TOKYO — With soccer booming in Southeast Asia, Chanathip Songkrasin’s move to Japan has been a win-win situation for both the Thai playmaker and the J-League.
The 25-year-old Chanathip signed with first-division club Consadole Sapporo in 2017 and has been a hit both on and off the field.
In his second season in Japan, the 5-foot-2 (1.58-meter) attacking midfielder scored eight goals, helping Consadole to a fourth-place finish in the top flight — a record high for the club.
He was selected to the J-League XI, becoming the first Southeast Asian player to earn the honor.
“Japanese football is very fast and physical,” Chanathip said in a recent interview. “Players here are very disciplined, so if more Thai players come to Japan, they will be able to learn a lot and become better football players.”
While playing in a more competitive league has helped Chanathip raise the level of his game, it has also helped promote the J-League overseas. Nearly 1.5 million people attend soccer matches every year in Thailand and Japanese soccer officials are eager to gain a foothold there.
With the recent signings of players such as Andres Iniesta, David Villa and Fernando Torres, the J-League is bidding to raise its international profile in the region after a period when the Chinese Super League grabbed most of the headlines for its record-breaking signings and transfer deals.
During the 2017 season, the Chinese authorities introduced a 100 percent tax on the signing of foreign players for a fee of more than $7 million in a move to increase opportunities for young local players. At the same time, the limited on the number of foreign players that could be selected for a game was reduced from four to three for each team.
While Chinese soccer appears to be inching back from a foreign influx, the J-League, long considered the most professional competition in the region, is stepping forward.
“We want to create interest in our league not only in Japan but in Asia and around the world,” J-League chairman Mitsuru Murai said. “With players like Chanathip we feel we are well on the way to achieving those goals.”
Since 2017, the J-League has permitted each team to sign one player from an Asian Football Confederation nation outside of the existing foreign player quota.
Last year, Chanathip’s Thailand teammates Teerasil Dangda and Theerathon Bunmathan played in the J-League with Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Vissel Kobe.
Thailand captain Teerasil returned to Muangthong following the completion of his loan deal, but Theerathon is continuing to play in the J-League with Yokohama F Marinos.
Newly promoted Oita Trinita, meanwhile, has acquired Thai midfielder Thitipan Puangchan on loan.
Chanathip has given the profile of the Japanese league a huge boost in his homeland, where he was a star at Thai powerhouse Muangthong United.
Thai TV viewership of J-League broadcasts hit an all-time high in 2017 when a match between Consadole and the J-League’s Kawasaki Frontale drew an estimated 400,000 Thai TV viewers, outperforming a broadcast of popular domestic side Buriram United.
The J-League hopes its success in Thailand can be duplicated in other Southeast Asian countries, where broadcasts of the top European leagues dominate ratings.
Murai has praised Chanathip for his success with Sapporo and promotion of the league in Thailand.
“I was surprised when a video of Chanathip’s first practice in Sapporo attracted 3 million viewers, more than the entire population of Sapporo,” Murai told local media. “He has made a huge impact on the J-League.”
While he’s completely focused on helping Sapporo achieve its goals, Chanathip said he’s keeping an open mind about his future prospects, including the possibility of one day playing on soccer’s biggest stage.
“If I get a chance to play in Europe, I’d be happy to take on a new challenge,” Chanathip said.
Story: Jim Armstrong