Thai players' success should provide boost for J League throughout Asia
Sanfrecce Hiroshima vs. Consadole Sapporo is not usually the big game in Japan, but on Saturday it gave J League bosses the start to the season they had been dreaming of. Almost half an hour into his debut for Hiroshima, Teerasil Dangda was left alone in the area and the striker headed home the only goal of the game from Yoshifumi Kashiwa's cross.
The goal was scored by perhaps the second biggest name in Thai football. The biggest belongs to Chanathip Songkrasin, who was on the same pitch as part of the losing Sapporo side. It was a game that was much talked about in Thailand too. Viewership figures in the Land of Smiles are not yet available, but more than 300 fans gathered at a J league event in Bangkok to watch the game live on a big screen.
The J League has a department devoted to growing the league internationally, and Southeast Asia, a football-loving region of more than 600 million that bridges India to the west and China to the east, has been seen as the perfect place to do so. In the first half of this decade, the league signed partnership agreements with Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. Individual J League clubs have entered partnerships with individual clubs from the region and broadcasting deals have been signed too. It is all part of a long-term strategy to increase the popularity, fan base and, ultimately, revenue of the J League.
The only problem in the past was that fans in these countries weren't especially interested in watching Japanese football. For those who don't follow local football -- and even those that do -- there are higher profile and more glamorous international leagues on offer than Japan's.
There is a way to increase interest however. Just as European teams know that signing Asian players can build followings, brands and then maybe more in countries such as Japan, the J League followed a similar path in the ASEAN region.
In 2013, Vietnam's Le Cong Vinh and, a year later, Irfan Bachdim of Indonesia, huge stars in their home countries, went to J League teams but struggled to make an impact. Any initial interest quickly dies if Asian players don't play. Park Ji-sung was a hit on the pitch for Manchester United, which helped the club become a hit off it commercially in South Korea. At Arsenal, the opposite was true for Park Chu-young.
Then in 2017, Chanathip, regarded as the most talented player in Southeast Asia, went to Sapporo. The playmaker played and played well. Suddenly, there was interest. Suddenly, Thailand television was sending camera crews to the far north of Japan.
The timing was good. The reputation of Thai football was improving anyway with the performances of the national team in qualification for the 2018 World Cup and clubs in the AFC Champions League. Teerasil scored five times in last year's continental competition, and after his brief time with Manchester City in 2007 and Almeria in Spain in 2014, obviously was open to a move overseas where he actually would have a chance of getting regular playing time.
That is the difference. For Southeast Asian players with dreams of foreign fields, the big leagues of Europe have been a gap too far. Japan still is a step up, but an attainable one. Chanathip has done it and Teerasil has had a very good start.
"I want to thank Kashiwa and everyone else on the team for working really hard together," Teerasil said. "Kashiwa put in a really good cross and I'm happy I was able to score from it. I'm glad I could contribute to this victory with my goal."
There is one more Thai in Japan. Theerathon Bunmathan has joined Vissel Kobe and is another major star back home. The full-back came on for the last 16 minutes in a 1-1 draw with Sagan Tosu.
There is pride back home, but a little concern too. The trio all come from the same club, Muangthong United. This obviously has considerably weakened the powerhouse, one that had started to impress in the AFC Champions League. Fans just north of Bangkok could be forgiven for wondering if this new adventure for Thai football should not involve some domestic rivals too. The feeling is heightened as the deals are loans, meaning that United are without their best players and without much in the way of financial compensation.
Maybe Myanmar is the answer for Muangthong. As Japan send their best to Europe, Thailand supply to Japan and now, the top talents of Myanmar are heading to Thailand.
That is no concern of the trio currently in Japan. None of them are likely to be lifting the trophy at the end of this season, but they have different objectives -- to keep playing and keep playing well. If that happens, fans back home will be happy as will the folks at J League headquarters.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.