Why don't we see Southeast Asian Footballers in Europe?
Out of the 11 Southeast Asian nations, only three have had players in European competition in the last 40 years. A lack of funding, scouting and sports programs is holding the region back.
Southeast Asia’s love for the beautiful game
There are over 655 million people living in the region, making it one of the most underrepresented regions in European football, with very few of the countries’ professionals making it to Europe’s elite. Only one Southeast Asian player has played in the English top-flight, goalkeeper Neil Etheridge for Cardiff City. Yet, there is still huge amounts of love and excitement from football fans in the region for the beautiful game.
In an interview with ex-Singaporean footballer Rhysh Roshan Rai, he explained why that is: ‘(There’s) lots of love, lots of passion for the game in this region. And it's not just for overseas teams, it's not just for the big-name teams. It's also for the local clubs as well.’
Asian football writer Scott McIntyre thinks it is the most football-crazy region in the world: ‘I've travelled right across the world reporting on the game and the region, as a whole, is the most passionate I've seen anywhere on the planet, including South America.’
If these quotes don’t highlight the passion for football in the region enough, all you need to look at is the attendance and fanfare of local games. The attendance of the last COVID restriction-free Malaysian Cup Final in 2019 drew in an attendance of 85,420, more than the full capacity of Wembley Stadium in London.
The case of Safawi Rasid
A recent example of a Southeast Asian player who had an opportunity to make it in Europe was Malaysian winger Safawi Rasid, arguably one of the most exciting and explosive talents to come out of the country in the last few years. Safawi was sent on loan to top-tier Portuguese side Porimonense SC in 2020, following his most prolific season of his career in 2019, bagging 20 goals in 36 appearances and being an ever-present for the national team.
Credit: Twitter - @AsianFootballs
Safawi spent three months in Portugal, where he only made one appearance for the U-23 side before cutting his loan short amid rumours of home sickness and a lack of playing time. The best player in Malaysia struggled to find his feet in Europe, it was not a good look for the country or the region.
English generally isn’t spoken fluently in the region and the culture in Europe differs greatly to Southeast Asian countries. More should be done to accommodate players, such as Safawi Rasid.
Those who have made it
There is a thirst from fans in the region to see one of their own make it in Europe, as Marc Leong, a member of the Malaysian society at Oxford Brookes University puts: ‘If there was a Southeast Asian player being represented, even on the bench, as long as they're there, everyone in the region would go crazy.’
There are players from the region in Europe’s topflight divisions now, more than there were a decade ago, but numbers are still very far and few between.
Malaysian defender Dion Cools is one of the footballers as mentioned in the introduction to play in European competition, playing for his parent club FC Midtjylland in Champions League qualification and the Europa League group stage, though he is half-Belgian and was raised there, therefore he had the advantages of the Belgian football pyramid to aid him in his career.
Philippines’ goalkeeper Neil Etheridge is similar, being raised in England yet playing for the Philippines, giving the country an advantage in absence of their poor youth development structure.
Lack of scouting, coaching and funding
The root of this overarching problem comes from the lack of structure and funding of youth development in the region, coupled with the reluctance from the clubs in Europe to set up scouting networks in the region. Rhysh Roshan Rai spoke on this issue: ‘aside from the technical and physical things that players in this region lack, it's also about having eyes on the region, you know, scouts need to see you, coaches need to see you.’
Scott McIntyre suggested that the reluctance of European clubs sending scouts over are to do with factors from lack of knowledge to racism, saying: ‘many players must move to 'secondary markets' (Belgium, Netherlands etc) before being given a chance in England or other 'bigger' leagues.’
There is a lack of high-quality facilities in the region for the youth to play and be coached as well, as Marc Leong recalls from his childhood in Malaysia: ‘We need good facilities, which I think we only really have one, maybe two.’
Rhysh Roshan Rai expanded on the importance of youth structure: ‘When you look at youth development structure, you want to have this pyramid that's wide at the base. You start to sort of streamline it as you get to senior football. But in some places, it looks like that pyramid is a little bit all over the place.’
Asian Football writer Martin Lowe explained that Southeast Asian clubs should learn from Japan and Korea, as they have overtaken them in footballing structure since the 70s, when Southeast Asia were at the pinnacle of Asian football. ‘This is where Southeast Asian Football can consider J League teams and K League teams, who sell off their players for far too cheaply than they actually are.’ When speaking about Vietnamese clubs not letting their players leave on a cut-price.
Vietnam was praised by the 3/4 interviewees for their performances and improved structure, though it is not perfect, and their output of young talent in the build up to the 48-team world cup in 2030, perhaps providing a rough blueprint for the other Southeast Asian countries. Youth development for these countries and their players is the key to success, long, or short-term.