The K-League is the new top destination for ASEAN footballers

Starting this season, the K-League has added an extra foreign player slot for players from ASEAN football federation members. Yes, that means that players from Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei, and Myanmar could potentially feature in the K-League seasons to come. However, and mostly because of the coronavirus pandemic restricting travel, there are no Southeast Asian footballers playing in the league this season. However, I am sure that, in due time, and as travel restrictions ease off, we will see Southeast Asians ply their trade in Korea.

The decision to open up an ASEAN slot got me thinking about the merits of such a move. What I can tell you is that I welcome this initiative by the South Korean professional football league, and it is a move that benefits all parties.

Southeast Asian Footballers in East Asia

There are Southeast Asian players who have played in South Korea before, but these players are but a handful. Here’s a list of players who have played in the Korean top flight thus far:

  • Nguyễn Công Phượng (CAM, ST), Incheon United, 2019.
  • Lương Xuân Trường (CM, DM), Incheon United (2016), Gangwon FC, 2017.
  • Álvaro Silva (CB), Daejeon Citizen, 2015.
  • Piyapong Pue-on (ST), Lucky-Goldstar Football Club (FC Seoul), 1984-86.
  • Rodrigo Souza Silva (CAM), Daegu FC, 2017.

I wasn’t kidding. Only 5 players from ASEAN nations have played in the Korean top flight. If you include the 2 East Timor players that played in the K-League 2, that’s a total of 7 ASEAN players who have played in Korea. By contrast, 33 Southeast Asians have played in Japan with 6 players currently playing in the league. Of course, it is important to note that starting from the 2017 season, players from J.League partner nations (Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Singapore, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, and Qatar) are exempt from foreign player-related club registration and match day fielding eligibility.

So why is it beneficial for all parties? Quite simply it is…

A New Platform for ASEAN Players and A New Market for K-League

It would be safe to say that most ASEAN players would dream of moving abroad. However, there are limited overseas options for ASEAN footballers who want to take their game to the next level. Usually, work permit issues tend to be a problem for players to move to Europe. However, in recent years, more Southeast Asian footballers are looking towards the J.League as the pinnacle they need to reach. The J.League is an extremely competitive league, and a number of European heavyweights ply their trade there right now. Barcelona icon Iniesta still plays for Vissel Kobe. Besides that, Japan is a traditional Asian powerhouse.

Traditionally, the other strong Asian footballing state has always been South Korea. You could challenge me on this, but the statistics do not lie. K-League clubs have won the Asian Club Championship and AFC Champions league a record 11 times and have come as runners up in the competition 6 times.

ASEAN footballers can take their game to the next level with the K-League and they should grasp the opportunity to do so. Southeast Asian national teams would relish the opportunity for their biggest talents to bring their game to the next level. Korea is a perfect destination for that to happen.

Like every competitive league, it is beyond time for the K-League to grow its market. Like the J.League, it offers fans top-notch action. However, where the K-League falls behind the J.League is in having well-known foreign footballers. This is why the ASEAN quota will come in handy because it circumvents the issue of having wold-renowned footballers within their ranks. There are many talented Southeast Asian footballers with massive fan bases in the region.

Just how big is Southeast Asia?

Well there are approximately 669,487,902 Southeast Asians as of 2020. That is a massive market to tap onto. Obviously not all 669,487,902 people are football fans, and most who do follow their local footballing scenes will probably root for their fellow compatriots. Even then, the market is really huge.

So who should K-League clubs eye in Southeast Asia?

I guess a good question would be to ask who would be ideal signings for K-League clubs. There are a many players who can play in the K-League. These are just some players I’d personally want to see ply their trade in South Korea.

Stefano Lilipaly

  • Nationality: Indonesian/Dutch
  • Position: Right Winger
  • Current Club: Bali United

With over 1 million followers on Instagram, Stefano Lilipaly makes the ideal signing for any K-League club. He is a quality player who also brings about increased brand exposure. The right winger is currently playing for Bali United but has featured prominently in the Dutch Eerste Divisie, appearing for Almere City, FC Utrecht, SC Telstar, and SC Cambuur. He also turned out for J.League side Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo, making a singular appearance for them in the Emperor’s Cup. I think a move to Korea would allow the Indonesian international to have a second crack at football in East Asia. For whatever reason, he never featured in the league with Consadole Sapporo, and a move to a K-League club would allow him to redeem himself. 6 years have passed since that failed stint in Japan and Lilipaly has developed into an Indonesian icon and is a valuable acquisition indeed.

Safawi Rasid

  • Nationality: Malaysian
  • Position: Right Winger
  • Current Club: JDT

Be warned, the right winger has a lethal left foot and if he cuts inside the right wing, it would most likely end up as a goal. Just how lethal is he? Take a look at this highlight reel here. On top of that, he is a free-kick specialist, a valuable addition for any team. Personally, I think Rasid has outgrown JDT, and it is time for him to bring his game to the next level. Then again, I could understand why a permanent move away from Johor might not be in the winger’s favour. JDT’s project of becoming a real contender in Asia will probably entice the player to stay. After all, who wouldn’t want to be part of such a magnificent opportunity to make the Malaysian titans an Asian powerhouse. Perhaps a loan move to a K-League club makes sense so that the Malaysian can benefit from higher levels of competition at a regular level. A loan stint is ideal since it gives the K-League club exposure in Malaysia and allows the winger to return to Johor a potentially better player.

Harris Harun

  • Nationality: Singaporean
  • Position: Central Midfielder, Defensive Midfielder
  • Current Club: JDT

At 29 years old, Harris has accomplished a lot. Most of these accomplishments have come during his time with JDT. Since arriving in 2014, the tenacious midfielder has gone on to win the Malaysia Super League every season, the FA Cup in 2016, and the Malaysia Cup in 2019 with the Southern Tigers. However, the highlight of his tenure has to be winning the AFC Cup in 2015 and becoming the first Singaporean to do so. Harris also has been playing regularly in the Asian Champions League, which is important for any K-League club because he has proven that he can play against Asia’s elite. Besides being able to play as a centre-back, the current Singapore and JDT captain is also a natural born leader, and that is something that would be of added value. Even though many Singaporean fans are apathetic about local football, Singaporeans would throw their weight behind Harris if he secures a transfer to the K-League.

Aung Thu

  • Nationality: Burmese
  • Position: Second Striker, Attacking Midfielder
  • Current Club: Yadanarbon Football Club

Kyaw Ko Ko is the pride of Myanmar and the star striker of the nation. However, it is Aung Thu who I believe is better suited for the K-League. His pace, dribbling ability, clinical finishing and his ability to pick out his team mates in the final third have led some to label him as the “Messi of Myanmar.” While he can play in multiple positions, he is best suited as a second striker or an attacking midfielder, where he can assist his team mates or bang in the goals. Yes, some of you may disagree with my assessment that Aung Thu is good enough for the K-League and I agree, Aung Thu still needs to work to develop into the finished product. However, I urge you to look at his 2018 season when he was on loan at BEC Police Tero. In a season that saw the Thai top flight club get relegated, Aung Thu was the third-highest scorer with 11 goals and the second-highest provider of assists with 8. However, he needs to play as an attacking midfielder for him to shine. Last season, Aung Thu was often played out at the wing, which hampered his ability to influence the game as much. In 11 league matches, he only scored 2 goals. I believe that Aung Thu will be a valuable trump card for K league sides.

The players I mentioned above are by no means the only players that could play in the K-League. The list could go on to include a slew of players currently playing in Southeast Asia, such as Safuwan Baharudin and Nguyen Quang Hai, and that’s not to mention the Thai stalwarts playing the J.League like Teerasil Dangda. I am excited to see how other developments take place, specifically a chain reaction where more Southeast Asian players will climb up the rungs of the footballing ladder.

Allow me to clarify; there is a clear football hierarchy within Southeast Asia, where the ultimate goal is to play in the East Asian leagues (K League, Chinese Super League and J.League) and the A-League. One level below that is what I’d consider to be the premier ASEAN leagues, the Thai League 1 and the V.League 1. Slightly below that rung is the Malaysian Super League, followed by the Indonesian Liga 1. Under that rung, I’d classify all the various Southeast Asian leagues. This is the ladder I’m talking about. Now, if the best Southeast Asian footballers start playing in the K-League instead, there are spaces freed up for other Southeast Asian players to come and occupy, and yes, there will be a chain reaction, because most of these leagues have an ASEAN player slot so clubs will most certainly acquire new Southeast Asian players from the lower rungs of the footballing ladder. I can’t wait for that happen, because new opportunities will open up and new stars will be born.

Featured Image by Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay

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