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How Chanathip's J.League Success Can Help K League

In just one J.League season, Thai star Chanathip Songkrasin has changed the landscape of East Asian football. His successes on and off the field are part of a larger plan the Japan Football Association has had in motion for years that the Korean Football Association would do well to emulate. If K League is going to be a league of choice for the rising tide of Southeast Asian talent, now is the time to build those bridges; before their Japanese counterpart takes an insurmountable lead.
(image via fourfourtwo.com/th)

While the majority of global headlines concerning Asian football continue to center around the Chinese Super League (CSL) and its plethora of pricey world class players and coaches, another Asian league is quietly positioning itself to be the region’s best in the near future: J.League. With six AFC Champions League titles already to its name (second only to K League's 11), the Japanese top flight isn’t exactly an underdog in the region as it is. However, a closer look at the moves it and the Japan Football Association (JFA) have made recently suggest J.League will be claiming top honors more frequently than not in the years to come, and at a significantly cheaper cost to boot. With the CSL continuing its attempts to simply spend its way to prominence, and K League failing to adapt to the global game, the door has been left wide open for the league that already has one eye firmly on the future to take over straightaway.

ASEAN Destination

*A note before moving forward: for the purposes of this article, ASEAN refers to the regional intergovernmental organisation of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Not the Asian Football Confederation guidelines that also include Australia.

Of the things J.League is doing right, scouting Southeast Asia tops the list not only for what it means in the present, but more so for how intelligent a move it is for the future. The region remains a remarkably untapped hotbed for talent with scores of adoring fans absolutely mad for the sport, and most of the top East Asian leagues are failing to engage with them. Australia’s A-League didn't have a single ASEAN player on the books in 2017, and CSL and K League can barely boast anything better. K League's lone 2017 representative, 22-year-old Lương Xuân Trường, struggled to get minutes at his second Korean club, Gangwon FC, in spite of being a regular for the Vietnamese National Team and with reported interest from Europe. Things have gone a bit better for Filipino striker Javier Patiño in CSL having scored 21 goals in 60 appearances for Henan Jianye FC, but he missed significant minutes with a ligament tear. With his absence, the number of Southeast Asian representatives in three of the four major Asian leagues was essentially back to zero, which fits with recent history.

In its relatively brief existence, A-League has seen seven players from five different ASEAN nations play on Australian shores. An already small number that has dwindled to zero. In the same time span, the Chinese top flight hadn't had a single ASEAN player on a CSL roster before Patiño signed for Henan in 2015. A track record that isn't much better in Korean, even with a longer league history. Trường was the first prominent K League player from Southeast Asia since Thai standout Piyapong Pue-on lit up the league all the way back in mid 1980s. Those two and the Spanish/Filipino dual national Álvaro Silva are the only three ASEAN players the league has known in its 34 years.

Meanwhile, Japan had 10 Southeast Asian players in its 25 year history before the six that plied their trade throughout the top three divisions in 2017. Admittedly six players spread throughout 54 clubs wasn't earth shattering, but it was a higher number than any of the other major East Asian leagues. More importantly, it showed Japanese clubs embracing the region and a willingness to find and develop ASEAN players at a level they often can't get domestically. While clubs in Australia, China, and Korea continue searching for the finished product to play at the highest level, Japanese clubs have become the go to destination for ASEAN players who have outgrown their domestic league almost by default. A focal point that pays dividends for drawing young evolving players, but also occasionally some of Asia’s best.

The Chanathip Effect

One man already moving the needle in his brief time in Japan is Consadole Sapporo’s Chanathip Songkrasin. Coming off of a strong showing in both World Cup Qualifying and his first AFC Champions League last year, the Thai International demanded the attention of the Asian footballing world with his midfield wizardry and earned a move to J1. Brought in to help Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo avoid relegation, the 24-year-old did that and more. At just 157cm he doesn’t strike physical fear into defenders, but his pace, ability to change direction instantaneously, and astonishingly deft touch does more than enough to panic any back line. Without needing to find the back of the net, Chanathip impressed Sapporo manager Shuhei Yomoda enough to nab 10 consecutive starts and regular spot in one of Asia's best leagues. A stint good enough to garner "Messi Jay" considerations from 2015-16 Premiere League Champions Leicester City. Though those rumors have cooled and he seems to be staying in Japan, the knock on effect Chanathip has had cannot be understated.

After watching one of their own make the jump to J.League, a number of Thai internationals have followed in his footsteps this winter. Fellow War Elephant and standout leftback Theerathon Bunmathan recently made the move to Vissel Kobe, Muangthong United striker Teerasil Dangda signed a one-year loan with Sanfrecce Hiroshima, and several others are reported to move before the transfer window closes. Even with J.League traditionally giving Southeast Asian players more opportunities, this is a considerable influx in a single window, and one spurred by off field potential as much as anything Chanathip did with the ball at his feet last year.

Getting a national team star like Chanathip into a J.League kit immediately helps the league get exposure in a country of 67 million die hards who would love to root for a local boy on the big stage. Not to mention rep his team’s jersey while out and about. At the very least, tens of thousands of eyes have already turned to J.League online or on TV. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese league is the only foreign AFC league with a TV deal in Thailand, a deal that coincided with Chanathip signing with Sapporo. With this attention comes the potential for kit sponsors or other advertisements within Thailand that keeps the pride of the sport in Asia and J.League at the forefront.

It’s Chanathip in the spotlight now, but his country’s feisty World Cup Qualifying campaign was just one example of the talent that's at the national team level and how many players are ready to step up to bigger leagues. And that’s just Thailand. There are entire lists dedicated to other Southeast Asian players capable of playing at a higher level. If K League continues to ignore the region in favor of overpriced South American and European mercenaries like their A-League and CSL counterparts, the J.League will well and truly cement its claim as the league of choice for ASEAN players ready to make the leap. A mistake that may hurt Korean clubs on the field, but definitely one that will hinder their global presence, and potentially pocketbooks.

Smart Money

Just last season, J.League signed a 10-year deal worth a staggering $2.05 billion with DAZN that not only kept the top three tiers of their pyramid easily available to watch, but has had a tremendous knock on effect with prize money. As the 2017 J.League champions, Kawasaki Frontale netted $13.7 million to be paid over three years in $8.8 million, $3.5 million and $1.3 million installments. Kashima Antlers, the runners-up, received $6.2 million to be paid over the same period, and Cerezo Osaka earned $3.1 million for finishing third. Even Kashiwa Reysol, who finished fourth, gets in on the action with a one time payment of $1.5 million. By comparison, Jeonbuk Hyundai only took home $3 million for winning the 2016 AFC Champions League. Runners-up Al-Ain earned $1.5 million, and the semi-finalists received $200,000. With the DAZN money, J.League can afford to pay its third place team more than the champions of Asia.

With no such TV/streaming deal in place, K League is severely falling behind. Even the league's elite, Jeonbuk Hyundai, earned far less than that on offer across the East Sea. The Jeonju side netted roughly $500,000 for winning the 2017 K League title. A figure that looks to remain static this season, which means every K League player looks across the small bit of ocean to Japan and sees a Champion net 20 times as much as their Korean counterpart. Being able to pay the league winner $14 million instead of the $500,000 not only ensures more incentives and potentially higher salaries for players, but also gives every J.League team a distinct advantage in Champions League. Perhaps not enough to keep up with the mega clubs in China, but enough to get solid internationals onto Japanese shores. A competitive edge funded chiefly by a broadcasting deal based on demand for the league. That demand that has been highlighted by Chanathip's success, but it has been cultivated for much longer than Messi Jay's time in Japan.

Partner Up

One of the more notable exchanges between J.League and Southeast Asian football came back in 2012 when Vissel Kobe partnered with Thai side Chonburi FC. A deal that included player exchanges, sponsorship deals, club friendlies, and tournaments with both teams. Similar partnerships have been struck between Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo and Malaysian giants Johor Darul Ta'zim FC,  FC Tokyo and Bangkok United, Yokohama F Marinos and Hong Kong side Metro Gallery FC, and more. The partnerships have seen the likes of Thailand U19 international Jakkit Wachpirom head out on loan, ASEAN league academy players training in Japan, and coaches going across the continent to better hone their craft. Moves that don't make for sexy headlines, but instead pave significant inroads within the Asian football community.

Speaking with Dan Orlowitz – author of the 2012 Vissel Kobe announcement piece and Football Tribe Japan writer/photojournalist – about the effects of these partnerships, he said "[J.League] have positioned themselves as mentors/kingmakers in Asia. Their respect has been earned not because of their political power, but because they've figured out how to produce players on the regular and how to run three pyramids of teams that aren't broke." An accomplishment that's been achieved over a relatively short amount of time and one that's already reaping rewards for the league in the form of ASEAN talent on the field, new sponsorships, and perhaps most importantly, eyes on the league.

How K League Can Benefit

It may have taken Chanathip Songkrasin's success for K League clubs to realize the true potential of Southeast Asia, but there are finally some wheels in motion to replicate J.League strategies in the region. Jeonbuk have partnered with Indonesia giants Persija Jakarta to "focus on the development of young players." Similarly, K League 2 side Ansan Greeners have signed a cooperation agreement with Thai 3rd division club Chamchuri United. Admittedly a much lower profile move between the lower levels of Asian football, but an important one to begin closing the gap between J.League's place at the top of the pecking order and wherever K League currently sits. Much like the moves between Vissel Kobe and Chonburi FC at the beginning of their partnership, these steps seem quite minor. And for the most part they are. But they're a vital step to get more diverse talent and viewership in a league sorely in need of a boost.

One way K League can help themselves would be to make their product easily accessible to more people, and therefore potential players and sponsors. It's something they toyed with briefly last year when they streamed both legs of the Promotion/Relegation Playoffs last year on Mycujoo. Although striking a deal with the streaming site wouldn't net Korean clubs nearly as much prize money as DAZN offered in Japan, it's a step that would fill a significant gap in exposure. As it stands J.League is in demand and available in Southeast Asia. The same can't be said for K League. Even if clubs scouted more, signed countless partnerships, and brought in ASEAN internationals, it wouldn't mean much if they couldn't reach a broader audience by doing so. The streaming services on offer in country through Naver are second to none, but they're geoblocked internationally and thus the league is inaccessible to most who would care to watch it outside of Korea. If K League were to follow through with streaming matches internationally on an easy to use site such as Mycujoo, then they could much more easily tap into the ASEAN marketplace and get eyes on their teams. The lure for the league would obviously be sponsorship deals and potential player movement, but perhaps equally important would be maintaining the profile of a top league on the continent.

Partnerships and streaming services alone won't be enough to return K League to its heyday, but for a league with continually shrinking attendances, they need something to revitalize the fanbase. Chanathip and the J.League clubs that fostered a culture that encouraged his move have shown one way to do it. Question is will K League clubs be open enough to outside influences to change their ways before they're passed by as one of Asia's best leagues?

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