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AUSTRALIAN FOOTBALL MADE A SEISMIC SHIFT in 2006, moving to a different continent as the country left the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) and joined the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). It wasn’t the first time that Australia had tried to join the AFC, nor are they the only country that has changed confederations in an attempt to boost their national team; Kazakhstan moved from the AFC to UEFA four seasons earlier, and for political reasons, Israel have played in three confederations, including, bizarrely, Oceania.

The continental switch was opposed by several other nations around the world, and Australia’s football administrators had to use all of their connections and cajoling to make it happen.

One of the main reasons for the switch was to help Australia qualify for the World Cup. At the time, the top team from Oceania had to negotiate a tough playoff match in order to qualify. A match that, with a lack of strong opponents in Oceania, the Socceroos went into at a distinct disadvantage.

When John Aloisi slotted home his penalty in the shootout at the end of a two-legged playoff against Uruguay in 2006, it ended a 32-year absence from the World Cup. But after moving to Asia, they qualified for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups with relative ease. The Socceroos are struggling a bit this time around, but even if they finish behind Asian Group B rivals Saudi Arabia and Japan, they will still have a shot at a playoff anyway, which was all they could have expected if they were still a member of the OFC.

When the Australian national team won the Asian Cup on home soil in 2015, it also helped vindicate the move to Asia, but as well as the national team being able to develop through playing challenging opponents more frequently, and having more World Cup spots to aim for, Australian players themselves have benefited from being part of Asia.

As of the start of July 2017, five Australians were playing professionally in China, five in Japan, and eight in South Korea. Ten years previously, in July 2007, Liaoning FC’s Ryan Griffiths and Avispa Fukuoka’s Alvin Ceccoli were the only Australian representatives in those three countries. Teams in Asia have a quota for foreign players, and one of the quota spots is reserved for a player from another AFC country. Australians, particularly national defenders, have carved themselves a niche in filling these positions.

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One such player is Jeju United’s Aleksandar Jovanović. It is the defender’s second spell at the club, based in the sleepy town of Seogwipo, on the large volcanic island of Jeju, about a hundred miles to the south of the Korean peninsula. Life on Jeju is a world apart from the lifestyles of footballers in Europe. Players live in a dormitory and have a ten o’clock curfew, conditions which Jovanović likened to a school camp, although it does give the players plenty of time to bond over a Korean barbecue.

Training is tough, too, with Jovanović, a firm believer that you get out what you put in, saying that sessions are more frequent than in Australia. This emphasis on fitness might be why so many K League clubs look to supplement their mainly Korean coaching staff with foreign fitness and conditioning coaches.

New South Wales Police Force’s strength and conditioning coach Adam Waterson was one of those coaches. He had a brief spell coaching at Korean side FC Seoul where he tried to help the club implement more advanced sports science techniques, such as the use of GPS and heart rate monitoring, as well as more structured recovery sessions. As Australia is particularly strong at sports science, something that Korean clubs have identified as an area for improvement, Waterson isn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, Australian that Korea looks for when seeking sporting expertise.

Before joining Seoul, Waterson had previously been part of the coaching team that helped Western Sydney Wanderers to Asian Champions League glory, and he was recommended to Seoul by one of his former players. The way he got the job also shows the benefits of Australia now being part of the wider network of Asian football.

According to Jovanović, the success of previous Australian players in Korea has also helped the current crop of Australians in the country. He pointed in particular to the success of Saša Ognenovski, who won the 2010 Asian Player of the Year after helping Korean side Seongnam Ilwha Chunma achieve Champions League glory.

While Brazil is still by far the number one source of foreign players in the K League, five of the 12 top-tier sides now have an Australian as their Asian designated player, with two more Aussies, Bruce Djite and Adrian Leijer, also playing for second-tier Suwon FC.

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The Chinese Super League, however, decided at the start of 2017 to change their rules on foreign players, effectively eliminating the special slot for an Asian player. The move is in part due to China’s attempt to develop domestic players, although in some ways it is short-sighted in that although there will be one more Chinese player on the pitch in the CSL, the quality of opposition will be slightly lower, and there will be fewer opportunities for Chinese players to learn different styles and approaches to the game that come from exposure to players from other countries.

In part due to the CSL’s decision, the number of Australians in China’s top tier dropped from eight players at the end of the 2016 season to just two players by the end of August 2017.

The change in the Asian quota rule was the main reason why Jovanović, whose career has also included spells in Serbia and Thailand, returned to Jeju after spending the 2016 season at CSL side Tianjin TEDA. Although he enjoyed his time in China, telling me that he was grateful for the opportunity to play against some of the best strikers in the world, he “wasn’t at all keen on not being in the starting line-up”.

Jeju United’s qualification for the Champions League meant that when they made an offer for Jovanović to return to the volcanic holiday island, he couldn’t say no. Jeju were the most successful of Korea’s sides in this year’s Champions League, but were knocked out of the competition in the first knockout round by Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds in a match that ended in a brawl after the Korean players allowed themselves to get wound up by Urawa.

After that game, Jeju, who were at the time looking like title contenders, hit a slump, but Jovanović is convinced the club has now once again found its feet and is back on form. Having only really played at youth level in Australia before embarking on his globe-trotting career, a move to the A-League is something Jovanović says he might consider later in his career, especially as he says the league is improving every year, but for now he is concentrating on his football at Jeju United. 

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He is still hopeful of that first Socceroos cap, too, and with good reason; five members of Australia’s 30-man squad for their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Japan and Thailand play in East Asia. Matthew Jurman, a centre-back for high-flying Suwon Bluewings, was the only player from the K League who made it into the 30 – although he didn’t make the final 23-man squad – but most of the other Australians in Korea aren’t too far away from a national team call-up.

One Korean based player who might catch Ange Postecoglou’s eye sooner rather than later is Incheon United defender Connor Chapman. Currently having a strong season, and regularly featuring in the K League team of the week, Chapman, who has captained the Australian under-23s in the past, told Korean football website kleagueunited.com that while playing overseas doesn’t guarantee players a call-up, it “puts you in a different sort of pool than the A-League”, and that if he can prove himself in Korea, as well as the A-League, then he could make that step up to the Socceroos.

Chapman also said in that interview that as the standards in Asia are getting higher and higher, rather than Australians moving to Europe and “getting lost”, a move to Asia could be a good opportunity for them.

Jovanović himself could have been one of those players getting lost in Europe. After moving to Europe from New South Wales Premier League side Parramatta Eagles, Jovanović spent five years being bumped around various teams in Serbia. He felt like his career was at a stalemate and that it was a time for a change, and so when the chance to move to Thailand came up, he thought he’d try something new.

While Asia provides Australian players with opportunities, it can be difficult for players to adapt, especially compared to Australians moving to the UK, and the turnover of foreign players can be staggeringly high in Asian leagues as players struggle to get used to the different culture. Jovanović says that it’s vital for players joining Asian clubs to adapt quickly and make friends, even if they can’t speak the language.

With Australian football becoming more and more closely linked to Asia each year, there will be a few more players who will find that advice useful in the coming seasons 

By Steve Price