Hope and Despair: Divergent growth paths of football in East Asian countries

On October 2, Liverpool edged past Red Bull Salzburg in a seven-goal thriller at Anfield. Unexpectedly, the match has witnessed the outstanding performance of two Asian players from the visiting team. Hwang Hee-chan, the South Korean forward, shot an impressive goal getting the better of the impregnable defender Virgil Van Dijk, before he crossed for another Asian hero of his team, Takumi Minamino, who scored a stunning volley goal past the keeper in the second half. The Japanese winger later set up Haaland for his equalizer, astonishing the Liverpool fans so much that they even urged Klopp to snap up him after the match.

While very few Asian players had gained worldwide fame by comparison with Europeans, South Americans and Africans throughout the football history, in recent years saw an upward trend in the number of them among the national leagues of most European countries. Apart from the widely acknowledged Asia’s No.1 player Son Heung-min, whose scintillating performances in Tottenham Hotspur earned him a glamorous nickname “Sonaldo” by the faithfuls of the team, Ji Dong-won who plays for Mainz 05 ,Yuya Osako who plays for Werder Bremen, Wu Lei who plays for RCD Espanyol, all played actively in their respective teams and have been scoring goals.

Let’s take a glimpse of the football development in three major East-Asian countries: Japan, Korea and China to briefly know how they cultivate talents and export them to the European clubs at a faster pace.

In 1996, three years after “The Agony of Doha” which has been remembered as a tragic match day for all the Japanese football fans as Japan was disqualified for the 1994 World Cup in the United States in the last minute, an ambitious and comprehensive plan was put forward by the Kawabuchi Saburou, the founder of J.League. Ever since then, a professional and well-organized association football league system has been launched and football has become wildly popular in Japan from avid elementary school students inspired by the classic manga Captain Tsubasa to the 52-year-old striker Kazuyoshi Miura who is still maintaining his stellar career since 1986. The long history of Japanese immigration to and from Brazil has remarkably contributed to the football communication between those two countries and brought the spectacular skills and playing rhythms to the Asian team, meanwhile, more and more renowned European coaches have been invited to Japan, including Gary Lineker, Michael Laudrup and Arsene Wenger. Now Japan has qualified for six consecutive World Cups and set an example for the other Asian countries.

Unlike the situation in Japan, the Korean Football Association is directly in charge of all the leagues. In this way, a consistent and highly competitive youth system is formed and different goals are assigned to different age groups of football players, students usually have strenuous training sessions and have to put extra effort into the academic subjects as well. As Son Heung-min’s career takes off in England, another type of youth training has come into sight in Korea—the 27-year-old Asian superstar was born thanks to his father, Son Woong-jung, who established Son’s Academy training young players by focusing on improving their fundamental skills such as ball control, dribbling and passing instead of traditionally playing 11 on 11 for long hours. After retaining their title of the gold medal holders in the men’s tournament at the 2018 Asian Games, the Korean football team seems to have a bright future ahead.

Not all the three Asian countries have positive prospects in football industry. As one of the most populated countries in the world where football fans can be seen everywhere, it might sound weird that China has been unable to select 11 eligible football players to win glory for it despite an enormous sum of money invested and to be invested in the football industry. The lack of team spirits and self-discipline of the players , corrupted football association and academic-oriented educational concept all lead the Chinese national team to be excluded from the strong Asian forces on the international stage. In addition, the ill-designed salary structure in the Chinese Super League further worsens the condition—providing that the unskilled football players already earn a lot of money in China, why they have to bother going abroad to develop their competence in a far more intense European league ? At the moment, there is only one Chinese player, namely Wu Lei, in the top-five leagues in Europe, and the Chinese national team is leaning more heavily on its naturalized players. Hence, it might be even harder for us to see Chinese faces appear in European football games.

While Real Madrid has snatched the promising Japanese player Takefusa Kubo from FC Barcelona, the Korean starlet Lee Kang-in has also cut a figure in Valencia. We have reasons to believe that there will be an increasing number of Japanese and Korean players that leave their footprints in the high level games. However, whether there’ll be another Chinese figure after Wu Lei remains a big question mark.

(photo credits to https://www.dhakatribune.com/sport/football/2018/09/02/son-wins-asian-gold-avoids-military-service )

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