No excuses: Lack of Southeast Asians abroad nothing short of woeful

The supply of Southeast Asian talents to stronger football leagues across the globe has been reduced to a mere trickle in recent times. Considering the passion for the sport in the region, the current situation is unacceptable, as Scott McIntyre reports...

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It’s easy to sit back and tell yourself that things are better than they actually are; it’s much harder to reflect on why things are the way they are and start to institute change to improve the situation.

With respect to the players that made our list of leading exports from Southeast Asia, a season here in Germany, one there in the Netherlands and a handful of club games elsewhere across Asia are hardly the kind of 'achievements' to get the pulse racing.

Common threads emerged, primarily a lack of desire and a global community that disregards players in the region

In truth, it’s nothing short of woeful.

By means of comparison, in the last decade alone: Japan has sent more than two dozen players to the Bundesliga; Korea more than a dozen; there are Iranians littered throughout the leading leagues of Europe; Chinese players with vast English Premier League experience; Uzbeks featuring in the Champions League, Afghans, Kyrgyz and even Tajiks playing professionally in Europe and on and on.

The Southeast Asian players over that same timeframe? A combined total of a few dozen matches in Japan, Australia and other random destinations and if anyone thinks that’s in anyway close to good enough then they’re kidding themselves.

The obvious question then is why?

Football has been played in one form or another for over a century in Southeast Asia – a region of almost 650 million people and one that is in complete thrall with the sport.

Surely Bambang could have scaled greater heights overseas?

It’s clearly not an issue then with having the population base to support the emergence of talented players, nor is it finance or infrastructure concerns that can hamper the production of quality footballers.

While conditions and salaries on offer in competitions like the Malaysia Super League have improved, therefore tempting players to stay close to home rather than test themselves abroad, there is no question overall talent levels remain a far greater issue.

I don’t think he had the mentality to have a crack in Europe, where culturally things can be very different and the fear of failure is also great

FourFourTwo spoke with several leading experts across multiple fields to gauge why so few Southeast Asian players make the leap to being stars outside of their home region and several common threads emerged, primarily a lack of desire on the part of the players and a global scouting community that either overlooks entirely or disregards the claims of players in the region.

One man that’s seen the issues from a variety of standpoints is Australian-raised, former Lebanese international Buddy Farah who has gone on to become one of the leading agents working on the bridge between Asian and European football.

He also had a season playing professionally in Malaysia where he was teammates with Indonesian star Bambang Pamungkas, a player with more than enough talent to have made a good fist of Europe.

“I’ve seen many of the problems first-hand when I was playing for Lebanon, even there we had so many talented players but the problem was the same that I saw in Southeast Asia and that was a lack of desire to leave their home comforts.

Chanathip is a rare example of a SEA player in a strong overseas league

“So many players didn’t want to leave their country where they were stars, they had money, the food was familiar and everything was comfortable and that was the case at Selangor too with Bambang.

“We would have 80,000 fans coming to games and he was treated like a God or a King but I don’t think he had the mentality to have a crack in Europe, where culturally things can also be very different and the fear of failure is also great.”

It surprises me that we don’t see more players from Thailand moving abroad if you only look at the quality

They are thoughts echoed by current Bangkok United boss Alexandre Polking, one of the leading coaches in the region.

As the Brazilian-German told FourFourTwo, one of the main barriers to Thai players moving abroad is the need to abandon those home comforts.

“It surprises me that we don’t see more players from Thailand moving abroad if you only look at the quality because that’s not an issue,” he said.

“Once you’ve been in Thailand though for a while you start to understand the reasons why and that’s because life is very comfortable here for players and many of them don’t want to go and fight for positions abroad – they don’t want to leave their parents or their food and they also have a good salary here.

“We’ve seen before when players have gone and then they simply couldn’t adapt so others are thinking there is no need to try because life is so easy in Thailand.”

Another man who’s seen the issue up close agrees that much of the problem can be laid at the feet of the players themselves, as former national captain and current technical director of the Philippines Football Association, Marlon Maro, told FourFourTwo.

“I think a lot of it is about football culture compared to other areas and countries, where the clubs in the Philippines haven’t always been well organised.

“So when the players arrive at a higher level they’re not familiar with how things are done and there are also issues around the language barrier.

“I can also say that from the Philippines we’re not equipped technically – tactically, we have that intelligence and physically we are fine but technically not yet and that’s a big weakness.”

Farah has also seen a reluctance from those in his industry to properly scout the region.

“The idea that the players are not good enough is crap,” he said.

“I played in Southeast Asia and the technical quality is second-to-none, but the reality is that clubs in Europe don’t perceive that to be the case.

“If I take a player from Southeast Asia to many European clubs they would laugh at you and even with so many talents it’s hard for clubs to take a shot on players from Malaysia, Thailand or Cambodia because you also have visa issues to factor in.

“So it really is a combination of reasons why we don’t see players making that move.”

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