European leagues for new talent spans the globe and Asia is a new footballing hotbed. Once dismissed for lacking strength as well as technical ability, the Asian footballer exodus would suggest times have changed, and certainly perceptions have shifted since the 2002 World Cup. Drawing on home support, players from South Korea and Japan made their mark on the tournament, demonstrating prowess many blinkered observers would have thought beyond them, and debunking outdated myths. The success of Guus Hiddink's Asian Tigers in reaching the semi-finals was no accident, although luck and the clamour of tens of thousands of fans bedecked in red undoubtedly played its part. Likewise, Japan reaching the second round at only their second World Cup made many realise that Hidetoshi Nakata, then the country's biggest export, was not the only player worth watching.

Nowadays, more and more Asian footballers ply their trade in Europe, the toughest footballing test-bed of them all. South Korean football has seen star names leave for pastures more challenging. England's Premiership contains two of the finest of the current crop around in Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-Sung and full-back Lee Young-Pyo, of Tottenham Hotspur. Both had been taken to Europe by their former national coach and PSV Eindhoven boss Hiddink, where they settled and then flourished.

Japan has proved a happy hunting ground for many a club in recent years and Japanese players figure in the French, English, German, Scottish and Swiss leagues.

In the Middle East, Iran has seen player emigration, mostly to Germany's Bundesliga where a number of national team players, such as Ali Karimi, Mehdi Mahdavikia and Vahid Hashemian, have made their names.

Not all players fare quite so well, however, meaning they go from first-team players in Asia to bit-parts in Europe. Even Park is not a regular at Old Trafford. The number of clubs on Nakata's CV indicates he has been unable to find a permanent, welcoming home for his talents.

Bolton, a refuge for the unloved, have taken him in and given him the occasional start, but Nakata is by no means integral to Sam Allardyce's plans. Regardless, he will be central to Zico's in Germany. That problem can be overcome, but as no one expects South Korea, for example, to go as far as they did on home soil, it won't matter at this World Cup. If their best players continue to watch more games than they play, then it could be a problem for national teams further down the line.

Football in East Asia has suffered from European headhunters, as happened with Iran's domestic league until recently. It has meant that Middle Eastern countries have come to excel in the AFC Champions League since its format was revamped three years ago, at the expense of their East Asian counterparts.

A country that exports its talent, however, is no indication of a weak national team. In Brazil, the talent heads across the Atlantic, but they start as favourites for almost every competition they enter.

France dominated internationally from 1998-2002, yet in that period most of their top players were not playing in their homeland.

Conversely in England, the talent remains at home, but is becoming swamped by imports, raising doubts over the national team's long-term health. Future international success is dependent upon Asian countries producing players that are good enough to make their mark in Europe. If they don't then the option to return home is always there, as was exercised by Japan's Shinji Ono — who left Feyenoord to return to Urawa Reds — and Korean international Song Chung Gug, who joined K-League side Suwon Bluewings last season from the Rotterdam club. As a result, the big names are returning to the J-League and the K-League, which should improve the spectacle, but not necessarily the standard of the individual.

Nakata has not taken the easy option of playing every week back in Japan. He has attempted, and broadly succeeded, in forcing his way into sides in Italy and England, for which he should be applauded.

It is unlikely that he would be a better player for Japan if he was featuring on a more regular basis for a team in the J-League. It is up to Asian players to meet the challenge and prove they are good enough to compete at the highest level or fall by the wayside and remain big fish in small ponds.

Asian clubs will only benefit if that is the case, developing talent that can be sold on, with the proceeds ploughed back into finding the next star using the model made popular by Ajax and PSV.

And it will provide impetus for youngsters dreaming of becoming the new Nakata or Park to improve, thereby pushing up the level, and hopefully the support, of the domestic game.

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