Vathanaka’s move to Japan is a missed opportunity

Cambodia star Chan Vathanaka is looking forward to a season in Japan’s third tier but he really should be playing in Malaysia or Singapore.

It is a major opportunity missed.

The star has been loaned out to J3 team Fujieda MYFC for the 2017 campaign. He could be playing in the top tier of leagues much closer to home. The forward, top scorer in the last two seasons for Boeung Ket Angkor, was affordable and open to a move.

It is disappointing that a third-tier team from a country six hours away by plane is able to take talent that could do a real job and become a real star much, much closer to home.

Vathanka is good. As much as they may try, Malaysians will never forget the way he tormented their defence in the opening game of the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup. He did to the Tigers what he had been doing to back-lines in Cambodian for some time. This is a man who scores goals and more besides. Better still, he is just 23.

The Angkor Warriors may have departed at the group stage, as expected for a team that came through the qualifiers, but they provided plenty of entertainment along the way and much of it was down to their version of Cristiano Ronaldo.

On another day, with a little more experience and luck, Cambodia would have held on to their 2-1 lead against the men from KL. Unfortunately, the defence was not at the same level as the star attacker and Malaysia came back to win 3-2.

Perhaps if that comeback had never come to pass, there would have been more interest in the player from bigger ASEAN nations.

There is nothing wrong with the J3 in itself. The quality of the league, on and off the pitch, will be as good as much of Southeast Asia, and in many ways better. At the very least, the youngster will experience a different football culture and grow on and off the pitch.

Japan has interest in Southeast Asia and aims to make the region a major market for the J.League. Over the years, there have been a succession of MOUs signed with various national federations. There have been pushes to get ASEAN fans watching Japanese football.

This is why a succession of stars such as Irfan Bachdim of Indonesia and Vietnam’s Le Cong Vinh have gone to the Land of the Rising Sun. And it is why Thailand’s Chanathip Songkrasin will head there in the summer.

The logic is simple. If Southeast Asia’s biggest names go to Japan and play, there will be interest at home. If they have success, then, interest develops excitement among fans, broadcasters and sponsors.

That is the theory at least. In practice, it has yet to happen. None of the players who have gone east have made an impact on the pitch however much they have benefitted from their time in Japan individually.

Vathanaka is one of the brightest talents, not just in Southeast Asia but the continent in general.

Malaysia and Singapore could have appealed to the player. Instead of going to the very north of Japan he could have made the short trip south. There would be no need to acclimatise, the food would not be an issue and a return home when he had a couple of days off would not be a big deal either.

In terms of profile, the leagues in Malaysia and Singapore offer a much bigger international platform than Japan’s third tier. It would be much easier for fans back home to keep in touch with his exploits.

If CV still wanted to go to Japan, he could have done so later down the line after proving his worth in a big Southeast Asian league and then he could, perhaps, have joined a club in Japan’s top tier.

For the player, there are benefits in either choice. There is no such ambiguity when it comes to clubs from the Malaysia Super League and its counterpart across the Causeway.

They should have been in there like a shot to not only improve their teams – and they would be improved as the player ran rings around Malaysia’s best defenders a few months ago – but to tap into a hugely passionate football market just to the north. Both leagues need as much help as they can get at the moment, on and off the pitch.

It is encouraging that one club at least understands there is talent elsewhere in the ASEAN region, even in the traditionally less successful nations. Singapore’s Balestier Khalsa signed three players from Myanmar but there is much more talent around.

Chan Vathanaka is just one example and he should be playing in Singapore or Malaysia and not Japan.

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