While the concept may sound completely alien to any fan of European Football, the idea of a quota or restriction on foreign players has become commonplace on the other end of the Eurasian landmass.
As one would expect, they remain controversial and hotly debated aspects of football administration in the countries where they are employed, possessing many benefits and drawbacks for a region where ‘the beautiful game’ has begun to experience unprecedented levels of growth.
While such restrictions can be found in most Asian leagues, the Thai Premier League provides the ideal case study due to the impact of regulation reforms that took place for the start of the 2018 season.
Foreign player restrictions are mainly implemented to protect local players, ensuring that they are able to feature regularly for their nation’s top clubs, and thus theoretically improving the quality of the national team. In effect, they work as a form of ‘affirmative action’ for local players, which critics believe has the potential to breed complacency.
Their effects on the national team can never truly be evaluated due to the magnitude of other factors affecting the side’s performance.
However, skeptics argue that many of Thailand’s current “golden generation” came through the ranks at a time when restrictions were more relaxed, and that these measures used to aid the current young talent may prevent them from reaching the same heights of those who directly preceded them, as they are no longer competing for starting berths against top foreign talent.
Regardless, the Thai FA has continued to tighten their foreign player restrictions in the hope of improving the national team without compromising the quality of the country’s top league.
Thailand’s foreign player restrictions are fairly simple. Last season, clubs were given five foreign player slots, with four being entirely unconditional with one reserved for a player from another AFC (Asian Football Confederation) nation.
However, this season, one unconditional slot has been removed, being replaced by a controversial “ASEAN Quota” spot, reserved specifically for players from other countries within Association of Southeast Asian Nations; an economic community which occasionally acts autonomously from the AFC through the formation of a “sub-confederation” known as the AFF (ASEAN Football Federation).
The aforementioned ASEAN quota has been the cause of much debate in the ‘Land of Smiles’. Supporters of the new regulations claim that it has succeeded in making the Thai League the central hub of ASEAN, increasing the league’s popularity in potentially profitable overseas markets. Many believe that it lowers the quality of the league, given that most imported talent from Africa, Europe, South America, Korea and Japan tends to be a cut above those from Thailand’s closest neighbors.
In reality, however, the benefits have seemed to outweigh the cost. The Thai League signed its first overseas TV deal with Burmese broadcaster MRTV-4, directly following the arrival of Myanmar national hero Aung Thu to Bangkok-based club Police Tero.
This influx of support from Myanmar has been especially beneficial to Chiang Rai due to their proximity to the nation’s border. In what some saw as a cynical marketing move, their decision to sign Kyaw Ko Ko from Yangon United helped boost their popularity even further in the country, with the club reaping rewards in the form of merchandise revenue – at the expense, according to some, of quality on the pitch.
Despite that common belief, there is yet to be concrete evidence that the ASEAN quota has led to an overall decline in the quality of imported talent.
Bangkok United’s signing of Danish-Filipino goalkeeper Michael Falkesgaard from Midtjylland and the return of his countryman Javier Patino to Buriram United from Chinese Super League side Henan Jianye shows that clubs can still bring in genuine quality, even with the new restrictions.
The aforementioned Aung Thu has also been a standout performer this season, racking up ten goals and six assists from just 16 appearances, making him one of the division’s most productive players in front of goal.
Thai clubs continue to perform well on the continent, with Buriram United being the second Thai club in two years to qualify for the knockout stages of the AFC Champions League.
The league continues to host talented coaches who have pushed their clubs to new levels of progressive play style and tactical discipline, continuing an upward trajectory that doesn’t seem to have been stunted by the tightening of foreign player restrictions.
Whether or not this growth is because of, or in spite of, the actions taken by the Thai FA are likely to remain a crucial point of contention.