Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Bridge From Asia To The Premier League Via Grasshopper Zurich

Wolverhampton Wanderers fans will likely have to re-jig their chant for forward Hwang Hee-chan after the Korean international made his loan move from RB Leipzig permanent this week. But he might not be the only Korean at the West Midlands club next year.

Exciting young forward Jeong Sang-bin has grabbed Wolves’ attention. The 19-year-old had an impressive debut season in South Korea’s K League last year, earning a call up to the Korean national team, and scoring just 5 minutes into his debut against Sri Lanka.

Wolves announced his signing this week, but he won’t be joining them just yet. Instead he’s been sent on loan for 18 months at their unofficial feeder club Grasshopper Zurich.

Grasshoppers were bought in 2020 by Jenny Wang, the wife of Wolves’ owner Fosun Group’s Guo Guangchang. Like Wolves, they were a club with rich European pedigree who had fallen on hard times.

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They currently don’t even have their own ground, and are forced to use the city’s Stadion Letzigrund athletics stadium after plans to rebuild their home got tied up in red tape and the global financial crisis. The one-time European Cup quarter-finalists had fallen as low as Switzerland’s second tier when Wang took over.

They are now back in the Swiss Super League, and doing well with the help of Wolves loanees like Leo Bonatini.

Like Wolves, their squad has a sizeable Portuguese contingent, but Grasshoppers have also brought in Japanese players Hayao Kawabe and Ayumu Seko, Chinese defender Li Lei, and now South Korea’s Jeong Sang-bin. Some of these players could use the Swiss side as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

Japanese international Kawabe has already done just that. He has only played 18 games for Grasshoppers after joining from Sanfrecce Hiroshima last summer, but has already been signed permanently by Wolves and will join them in the summer. He even spent this January training with the Premier League side.

The Swiss and Austrian leagues are a good environment for non-European players to develop before joining Europe’s bigger leagues. Wolves’ Hwang Hee-chan made his name at Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg, scoring 45 goals in 126 appearances alongside Liverpool’s Takumi Minamino and Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland.

But that’s not the only reason why players like Jeong Sang-bin are stopping off in Zurich on their way to the Premier League.

Wolves’ technical director Scott Sellars, talking about why Wolves signed Kawabe this winter rather than waiting for the summer, gave a hint as to the other reason when he said “due to the GBE criteria for signing international players, Hayao is a player who is eligible to sign for a British club this month, but may not be in the future.”

Top internationals like Hwang Hee-chan and Son Heung-min would have no problem meeting the criteria for a Government Body Endorsement, or GBE, but for players like Kawabe and Jeong, who are both on the verge of breaking into their national teams, they can’t earn enough GBE points while staying in Japan or Korea.

The Swiss Premier League, a tier four league according to the GBE system, won’t provide enough points for a UK work permit by itself unless Grasshoppers can win their first league title since 2003. But it will provide enough points so that players on the edge of national teams around South Korea or Japan’s level can qualify for a UK work permit.

Japan are currently ranked 26th by FIFA, meaning any player who appears in 50% or more of their games over a 12 month period passes the GBE criteria automatically. Anyone who appears in 20% and is also a Swiss Super League regular would also pass. South Korea are ranked 33rd so their players need to appear in 60% or 30% of international matches, respectively.

By using Grasshoppers to sign up-and-coming stars in this way, Wolves could get the top Asian stars of the future for a far lower fee than if, like in the case of Hwang Hee-chan, they signed them after they had already become established in Europe. Even if Kawabe or Jeong doesn’t make it in the Premier League, Wolves will likely be able to recoup the low transfer fees spent on them.

The GBE rules that came in after Brexit make it harder to sign EU players, but that makes it relatively easier to sign players from the rest of the world. Much of the focus has been on South America due to the extra points toward the GBE that players can get for playing in the Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana, but by looking at other countries in FIFA’s top 50, Wolves could gain an advantage over their rivals.

The step up to the Premier League will be a big one for players like Jeong Sang-bin, but maybe sometime next year, the chant “He’s Korean, he was in Zurich last season…” could be ringing around Molineux.

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