Eyebrows were raised when Japanese top-flight side Yokohama FC announced on their website in early December that Daisuke Matsui would be moving to Vietnamese outfit Saigon FC on a free transfer.
Moving to Southeast Asia for a final chapter at the sunset of an elite professional’s career is not surprising. Several had made the move since the late 2000s, including world-class artisans Robbie Fowler and Pablo Aimar.
As a 2010 FIFA World Cup starting midfielder who has played extensively in the top divisions in Japan and France, 39-year-old Matsui is now the latest name in that list. What is more surprising is his present location.
For many Japanese footballers, from former internationals such as Hajime Hosogai to semi-professional nomads, Thailand and Singapore are the more common football destinations in Southeast Asia.
Thailand is the top destination as Southeast Asia’s most exciting and widely-watched league, as well as its affordable lifestyle for expatriates. Meanwhile Singapore is the home of Albirex Niigata (Singapore), the Japanese satellite team of professional side Albirex Niigata, and has a large Japanese expatriate population.
On the other hand, only two Japanese players, Masaaki Ideguchi and Ryutaro Karube, have featured in Vietnamese professional league, the V.League, in recent years. The duo had modest semi-professional careers back home before venturing overseas.
Ideguchi was on the books of top-flight club Hoang Anh Gia Lai in 2016 and 2017, while Karube had a half-season with Thanh Hoa in 2018 before venturing into other parts of Southeast Asia.
Matsui is a massive upgrade from the two Japanese journeymen given his international football pedigree and experience. That is despite him not being afforded the same iconic international reputation as fellow 2010 campaigners Keisuke Honda and Shunsuke Nakamura.
For such names will have led to instant hero-worshipping and bring the world football spotlight to Southeast Asia, as what Fowler and Aimar did with their high-profile transfers to Thai top-flight side Muang Thong United (2011) and Malaysian powerhouses Johor Darul Ta’zim (2014) respectively.
Despite not being the same bracket as those renowned world football names, Matsui’s biggest calling card is his World Cup experience as he is only the third Vietnamese top-flight import to having featured in the biggest international showpiece after Brazilian winner Denilson and Slovenian midfielder Nastja Ceh.
Therefore expectations on him to provide the immediate spark for Saigon in the V.League 1 will be sky-high. The tendency for clubs in Southeast Asian leagues to rely heavily on the imports to deliver the goods means the weight of responsibility on his feet will be much heavier than his previous foreign stints in Europe.
In Vietnam, clubs typically hire imports from South America (mainly Brazil and Argentina) and Africa to provide potent physical prowess up front. Attacking tactics revolving around them in the V.League are regular demonstrations of pace and power – but found wanting in flair and excitement.
The play in the V.League is predictable as teams with a powerful foreign striker usually deploy direct balls into the box. While domestic crowds at stadiums have been healthy, the dearth of creative flair in the league has led to uninspiring football, which in turn makes it unattractive for overseas watchers to tune in compared to the highly-regarded Thai League.
Public admiration of the golden generation of Vietnamese players, who have delivered international success in the region and established themselves as one of the leading Asian national teams, has not translated to a similar passion in the domestic league.
Having been previously sold out by the one-off appearance at Hai Phong from Denilson back in 2009, the locals are looking for an import who has at least a decent international football reputation to match their heroes and is able to inject excitement into the game.
Matsui ticks those boxes and possesses the technique and vision to bring a different attacking dimension into the Vietnamese top-flight as he had frequently done at previous clubs, most notably at modest French side Le Mans where he led them to Ligue 1 promotion and consolidation in the mid-2000s.
In bringing the former Japanese international, the signing is both a coup and a gamble for Saigon. Formed after the move of its predecessor to Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in the country, they have been a mainstay in V.League 1 since 2016 and recorded their best league finish of third place in 2020.
While on paper Matsui has the ingredients to bring the club – and league – to the next level, there has been a notable Japanese precedent where such sky-high expectations of an import has not worked out in Southeast Asia.
Kazuyuki Toda, renowned for his 2002 World Cup exploits on home soil, signed for Singaporean side Warriors FC in 2013. Despite the huge media publicity, he was unable to make an overall positive contribution as they finished seventh in the 12-team S.League (now Singapore Premier League) that season.
The underwhelming performances were not entirely the player’s fault, for the club management was keener to brandish a name rather than deploy him for a strategic purpose. A defensive midfielder, there was an unrealistic expectation of him to deliver the goods as the marquee name on the pitch.
Fortunately, Toda played out a full season in Singapore, where club executives rarely sack their foreign players and coaches in mid-season. Such time affordability is a rare luxury in Southeast Asian club football where owners and chairmen do not hesitate to replace imports at a whim.
Hence the strategy of Saigon’s management will be critical, which could determine whether Matsui’s Vietnam stint will be a success or otherwise. Is he going to be their flagship signing who will bring greater visibility to the club, or a key cog in the first team’s pursuit of their first domestic top-flight championship?
With strong on-field competition from league champions Viettel and traditional powerhouses Hanoi, they need to show that his recruitment goes beyond the chutzpah. Playing the impeccable football ambassadorial role on the pitch will convince more J.League professionals to take the plunge there as an alternative football destination to Thailand.
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