In 2020, the K-League launched the ASEAN Quota, where K-League clubs were given an extra foreign player spot for players from Southeast Asia. This move was designed to help expand the K-League’s marketability in the ASEAN region, but in the past 2 years, only one club has utilized it. In 2021, K2 club Ansan Greeners FC signed Indonesian hot prospect Asnawi Mangkualam.
While the Indonesian wonderkid swiftly established himself at Indonesian titans PSM Makassar, naturally it has taken some time for him to feature with Ansan. Fortunately though, after making an impressive debut for the Green Wolves in the Korean FA Cup, he has since gone on to feature against Busan IPark in the league on April 3rd.
The question remains however: why aren’t more K-League teams signing Southeast Asian players?
The “Inferior” ASEAN player prejudice?
When it comes to the Asian football landscape, only a few teams regularly qualify for the World Cup. Japan, Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and (since they switched affiliations in 2006) Australia are known as the footballing titans in the AFC. While it is true that other teams pale in comparison to these Asian giants, the gap between the top dogs and the rest of the pack has diminished.
Southeast Asian players have graced the K-League before. Before Asnawi,
- [Vietnam] Nguyễn Công Phượng (CAM, ST), Incheon United, 2019.
- [Vietnam] Lương Xuân Trường (CM, DM), Incheon United (2016), Gangwon FC, 2017.
- [Philippines] Álvaro Silva (CB), Daejeon Citizen, 2015.
- [Thailand] Piyapong Pue-on (ST), Lucky-Goldstar Football Club (FC Seoul), 1984-86.
- [Timor-Leste] Rodrigo Souza Silva (CAM), Daegu FC, 2017
Incheon’s signing of Nguyễn Công Phượng was met with much excitement initially and from a marketing standpoint, it was a brilliant move. Incheon, and by extension the K-League, increased their presence in Vietnam with the move. However, Công Phượng’s contract was terminated early and across 14 games he only featured for a meagre 352 minutes in total.
Our partners Rookbook Sports have confirmed that the general Korean attitudes towards Southeast Asian players are that they are not good enough for the K-League. Clubs would rather use their funds to get another Korean player as opposed to a Southeast Asian player despite the allocation of a quota because of this overall sentiment.
Yet, while I do agree that the K-League is definitely a more challenging league than the bulk of Southeast Asian leagues, I disagree that there aren’t any Southeast Asian stalwarts good enough to play in the K-League. One has to look at neighbouring Japan, where players like Chanathip Songkrasin, Đặng Văn Lâm, and Theerathon Bunmathan are currently playing their trade. In previous seasons, players like Jefferson Tabinas, Tawan Khotrsupho, Kawin Thamsatchanan, and Teerasil Dangda have also featured for J.League teams.
Furthermore, a number of Southeast Asians are also heading to Europe. Safawi Rasid, Bagus Kahfi, and Luqman Hakim Shamsudin are example of Southeast Asians who have recently moved to European clubs as well. There is immense talent in Southeast Asia, and I do believe that Korean teams need to improve their scouting of the region.
The Way Forward?
Signing young hot prospects to develop into future stars seems the best bet. South Korean teams appear to be apprehensive when it comes to signing players that are relatively unproven on a bigger stage like the K-League. Developing promising players in their academies allows club to train them.
The question thus remains though: what’s in it for a South Korean club? Why should they sign an Indonesian or Singaporean or Burmese player?
The simple answer: increasing the K-League’s marketability in Southeast Asia.
In East Asia, the K-League certainly falls behind the J.League and the Chinese Super League with regards to star power. The CSL and J.League become easily watchable because of the relatively vast number of players who previously played in the English Premier League or La Liga.
Don’t get me wrong, the K-League standards of football are incredibly competitive. After all, the 2020 AFC Champions League winners were Ulsan Hyundai FC. Yet, the K-League somehow doesn’t have the ability to pull the European heavyweights that are quite frankly needed to have some sense of marketing presence. Their overseas and global viewership pales in comparison to the J.League for the past few years. That being said, last year, the K-League’s digital viewership definitely spiked, and it is time for clubs to ride this wave and expand.
The ASEAN quota helps them with increasing their marketing presence. Just take a look at Asnawi. The Indonesian youngster has over 200k followers in Instagram. Ansan Greeners? They just have slightly over 35k. Many Southeast Asians are passionate about seeing their national players develop and form an ardent fan base for these footballers. The K-League should definitely tap onto this.
The K-League is a great league, but it can become greater. Having a significant marketable presence is the necessary next step in the K-League’s evolution.
That being said, it is important to ensure that the players that sign with Korean clubs are not simply influencers but are footballers who possess a good level of ability.
Of course, there are also more senior players that K-League clubs can snap up. I mentioned a few in a previous article. Nevertheless, I think Tim Barnes makes a good point.
He mentions on Twitter that:
The K-League clubs need to utilize their ASEAN Quotas. The inability to do so reflects poorly on the scouting network of these clubs. If the J.League has successfully fielded ASEAN players in the past, there is really no excuse for Korean clubs. Hopefully, Asnawi impresses in the coming days and it convinces more K-League clubs to turn their attention to Southeast Asia.
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