SEA's Best Imports Ever: Do these sublimely skilled foreigners damage our leagues?

Choosing the right imports is often the difference between winning and losing in Southeast Asian football. But do they inhibit the development of the local players? Total bans on foreigners and even banning players from certain countries have been experimented with. What's the best approach?

It was – depending on the hue of your historical shade – either the best time for the Malaysian national team or the worst time for the vibrancy of the domestic competition.

Critics argued that the overall quality of the domestic leagues dipped during (the ban)

With the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) banning foreign players from both the Super League and the Premier League for three seasons starting in 2009, the various Malaysian national sides proceeded to claim SEA Games gold medals in 2009 and 2011 as well as winning the 2010 Suzuki Cup.

Critics argued though that the overall quality of the domestic leagues dipped during that period and certainly there was a noticeable decline in the ratio of goals per match from the preceding season right across the three years that the ban was in place.

That’s no coincidence given that the bulk of imports occupy the key attacking positions on the pitch.

Whilst it wasn’t the first time that imports have been banned in Malaysia, having also been barred for a couple of seasons during the onset of the Asian financial crisis at the turn of the century, the fear is that it may also not be the last as a slew of Malaysian coaches and fans continue to question the impact that foreign players are having on the development of local talent.

Do imports have too much influence?

That’s a debate that continues to rage across the footballing landscape globally, not just in Southeast Asia, but it’s worth looking at the schizophrenic way the various ASEAN leagues have and continue to deal with the issue of ‘visa players’ in their domestic competitions.

Malaysia has consistently flip-flopped between a complete ban, a partial reintroduction that limited some clubs to two and others (those competing in the AFC Cup) to four players, then to three, then four with no AFC slot then four with an AFC slot.

It’s also worth remembering one of the low points when – for reasons that are still hard to fathom – they banned players from 13 specific nations

All the while, those regulations were wrapped in further red tape over from where and at what level the players had to have reached.

Indonesia has also shifted from no AFC-specific slots (the so-called ‘plus-one’ rule) to a standalone number of three, then four and now they permit 2+1 with an additional slot for a ‘marquee’ player, with a fairly loose definition of what qualifies a player for such a role.

It’s also worth remembering one of the low points of that domestic competition when – for reasons that are still hard to fathom – the Super League announced in 2013 they were banning players from 13 specific nations.

Those nations were Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Guinea, Iraq, Israel, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia, with the Corporate Secretary of Liga Indonesia, Tigor Shaloom Boboy, remarkably telling an Indonesian newspaper that players from those nations were considered "infamous for their indiscipline".

Big names have played in Indonesia with very mixed results

You might think that such a brazen move was an isolated one but that’s not the case with authorities in Cambodia continuing to adopt a ‘two-tier’ system that allows for different regulations across their league and cup competitions.

While clubs participating in the national league are permitted ‘4+1’ (but with only three playing at the same time), in the Hun Sun Cup (the FA Cup-style competition) no foreigners are permitted at all.

The foreign players are taller, stronger and more experienced, so it’s unfair if we let them play

In announcing the decision at its inception back in 2007, an honest Sao Sokha, President of the CFF, told a local newspaper at the time that foreigners were too good.

“The foreign players are taller, stronger and more experienced so it’s unfair if we let them play and we want to give our Khmer players a chance to win and gain some national pride.”

Elsewhere across Southeast Asia there continues to be a less-than-uniform approach to dealing with ‘imports’, with Australia still resisting growing calls to adopt the AFC ‘plus-one’ spot that most other Asian nations have, although both Timor Leste (where four foreigners without restriction can be fielded in their fledgling league) and Singapore also don’t have a specific AFC player slot.

Laos and the Philippines both have the standard ‘3+1’ – although until 2014 there was no cap at all for the latter – while Vietnam has also endured a series of twists and turns in trying to find the balance between handing local players a chance and boosting the standard of the league with imports.

They currently only permit two foreign players plus one additional ‘naturalised Vietnamese’ player per team, although those in the continental tournaments may have two additional players registered.

This dizzying array of quotas and regulations ultimately only serves to confuse matters when the region should be pushing for a uniform – and consistent – approach that can work to the benefit of all nations.

With both Thailand and Malaysia set to adopt a further ‘ASEAN spot’ it is perhaps time the AFF look at bringing the dozen member nations together and trying to find that middle ground that can nurture and grow the game with a mix of the best of foreign experience and local opportunity.

REGULATIONS ON FOREIGN PLAYERS ACROSS SEA:

AUSTRALIA: Five players of any nationality, with no spot reserved for an Asian Football Confederation player.

BRUNEI: As an amateur league no teams can afford to have foreign players.

CAMBODIA: 4+1 but clubs are only able to field four at a time.

INDONESIA: 2+1 + Marquee Slot

LAOS: 3+1

MALAYSIA: 3+1

MYANMAR: 3+1 but clubs can only use three at a time.

PHILIPPINES: 3+1.

SINGAPORE: Three players of any nationality with no AFC spot.

THAILAND: 4+1 but only four can be on the pitch at the same time.

TIMOR-LESTE: Four of any nationality with no AFC spot.

VIETNAM: Two per club plus one naturalised Vietnamese player.

Main photo: Asiana.my