In an A-League season high on debate and low on interest it has been impossible to ignore the focused and brilliant Keisuke Honda. Honda stands out as the league’s only foreign Asian player and the league’s biggest name, managing to attract interest for his dazzling performances on-field and for his insatiably competitive attitude off-field. A marquee in every sense of the word, Honda is proving to be an exception to almost every existing Australian Football standard and in doing so is shining a light on what the A-League is, and what is should strive to be.
Since the birth of the competition remarkably few Asian players have graced A-League pitches and Honda being the regions sole representative this year is a worrying indictment about Australian football’s connection with Asia whilst highlighting its focus on Europe. Australian football’s European focus is evident across its media, player transfers and even it online fan forums, Asian football however struggles to make inroads in any of these spaces. This European focus is partly a result of Australia large European migrant population as well as Europe’s complete dominance of football. People who invest their time for football stories connect to teams in the old country and people who invest their time for football quality connect to teams in the top European competitions.
Australia not only lacks understanding of Asian football, it also has a low opinion of it. Honda is proving a surprise to many Australians simply by performing well and proving those preconceptions wrong. Although it is true that the J League and K League cannot compete with the top European leagues Australian watch, the European leagues Australians actually play for and trade with are often more obscure lower European leagues which are comparable to top Asian domestic football. In a global market place the A-League will find the players it needs at the price point it can afford regardless of where they come from, but Australian coaches scout Europe because they are familiar with it, and in doing so the continue to miss out on the real value that Asian players offer Australian football that Europeans cannot.
The A-League’s highest profile signing was undoubtedly Alessandro Del Piero. He provided international cut through the League had never experienced, attracting attention to the A-League in the Promised Land of Europe. The exposure was fun, exciting and abruptly ended because once Del Piero left, Italians had no reason to continue watching. Honda is creating a similar stir in Japan but unlike the Italians, Japanese interest in the A-League is more than just Honda. Honda is a gateway to the A-League for Japanese fans but once through they can also follow potential Champions League opponents, and potential Socceroos. Intercontinental competition provides Asian fans with far more of an incentive to watch the A-League than Europeans will ever have, Saudi Arabians frequently comment on Wanderers social media and still celebrate the 2014 defeat of Al Hilal. As Asian exposure of the league grows and turns into genuine interest, not only will broadcast values and club brands improve but so will the opportunities for A-League players and coaches.
The difficulty of Australians breaking into Europe is further complicated by the fact they are often competing as unknown quantities against players from better understood and European leagues. Unless A-League teams start playing European teams in serious competition, there will never be a clear way to benchmark the standard of the A-League with a European equivalent and players will continue having a tough time breaking through. Asia has a much clearer understanding of the A-League because of AFC competition, and is already providing opportunities to Australian players and coaches. Postecoglou, Langerak and Nabbout are plying their trade in the J League, even Mehmet Durakovic has managed to carve out an impressive coaching career in Malaysia. Australians participating in these leagues have the reverse Honda effect, by growing Australian understanding of Asian football standards and reducing the current Euro-centric focus. As understanding between Australia and the rest of Asia improves so will integration in the form of player and management transfers. This will also have positive impact on the profiles of competitions like the Asian Champions League and Asian Cup which even now Australian fans and clubs have treated with disrespect, particularly in the Asian Champions League which outside of the Wanderer’s and Adelaide’s successful runs has seen low Australian attendances, shifting home venues, low media attention and in the case of one apathetic club… taped on shirt numbers.
Apathy however is not a word that can be associated with Honda. Honda got “the football world talking” in an interview after Melbourne Victory’s four goal win against the Wanderers. In the post-match interview the Japanese star stated assertively and honestly, that he was unsatisfied with the team’s performance, despite the result. The comments took the media by surprise and Honda was once again the Australian football exception, this time for an attitude that has seldom been seen in the A-League. Honda’s comments would not have made headlines and in most leagues however in doing so in Australian revealed the A-League’s problem with competitive standards which can party be explained by failing league structures.
— 10 Sport (@10SportAU) December 1, 2018
The A-League fails to punish club failure with relegation and inadequately rewards club success by crowning the national champion by finals series. Honda’s attitude of pushing every minute is rare in the A-League because the current league system doesn’t even require clubs to push every game. In last year’s regular season champions Melbourne Victory won eight less games than table topping Sydney FC effectively weighting Melbourne’s the three finals wins as greater than one third of Sydney’s season. This competitiveness problem isn’t limited to club incentives either.
More than half of today’s A-League players have contacts due to expire next season and considering a perverse mix of no domestic transfer fees, salary caps and the isolation of the Australian league players are ultimately not incentivised to be the best they can be. Players who are too good struggle to fit in their current club’s salary cap and are pushed out of the league, while players who are too poor face a jump between the professional A-League and the semi-professional NPL. The current A-League system is failing to catch falling players who take risks and pushes players out of the system if they are too good. These structures contribute to players chasing job stability rather than glory and contributes to massive player churn with instances of players moving to five or more A-League clubs in their careers. Ultimately this means the A-League is creating players that are salary cap fillers and not players like Kiesuke Honda.
Keisuke Honda has been impossible to ignore this A-League season but the fact that he stands out is not as important as why he stands out. Honda highlights just how poorly and slowly Australia has connected with the rest of the Asian football community but also highlights the benefits of doing so for our league, players, coaches and fans. Honda’s mentality and performances are helping to change Australian football’s European focus but also turns a mirror to our own systems which are failing to produce in our players and clubs what Australians see and admire in him. In many ways Keisuke Honda is an exception in the current Australian football climate but Keisuke Honda should not be the exception, he should be the rule.