In the success of precocious 20-year-old Luong Xuan Trong embarking on his new K-League adventure could lie the key to Korea and Japan becoming the intermediate step for Southeast Asia's top talent, writes John Duerden.
About eight years ago I asked a leading coach in South Korea if he had considered Southeast Asia when looking to strengthen his squad. The answer was a firm negative. Players hailing from the region were “too lazy” and “undisciplined”. Such thinking was, at best, lazy itself. But 2016 could be the year that the Land of the Morning Calm wakes up to what the continent's most passionate football region has to offer.
Luong Xuan Trong is only 20 but the Vietnamese midfielder has plenty of pressure on his shoulders after signing with the K-League's Incheon United. He could be the new Piyapong Pue-on. If so, he will be a game-changer in more ways than one.
In some ways the fact that it has taken Korea so long to cotton onto Southeast Asia is surprising. In the ‘80s, Piyapong was tearing it up in Asia's oldest professional league and is still talked about south of the 38th Parallel with almost the same reverence as in Bangkok. In 2010, he attended a South Korean international friendly in Seoul's World Cup Stadium. Through his son, the Thai icon gave interview after interview to a never-ending stream of excited reporters.
A giant leap
Luong could be the new Piyapong Pue-on. If so, he will be a game-changer in more ways than one.
With Piyapong's departure to Malaysia (he said he had offers from big English teams but wanted to go closer to home) East Asia has not paid much attention to the Southeast since. That changed recently as Japan started to become interested. The J-League followed Japanese companies into Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia to sign formal understandings with local federations and broadcasters. Then clubs started to look for talent.
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The likes of Le Cong Vinh from Vietnam and Indonesia's Irfan Bachdim, both stars in their own right, headed east but didn't make the necessary impact. Japan are still looking for an ASEAN import to make it big. The hope is that if, or when, that happens, the commercial benefits will be significant.
Korea now realise it too and while football talent comes first, Incheon believe that they can more than recoup Luong's salary with money made from the deal in terms of sponsorship and merchandise. It could happen. Incheon are well-placed to take advantage of their new star.
A gritty port on the west coast, Incheon is not only the place where football was introduced to the country in 1882 by British sailors, it is close to a number of Seoul's satellite cities that are home to the majority of Korea's Vietnamese population that is close to 150,000. With the K-League set to be broadcast in Vietnam in 2016, Incheon may just be the perfect club for Luong, though the winters may be a shock to his system.
With the K-League set to be broadcast in Vietnam in 2016, Incheon may just be the perfect club for Luong.
Not one of the nation’s giants, the 'citizen club' have yet to have any real success since their establishment in 2004. Financed, at least partially by the city and not a giant conglomerate such as Hyundai or Samsung that fund other K-League sides, the gulf separating Incheon from the rest can appear huge at times.
The closest they came to lifting a trophy came in the 2015 FA final. If Luong could help the team land some silverware, he really could make a name for himself.
One to match Piyapong, perhaps. The Thai striker spent two seasons with Lucky Goldstar and in 1985 finished as top scorer in the league as the LG-backed club won the title. If such a thing happened now, it would be a big story. The pressure is on Luong, not just to help Incheon climb the table, but to show that Southeast Asian players have a part to play in East Asia.
The recent strides taken by Thailand, the new stable of stars and football played by the team, have yet to filter through to Seoul or Tokyo. Producing a single Piyapong three decades ago is not enough for the region to put itself on the continental football map. If the War Elephants do make it through to the final round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup then, given Buriram United's exploits in the Asian Champions League, perceptions may belatedly begin to change.
It takes time and something else too. There is much to disagree with Zainudin Nordin and the arguments that the number one official in Singapore football makes in favour of the ASEAN Super League. But he is probably right that Europe is currently a step too far for Southeast Asian players. Going north is the best solution for the near future.
If Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia et al. can start sending stars to Korea and Japan and these players can hold their own and then go on to do much more than that, then the trail will have been well and truly blazed. China could present a possible destination too, even if Chinese Super League clubs are likely to keep signing Koreans and Australians as their Asian imports for the time being.
With Europe a step too far for SEA players, going north is the best solution.
It would be a win-win situation. A large pool of inexpensive talent on Korea and Japan's doorstep is something that should be welcomed. Not only that, but if these two continental giants are to challenge on the world stage then they need a strong Asia. Such a thing is unimaginable if the ASEAN region lags behind. As long as it struggles internationally, the whole continent has a problem.
The K-League and J-League can play a major role in the development of young stars in the sub-confederation and help themselves in the long-term. In the meantime, Southeast Asia builds a pathway to improvement for its best players.
Sooner or later, an ASEAN star will make it big in East Asia. It just needs a spark. It needs a Piyapong for the 21st century. It could well be a 20-year-old midfielder from Vietnam who makes it happen.