The likes of Park Ji Sung, Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda have achieved the top standard for Asian footballers – to play at the highest level in Europe.
But as Asia continues to cast its eye on Europe, a path eastwards has opened, with top players moving the other way.
Chelsea midfielder Ramires (Jiangsu Suning), AS Roma’s Gervinho and Paris St Germain’s Ezequiel Lavezzi (both Hebei China Fortune) and Inter Milan’s Colombian international Freddy Guarin (Shanghai Shenhua) all moved to Chinese clubs in the January transfer window.
Queens Park Rangers skipper Nedum Onuoha and star Alejandro Faurlin both believe that the new trend will benefit the sport.
Speaking to eight young footballers selected from the Air Asia-Queens Park Rangers Coaching Clinics in 2015 for a week-long training stint at the club, the duo revealed they were open to offers from Asian clubs.
“Anywhere is an option for me, why not? What’s happening in China is interesting, they’re drawing out some of the best talent in the world,” said Onuoha, at the League Championship club’s Harlington training facility.
“This gives people more options if competitive football is enjoyed by more around the world.”
Hailing from Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and China, the eight young footballers were captivated by the QPR duo, both 29. Faurlin, an Argentine midfielder, came to England seven years ago.
He believes his move has helped pave the way for more of his countrymen to ply their trade in England.
And China’s moves in the transfer market could have a similar effect.
“Seven years ago, when I came, there were not many Argentine players in the lower divisions. Now there are a lot, and I think I played a role in that,” said Faurlin.
“Football is not just about money, it’s also about cultures. Once you give an opportunity, and open your doors to players… you’ll see more come in – now we (English football) have players from Japan, China, Argentina, and it’s great for everyone.”
Former QPR and Tottenham Hotspur winger, Andy Sinton, feels that naysayers should not be so quick to question the ambitions of players like Ramires and Gervinho, both 28, who took up the China option.
“Football is global now, and you can’t say if it’s good or bad. I don’t know how much Chinese football will take off after this, but they’re pushing their football story by attracting good foreign players in their prime,” said the 49-year-old, a former England international who is now a QPR club ambassador.
“I can’t answer for the players who’ve moved there, but it is a challenge, and it’s nice to get involved at the start of something new.”
Chinese clubs’ headfirst dive into the international transfer market is not the only move that has caught the eye of footballers in England.
Former Liverpool and Arsenal winger Jermaine Pennant’s move to Singapore side Tampines Rovers has also been noticed here.
“I don’t know Jermaine personally, but he’s a good player who’s played at good clubs. At 33, there’s no reason why he can’t play for a few more good years,” said Sinton, who also made his name as a winger.
Pennant’s move and the Republic’s reputation as a safe, vibrant country could help attract more from the English game to the S.League.
“I’ve been to Singapore, and I have to say I’m a bit jealous of that,” quipped Onuoha.
Indeed, even Malaysia has caught the eye of Europe, but for a slightly different reason.
“That was an incredible goal,” said Onuoha of the sensational free-kick goal by Penang’s Faiz Subri in the Malaysian Super League side’s 4-1 win over Pahang last month.
Struck with the right foot, the ball went to the left, before swerving wickedly and dipping into the top-right corner of the Pahang goal. Videos of the goal went viral online.
“I wonder how many times he tried that before it worked, but now that it’s gone in, he wouldn’t have to,” added the Nigeria-born defender.
“When I first saw it, I thought, what was he thinking!”
This article was first published on March 8, 2016.
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