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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

SOCCER SCENE

Korean wave adds weight to J. League's Asian ambitions


When the J. League allowed clubs to add an extra Asian player to their foreigner quotas at the end of last season, fans were probably hoping for a little more diversity than the influx of Koreans that materialized.

Andrew McKirdy

As a first step in a changing regional soccer landscape, however, it could prove to be a shrewd move.

Following the Asian Football Confederation's lead, the J. League adopted the "3+1" policy permitting clubs to sign one player from another AFC country on top of their allotted limit of three non-Japanese squad members.

The aim was to bring the best of Asia to Japan, giving clubs a foothold in new markets and going some way toward establishing the J. League as a kind of quasi-Asian Super League. The first wave of imports, however, was not quite what the plan's architects had in mind.

Of the Asian players that arrived in the offseason, all were Korean. Gamba Osaka led the way by signing striker Cho Jae Jin and defender Park Dong Hyuk, Kyoto Sanga added international center back Lee Jung Soo, while Jubilo Iwata last week snapped up promising young striker Lee Keun Ho.

Koreans have become so much in vogue that even Kashima Antlers broke with their tradition of fielding only Japanese and Brazilians to sign Park Joo Ho from Mito HollyHock.

Korean players featuring in the J. League is nothing new, but the recent vigor with which clubs have raided their near neighbors has not been seen for some time.

When South Korea reached the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup, two of the team's outstanding performers — Park Ji Sung and Yoo Sang Chul — played for Japanese clubs. Several other key members had J. League experience, but four years later in Germany only Cho — then of Shimizu S-Pulse — played any significant role.

When two members of that squad followed outgoing manager Dick Advocaat to Zenit St. Petersburg, it was a measure of how Japanese clubs' ability to cherry-pick the best talent on the peninsula had waned.

Exceptional players will always gravitate toward Europe, but having them in Japan in the first place is certainly worthwhile. Now the 3+1 rule gives the J. League fresh bait.

It is easy to understand why clubs have turned to South Korea. The country's national team has always been one of the region's strongest, and the current World Cup qualifying standings show nothing has changed in that respect.

Koreans are tried and trusted in Japan, while players from elsewhere in Asia have nothing like the same track record.

It is, however, important that teams do not see Korea as the only option. Australia's participation in Asian competition opens up interesting possibilities, while players from Uzbekistan, Iran and China would surely be good enough to hold down places in some J. League teams.

But for the time being, there is nothing wrong with securing a fresh injection of Korean talent. The new players have settled in well, and should help Japan stay out in front as the strongest and most attractive league in the region.

That status allows Japan to wait and see how the 3+1 rule pans out in other Asian countries, and puts clubs in a position to pluck the choicest fruit if players can prove their worth in a foreign league.

It might disappoint those looking for an instant dose of variety, but the J. League must make sure its foundations are solid before it can look to build elsewhere.



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