The Bundesliga has always been a breeding ground for local blood to develop in one of the best youth systems in the world. Indeed, almost all players from the 2014 World Cup winning German team still play in their domestic league.
It is a competition that has been criticised for not being competitive enough, but there is no doubting the fact it produces world-class talent on a consistent basis.
From goalkeepers like Loris Karius; to defenders like Niklas Sule; to attackers like Kevin Volland, the German factory is relentless. But, in recent years, there has been a new source of talent for the league.
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While it may not seem plausible to viewers alien to the Bundesliga, Asian footballers are taking Germany by storm. In a league that prides itself on local talent, this is something quite remarkable.
Football in Asian countries is a bit of an unknown entity throughout the rest of the world. Asian football fans are renowned for their vociferous support of international teams, but we never hear about the local teams themselves.
While Manchester United and Real Madrid are global entities, teams like Gamba Osaka and Pohang Steelers that win the AFC Champions League on a regular basis are never given the same recognition. With this, the players themselves never get the acclaim their talent merits.
Indeed, Asian football is sometimes looked at as a retirement home for footballers in the twilight of their careers as they seek to earn a last 'payday'. But, this cannot hide the fact there is some real talent in these leagues that goes unappreciated. For example, a player like Yashuito Endo, who has clocked up close to 450 appearances for Gamba Osaka and more than 150 caps for Japan, has next to no following outside of Japan.
In contrast, any player that shows an ounce of talent in the big European Leagues is fawned upon with high paying contracts and media recognition. For Asian players, it has become a case of either moving to Europe or remaining unknown in Asia.
The problem in the past was the scouting networks for big European teams were never tuned into the progress being made in Asia, it was often looked at as an afterthought.
If you were lucky like Park Ji Sung and Shinsuke Nakamura were, you would end up tasting success, but if you were not so lucky, you would end up like Endo, unappreciated despite being so talented.
However, in recent years, the Bundesliga has bucked that trend and more and more Asian players are making the move to Germany. For example, the Bundesliga houses 12 Japanese players and five Korean players. Only Austria, Switzerland and Brazil have more non-German players playing in the Bundesliga.
Given the proximity of Austria and Switzerland to Germany and Brazil’s immensely high reputation, it is extraordinary that these countries are able to compete with them. The Bundesliga has given these Asian players the platform to fulfill their dream of playing in Europe.
But, why Germany? According to FourFourTwo, close to a fifth of the world's best Asian players have found Germany to be their “home away from home”. Despite being less popular globally than the Premier League or La Liga, the Bundesliga is able to garner these Asian gems.
While Manchester United are spending close to £20 million pounds for Shinji Kagawa, Borussia Dortmund were able to find him for close to nothing. Fewer Japanese players have played in the entire history of the Premier League than those that currently ply their trade in the Bundesliga. So, why is this happening?
Asia and Germany seem to have shared ideals when it comes to their approach to football. German legend Lothar Matthaus has said that the country shares a “special relationship” with Asia. “Asian players have more in common with the Bundesliga than with Italian or Spanish leagues because they are wedded to the team cause, are hard-working and disciplined," Matthaus told ESPN FC.
Asian players just seem to adapt better to the German environment than in other leagues. A case in point is Kagawa who left Dortmund for Manchester United a few seasons ago.
However, he did enjoy the same success at United and was eventually sold back to Dortmund. He returned and slotted in like he had never been away. The determination and willingness of Asian players is perfectly captured in the Bundesliga.
It can also be attributed to the immense history that is shared between the two regions. This dates back to the 1980’s, when Korean legend Cha Bum-kun was the leading face of Eintracht Frankfurt. Similarly, the popularity in Japan started when Yasuhiko Okudera moved to FC Koln.
Hiroshi Ninomiya, the Japan manager at the time, made a point to showcase his players to German coaches. Indeed, famous coaches like Dettmar Cramer and Hennes Weisweiler came to Japan and inspired football over there. This rapport has transferred on to today as German teams have an easier access to Asian talent because of the good relations.
Asian footballers are currently creating shockwaves in the Bundesliga and, therefore, players like Yoshinori Muto and Hiroshi Kiyotake are able to make a name for themselves.
Given time, it will be interesting to see whether other leagues will also adopt this model and widen their network to Asian players.
It is just too big a talent pool to be neglected.
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