Should the A-League Men strengthen its relationship with the South-East Asian game?
There's no doubt that the A-League Men has provided a platform for a host of exciting Asian talents to showcase their quality down under in its 17 seasons. However, there is one region on the continent the league has arguably glossed over regarding recruitment. South-East Asia is a potentially untapped market, and players from the region may provide a quality and off-field boost to the competition.
In recruiting players from South-East Asian leagues or with a South-East Asian heritage, A-League clubs have done very little. And those who have come from South-East Asia haven't always struggled. The most notable success story was Dutch-born Indonesian striker Sergio van Dijk, who made 92 appearances in the competition across stints with Brisbane Roar and Adelaide United. Although Dutch-born, van Dijk made several appearances for the Indonesian national team.
Meanwhile, the first player from a South-East Asian country to appear in the A-League proved to be a successful signing. Thai defensive midfielder Surat Sukha debuted for Melbourne Victory in August 2009 and made 36 league appearances across two seasons. Sukha's fellow countryman Sutee Suksomkit had far less success, though. He joined Victory in the same window on a loan deal that lasted only six months, with the striker featuring just nine times.
Surat Sukha became the first South-East Asian player to sign for an A-League club when he joined Melbourne Victory in 2009. (Twitter: @gomvfc)
However, in 2015, Victory's cross-town rivals Melbourne City loaned in Singapore's Safuwan Baharudin to boost the squad heading into the 2014/15 finals series. Baharudin started his A-League career by scoring twice across six appearances for the club. They were keen to keep him around long-term. But a spine injury in his sixth appearance against Wellington complicated a permanent deal, and the versatile defender returned to his homeland instead.
The most recent example of players signed from the South-East Asian region was the Newcastle Jets' double loan swoop of Malaysians Syahrian Abimanyu and Liridon Krasniqi in February 2021. Both were non-factors, with neither starting a game for the club during very brief loan stints.
So, an A-League Men club has not brought in a single successful South-East Asian signing since January 2015. Is there a quality issue? It's possible clubs do not see the benefit of assigning visa spots to South-East Asian players. Perhaps they don't see them adding genuine quality.
Well, speaking to The Sydney Morning Herald in February of this year, APL CEO, and crucially, former Sydney FC CEO Danny Townsend, tended to disagree with such sentiment.
"There are players there [who are] good enough for the A-League,” Townsend said.
“There are players from India, Thailand, players who resonate with migrant populations and also deliver something different on the pitch.”
Townsend's point regarding migrant populations refers more to the potential impact on fan engagement when signing such players. Take former Sydney FC striker Reza Ghoochannejhad as an example. Albeit an Asian signing, top players in this region develop an almost cult-like following that will follow them to Australia. In Ghoochannejhad's case, fans from the Iranian community would attend Sydney's home matches to catch a glimpse of a player who once scored at a World Cup for his country.
Ghoochannejhad attracted Iranian fans to A-League games during his time at Sydney FC. (Sydney FC)
Let's return to the quality argument. Townsend's comment about these players being good enough carries weight when you contrast recent trends between the A-League Men and their South-East Asian counterparts.
The current AFC club competitions ranking lists Australia as 24th out of 47 nations, whilst South-East Asian countries such as Malaysia (8th), Vietnam (10th), and Thailand (12th) all rank significantly higher. Australia's decline in this ranking is undoubtedly heavily influenced by the underwhelming performances of its clubs in the Asian Champions League. As a result, clubs from Thailand and Vietnam are allocated more slots in the confederation's premier football competition. Shockingly, Australia, after having three slots allocated for its teams in the competition over the past decade, will only receive one direct slot into the ACL group stage from 2023 onwards.
By contrast, Thailand (two direct slots, two indirect) and Vietnam (one direct, one indirect) now have a greater allocation. Meanwhile, the Philippines and Malaysia also have one direct slot. Although still slightly behind, South-East Asian nations Singapore and Indonesia have one indirect slot from 2023. So, Australia is near the bottom of the food chain in the ACL East Region.
The silver lining is that A-League Men clubs now have two direct slots in the AFC Cup, Asia's second-tier club competition. It's a competition that many critics are considering to be winnable for Australia's clubs. But the allocation is again on par with South-East Asia, as Malaysia and the Philippines, for example, have two direct slots.
So, rightly or wrongly, there is a clear shift in how Asia, specifically the AFC, perceives the quality of Australian football with its South-East Asian counterparts. From their perspective, the quality gap between clubs and leagues is closing, and they may even think they are on equal footing. I believe Australia's top tier is better than any South-East Asian league. Furthermore, resorting to continental performance as a sole barometer of a league's quality is a simplistic approach by the AFC.
But put a club perspective to one side for the moment. Australian football fans have seen a quality shift within South-East Asian nations when watching the Socceroos' most recent encounters against opposition from the region. In truth, those meetings have been few and far between, but the results were less predictable than one might have thought.
In qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Ange Postecoglou's Roos came across a rather plucky Thailand outfit. In Bangkok in November 2016, Australia required a Mile Jedinak penalty to salvage a 2-2 draw after a Teerasil Dangda brace put the War Elephants in pole position for an upset. Similarly, in September 2017, during the same qualifying stage, Australia needed an 86th-minute Mathew Leckie winner to earn three points against Thailand at AAMI Park.
Dangda celebrates one of his two goals against the Socceroos back in November 2016. (MyFootball)
Another South-East Asian nation, Vietnam, proved a tricky assignment when the Socceroos faced them in September 2021 in the third round of qualifying for this World Cup. A Rhyan Grant goal gave Australia a narrow 1-0 win in sweltering conditions. However, the hosts were arguably better and deserved more, even mustering more attempts over the ninety minutes. Any idea that Vietnam was a tough test for Graham Arnold's current side was put to bed back in January, though, as Australia dominated in a 4-0 victory.
But taking a closer look at these two nations, Thailand and Vietnam, we can see improvement in recent years, albeit in a non-linear fashion. Neither side made the final stage of qualifying for 2014, but Thailand made a breakthrough in 2018.
Although they did not win a game in third-round qualifying, some players from the team went on to play in leagues that are arguably stronger than the A-League Men. Goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan had stints in Belgium and Japan, whilst Theerathon Bunmathan and "Thai Messi" Chanathip Songkrasin also secured moves to the J-League. Australian football fans might remember Bunmathan being a crucial part of Postecoglou's Yokohama F-Marinos and their 2019 title success. The left-back played 25 games, scoring three goals and picking up four assists. So, Yokohama, one of the giants of Asian football, proved that a low-key signing from South-East Asia could be additive for a team competing for honours at the top.
Meanwhile, Vietnam's improvement has only been more noticeable in the last two to three years. Unlike Thailand, they did not qualify for the third round in 2018 but did make it that far in 2022 qualifying. Under South Korean manager Park Hang-seo they did finish bottom of Group B. But of their eight defeats, half came by a 1-0 scoreline. They were undoubtedly competitive and weren't there to make up the numbers.
But along with World Cup qualifying performance, both countries did make it to the knockout stages of the 2019 Asian Cup. Thailand negotiated a tricky group that included hosts the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and India, then took the lead in the last 16 against China. But two quick-fire second-half goals meant they finished on the losing side of an unfortunate 2-1 result.
Vietnam themselves went on a historic run to the quarter-finals, only losing to heavyweights Japan through a Ritsu Doan penalty. To put that into context, Australia also went out at the quarter-final stage to the UAE by a 1-0 scoreline.
So what is the point of this summary of recent results? It may not prove beyond all doubt that players from the region, particularly Thailand and Vietnam, will undoubtedly provide quality to the A-League Men. But it shows that Australian fans should not view such nations with disregard or suggest their football is unbearable to watch.
But Front Page Football has been able to get further insight from a few Australians who have, or currently ply their trade in South-East Asia. Former A-League midfielder Giancarlo Gallifuoco, Khonkaen United defender Joshua Grommen, and Aaron Evans, a cult hero during his time in Indonesia, all had fascinating views on the A-League Men/South-East Asia debate.
On the quality aspect, Gallifuoco believes it's difficult to compare.
"The style of play is completely different between the leagues due to the climate differences. In Australia, similar to the UK, it looks like 90 minutes of quite an athletic style of football," the Kuala Lumpur City defender said.
"In Malaysia, due to the humidity, it’s usually a game of two halves, where the tempo slows down, and the focus is more tactical in the latter minutes of the game."
But my conversations with this trio centred more around their personal experiences and career paths.
Gallifuoco, initially a promising youngster at Tottenham Hotspur in England, eventually went on to play for three different A-League clubs. When he moved to Malaysia in February 2021, his career started to take off. A landmark moment came when he scored the decisive penalty in the inter-zone play-off final that sent Kuala Lumpur to the 2022 AFC Cup Final. They may have lost the final to Al-Seeb, though reaching it was a massive achievement.
Meanwhile, Grommen has played in the Philippines, Malaysia, and now Thailand. He has been voted into the Team of the Week in the Malaysian Super League and Thai League 1 on several occasions and played in both the AFC Cup and Asian Champions League. Now at Khonkaen United, Grommen is one of the first names on the team sheet. His consistent displays were rewarded last year with a contract extension until the end of the 2023/24 season. Grommen is also eligible to play for the Philippines internationally through his Filipino mother, Alma.
Finally, Canberra-born Evans thrived for the best part of five years in Indonesia's BRI Liga 1 competition. In an interview with FPF back in July, he even urged other Australians to move to Indonesia. Evans himself now plays in India with NorthEast United FC.
Evans during his time with Indonesian club Persis Solo. (Persis Solo)
Before he completed his move to the Indian Super League, Evans garnered interest from Tony Popovic and the Melbourne Victory, who offered him a trial. That was ultimately unsuccessful, but it opened the discourse to consider whether A-League Men clubs might overlook Australians who play in South-East Asian competitions.
"Personally, I have to agree with this [that South-East Asian-based players are overlooked]," Evans said.
"Throughout my nine years as a professional footballer abroad, I haven’t gotten much interest from A-League clubs.
"Whether that is because they look to recycle players who already have A-League experience, I can’t comment on that. But statistically, it does seem that way.
"I’m sure if most Australians who are playing abroad or who have been overlooked (for whatever reason) got interest, they’d jump at the opportunity [to] come back home and play in the A-League.
"So I believe the A-League should look at not only players in the A-League but also abroad, whether in South-East Asia or anywhere in the world."
Despite his feeling that players from the region are overlooked, Evans was not angry that Victory did not opt to sign him to a contract.
"Melbourne Victory was a great experience for me. Although I didn’t get offered a contract, the club itself, from the staff all the way to the playing group, were fantastic," he said.
"Obviously, it was upsetting not getting offered a contract with arguably one of the best clubs in Australia. It was a fantastic opportunity for me personally to see where I’m at, both technically and physically, after playing abroad for so many years.
"I learnt a lot from the Victory while I was there; it showed me what is required and how A-League clubs go about their days, and the level, both technical and physical, you have to be at.
"Now, thanks to the opportunity from the Victory, I know exactly how to approach the next club/opportunity I get in the A-League. I’ll be sure to be ready for when that time comes."
Furthermore, Evans also stated that during his time in Indonesia, he didn't receive official offers from any A-League clubs. He occasionally got some interest through agents contacting him and inquiring, but nothing specific from an A-League club.
Grommen was far more damning in his summation of Australian clubs and their perception of South-East Asia. He seemed to point to the A-League Men being a closed shop for players in the region.
"[The] A-League is a tough league to get into if you’re not already playing in the league from a younger age, or you come into the league as a big signing," he said.
"If you look at the level of the Thai league, there isn’t a lot of difference in [the] quality of players, and you can see this when clubs compete in the Asian Champions League.
"When it comes to getting looked at in the A-League, a lot of the clubs choose to sign players that have already made a name in the competition instead of trying to sign players abroad. So this gives very little chance for players who are doing very well and can play in this league but don’t get given the opportunity.
"I understand why A-League clubs keep signing the same players that have played in the league for many years. The clubs already know they can play in the league, and the risk isn’t as high as signing players that play abroad.
"Although I believe that there are many talented players that haven’t been given the opportunity to play in the A-League that are as good if not better.
"If clubs in the A-League want to prioritise the signings of players already in the league that aren’t doing so well over players that are thriving overseas, it just shows that clubs aren’t willing to take risks. Or, [they] believe that the A-League is a better quality league and don’t need to look elsewhere."
Grommen in action for Khonkaen United in the Thai League 1 earlier this season. (HatTrick)
Grommen's passion for the subject likely stems from his experience in Australia. Born and raised in Brisbane, he was a local who went to watch the Brisbane Roar regularly. Thus he eventually joined the club's youth system, but at 17, he was released. However, the circumstances in which he was let go seemed rather harsh.
"After a brief stint overseas, I came back and was given a chance to be part of the Brisbane Roar youth side," Grommen said.
"This was a great opportunity for me. But there was a big issue with getting my transfer sorted from overseas to be able to play in Australia, as it took nearly four months to get that sorted.
"When I finally was able to play, and the transfer was complete, the season had almost finished, and I was only able to play three games.
"After all this, I wasn’t given another chance, and I was finding myself needing to look overseas again to play professional football."
Meanwhile, Gallifuoco, who described his stint in Malaysia as "the most memorable years" of his career, spoke more about the benefits of participation in the AFC Cup for A-League Men sides. The competition gives more significant opportunities to South-East Asian clubs. As previously mentioned, Australia will have two direct slots into the group stage from the next edition, touted to commence in September 2023.
After all, Gallifuoco is in the best position to understand both sides of the argument. The 28-year-old is not just fresh off an AFC Cup Final appearance but has played for two of Australia's most prominent clubs, the Western Sydney Wanderers and Melbourne Victory. He also made four appearances in the ACL for the Big V across two separate stints.
After an incredible run to the AFC Cup Final, Gallifuoco and his Kuala Lumpur City teammates succumbed to a 3-0 defeat to Oman's Al-Seeb. (Twitter: @KLCityFootball)
"Continental competitions are crucial in showcasing our talent to the whole of Asia. Participating in the AFC (Cup) and ACL is an incredible opportunity for our league and our players," he said when discussing the benefits of the AFC Cup for A-League Men clubs.
"Prioritising these types of competitions allows A-League players to learn, adapt, and grow against bigger, tougher, and more challenging opponents. [This], in turn, not only opens up more opportunities for Aussies to sign abroad but also brings more experience back home to the A-League and the national team.
"In the end, iron sharpens iron. All Australians should be aiming to compete at the highest and hardest level to develop and be the best professional they can be."
There is one immediate benefit of Australian clubs participating in more AFC competitions for South-East Asian-based players. They should be more often in the public eye of Australian football fans, journalists, and coaches. Crucially, the public's perception of the competition often cast aside as "second tier", should change. Gallifuoco certainly agreed.
"Yes, I think it definitely should (change perceptions). It’s an interesting situation because the players understand and appreciate the quality of these competitions and opponents; I don’t think the public does," he said.
"My hopes are that with the A-League Men now participating in the AFC, the football public will begin to appreciate the importance of these competitions for their clubs and Aussie players."
However, Gallifuoco's personal opinions in this area extended beyond Australian football fans and their perception of the South-East Asian game. The defender took to social media to vent his frustration at not getting a look in for the Socceroos squad that took on New Zealand in a two-game friendly series in September. I got further insight from Gallifuoco about what he meant by the tweet.
"My question is more about the metric when it comes to selection. A player in the A-League performing well in a continental competition is incredibly impressive and, in my opinion, should definitely be considered for the national team," he said.
"So, what if an Aussie player is performing well in a continental competition in a league that is currently ranked higher than the A-League? Should there be an opportunity for consideration there?
"I’m not only speaking for myself; of course, I have my personal agendas, but it’s not only me. I am curious of the metric for a whole heap of Aussie players.
"Where does the ACL and AFC stand when it comes to consideration? Where does the K-League compare to the SPL? Where does Thailand compare to the Israeli league? Where does the Malaysian league compare to the Norwegian league?
"I just want to know what the metric is and what the ideology is behind which teams or leagues are worthy of consideration, especially when the players are performing in continental competitions where their abilities are being tested on an international level.
"That’s the only question, albeit loaded, that I have."
Gallifuoco's tweet in the aftermath of the Socceroos squad announcement for the friendlies against New Zealand in September. (Twitter: @giange94)
The APL, specifically CEO Danny Townsend, told FPF they maintain South-East Asian players are good enough for the A-League Men. Furthermore, they still believe these players resonate with migrant populations and can encourage these communities to attend matches. But the issue isn’t a priority right now as the APL continues to manage its first seasons post-COVID.
So, time will tell as to whether the powers that be will return to this issue. But nothing is stopping A-League Men clubs from dipping into the talent pool within South-East Asia right now; it is available to them. The question is whether they wish to take more of a risk in recruitment and unlock a potentially untapped market. Or, they can continue to trust tried and tested, although potentially overused, players with experience down under.
Click here to read a similar article from FPF writer Matt Olsen, who analysed the whether the Socceroos should increase their involvement in the South-East Asian game back in January.