Up until the 2002 World Cup in South Korea/Japan, Asian football didn’t exactly get a great deal of attention. But, following South Korea’s run to the semifinals and Japan’s appearance in the final 16, the respect level for football in the region saw a great upswing.
A growing number of Asian players have been able to make a dent in Europe over the last several years, and with that in mind, I thought I’d give my list of the top five Asian footballers today.
Since Australia is now a member of the Asian Football Confederation, they’re included in this list, but to ensure that there is a pretty fair amount of diversity, the top five is made up of players from five different countries.
For the politically and geographically correct, certain countries might be considered more in one region than another, but this is purely based on players whose countries are official members of the AFC.
1. Shunsuke Nakamura, Celtic (Japan)
The £1.25m that Celtic paid for the now 30-year old playmaker in August 2005 when they signed him from Italian side Reggina looks like an absolute bargain now.
Nakamura has been a key part of each of Celtic’s last three SPL titles, and in the 2006/07 season he won the Scottish Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year award and the SPFA’s (Scottish Professional Footballers’ Association) Players’ Player of the Year award.
Among his career accomplishments, Nakamura was also the first Japanese player to score in the Champions League, and he has also scored 21 goals in 80 appearances.
Nakamura’s certainly up there with the top free-kick specialists and long-range shooters out there. Accuracy is a gift that not everyone (including strikers) is blessed with, but maybe they just need to go to Shunsuke’s School of Shooting to get a lesson.
2. Tim Cahill, Everton (Australia)
Cahill is one of the most recognizable names for English football fans, since he’s played his entire professional career in England. Cahill made his name with Millwall, and after playing a pivotal role in getting the Lions to the 2004 FA Cup final, he moved to Everton for £1.5m. Since his move to Everton, he has become one of the club’s most popular and important players, and not just because his trademark boxing goal celebration is entertaining to watch.
Sure, Yakubu bags the goals for Everton, but you need only look at Everton’s results from last season to get an idea of just how important Cahill is to their cause – you can see how things went for the Toffees when he was out injured at the start and end of last season.
With Cahill out for the first 10 league matches, Everton picked up 14 points. When he returned in late October, from that point to when he was injured against West Ham on March 22, Everton picked up 42 points (not counting the point against the Hammers) in the next 20 matches. In the least eight matches, including the 1-1 draw against West Ham, Everton picked up all of nine points.
For Australia, his most memorable moments may have been in their World Cup opener against Japan two years ago, when he scored an 84th minute equalizer, and five minutes later, netted the go-ahead goal in a 3-1 win.
3. Park Ji-Sung, Manchester United (South Korea)
Park wasn’t a regular for Manchester United last season, thanks in part to injury issues, but he was a key part of United’s Champions League semifinal triumph against Barcelona, playing the full 90 in both ties, and was named Man of the Match in the decisive 1-0 second-leg victory.
If he’s healthy, he can make quite an impact, whether it’s scoring goals (like the two in a late-season demolition of Bolton on the way to the 2006/07 title), providing (came on in the second half at Boro and assisted on Wayne Rooney’s equalizer in a 2-2 draw – a point that proved very, very vital in the end), or simply being able to boss his position well, like against Barcelona. His versatility is one of his biggest assets, as he can man any position in the midfield and as an attacker.
For South Korea, Park has appeared 70 times and played a big role for his country in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, scoring goals in both.
Given that there are bigger and brighter stars in Manchester United’s lineup, it might be easy to forget about Park, and it might be easy to say that United have him just for the financial boost with Asian fans, but as shown by the numerous accolades he received for his part in United’s title triumph in 06/07, he’s much more than a space-filler and squad number.
4. Javad Nekounam, Osasuna (Iran)
Nekounam, the captain of the Iranian team, is the only really defensive-minded player in the top five.
After a debut season that saw him play a key role in Osasuna making the UEFA Cup semifinals, the 27-year old spent most of last season on the sidelines due to a torn ACL, and there’s no doubt that it hurt Osasuna’s cause. He didn’t return to action until late April, and in the end, Osasuna finished a mere one point inside the safe zone in La Liga.
Nekounam is well-renowned for his passing, but he’s also got the ability to chip in with the regular goal, as shown by his 21 in 94 appearances for Iran. As he’s only 27, he’s got a chance to potentially push for 150 caps, which would be an amazing accomplishment.
5. Nashat Akram, Al-Gharafa (Iraq)
Things haven’t exactly been sunny in Iraq over the last several years, but the 23-year old Akram has shone a positive light on the war-torn country.
Akram was a pivotal part of Iraq’s surprising 2007 Asian Cup triumph, scoring a goal and assisting on several others on the way to the crown. He was also part of the Iraqi team that made the final in the 2004 Olympics, a story that garnered a great deal of attention in the U.S.
The kinds of performances that he’s had for Iraq are one of the reasons why Akram has been the target of both Manchester City and Sunderland, and as I covered in the transfer roundups in January, he was actually all set to make a landmark move to England with City, but thanks to some pretty bogus work permit issues, he was denied a move.
He’s now playing for Al-Gharafa in Qatar, but it shouldn’t be very long before he’s on his way to Europe. If Iraq can continue to make their way up the FIFA rankings, or at least stay steadily inside the top 60, and Akram continues to impress, then he could still be the first Iraqi player in the Premier League.
Now, there are many, many talents who didn’t make my top five that deserve a mention, and they’re not just from Australia.
While Akram might be the more highly-rated prospect, his club and country teammate Younis Mahmoud is quite the quality player in his own right. The 25-year old forward is his country’s captain, and he was the joint top scorer (with four goals) and MVP of the aforementioned 2007 Asian Cup, where he scored the winning goal in the final.
Another player who could potentially make the jump to Europe is Saudi Arabian captain Yasser Al-Qahtani. The 25-year old forward is quite the prolific scorer, and was also joint top scorer in the 2007 Asian Cup and the 2007 Asian Footballer of the Year. He’s drawn interest from Manchester City and Middlesbrough, and while he apparently has to learn that there’s no crying in football, he should have his ticket soon.
If you’d like to find out a little about a few more AFC-based footballers still waiting on their move to Europe, here’s a good list to check out.
More and more Asian players are making the move to Europe, and while not all of them will have the success that the likes of Nakamura and Park have had, there are definitely a few diamonds to be uncovered, and European clubs are becoming more and more aware of that fact, so much so that the next time we roll out one of these lists, it could be a top 10.