SEOUL: Europe may be the undisputed centre of global football affairs, but 2012 may show North America that getting closer to the world’s biggest continent can reap rewards both on and off the field.
Major League Soccer has more in common with growing East Asian leagues such as Japan, China and South Korea – all relatively new and competing against other established sports for attention and fans – than the traditional powers of England, Spain, Italy and Germany.
Importing Asian players is an important first step to building fan bases at home, as well as enhancing a club’s profile overseas.
Kosuke Kimura of Japan plays for the Colorado Rapids and Chinese player Long Tan is on the books at the Vancouver Whitecaps. Long was joined at Vancouver in December by South Korea’s Lee Young-pyo.
Lee is one of the best-known Asian footballers of the past decade, appearing at three World Cups and playing for some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
With many North American cities home to large Asian populations, players with the profile of Lee can have an immediate impact as Bob Lenarduzzi, Vancouver Whitecaps president told The Associated Press.
“There are 50,000 plus Koreans in Vancouver,” Lenarduzzi said. “We were taken aback by how popular (Lee) is. Before we had the first press conference he wanted to go to a Korean restaurant and people were falling over themselves once they realised who it was walking around, and the conference itself was one of our best attended ever.”
Lenarduzzi emphasised that the first and foremost consideration when signing a player is what he can do on the field, but acknowledged that other benefits were a bonus.
“We have discussed the multicultural aspect of British Colombia and ideally getting good players from different ethnic regions,” he said. “We hope that will translate into raising the profile of the team and also getting people to come to the game.”
If importing Asian players can help clubs engage with home Asian populations, the existence of those communities can make it easier to attract such stars and for them to adjust.
“I knew that Vancouver had a large Korean population,” said Lee at his first press conference in December. “That wasn’t the reason I came here but, it is still good to have that community here.”
It remains to be seen when the 2012 MLS season gets under way what impact Lee will have. Following the 2002 World Cup, the Los Angeles Galaxy signed South Korea captain Hong Myong-bo, but after a wave of initial excitement from the local Korean community, interest soon faded.
Things have changed since then according to Takehiko Nakamura, the general manager of LeadOff Sports Marketing, a consultant to the MLS on players and international relations.
“Both the J-League and MLS have shown rapid growth and have been interacting with each other over the past seven years,” said Nakamura, who helped organise February’s Hawaii Island Invitational – a four-team tournament featuring representatives from Japan, South Korea, Australia and the United States.
“Both sides attend the other’s major marquee events and the MLS is starting to scout for talent in that market. I am convinced that within the next few years, MLS and East Asian soccer will develop its relationship even further and will see more tangible interactions both on and off the field.”
Nakamura says that signing players with appeal to different sections of the local community can help Asian fans identify with clubs and then support them.
“If you look into the success that the MLS has had in capturing the Hispanic market in the USA, I have no doubt that it would be able to do the same with the East Asian fans,” he said. “They do not have the deep roots in their home country’s soccer that European and Latin American fans have, so they will engage with MLS faster.”
The two regions have more general areas in common. South Korea and Japan, like the United States, announced their arrival on the global stage by hosting the World Cup in 2002, eight years after it took place in America. Those tournaments helped establish modern stadiums as well as providing a boost to the local game.
“There’s no question that both regions can learn from each other,” Lenarduzzi said. “Korea and Japan entrenched themselves with their co-hosting of the 2002 World Cup. The MLS is a legacy of the 1994 World Cup. There were growing pains, but look at the past five or six years and all the new franchises. We have a lot in common and are all in relatively early stages.”
So far there have been few American players heading in the other direction toward Asia. Tom Byer is an exception, playing in the forerunners to both the MLS and J-Leagues in the eighties before becoming one of Japan’s most successful youth coaches.
Byer believes that ignorance is behind a lack of transfers.
“Japanese clubs still have the image that American players are not good enough to have an impact in the J-League, plus there is the fourth foreigner rule that allows clubs to sign an extra player from Asia,'' he said. ''Most agents in Japan have networks into Brazil, Asia and Europe, with few knowing the American game.”