Aussies need to look to land of the rising sun
What 'The Beatles' did for British bands in America in 1964, Sasa Ognenovski did for Australian players in South Korea in 2010.
What 'The Beatles' did for British bands in America in 1964, Sasa Ognenovski did for Australian players in South Korea in 2010. The strapping defender broke down the door, leaving others - perhaps not all quite up to the same standard - to rush through and jump into the welcoming embrace of K-League clubs looking for the next big thing from 'Down Under'.
Perhaps Australian football needs a new version of Ognenovski, the 2010 Asian Player of the Year, to kick down a few barriers across the sea in Japan. There aren't as many Aussies in Nippon as there should be. It's ironic that Japan - the country which played such a significant role in Australia-s introduction to Asia - remains something of a last frontier.
There was a time when it seemed that for much of the media 'Down Under' the continental football scene started and stopped with Japan. After Kaiserslautern in 2006 (World Cup), and then Hanoi in 2007 (Asian Cup), perhaps it's understandable that nations such as South Korea, China, Qatar and UAE took so long to get a look in.
Yet it's now these countries which are more commonly linked with Australian players. Josh Kennedy was for quite a while the sole standard-bearer in Japan. Recently Socceroos skipper Lucas Neill joined him in the J-League (Omiya Ardija) in what, initially at least, is a short-term deal. But it wasn't that long ago that Neill was also in the Middle East - where at one stage he was joined by fellow Socceroos Alex Brosque, Matthew Spiranovic, Nick Carle, Mark Bresciano, Brett Holman and Ognenovski.
Yet shouldn-t these players be in Japan? Shouldn-t the best Australian players aim to play in the best league in Asia instead of heading west in increasing numbers? On a football level, the answer is obviously yes.
This is an ongoing debate in Australia, and is given added weight by the annual east-west discussion that is held in Asia every October once the Asian Champions League reaches the pointy end. This year the last four in the ACL includes clubs from Japan (Kashiwa Reysol), China (Guangzhou Evergrande) and South Korea (FC Seoul). So once again the East has eclipsed the West - as has been the case for six of the last seven years. There's no doubt where the strength of Asian club football lies.
It can be easier said than done, of course, for Australian players to break into the J-League. Japanese teams may not lack in imagination when it comes to facing packed defences, but are predictable in the field of signing foreigners. If you are not Brazilian or South Korea, then you need a good agent. But once you are in, try and stay unless the really big leagues come calling.
There is a theory that older players deserve to take it easy with the gentle pace of the leagues in Qatar and UAE. Although these competitions aren't as weak as many suggest, the theory goes is that the money is just reward at the end of a busy career. There is no doubt that the combination of fewer games, lower intensity, and higher wages (and no income tax) are an attractive proposition.
Still, the J-League is not quite as physically demanding as the K-League - which remains a popular hunting ground for Australian players. The J-League has a manageable 34-game season, the Yen is still pretty strong, and tax is relatively low. All this in a country which is really going places in football terms, and has the added advantage of being in a similar time zone to Australia. There's a lot to like about playing in Japan.
The fact is the J-League offers a technical education in a competitive environment with standards that not many Asian leagues can match. It may be more difficult to adapt to life off the pitch in Japan than, say, UAE or Qatar, but that only makes the experience more fascinating and complete.
It's not a case of blindly looking to the 'Land of the Rising Sun'. It's better to be at the right club in a league that is a little wrong - Brosque-s Al Ain is certainly a good example - than be at the wrong club in the right league as more than one Socceroo has found in Korea. In Japan, there are relatively few bad choices. Brosque-s former club, Shimizu S-Pulse, has been home to some of the best players that the continent has ever produced.
Of course, nothing's perfect. The J-League may be held up as the model to follow, but it has its own problems. Recently, and controversially, it was announced that the top tier will revert to a two-stage season and play-offs from 2015 in a bid to halt falling attendances. The departure of so many young Japanese stars to Europe has had an understandable effect - heightened by the fact that the quality of talent leaving has not been adequately replaced by those imported from overseas. There's the opportunity for Australian players to fill the gap. For despite some recent problems, the J-League's basic foundation is strong, and the future is bright.