Thu, Aug 18, 2011 - Page 19 News List

FEATURE: Asia-Pacific soccer stars reluctant to return home

AP, SEOUL

Park Ji-sung and Harry Kewell are playing it cool about returning to their home countries’ soccer leagues, illustrating the reluctance among many Asian soccer exports to make the journey home.

Park has virtually ruled out a swansong season in the K-League, while Kewell is dragging his feet over a possible return to Australia. Hidetoshi Nakata never returned to play club soccer in Japan after his successful career in Europe.

Park, 30, has signed a new two-year contract with English champions Manchester United and has spoken of his desire to end his playing days in Europe.

He has never played in the K-League and is not enthusiastic about the prospect.

“Maybe it’s possible, but I want to play more in Europe as much as I can,” he said before signing his latest contract extension.

The debate about whether star players should return to help their national leagues is loudest in Australia, where clubs are eager to sign Kewell and national team captain Lucas Neill, both of whom were released by Galatasaray.

Neill, 33, has been linked with a move to the United Arab Emirates, while Kewell, perhaps the nation’s biggest star, has been at the center of a “will he-won’t he?” transfer saga all summer over whether the former Leeds United and Liverpool star will return home.

Kewell, 32, is regarded as a figure who can bring some much needed publicity and glamor to a league that is struggling with falling attendances. Like Park, he never played in the local league, instead heading to England as a teenager.

Football Federation Australia, which runs the A-League, has reportedly offered financial inducements for Kewell to join Melbourne Victory, but protracted negotiations have tested the patience of fans.

The status of being a high-profile European-based player can be a double-edged sword when contemplating a move to the A-League. The debate intensified early this month when veteran Socceroos goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer expressed doubts about such a move.

“I have seen too many players go back home and it has not worked out,” the 38-year-old Fulham goalkeeper told Australia’s Football+ magazine. “You are up there to be shot down very, very quickly ... I don’t want to give anyone the opportunity to do that to me.”

Brendan Schwab, chief executive of the Australian Professional Footballers’ Association, had some sympathy for that position.

“The fans have been very quick to criticize some of the returning Socceroos if their performances have not lived up to expectation,” Schwab said. “Players are well aware that the scrutiny they would be under would be very high, probably higher than it would be in Europe, as they would be seen as central figures in the promotion and marketing.”

“It is something that players need to weigh up before coming back. Some have been very successful, others have had unfortunate circumstances, but all have come back with the right attitude of wanting to put something back into the game,” he added.

In South Korea and Japan, the separation of powers between federations and leagues means the national bodies cannot directly pay players to woo them home.

“It is nothing to do with the K-League whether overseas players return to play here,” Kwon Sung-jin, deputy general manager of the K-League said. “It is wrong to say that Korean players in Europe should play in the K-League before they retire. We welcome any talented player to the league, but their career choices are their business entirely.”

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