"Asian berth" rule set to shake up the region
The festive season is popular with football fans in England, with a busy fixture list seeing fans up and down the country pack grounds for both league and cup fixtures. Just as it is in England, so too is the New Year period synonymous with cup football in Japan, where since 1969 the season-ending Emperor's Cup final has been played on New Year's Day at the National Stadium in Tokyo.
This season's Emperor's Cup final will once again attract a capacity crowd to the historic home of Japanese football, but it was a Christmas Eve announcement by Gamba Osaka that could herald a new era for the game in Japan. That was the day an ambitious Gamba announced the signing of Cho Jae-Jin from Korean outfit Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, with the South Korean international the first big-name player to move to the J-League as a result of the recently conceived "Asian berth" rule.
Jae-Jin is no stranger to the J-League, where the powerful striker spent four successful seasons at Shimizu S-Pulse. When his contract expired with Shimizu at the end of the 2007 season, Jae-Jin was originally intent on a move to Europe. But after turning down the advances of Dutch club FC Utrecht, Jae-Jin subsequently failed to secure a move to the English Premier League - despite attracting interest from the likes of Fulham, West Ham United and Newcastle United - and the burly front man instead returned to his homeland for a season-long sojourn at Jeonbuk.
At the same time that Jae-Jin was enduring a relatively indifferent spell in his native South Korea, the J-League was busy conjuring a plan that would expand the pipeline of Asian talent to its shores. They came up with the "Asian berth" rule.
While the restriction on foreign players in Italy's Serie A fell by the wayside in the mid-1990's, a limit on foreign players has existed in the J-League since it kicked off in 1993. Previously, J-League clubs had been allowed to field just three foreign-born players on an A-Contract, although Japanese reserve teams often field a further two foreign players on a minimum-wage C-Contract - provided they are under the age of 20. Now the J-League has decided to add an extra place for foreign players - but there's a catch - those players must come from a fellow Asian nation.
The "Asian berth" rule could have a major impact on the game in the region. The J-League has a long history of cherry-picking Korean talent, with incumbent South Korean captain Kim Nam-Il currently playing his club football at Japanese side Vissel Kobe. Not only will the "Asian berth" help procure talent from the Korean peninsula, it could also impact on Australia's fledgling A-League, which is now part of the Asian Football Confederation.
Adelaide United's recent performances in both the AFC Champions League and FIFA Club World Cup have attracted the attention of Japanese clubs, with star trio Travis Dodd, Sasa Ognenovski and goalkeeper Eugene Galekovic all being linked with a move to the J-League. Captain Dodd is the jewel in the Adelaide crown, but the pacy midfielder is reputedly attracting interest from J-League giants Kashima Antlers - whom he impressed against en route to the AFC Champions League final.
On the pitch, J-League clubs will no doubt benefit from attracting some of the best Asian talent to its shores, but off the pitch, commercial factors have also played a role in the "Asian berth" rule. The J-League is keen to expand into untapped TV markets, with Indonesia and Thailand representing lucrative new frontiers, while the vast populations of India and China make those countries equally attractive propositions - although continuing friction with China makes it unlikely for the Japanese game to prove popular there.
The litmus test for the "Asian berth" rule will be whether any Japanese clubs take the plunge to sign players from untested markets. Perhaps not surprisingly, Koreans have comprised the most successful Asian imports to the J-League, prompting Gamba Osaka to pay a record 1.5 billion Won (£870,000) to Jeonbuk for the services of Cho Jae-Jin. However, Players from South-East Asian nations have so far been overlooked by J-League clubs and whether Japanese teams shake off their traditional reluctance to sign talent from developing South-East Asian leagues remains to be seen.
One thing is certain; the "Asian berth" rule looks set to shake up the Asian game and further enhance the J-League's reputation as the most professional league in the region. It will have domestic teams in South Korea and Australia scrambling, with clubs in those countries now forced to contend with a new market looking to attract their best and brightest, but it may also have players from some of Asia's less traditional football landscapes dreaming of a new route into the professional game.
The current Japanese season will come to an end on New Year's Day, with new signings and transfer speculation all that is left to keep fans of the Japanese game occupied until the new season kicks off again in March. 2009 could herald a new era for the Japanese game and J-League officials will be hoping that the "Asian berth" rule is one gamble that pays off.