J.League door widens for Singaporean footballers
Lifting of restrictions for partner nations, such as Singapore, means their players no longer sign under import quota, reducing one barrier to entry
Geylang International wingers Gabriel Quak and Shawal Anuar will soon find out if they receive a contract offer from second-tier Japanese club Matsumoto Yamaga.
The duo will play for the Ptarmigans in today's friendly against Azul Claro Numazu, a J3 League side that feature numerous former Albirex Niigata Singapore players.
But, even if they don't land a J.League deal, it may be only a matter of time before a Singaporean player makes it into Asia's top football league.
Ahead of this season, the J.League announced that there will be "no restrictions on the number of players from partner nations" for clubs within its three divisions.
Currently, the countries on the list are Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Singapore, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia and Qatar.
This means players from these countries will no longer count towards the five-import quota, and will be considered as a local player instead.
J.League international relations official Kei Koyama told The New Paper: "We are trying to bring more and more Asean players to the J.League.
"There will be more exposure and attention in this region if we have top stars from each country.
"That would also be beneficial for Southeast Asia as these footballers would be playing in Japan, which is the highest level of club football in Asia. They can then grow and take back their experience to their respective national teams."
The barriers of entry have been lowered.
It's now easier to get there, but to thrive in Japan will be a whole lot tougher.
A case in point is Indonesian heartthrob Irfan Bachdim, who featured in just seven matches and played less than 100 minutes across three seasons for Consadole Sapporo in the second tier before parting ways before the start of this season.
As of now, there are only three Asean players in the J.League, and all of them are signed on loan.
Thai star playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin is with newly-promoted J1 League team Sapporo, his 18-year-old countryman Sittichok Phaso joined J3 League's Kagoshima United, while exciting Cambodian forward Chan Vathanka also signed for Fujieda MYFC in the third division.
Yoshiyuki Kato, general manager of J2 League side Yamaga, said: "The partner nation initiative is a good programme that allows players from lower-ranked countries to play in the J.League.
"Japanese clubs will definitely be interested to look at the top players from these countries.
"What we are looking for are players who are quick an intelligent.
"To be honest, defensive players from these countries are more at a losing end because they are generally smaller in build compared to the Japanese, although there can be exceptions."
The ability to quickly adapt to the Japanese style of play, culture and conditions is another important factor.
Japanese officials don't just look out for technical ability, but also how well a footballer eats to get enough nutrition and bulk, as well as their personalities and how well they blend into their teams.
Koyama added: "Japanese football is quite different from Asean football in the sense that it is more systematic and more collective here.
"Another important ingredient to success is players have to be eager and passionate to be a representative for their country in the J.League.
"That pride can spur them to a higher level. I believe sooner or later there will be Singaporean footballers out there who are up to the mark."
*David Lee's trip is courtesy of Epson, sponsors of Matsumoto Yamaga and Geylang International