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Insights from Asia: Football’s silk road

The Silk Road is an ancient network of trading routes that principally enabled the trade of China’s silk, judged to be the world’s finest, to lucrative markets across Europe. The economic and cultural exchange between East and West forged and sustained the Silk Road, a legacy of which is the growth of Asia’s great civilisations. As Asian football seeks to carve out its own legacy, the connection between East and West may be one significant way in which success can be both sought and measured.

Asian players remain few and far between in European football, with only 49 players currently playing in the ‘big five’ European Leagues having also played in an Asian league, a picture that has remained broadly static for the last decade. When measured against a backdrop of investment in the game across Asia, and exponential growth in interest in the sport, the limited migration of Asian talent to Europe’s top leagues is surprising.

Germany is the only potential exception, with the Bundesliga accounting for around a third of Asian players playing in Europe’s big five leagues. German clubs have been quicker to recognise the value in the Asian talent pool that other leagues are yet to spot. A good example is Newcastle’s Yoshinori Muto, who found his way from FC Tokyo to the Premier League via Mainz 05 in the Bundesliga.

There is some evidence of a change across the other leagues. January saw Wu Lei transfer from Shanghai SIPG in the Chinese Super League to Espanyol, with some early success having scored three goals in 19 games since his move. Similarly, Takefusa Kubo has transferred from the J-League’s FC Tokyo to Real Madrid, before joining Mallorca on loan. At just over 18 years old, he is an investment for the future and is the youngest Japanese player in history to play in Europe’s big five leagues.

Further opportunity for expansion may be round the corner. While the outcome of the UK’s departure from the European Union remains uncertain, it is likely to have an impact on the relative ease with which Premier League clubs may recruit from Europe. This may necessitate the world’s wealthiest clubs seeking value from new markets, requiring Asian football to make a compelling case competing as it will against South America and Africa. Wealthy English clubs looking to expand their recruitment reach to find pockets of value could do worse than look among Asia’s untapped sources of talent.

The benefits of migrating Asian talent are there for both European clubs and Asian Leagues. Smart European clubs who proactively incorporate Asia into their recruitment strategies may benefit from lower fees based on the lack of competition for talent – perhaps if Newcastle were able to recruit Muto direct from the J League it would have been for a fee substantially below the £9.5m they reportedly paid.

For leagues, successful case studies in recruitment are perhaps the biggest lever to enhancing reputations as a source of high quality football. Mahrez’ and Kante’s success at Leicester contributed to Premier League clubs subsequently overpaying by an average of 17% for players from Ligue 1, for example. And as perceptions improve, so does the commercial value of the game as interest and broadcast values increase in lockstep. The successful export of elite Asian talent to footballs biggest stage also creates compelling case studies to inspire aspiring young players. How many more South Korean’s have taken up the game through seeing Son Heung-min compete in the world’s most watched league?

Bad examples can do the reverse, meaning clubs and leagues need to be careful to limit the risk of failure by enabling clubs to judge whether transfers are in the long term interest of the league.

There are several potential routes to success in creating the road from East to West. Club-to-club relationships, investing in analysis to showcase Asian talent to the European market, leveraging relationships that exist through club ownership, and centralising recruitment to the league among them. It won’t be easy, but opening football’s own Silk Road may bring about the legacy that Asian football deserves.

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About Ben Marlow

Ben Marlow has created 34 entries.