Asia’s star benchwarmers desperate to play
With the World Cup fast approaching, big names like Shinji Kagawa and Makoto Hasebe are growing frustrated with their lack of game time
Shinji Kagawa had little choice but to make his frustration public, knowing that a lack of game time at Manchester United could have ramifications for his World Cup aspirations with Japan.
With the countdown on to Brazil 2014 and competition for places increasing, even the biggest names from the Asian region know that they can't afford to be sitting on the bench for their clubs. And Kagawa is the highest-profile of the benchwarmers.
The fact that he is yet to play a single minute of Manchester United's three games this English Premier League season has been debated at length in England and Japan.
The midfielder sat on the bench against Swansea City and Chelsea and failed to even make the first-team squad against Liverpool on September 1. Kagawa is expected to feature for Manchester United soon as coach David Moyes has hinted that the midfielder is not fully fit - although Kagawa scored for his country against Uruguay in August, contributed to a goal in the 3-0 win over Guatemala on September 6 and then scored against Ghana four days later.
"It's been frustrating not playing but there is a lot of time left and to score a goal like that gives me confidence," said Kagawa after the 3-1 win over Ghana on Tuesday.
Kagawa is not the only Asian star desperate for game time in the European leagues. Japan captain Makoto Hasebe left German club Wolfsburg to join Nuremburg just before European transfer deadline in a bid to play more. Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni admitted that he selected Hasebe and Kagawa against Guatemala and Ghana, at least in part, to give them game time.
Also in England, Japan defender Maya Yoshida is yet to play this season in the Premier League with Southampton.
"Of course my situation and Shinji's situation is not the same because Manchester United are a bigger team and I think it's harder," Yoshida said. "They have many games so he has more opportunities to play from now on - like the Champions League, FA Cup and Capital One Cup."
For South Korea and Australia - two of the other three Asian teams who have already qualified for next year's World Cup - this week's international break also presented a chance to give some star players much-needed time on the pitch.
As more Asian players head to England, Germany and Spain, the more obvious it becomes that there's no guarantees when it comes to playing time. As these exports tend to be established regular starters for their national teams, leeway is given at home. But if the bench becomes a more permanent position, then even the big names can lose their international status.
South Korea's Park Chu-young signed for Arsenal in a blaze of publicity in August 2011 but failed to start a Premier League game all season. It cost Park, who was his country's No 1 striker, a place with the national team. In August, South Korea coach Hong Myong-bo told the former captain, still officially an Arsenal player, to find a new club if he wanted to return to the international scene.
Hong didn't select midfield mainstay Ki Sung-yeung to face Haiti and Croatia, either. Ki, who lost his starting spot at Swansea City in the summer following a successful debut season with the club, joined EPL rivals Sunderland in a search for regular playing time.
South Korea's new star, Son Heung-min, perhaps represents a new, more circumspect, style of Asian player. The attacker, 21, was in demand from many of Europe's big clubs after some impressive performances for Hamburg and turned down a move to Uefa Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund to join Bayer Leverkusen, a smaller club who are also able to offer games in the prestigious continental competition, in a deal worth around US$15 million.
"I wanted to stay in the Bundesliga and Leverkusen and Dortmund wanted me," Son, who scored twice against Haiti, said after the move. "Both teams play in the Champions League but I thought Dortmund would use rotation more than Leverkusen. That's why I chose Leverkusen. It's really important to play regularly at my age."
Australia is not immune. The country had a collection of big names in the biggest leagues when it joined the Asian Football Confederation in 2006, but these days most foreign-based Socceroos can be found in Asia and not Europe. And those that are still in the west are not always playing.
Goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer joined Chelsea in the summer after more than a decade in the EPL but is now understudy to Petr Cech at Stamford Bridge.
"I've got every confidence in my own ability ... to get the games that I need to make sure I'm right for the World Cup, which is also vitally important to me," said Schwarzer, who played in Australia's thumping 6-0 defeat in Brazil on September 7.
Australia coach Holger Osieck told domestic media that Schwarzer would have to play in order to stay fit for the World Cup. It is a message that is getting through to Asia's biggest stars with Brazil 2014 just around the corner.