February 8, 2014 1:00 pm JST

As Japanese footballers head to Europe, SE Asian talent eyes Japan

YUKINORI TAKECHI, Nikkei senior staff writer

TOKYO -- In what could be the start of a growing trend, Japan's J. League will have its second Southeast Asian soccer player when its season starts on March 1.

     Irfan Bachdim, 25, who plays the forward position on Indonesia's national team, has signed with J. League club Ventforet Kofu. He follows Le Cong Vinh, an international player for Vietnam who played club soccer for Consadole Sapporo last season.

     In an interview with the Nikkei, Irfan said he would like other Indonesians to come play for the Japan Professional Football League, which he considers the highest-level soccer league in Asia. Born in the Netherlands, Irfan honed his soccer skills in a youth academy affiliated with a Dutch football club.

     Japanese media reported that along with the deal to bring Irfran to the Yamanashi Prefecture-based L. League club, Ventforet Kofu also signed a corporate sponsorship deal with national airline carrier Garuda Indonesia. This kind of corporate sponsorship would be a godsend for any club that is struggling financially.

On the flip side

The deal also represents a role reversal for the J. League, which since its establishment more than 20 years ago has seen a number of its marquee players sign with European clubs, allowing those teams to secure lucrative sponsorship deals with big-name Japanese corporations.  

     Kazuyoshi Miura of Verdy Kawasaki, now Tokyo Verdy, signed for Genoa CFC in Serie A, the top division of Italian pro soccer, in 1994. Local media at the time said Genoa signed him "for marketing purposes," and indeed, a Japanese company became Genoa's uniform sponsor that season.

     When Hidetoshi Nakata transferred to Serie A's Perugia after the 1998 World Cup in France, Italian media speculated that he, too, was signed primarily for his marketability. Sure enough, Japanese tourists began to visit Perugia's home stadium in droves, and Nakata jerseys started to fly off club store shelves.

     Nakata also proved himself on the pitch, but even now, whenever a Japanese footballer signs with a big European club, local media speculate that it is more about marketing than talent.

     Such thinking is not without some precedent. At the height of Japan's bubble economy, financially struggling F1 racing teams signed Japanese drivers despite knowing they were not the best talent available. These teams were looking not for skills but for money, believing that signing Japanese drivers would bring lucrative sponsorship deals with Japanese firms.

     Shinji Kagawa's transfer to English Premier League club Manchester United and Keisuke Honda's recent move to AC Milan sparked similar speculation in the media. But regardless of possible marketing motives, these players must prove themselves to their managers in practice or else find themselves warming the bench game after game. 

     Miura's and Nakata's transfers were a useful marketing tool for Italy's top league because they suddenly brought Serie A, widely seen as the best European league at the time, to the attention of many Japanese fans. It has since fallen behind the English, Spanish and German leagues, with game attendance on the decline, but thanks to Honda's arrival at AC Milan, many Japanese -- including those who are not soccer fans -- are again getting interested in Serie A.

      Irfan's transfer to Ventforet Kofu might have a similar impact in Indonesia.

Nothing's impossible

In today's world, a Thai or Indonesian billionaire can acquire a European club if they so desire. Asian capital and talent is inexorably attracted to the European leagues, and soccer fans in Southeast Asia are no different, as they, too, are primarily interested in European soccer.     

     But few Southeast Asian footballers can step up to the European leagues directly from their domestic leagues. This is where the J. League can be useful, as a growing number of both Japanese and non-Japanese footballers who once played professionally in Japan are now playing in the European leagues. These players include South Koreans and Brazilians.

     When Kazuyoshi Miura went to Serie A, few could have imagined that a Japanese player would someday wear Milan's No. 10 jersey. Similarly, a Vietnamese or Thai footballer might one day wear the No. 10 jerseys of Urawa Reds, Yokohama F-Marinos and Gamba Osaka. After that, they might even step up to the European leagues. Nobody can say it is impossible, and it is Japanese footballers themselves who have proved it can be done.