Opinion

Deadly Daegu prove money not to blame for A-League's Asian woes

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There is always a little soul-searching that goes on after a surprising and painful defeat and it was no surprise that Melbourne Victory indulged after losing 3-1 at home to Daegu FC in the opening round of AFC Champions League action on Tuesday.

Victory’s Leigh Broxham said the difference between the two sides was the imports that Daegu FC had, especially Cesinha whose half-volley equaliser in the first-half was a thing of beauty. 

"Cesinha scored a great goal, we can look at it as much as we want but it was a bit of quality and that's what you get in this competition,” said Broxham. “They invest in the players up front in the ACL. It's something I stress to the boys, they're going to have moments.”

It is a common refrain but not always accurate. It is easy, and not to blame Broxham for repeating an opinion that is often heard and widely shared, to link Australia’s Asian underachievement on money but it does not always ring true, especially in Daegu’s case.

There is no doubt that there are some Asian teams that do spend big. Chinese champions Shanghai SIPG parted with over $100 million for Hulk and Oscar (though that does not mean they are worth that much, Asian teams have to pay over the odds to tempt big names east) but Daegu are not some glamorous powerhouse who touched down under on a private jet. They have the lowest wage bill of the 12 teams in the K-League, a competition that is not exactly flush with cash.

There is no salary cap imposed from above but Daegu operate in a financial straitjacket. Out of 44 professionals in the Daegu squad (Korean clubs tend to have bizarrely large squads for historical and cultural reasons), four of these are foreign. The total annual wage bill for all that talent is A$5.3 million. Focus on the 23 (the squad size of A-League clubs) who would make up a first-team squad, if there was such a thing, and that figure would be between $3.5 to $4 million.

That would not be much more than the A-League’s salary cap. It would also be a good deal less than Melbourne’s annual outgoings when the likes of marquee Keisuke Honda - whose reported $2.9 million salary alone is more than 50% of Daegu’s total wage bill - and other exemptions are taken into account.

Indeed, had Honda inspired Victory to a win then the Korean media would likely be lamenting the gap in resources between the two teams. As it was, there is some pride that Daegu, a club making a first ever appearance in the tournament, went on to win at the home of a club seen as much richer.

Cesinha was cheap. His route to Korea was a common one. The 29 year-old is a real journeyman and arrived in the Land of the Morning Calm after years of knocking around Brazil’s lower leagues to join second division Daegu back in 2016.

He has seen his salary increase since then with a new contract but still is only on around one tenth of Honda’s supposed salary. Three years ago, there was nothing stopping any Australian club signing him cheaply - he wouldn’t exactly be expensive now - Melbourne could easily have gone out and got him.

If Daegu lose Cesinha, as they probably will, to a richer club at home or in Japan or China, then they will go back to shopping in Brazil’s bargain basement, looking for whatever they can get. Not all imports are expensive.

Where Daegu do benefit from is the general investment made in the grassroots in Korea. There is a large pool of technically excellent local players to tap into. Daegu struggle to get the best of these and struggle to keep hold of the good ones it does manage to get, just like the bigger Korean clubs can’t keep hold of their stars when China, Qatar and others come calling. Yet their teams remain competitive in Asia with quality replacements coming through all the time.

That is the key for long term success, a fact that can be lost amid the focus on money.

Any club can shell millions out on a famous foreign star (assuming the funds are there) just as any club can be more imaginative in the transfer market. The tougher task is to produce players who can consistently compete at the highest levels in Asia.

Imports can and do make a difference - Sydney and Melbourne have had plenty of good ones over the years - but it is the local players who ultimately make the difference.