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An Asian armada sets sail for Europe

With this weekend's much anticipated start of the Spanish La Liga, the big new signing at European Champions FC Barcelona is undoubtedly Zlatan Ibrahimovic. That may be a tongue-breaker for some Catalans, but fans of cross-city rivals Espanyol are pinning their hopes on an even more exotic name: Shunsuke Nakamura.

At the age of 31, the Japanese superstar has fulfilled a childhood dream with his move to the Iberian Peninsula. Having already proven himself in Scotland, the skilful midfielder embodies a new wave of Asian players in Europe who are slowly shaking their tag as mere marketing props.

If you thought David Beckham mania at its prime was somewhat exaggerated, you had better not visit Japan. In the land of the Rising Sun, Nakamura is a national hero. He sells just about everything, with his face plastered everywhere.

Coming from the most populous continent on the planet, it is little wonder that Asian football players have become targets of marketing strategists in Europe. But on the green of the field, the former Celtic midfielder has an altogether different challenge on his hands these days - proving his skills in one of the best leagues in the world.

Making a sporting impact at home has always been relatively easy in the less competitive Asian leagues. But those who then made the switch to Europe too often developed a troublesome reputation for being walking advertising boards rather than star players.

The signing of Shao Jiayi by 1860 Munich in 2003, serves to illustrate this point. Far from being hailed as a midfield revelation, the Munich bosses openly admitted that they were signing the Chinese player for marketing purposes. 1860 was to become the household name for billions of Chinese fans. At least that was the plan, and one which Manchester United would later try to duplicate. But the left-footed midfielder subsequently failed to make an impact in his two years in Bavaria and the same was the case with another highly skilled Asian player; Ali Karimi. Hailed as the 'Asian Maradona' upon his arrival at Bayern Munich, the Iranian quickly became what his countrymen Vahid Hashemian and Ali Daei also turned out to be: disappointing bench-warmers in Munich.

Whether the reasons were the improved level of competition or the vastly different culture in Europe, transfers too often turned into a return ticket. Nothing against the Qatari league, which has since been renamed the Qatar Stars League - perhaps because of the arrival of the Asian Maradona, but the switch from Munich to Doha seemed to confirm that Asian players were having difficulties adapting to the demands of European football.

Yet with such a huge population potential and an ever increasing fan base, it could only be a matter of time before things changed. Bring on a new wave of Asian players: reliable, combative and skilful team players with more minutes on the pitch than on the bench. Last season, Japan's Makoto Hasebe starred as an offensive right-back in VFL Wolfsburg's stunning Bundesliga triumph, and Park Ji-Sung has long been showing Korean potential with Manchester United.

Qatar's imported Uruguayan-born striker Sebastian Soria is keen to follow in their footsteps with a move to one of the big European leagues. ''I am 25 now and it is good for me and for my career if I move to a European club this season,'' Soria told me in Doha. ''The Qatar league is ok, but once you reach one level you don't need more. But I think I have more to give. Here you don't need the level you need in Europe. There it is different, a new challenge. That is why I want to go to the Spanish league.''

That is presumably also what convinced Nakamura to try his luck in Spain at an age when he could easily have chosen a J-League club to wind down his career. ''I had a lot of offers from Japan, but it was my dream to play in Spain,'' Nakamura told Spain's daily Sport newspaper. ''My motivation is to play in Spain and become a better football player here.''

Like Soria, Nakamura is well aware that Asian leagues offer only limited opportunities for improvement at the highest levels. The paradox is that as more talented Asian players leave for Europe, older European league stars are being lured for pre-retirement paychecks in Asia.

While critics say they are little more than money-hungry football mercenaries, former Barcelona and Holland midfielder Ronald de Boer - who chose to make Qatar his new home after ending his career there - told me that there is an important lesson to be learnt for young Asian players before they can make it in Europe.

''Sometimes local players don't realize what it means to be professional, that football is your job,'' he said. ''You have to work on yourself mentally and physically. But that has changed now in a positive way. In the beginning they didn't realize that when you come to training it's to get better, not just to do something. My brother and I helped a lot in this respect.''

For Nakamura, the face of a new wave of Asian players in Europe, the end of his career is still far away. First the Japanese idol wants to impress in Spain, and inspire more youngsters from his country to make their way to Europe. If this new Asian armada can succeed in making their case in Europe's top leagues, Nakamura could well become a household name for Catalan football fans too.


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