asia levels paying field

SEOUL - Manchester United's South Korean winger Park Ji-sung and Glasgow Celtic star Shunsuke Nakamura of Japan needed to play in Europe to find fame throughout the world.

SEOUL - Manchester United's South Korean winger Park Ji-sung and Glasgow Celtic star Shunsuke Nakamura of Japan needed to play in Europe to find fame throughout the world.

Asia's future big names could find their fortunes lie within their own continent.

"I would love to see a Saudi player playing in Korea and a Korean playing in Saudi Arabia," Asian Football Confederation president Mohamed Bin Hammam says.

His dream is becoming a reality as Asia develops its own transfer market for the first time.

Clubs in major Asian leagues have long had limits on how many foreign players they could sign. Brazilians are by far the most popular import with 45 playing in Japan's top league last year and 13 out of 14 top tier South Korean clubs boasting at least one.

In the past, older players have left Europe for lucrative deals with Asian clubs in the twilight of their careers.

Intra-Asian moves, however, were rare. United Arab Emirates clubs liked Iranian players, while there were usually a couple of South Koreans or a scattering of Australians in Japan.

That all changed in the summer of 2008 as the J-League announced it would allow clubs to sign an additional player from another AFC member country on top of the usual limit of three foreigners.

J-League chairman Kenji Onitake admitted from the start that the plan was not only about success on the field.

"We are hoping that this will let [our] players compete with [other] Asian players and improve themselves, and at the same time expand our business market through broadcasting rights," Onitake said.

The AFC was quick to embrace the idea and extended it to the 2009 Asian Champions League. Japanese and Korean clubs have been just as swift to use this extra 3-plus-1 rule.

As expected, the J-League, widely perceived as the most successful in Asia, has invested in Koreans, seen as culturally similar to Japanese players and less risky than other imports. Stars from smaller football nations such as India and Vietnam have so far been ignored.

With the Korean currency weak against the yen, Seoul stores are full of day trippers from Tokyo. K-League stars offer similar value for money, especially for those J-League clubs feeling the effects of the global credit crunch.

The biggest signing is Gamba Osaka's acquisition of Korea striker Cho Jae-jin, who joins defender Park Dong-hyuk at the Asian champions.

K-League clubs have in turn opted for players from leagues lower down the Asian pecking order. Korean Champions Suwon Samsung Bluewings have signed former China captain Li Weifeng, and fellow international defender Feng Xiaoting is set to join Daegu.

"It is an honour to be the first Chinese player to come to the K-League. Compared with the Chinese league, the K-League is at a higher level," Li said. "I think that the standard in the K-League is the highest in Asia."

With their European-based players struggling, Chinese newspapers are already increasing coverage of the K-League.

Australian defenders Jade North and Sasa Ognevoski are also heading north to South Korea, joining Incheon United and Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma respectively in lucrative deals.

"Sasa is a solid defender and we expect that he will impress in the K-League," a Seongnam spokesman said.

Chinese clubs have also been on the lookout for the relatively cheap talent on offer in Australia's A-League, with Shanghai Shenhua and Beijing Guoan looking to sign Aussies.

Beijing has reportedly bid around $700000 (R7,1million) for Newcastle Jets' star striker Joel Griffiths, an offer so far rebuffed by the club.

West Asia has been slower off the mark, but now Arabian clubs are catching on with Saudi Arabian and UAE teams linked with former South Korean international and Middlesbrough striker Lee Dong-gook and Chinese star Shao Jiayi.

Riyadh powerhouse Al Hilal signed former South Korean international Seol Ki-hyeon on loan from English Premier League team Fulham. - Sapa-AP