The inception of the Premier League catalysed and solidified the idea that English club football reigns supreme on an international scale. For however underwhelming the national side has been since the turn of the millennium, a pulsating, gripping and ultra-competitive domestic top-flight lined with cinematic moments of spine-tingling pandemonium has more than compensated for international shortcomings.
At its most enthralling, it’s difficult to argue that there is a more unpredictable and entertaining division in world football. The side rooted to the bottom of the table can travel to face the league leaders and claim all three points – so the theory goes – though Huddersfield Town fans would be hasty to disagree.
The unpredictability is what sets it apart but if anybody boasts a stark claim to steal the Premier League’s crown then it’s La Liga.
Labelling the world’s best domestic league competition is a matter of subjectivity for the general supporter. For the bigwigs who pile unfathomable levels of cash into professional football, however, success can be measured through things like TV deals, shirt sales, viewing figures and attendances.
Every possible avenue to maximise revenues and numbers is worth exploring, and it seems that a growing trend could subtly influence how the broader battle between England and Spain will eventually pan out.
Footballers from East Asia have typically represented something of a novelty within Europe’s elite clubs. Few are deemed good enough to make the cross-continent transition and that is reflected in the scarcity of players from the Far East.
There are just three Japanese and two South Korean footballers currently in the Premier League. Not one single player from China – a nation with a population of 1.4billion – is currently employed by one of the 20 clubs which make up the division. Even those that ply their trade in England’s top-flight, such as Yoshinori Muto and Shinji Okazaki – struggle for regular opportunities.
Son Heung-min, however, is an outstanding anomaly who perches on the apex of Asian stardom, peering down at those mere mortals beneath him. In South Korea, a programme titled ‘Super Son’ is broadcast on a nightly basis to a population of more than 52 million people. Yep, that’s right, every single evening a highlight reel of Son’s best games and goals goes out on television for viewers to feast their eyes over.
What have you ever done? If anybody was lacking a sense of existential dread about their irrelevance in this world, Son’s popularity in his homeland is right here to provide it.
Everyone – not everyone – loves Harry Kane, even if he is painfully vanilla and mechanically locked into cliché mode, but Queen Elizabeth II would have to rescind his MBE if there was any danger that his popularity might lead to the production of a comparable nightly show.
Over in Spain, another Asian superstar has made the move to Europe and brought a sea of popularity with him in tandem. Wu Lei, 27, a man once compared to Diego Maradona by the coach who discovered his talent, signed for Espanyol in January after topping the goal scoring charts in the Chinese Super League for six straight seasons.
The club who are infamously renowned for living in Barcelona’s shadow are owned by Chinese businessman Chen Yensheng, and the commercial windfall from his signing has already manifested itself in a social media frenzy.
Espanyol have confirmed that its social media following has grown by nearly half-a-million people since Lei set foot in Catalonia, while news of his transfer was absorbed by 350 million Chinese natives via local media.
According to the BBC, approximately 25 million people in Lei’s homeland were tuned in to Espanyol’s clash with Real Vallodolid when he became the first Chinese player in history to score in Spain’s top-flight.
Even in the modern era these numbers are groundbreaking in their enormity.
That, in 2011, each Premier League fixture generated an average global audience of 12.3 million, according to Football-Marketing.com (via Bleacher Report), puts that unprecedented number into perspective. Lei is a very, very big deal in China.
The 63-cap international cannot pull La Liga ahead of the Premier League all by himself, but the attention he is bringing to the division in the world’s biggest nation suggests he could set a precedent for future commercially-orientated transfers.
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The mass appreciation for footballers from East Asia is so often a unanimous feeling which transcends geography, culture and patriotism; indeed, players who manage to adapt to the demands of Premier League football are generally adored by supporters of the clubs for whom they are employed.
Take Shinji Okazaki, for example, the relentlessly hard-working title-winner, is a heroic figure in Gary Lineker’s household, and he makes a point of consistently reminding Match of the Day viewers of that.
There aren’t enough legs on a large group of octopuses to count the number of times he’s confirmed that Okazaki is indeed his son’s favourite Leicester City player. He was never the most talented Fox in the box, the most prolific, the most skilful, the strongest or the quickest, but what he does possess is an infectiously admirable attitude and a beaming smile the size of Antarctica to boot.
Fair play, Gary, he’s a neutrals favourite too.
Ji Sung-Park will eternally be renowned as a cult hero for the key role he played under Sir Alex Ferguson in high-magnitude fixtures.
Chants regarding Manchester City’s Sun Jihai are more likely to be found down the pub or on the concourse than on the terraces themselves, but they still occasionally resurface in a blaze of nostalgic sentiment.
Son is comfortably the most talented of the aforementioned players. His prominence in the Premier League combined with his stratospheric reputation in South Korea will ensure that, for now, he will standout as the most supremely valuable player from the Far East in footballing terms, at least.
Son is the embodiment of an accumulation of qualities which could see East Asian players become an essential commodity for English-based clubs: he is an exemplary professional, broadens Tottenham’s international popularity, is infectiously popular amongst club supporters in the UK, and is an immensely gifted footballer.
But the fact Wu Lei can generate an audience of almost 50% of South Korea’s population for a single La Liga fixture is a telling sign that the popularity of Spain’s domestic top-flight could yet usurp that of England’s.
More genius signings designed to tap into commercial goldmines – such as Yensheng’s deal for Lei – could play a significant role in shifting the tectonic plates which support the battle between the Premier League and La Liga.
Tottenham’s hero is no longer the unrivalled, outstanding East Asian player on the elite footballing continent.
Watch out for the new kid on the block.