HONG KONG, China, July 6 – Europe’s wealthy football clubs are sniffing around the hottest young talent in Asia as they scour the worldwide transfer market for prospects that will not break the bank.
With many top sides baulking at hugely inflated prices for European players, clubs are realising there are still plenty of bargains to be had in Asia, which remains largely untapped despite some high-profile exports.
The success of Park Ji-Sung at Manchester United and Shinji Kagawa at Borussia Dortmund, and Japanese star Keisuke Honda’s exploits at CSKA Moscow have convinced European clubs that Asians can deliver.
Players from Asian champions Japan and South Korea, which boast the region’s strongest domestic leagues, have inevitably been attracting the most interest from European suitors.
Last week, Bayern Munich snapped up Japanese starlet Takashi Usami, 19, on a one-year loan deal from J-League side Gamba Osaka with a view to a permanent deal.
The attacking midfielder-cum-striker won the J-League Young Player of the Year award last season, when he scored seven goals in 26 league matches.
“We have been watching him. He is very talented and has great attacking skills. We will give him the time to get used to life at Bayern,” said Christian Nerlinger, director of sport for the Bavarian giants.
Bayern will be hoping Usami has the same kind of impact his compatriot Kagawa has had at rivals and German champions Dortmund.
They signed the highly talented 22-year-old last year, taking advantage of a clause in his contract with Japanese club Cerezo Osaka that allowed him to move overseas for free.
Other players have inserted similar clauses into their contracts or simply moved abroad for free after their deals in Japan ended.
The attacking midfielder scored eight goals in 18 league games last season before breaking his foot and is just the latest in a long line of Japanese to successfully make the transition to German football.
“The German clubs have learned that Japan has many talented players they do not need to pay transfer fees for,” Japanese sports magazine Number said.
A token sum of 350,000 euros ($500,000) was paid in compensation by Dortmund to reflect the club’s development of his talent.
Another young Japanese striker tipped for big things is pacy 18-year-old Ryo Miyaichi, who joined Arsenal under the radar in January after turning out in a high-school tournament.
Miyaichi was immediately farmed out to Feyenoord in the Netherlands, where a successful spell — 12 starts and three goals — convinced Gunners boss Arsene Wenger that he could be ready for Premier League action.
At the same time Usami was finalising his switch to Germany, gangly striker Ji Dong-Won, who netted four times for South Korea at the Asian Cup in Doha, sealed his widely anticipated move to Sunderland.
The English Premier League side are reported to have paid the K-League’s Chunnam Dragons about two million pounds ($3.2 million) for the 20-year-old, who had a brief spell with English second-tier team Reading in 2007-2008.
“The Barclays Premier League is very different to the K-League so there is hard work ahead,” cautioned Sunderland manager Steve Bruce, the former Manchester United defender.
“But you just have to look at players like Park Ji-Sung and Lee Chung-Yong (Bolton) to see how well Korean players are adapting to its pace and physicality.”
The paltry amounts for Asian players compare starkly with the extortionate prices Premier League clubs have invested in English players this summer, including Liverpool’s reported 20 million pounds on Sunderland midfielder Jordan Henderson.
Rivals Manchester United forked out in the region of 16.5 million pounds for Blackburn defender Phil Jones, 19, who is yet to earn a senior cap for England.
Japan Times columnist Andrew McKirdy said Europe’s bargain-hunting could reap dividends for Asia’s national teams, comparing it to South America’s long history of exporting players.
“Such transfers are evidence of an ever-increasing standard of quality among young Japanese players, but also of a growing awareness in Europe that the J-League offers fertile ground for cheap talent,” McKirdy wrote last month.
“South American countries have worked within these parameters for many years, and if a constant stream of exports brings Japan’s national team up to a level approaching Brazil or Argentina then the benefits will be obvious.”