Park Ji Sung is living proof that the PL is missing a trick

“I’m not frustrated. Over the years many skilful players have left the club. It was a rare opportunity for any player to play for United, so I am very proud.”

As you can guess these aren’t the words of Manchester United’s Park Ji Sung. They are the philosophical sentiments of Dong Fangzhuo, who had been offloaded in August 2008 by Manchester United after spending two years on loan to Belgian second division side Royal Antwerp and much of the following two years either in the United reserves or injured. Whilst Park Ji Sung is the resounding success, it is fair to say that the Asian market’s potential has not nearly been utilised.

The Premier League has seen the likes of Seol Ky-hyeon, Lee Young-pyo, Kim Do-heon and more make little more than a transient impression on the English game. The successes (Park Ji Sung and now Bolton’s Lee Chung-Yong) are definitely exceptions, but why is this the case? Gavin Hamilton, editor of World Soccer magazine, articulated his theory behind Asia’s unfulfilled mass potential:

“They are making a breakthrough but it doesn’t help when Asian teams get hammered at World Cups,” Hamilton told Reuters back in 2008. “It’s the only time the rest of the world sees Asian football. Commercially, clubs are not making much money from Asian players and there are work permit problems. That’s how they’re being judged.”

Despite the World Cup being co-hosted by Japan and South Korea in 2002, the success of the home nation under Guus Hiddink, and players like Park and Chung-Yong proving there is genuine talent as well as marketing goldmines in the continent, are Hamilton’s words still resonant two year on? North Korea’s 7-0 thrashing today at the hands of Portugal, South Korea’s humbling 4-1 defeat to Argentina and Japan’s relatively uninspiring two matches (despite victory against Cameroon) proves the sweeping judgments are merited on a national scale. A dangerous problem with stereotypes however is that, despite collectively being validated by results at World Cups, they certainly overshadow the individual abilities of players.

If we further the scope of the Asian market to include players of Indian and Pakistani descent we see an even more startling lack of representation in the English leagues. According to the 2001 census there were a little over 2.3 million Asian or British Asian people living in the UK, constituting some 4% of the total population. Yet only seven British Asian players earn their living in the professional game*. The Commission for Racial Equality released the results of a survey in 2004 which found only 10 British Asian players in Premier League academies – 0.8% of the total figure (in the past six years this figure has not noticeably increased). Again however, these statistics mean nothing if there are no attempts to understand the root cause of such misrepresentation. Piarra Powar, director of football’s equality and inclusion campaign Kick It Out, has some reasons to offer:

“One of the problems in football is that the Asian community is seen as one that doesn’t play football and doesn’t play football at the highest level. What’s more, the key people who are responsible for identifying talent that feed into professional clubs, I think, hold those views. Ultimately I think there is a sense [from the clubs] that getting an Asian player on board might be new – it would be untried, untested, so it may bring problems that the club or academy can’t deal with.”

Powar’s words offer a differing perspective but fail to address a chain of causation that, in reality, is merited; the Asian community really does not play football at the highest level so the stereotype is hardly unwarranted. But his argument that this prejudice hampers the futures of individual talents is, like the problems mentioned above with South Korea, North Korea and Japan at the World Cup, definitely credible. Premier League clubs have been quick to capitalise by scheduling pre season tours in Asia and Chelsea and Arsenal’s recent ventures into the subcontinent for young talent exhibits a growing interest in Asian players. Whether the basis for such ventures is in shirt sales or actual talent scouting remains to be seen at this early stage though.

From a marketing point of view the acquisition of veritable Asian talent is unbelievable. Yet the stance of commerciality and genuine talent being mutually exclusive is as dismissive as it is prejudiced; Park Ji Sung certainly warrants his place in United’s starting line up based on output instead of popularity. Though they are young nations in footballing terms there is no reason why more players from Asia can’t make the cultural and professional leap into the top flight, given a fair chance and a little bit of luck – something needed in all cases.

*as of 2009

Related article: A Small Step for Indian Football

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Click image below to see a gallery of the Italian babes at the World Cup: