Celtic’s signings of Yuki Kobayashi and Tomoki Iwata this winter bring the total number of Japanese players on the green and white side of Glasgow to six.
Iwata joins on loan from Yokohama F. Marinos, where he was named the J.League’s player of the year in 2022, and there an option for Celtic to buy him for reportedly around $1.2 million, which would appear to be an absolute bargain. Should Celtic sell him to a club in England in a few seasons, they could see a tidy profit.
The influx of Japanese players into Celtic is partly due to their Australian head coach Ange Postecoglou, who joined the club from Yokohama F. Marinos and knows the J.League very well.
But there’s another reason too, one that makes Scottish clubs the perfect stepping-stone for Asian players looking to play in the Premier League.
“All players have an ultimate destination in mind, and I think everyone would love to play in the Premier League.” Those are the words of Cho Gue-sung, the South Korean striker who scored twice against Ghana at the 2022 World Cup.
Cho has been linked to several clubs in Europe, including Celtic. The move appears less likely now, but if he does end up at Parkhead, it could help him achieve that dream move to England’s Premier League, just as it did for his compatriot Ki Sung-yueng, who moved from Celtic to Welsh side Swansea City in 2012.
Brexit has changed British clubs’ ability to sign players from overseas. In some ways, it has become more difficult, as players from the European Union now require work permits. But that has also made it a level playing field for non-European players. English clubs have been scouring South America for the hottest young talents recently, but for Scotland, Asia might prove a better choice.
That’s because of a slight difference in Scotland’s work permit rules. In England, players must earn 15 points to qualify automatically, and ten points to be allowed to appeal for a special exemption if there are exceptional circumstances that prevented them from reaching 15 points. In Scotland, any player can appeal for an exemption.
Players can earn points based on the strength of the league they play in and how well their team performs in that league and in continental competitions. Japan’s J.League and South Korea’s K League are in the weakest band, Band 6, of the ranking system, meaning the only way a player from either leagues can move directly to the Premier League is if they are an established international.
With any player able to apply for an exemption, players from South Korea and Japan have the chance to move to Scotland, and as the Scottish Premiership is in Band 3, success at Celtic would allow players to reach the requirements for a move south.
Cho isn’t the only South Korean linked to Celtic. The Hoops have also been linked with striker Oh Hyeon-gyu and defensive midfielder Kwon Hyeok-kyu, with Oh’s transfer looking the most promising at time of writing.
Cho, Oh and Kwon have one important thing in common, they have all played for Gimcheon Sangmu (formerly Sangju Sangmu). All South Korean males need to do military service, usually during their peak years as a soccer player. The only real exemption is to win an Olympic medal or Asian Games gold medal, like Son Heung-min, Kim Min-jae and several other top South Korean players did in 2018.
One of the ways that the best Korean soccer players can complete their service though is to play for Sangmu, the military team. This can still harm their careers if it happens midway through a career, like with current international Kwon Chang-hoon, who had to return from Europe to join Sangmu. But Cho (24), Oh (21) and Kwon (21) all did their military service at Sangmu right at the start of their careers, and are now free to pursue a career in Europe.
Celtic have got a head start on their Scottish Premiership rivals, but other Scottish sides are catching on to the potential of Asia.
Hearts signed Japanese player Yutaro Oda from Vissel Kobe this winter, and Rangers are one of the many sides that have been linked to Cho Gue-sung.
With Postecoglou’s knowledge, Celtic will retain their advantage in this area for the near future, but they will face more competition for the next bargain signings from the region.