SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Park Ji-sung and Harry Kewell are playing it cool about returning to their home country's football leagues, illustrating the reluctance among many Asian football exports to make the journey home.
Park has virtually ruled out a swansong season in the Korean league, while Kewell is dragging his feet over a possible return to Australia. Hidetoshi Nakata never returned to play club football in Japan after his successful career in Europe.
Park, 30, has signed a new two-year contract with English champion Manchester United and has spoken of his desire to end his playing days in Europe.
He has never played in the K-League and is not enthusiastic about the prospect.
"Maybe it's possible but I want to play more in Europe as much as I can," he told Associated Press before his latest contract extension. Instead of wanting to head home, he urges talented South Koreans to join him in Europe.
The debate about whether star players should return to help their national leagues is loudest in Australia, where clubs are eager to sign Kewell and national team captain Lucas Neill, both of whom were released from Galatasaray.
Neill, 33, has been linked with a move to the United Arab Emirates while Kewell, perhaps the nation's biggest star, has been at the center of a 'will he-won't he?' transfer saga all summer over whether the former Leeds and Liverpool star will return home.
Kewell, 32, is regarded as a figure who can bring some much needed publicity and glamor to a league that is struggling with falling attendances. Like Park, he never played in the local league, instead heading to England as a teenager.
Football Federation Australia, which runs the A-League, has reportedly offered financial inducements for Kewell to join Melbourne Victory but protracted negotiations have tested the patience of fans.
The status of being a high-profile European-based player can be a double-edged sword when contemplating a move to the A-League. The debate intensified in early August when veteran Socceroos goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer expressed doubts about such a move.
"I have seen too many players go back home and it has not worked out," the 38-year-old Fulham goalkeeper told Australia's Football + magazine. "You are up there to be shot down very, very quickly...I don't want to give anyone the opportunity to do that to me."
Brendan Schwab, chief executive of the Australian Professional Footballers' Association, had some sympathy for that position.
"The fans have been very quick to criticize some of the returning Socceroos if their performances have not lived up to expectation," Schwab said. "Players are well aware that the scrutiny they would be under would be very high, probably higher than it would be in Europe as they would be seen as central figures in the promotion and marketing.
"It is something that players need to weigh up before coming back. Some have been very successful, others have had unfortunate circumstances but all have come back with the right attitude of wanting to put something back into the game."
In South Korea and Japan, the separation of powers between federations and leagues means the national bodies can not directly pay players to woo them home.
"It is nothing to do with the K-League whether overseas players return to play here," Kwon Sung-jin, deputy general manager of the K-League said. "It is wrong to say that Korean players in Europe should play in the K-League before they retire. We welcome any talented player to the league but their career choices are their business entirely."
Lee Young-pyo went to Europe at the same time as Park and, at the age of 34, is currently a free agent after two years with Al Hilal in Saudi Arabia. Despite offers, the former Tottenham Hotspur and Borrusia Dortmund defender has no interest in returning to the K-League.
It is similar in Japan. Nakata, the country's most successful export, left the J-League in 1998 to move to Italy before ending his club career in the English Premier League. He retired in 2006 at the age of 29 and despite the occasional speculation, has never hinted at a return.
Even a player such as Shunsuke Nakamura who did return after successful stints in Europe did so to get consistent playing time and boost his World Cup selection chances, rather than as a vote of confidence in the J-League.
There is still significant support across Asia in having players move to Europe to improve their game and boost the profile of the sport, although that have been calls in Australia to reduce the number of exports.
"There is a view, a misinformed view, that fewer players should go overseas." said Schwab. "We need as many players as possible going overseas to increase the talent pool. At this stage, the A-League is a small league and we need access to the international labor market.
"One of the driving forces behind its creation was that it would be a better development league to prepare the best players to go to the best leagues, be a competitive standalone career opportunity for players and give an opportunity for our best players to return towards the end of their careers, improve the quality of the league, assist in the education of young players and help market and promote that league."