‘Favorites’ struggle lies in ‘naturalized players’

South Korea and Japan are the two countries that have been struggling at the 2023 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup in Qatar. Japanese media have suggested that the reason is “naturalized players”.

South Korea was one of the strong favorites to win the tournament. With aces like Son Heung-min, Hwang Hee-chan, Kim Min-jae, and Lee Kang-in playing in the big leagues in Europe, they were aiming to win their first title in 64 years. After completing all three group stage matches, it was a shocker. They struggled against Bahrain, narrowly winning 3-1, and then came up short against Jordan, drawing 2-2. Against Malaysia, they came from behind to draw 3-3 and advance to the round of 16 as the second best team in the group.

Rival Japan also struggled in the group stage. Despite having the strongest squad with more than 20 overseas players, the results were disappointing. They beat Vietnam 4-2 in the first round, but conceded a goal midway through the game to fall behind 2-1. In the second game against Iraq, they suffered a shock 1-2 loss, their first in 42 years. Japan, who beat Indonesia 3-1 in their final match, also secured second place in the group and a place in the round of 16.

In a tournament that is notorious for its upsets, both South Korea and Japan have struggled as expected. Cho Kyu-sung, who once became South Korea’s first multi-goal scorer at a World Cup with a header, failed to convert any of his four aerial contests against Jordan. Japan was also brought to its knees by a multi-header from 6-foot-3 Aymen Hussein against Iraq.

Japanese outlet Futbolista has an interesting analysis of the “naturalization” of players. “In an effort to boost its soccer competitiveness, Qatar used oil money to naturalize Brazilian players Aiton, Dede and Leandro, who were playing in Europe, in 2005. In response, FIFA hastily stipulated that naturalized players must have lived in the country for at least two years or have parents or grandparents who were born there,” the publication noted.

In reality, there are many players around the world who were born with dual citizenship. It’s not uncommon for them to choose their preferred nationality when they start their professional careers, sometimes in order to represent their country. The French national soccer team has a long history of utilizing players from Africa, including former colonies Algeria and Senegal. Notable examples include Zinedine Zidane, Patrik Viera, and Marcel Desai.

“This trend is finally catching on in Asian soccer, which has long lamented that it lags behind the rest of the world. In recent years, more and more players with both soccer power and Asian nationality have chosen to play for Asian national teams. This year’s Asia Cup has seen an increase in that number. It is becoming a turning point for a wave of internationalization similar to that of France,” he said.

“The three countries Japan faced in the group stage also had a large number of naturalized players. Vietnamese national team goalkeeper Phillip Nguyen was born to a Vietnamese father and a Czech mother, and is a 6-foot-2 player who played for Slovakia. He was called up to the Czech national team, but chose Vietnam and made a series of good saves in his debut against Japan.”

Other players who have chosen dual citizenship include Iraq’s Yousef Amin (Germany, U-19 national team), Zidane Iqbal (England, Manchester United youth team), and Frans Putros (Denmark, U-21 national team). All of them had spent their youth careers in Europe. Indonesia is also home to the likes of Justin Hubner, who plays for Hwang Hee-chan’s Wolverhampton U-21 team.

Just a few years ago, Asian soccer was dominated by South Korea, Japan, and Australia as the favorites to win the trophy, but the Middle Eastern nations, which have been heavily invested in by oil money, have improved dramatically, and Southeast Asia has been improving its physicality, making it hard to beat in aerial battles and physicality. The increasing number of naturalized players through dual citizenship is also having a significant impact on Asian soccer in many ways.

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