Asia 50: The Bundesliga's affinity for Asia
It would be understandable to assume that the bulk of FourFourTwo’s Asia 50 list would herald from leagues in Japan, South Korea or possibly Australia.
Indeed Japanese players have the highest representation on this year’s list with 12, ahead of South Koreans (nine), Australians (eight) and members of the United Arab Emirates (four).
Yet it is the fast-growing Bundesliga that provides the most number of competitors on our countdown.
Seven players on the 2016 Asia 50, FourFourTwo’s annual compilation of the best Asian players from across the globe over the past 12 months, ply their trade in Germany’s top tier.
Japan’s 23-year-old superstar Yoshinori Muto – who has been on Chelsea and Manchester United’s radar – is the leading entrant at No.7 following an excellent debut season with FSV Mainz.
South Korean standout Shinji Kagawa is the next highest Bundesliga participant, coming in at No.27 after a solid season under first-year Borussia Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel.
Despite being in and out of Tuchel’s rotation at times, Kagawa has produced a series of crucial goals and assists, leading to his rise from No.44 on last year’s list.
Koo Ja-Cheol (FC Augsburg), Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt), Park Joo-ho (Borussia Dortmund), Matthew Leckie (FC Ingolstadt) and Genki Haraguchi (Hertha Berlin) also made the final 50.
The Japanese and German mentalities fit together very well. The players have a very strong commitment and are very focused on the sport, so the German coaches love them.
The Chinese Super League (six representatives), English Premier League (five) and UAE Arabian Gulf League (five) were the next best on the list.
German Peter Leible, chief Asia Pacific representative of DFL Sports Enterprises, who are responsible for the global sale of the Bundesliga’s commercial rights, is well aware of the connection between the league and Asian players.
He believes Japanese players in particular easily adapt to German football.
“The Japanese and German mentalities fit together very well,” Leible told FourFourTwo. “The players have a very strong commitment and are very focused on the sport, so the German coaches love them.
“When I started the distribution process for the Bundesliga in 2006, Naohiro Takahara was the only Asian player we had in the league.
“Now we have 10 Japanese players and five Koreans. We have big names from Japan and from Korea we are getting stronger names as well.”
Leible is helping to fly the flag for the Bundesliga as it makes its push into the Asian market.
Both the Bundesliga and Borussia Dortmund have offices in Singapore, while Bayern Munich are planning to open an office in China. Games are also now telecast live across weekends in the region on Fox Sports.
We know that the Bundesliga historically is the best place for Asian players, especially in the last two or three years.
The more Asian players that can join Bundesliga clubs, the more it will aid the cause.
“We are observing all of this closely because it’s helping us dramatically,” Leible said.
“We know that the Bundesliga historically is the best place for Asian players, especially in the last two or three years.
“They have a very good technique as well. If you now look to the Premier League it is much more physical football than the Bundesliga. Ten years ago it was the opposite.
“Now the Bundesliga is much more technical and the Japanese players fit in very well with that.
Son Heung-Min came to Germany as a no-name player with Bayer Leverkusen and we made him big and now he’s playing for Tottenham.
“It’s also a historical story. Someone like Kagawa is now a superstar in Japan who came to Germany as a no-name player. He then went to Manchester United and came back, was in a Champions League final and is a two-time German champion.
“It’s a success story and would be in the minds of young Japanese players thinking of coming to Germany.
“The agents that are handling Japanese players are also looking closely at the Bundesliga because if we can already place 10 players there is space for others and the Koreans are following.
“Son is another one. He came to Germany as a no-name player with Bayer Leverkusen and we made him big and now he’s playing for Tottenham.”
The Bundesliga now receive so many onsite requests from Japanese broadcasters to attend games, some of them have to be refused.
In terms of the reach across Asia, Leible knows the German league needs to remain patient. But the best advertisement is the product itself, which year after year features the highest number of goals in any European league.
“It’s been very good,” Leible said when quizzed on the response since they opened their Singapore office.
“The league itself is now in more of a leadership position. The clubs are doing a lot of globalisation and international work.
“We’re trying to encourage other clubs to do more as well, smaller clubs. We have the deal with Fox and we’ve seen the figures and we are very happy and we know the Bundesliga has taken a big step forward in the Asian region.
“We want to attract new people who maybe haven’t seen the Bundesliga before and give them the chance to see it.
“A lot of them are surprised how technical and how fast the Bundesliga is.
“Some people are watching it and they say it’s actually much more interesting than Stoke against West Brom or something like that.
“We know it will take time, but that is the story we want to tell.”