K-League becomes increasingly cosmopolitanIt wasn’t that long ago that the vast majority of foreign players in the K-League were Brazilians, but the modern version of East Asia’s oldest league is rapidly becoming the continent’s most cosmopolitan competition.
With Brazil generally seen as the most powerful nation in the football world, it was understandable that most K-League coaches would head to South America to find a striker capable of scoring goals to deliver the title.
Out of the maximum number of foreign players allowed four years ago - 39 in 2007 - 14 K-League teams employed 25 Brazilian players.
The 2011 campaign is less than a month away and despite an increased limit of 45 players from around the world, the number of imports from the South American nation has dropped to 18.
“In the past, there were too many Brazilians,” said Kwon Sung-jin, deputy general manager of the K-League. “Before, most coaches preferred direct football with one or two Brazilian strikers there to score goals.
“These days, there are more young coaches in the K-League and they are more tactically aware of international football and they are aware of many different styles of football. So it is natural to seek players from many different countries and not limit themselves to Brazil.”
Every year sees different nationalities heading to East Asia, and 2011 promises to be little different with new players regularly being added to rosters.
Even a team such as Gangwon FC, which finished near the bottom of the standings last season, has a roster that contains two Croatians, one Bosnian and a player from China. Busan, another usual struggler, has Brazilian, Dutch and Australian imports. K-League champion FC Seoul has on its roster a Brazilian, Montenegrin, Uzbek and Colombian.
Kwon believes that the exploits of Korean football in recent years as well as the nation’s increased standing as a whole have helped attract higher quality and more varied overseas players.
“In Asian terms, the K-League is a professional league and players know they will be treated professionally and get paid on time. Korean football is improving and when you add the fact that Korea’s ‘brand’ is improving, too, more people recognize it is a good place to live.”
When five clubs formed the K-League in 1983, few would have predicted that by 2011, 16 teams would be competing for the title and a single game would feature players from such far-flung countries as the Netherlands, Australia, Colombia, Brazil, Montenegro and Uzbekistan.
All but one league team are allowed to sign three players from outside Korea and another that hails from a fellow member of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Military club Sangju Sangmu is the exception and can only field domestic stars.
In recent seasons, clubs that have invested in talented, and preferably settled, foreign players that complement a strong Korean spine, have enjoyed the most success. Most teams still try to sign foreign stars who have that extra talent to unlock Korean defenses but there are now more defenders and midfielders heading to the K-League.
Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma lifted the 2010 Asian Champions League trophy - a record ninth victory for a Korean club - with its three foreign stars shining through the competition.
Dzenan Radoncic of Montenegro scored four goals against Asia’s best defenses, Colombia’s Mauricio Molina managed seven while Australian defender Sasa Ognenovski was named the tournament MVP and picked the Asian player of 2010 by the AFC.
Ognenovski, who made his debut for the Australian national team in November on the back of his K-League exploits, believes that Korea is a good testing ground.
“A lot of Aussies I know move to Eastern European countries,” Ognenovski said. “But I don’t think the football there is better than what it is here, especially when you are playing for the top three or four teams here. I don’t think it is anywhere near what is played in Japan or Korea.”
A lot of foreigners come here and a lot of them don’t stay. They get here quickly and leave quickly.
Ognenovski’s former Seongnam teammate Molina is not one of them. The former Colombian international has impressed so much that FC Seoul paid a reported fee of more than 1.5 billion won ($1.35 million) to sign him from Seongnam.
FC Seoul won the 2010 K-League title with long-termers Adilson of Brazil and Dejan Damjanovic of Montenegro, and Uzbekistan’s star midfielder Server Djeparov midway through the season.
Djeparov, the 2008 Asian Player of the Year, has been joined in the league by fellow international Timur Kapadze, who has moved to Incheon United.
Behzod Nazarov, a spokesman for Uzbekistan’s leading club Pakhtakor and a former employer of both players, is positive about players’ moves from Central Asia to the east.
“The media as well as fans in Uzbekistan are very happy with these transfers as they know that if Uzbek players move to strong leagues, it can only help the national team,” said Nazarov. “We hope that players like Djeparov and Kapadze can move on to the next level as players in Korea
“There are two reasons why people at home are happy to see players move to Korea,” added Nazarov. “The first is that Djeparov won the title last year with Seoul in Korea and the second is that Korean clubs have been successful in the Asian Champions League in recent years, which means that Uzbekistan fans have much interest in Korean football and think that the K-League is a strong league.”
Success in Asia is attractive for overseas stars. K-League clubs have won three of the last five Asian Champions League titles and then gone on to impress at the FIFA Club World Cup. For players from other Asian nations, it can offer a path to success and global recognition.
“Korean clubs dominated the Asian Champion League last season and showed that the K-League is a better league than China’s,” said Tony Mutong, chief editor of Goal.com.
“The Chinese media and fans feel happy to see our players move to the K-League. We are happy to hear some positive news about our players receiving praises by foreign media, just like Korean fans feel happy when Park Ji-sung, Lee Chung-yong and Ki Sung-yueng are praised by the British media.”
It is not only players in Asia that have noticed the success of Korean clubs. The growing reputation of the K-League has impressed further afield.
Former Ghanaian international Derek Asamoah recently joined the Pohang Steelers, the most successful club team in Asian soccer history with three continental titles.
“I’m extremely happy to have been able to join one of the most prestigious teams in Asia,” said Asamoah, who played for his country against South Korea in a 2006 friendly in Seoul.