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Season of change for Asian leagues

THE economic crisis, an expanded Asian Champions League and the introduction of a rule that has spurred the beginning of a continental transfer market means that 2009 will be very different than 2008 for east Asia's domestic leagues.

Japan's J-League is now seen as Asia's biggest and best with the South Korean K-League a close second. The much-maligned Chinese Super League is bidding to reposition itself as a legitimate challenger to those two domestic competitions.

It will have opportunities to do so as never before. In the new-look Asian Champions League, four of the eight groups will contain a team from Japan, China and South Korea, meaning that in the first round alone, there will be 18 meetings between the rivals compared with six in 2008.

While the national team continues to struggle, Chinese clubs are confident they can compete. Less dependent on big business for financial support than those in South Korea and Japan, China is aiming to make up lost ground thanks to the global credit crunch.

Korean champion Suwon Bluewings, owned by Samsung, has tightened its belt and its rival FC Seoul has made no major signings. Meanwhile, Japanese giant Yokohama F Marinos may have to scrap plans to bring home international star Shunsuke Nakamura from Celtic as major financial sponsor Nissan struggles.

The 2007 Asian champion Urawa Reds as well as 2008 J-League title challengers Nagoya Grampus, supported by Mitsubishi and Toyota, respectively, are also feeling the effects.

There are exceptions such as Gamba Osaka. The Asian club champion has been the biggest Japanese spender in the winter.

Taking advantage of the Asian "3+1" rule which allows clubs to sign an Asian player outside of the normal cap of three foreigners in the playing 11, Gamba splashed over US$4 million on South Korean stars Cho Jae-jin and Park Dong-hyuk as well as Brazilian striker Leandro.

Six-time champion Kashima Antlers is going for a third straight J-League title and is Gamba's biggest rival.

Despite Japan's early advocacy of the "Asian berth" rule, J-League clubs have stuck to the same old formula when it comes to foreigners. In the top two leagues there are 26 South Koreans and 63 Brazilians.

The same can't be said of China and Korea, which have tapped Australia - the newest member of the Asian confederation and a longtime nursery for European clubs.

Australian stars Jade North and Sasa Ognenovski have gone to Korea's Incheon United and Seongnam Ilhwa, respectively. The talent drain from the fledgling A-League turned into an exodus as Chinese clubs got in on the act, attracted by relatively inexpensive deals on offer due to Australia's strict salary cap.

Mark Milligan signed for Shanghai Shenhua, Joel and Ryan Griffiths are on loan with Beijing Guo'an and Mark Bridge joined former Italian international Damiano Tommasi at Tianjin Teda.

Milligan is just one of a number of big-money signings made by Shanghai, a club that has spent more than US$7 million on recruitment in the off season.

Buoyed by such investment, the Chinese Super League is bouncing back from a negative image both at home and abroad. Problems with corruption and trouble with managers, players and fans have tarnished the competition. Not long after Wuhan Guanghu quit the league in October in protest at Chinese Football Association disciplinary measures, CCTV pulled coverage of the CSL after violence on the pitch.

The 2009 season is returning to screens and, unusually before the start of the season, all sponsors are in place.

Beijing Guo'an is benefiting from US$3 million investment from the local government that could help it lift its first ever league title.

"After a successful Olympics, the underdevelopment of football is doing great harm to the image of Beijing," Sun Kanglin, the head of the Beijing Sports Bureau, has said.

Despite the optimism in China, some big stars have left for the K-League. Former national team captain Li Weifeng has joined Suwon Samsung Bluewings while international defender Feng Xiaoting is at Daegu.

"I had a hard time last year when Chinese football faced many difficulties, but I am happy to be here with the kind of high-quality club I have been looking for," Li said.

Suwon pipped FC Seoul for the title last December but has seen stars leave for Japan, England and Turkey. Seoul may have been quiet in the transfer market but did manage to retain its highly rated young players such as Korean internationals Lee Chung-yung and Ki Sung-yung and is the favorite to lift a first league trophy.

"We have the best team, best players and the best fans and we want to get the results that reflect that," said Seoul coach Senol Gunes, the man who led Turkey to the semifinal of the 2002 World Cup. "We want to win the K-League as well as the Asian Champions League."


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