5 Biggest Asian Football Stars Right Now and 5 to Watch
Once considered little more than a football backwater, the growth of the game in Asia over the last 10 years has been astonishing. The region now boasts one of the largest audiences for leagues in England, Italy and Spain; and this growth has been accompanied by the arrival of many quality stars who come to test themselves against the world's best.
Bleacher Report identifies some of the best players from countries such as Japan, South Korea and Oman, who star in Europe's most competitive leagues and enjoy idol status back home in the national side.
Furthermore, we take a look into the future to identify the bright talents who could soon be joining their illustrious colleagues at the top of world football...
Shinji Kagawa, Japan
The Manchester United midfielder may have struggled with injury in his first season as a Premier League player, but he showed more than enough to prove that he can be as influential for the Red Devils as he was in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund.
Kagawa lifted the German title twice in successive years with BVB before completing a lucrative move to Old Trafford, and he made it three in three in 2012-13 as his new club stormed to the Premiership title by a comfortable margin. There were also records to defeat, becoming the first Asian player to score a hat-trick in the league with his triple against Norwich City.
Quick, agile, incisive and with an impressive goalscoring record throughout his career, the 24-year-old has a glittering future ahead of him and is an undisputed fixture in the Japan national team. If he can stay fit with Manchester United and keep showing his best form, he could well become an all-time legend for both country and club.
Yuto Nagatomo, Japan
Neither the talent nor the heart of this enterprising full-back can be doubted. In March 2011 the Inter star took a Japanese flag onto the pitch, with the legendary "You'll never walk alone" printed on the front, expressing his solidarity following the devastating earthquake which hit the East Asian nation.
Given the chance to impress in Italy with Cesena, Nagatomo took just six months to make an impression before Inter swooped in January 2011 to make him their first ever Japanese player. Since then, the attack-minded defender has been a regular fixture in the Nerazzuri first team, and has already reached 50 caps for his national team.
Ali Al-Habsi, Oman
This veteran goalkeeper has been in England since 2006, when he moved to Bolton Wanderers to try his luck in the Premier League. He was frustrated at the Reebok Stadium, only making a handful of appearances; but since making the switch to Wigan, it has been a different story.
The Oman captain and winner of over 90 caps has been first choice for the Latics the past three seasons, and is one of the reasons that the strugglers still have a fighting chance of top-flight football in 2013-14.
While he lost his place to Joel Robles for the weekend's victorious FA Cup final, Al-Habsi has fought diligently all season in the face of a defence that at times has bordered on the calamitous. Things look bleak for Wigan as they are must win both their remaining matches to keep their hopes of survival alive, but they and the Oman star will continue the battle to the bitter end.
Park Ji-Sung, South Korea
While at 32 years of age his powers may be on the wane, the current Queens Park Rangers midfielder more than merits a mention on this list, thanks to years of exemplary service both in club and international football.
The South Korean has been a fixture in European football for over a decade, first with PSV Eindhoven before making a dream move to Manchester United. Over the course of that 10 years, there are few players who could match the tenacious, versatile star for success.
Two Eredivisie titles, four Premiership trophies, a Champions League and FIFA Club World Cup winner's medal are just some of the highlights of what has been a glittering career for Park. Always loyal to his team and willing to play across the pitch, or from the bench, six years in one of the world's biggest clubs and 100 caps for South Korea are a testament to his admirable professionalism, work-rate and discipline.
Koo Ja-Cheol, South Korea
Despite Augsburg's underwhelming season in the Bundesliga, their dynamic midfielder Koo Ja-Cheol caught the eye more than most as he inspired the team to fight a bitter relegation battle and play for their future in Germany's top flight.
Koo jumped at the chance of regular first-team action on loan from Wolfsburg, and despite the malaise surrounding him he pitched in with three goals from the middle, leaving Augsburg with a decent chance of avoiding the drop.
Direct relegation has already been avoided, while victory at home to already-condemned Greuther Furth on the last day coupled with dropped points for Fortuna Dusseldorf would see them complete a great escape.
It is not just in club football that this quick, skilful star with a great eye for goal has excelled. He was a key part of the South Korea team that took bronze in the 2012 Olympics, and at just 24 there is definitely more to come from Koo.
One to Watch: Omar Abdulrahman, UAE
The United Arab Emirates' stint at the 2012 Summer Olympics may have been a short one, but one player in particular from that team made an impression, and not just for his outrageous hairstyle.
Omar Abdulrahman, currently at Dubai's Al-Ain, impressed Luis Suarez enough for the Liverpool and Uruguay striker to swap shirts with him at the end of the match between the two nations, while Great Britain's Micah Richards singled him out for praise at the end of a 3-1 win for the hosts.
At just 21, the forward already boasts a contract with Nike, and has trained with Manchester City. A move to Europe has so far been put off, but if he keeps up his dazzling form in his home nation there is no doubt that a transfer will be coming sooner rather than later.
One to Watch: Son Heung-Min, South Korea
The South Korean striker's dizzying path to the top of European football is perhaps a foretaste of what will become the norm for Asia's most talented youngster. Son was just 16 when he decided to move to Germany with Hamburg, and just two years later became the youngest HSV scorer in history when he hit the net against Koln.
Still just 20, Son has been light-heartedly dubbed the "Korean [Gerd] Muller" for his exploits in front of the posts, and has missed just one game in the 2012-13 Bundesliga; also drawing with Artjoms Rudnevs at the top of the club's scoring charts, with 12 each. Despite the pair's efforts, Hamburg look set to miss out on European football for the coming season, and with his contract due to expire in 2014 a move could be on the cards.
While he has captured hearts in Germany, Son's relationship with the South Korean national team has been much less straightforward.
Tensions were raised when the youngster turned down a place in the 2012 Olympic squad, as he preferred to work on his game with Hamburg. All was forgiven though when he was included in subsequent World Cup qualifiers, a sign that the 20-year-old is fast becoming indispensable for both club and country.
One to Watch: Chen Zizhao, China
This versatile forward made history in 2012, when he signed an 18-month loan deal with Brazilian giants Corinthians to become the first Chinese player to represent the Timao. After a lengthy apprenticeship, Chen is finally beginning to make his mark in Sao Paulo.
Highly rated in his native country as a goal-scoring midfielder or second striker, Zhizhao made his Corinthians debut at the start of 2013 and has started on numerous occasions in the Paulista State Championship. The affection held for him by teammates is clear, as they dubbed him Zizou in deference to French football legend Zinedine Zidane.
Before opting for Brazil, the 25-year-old had received interest from various European clubs, and a recent call-up from the Chinese national team suggests that his exploits are not going unseen back home. As he continues to improve alongside such talents as Paulinho and Paolo Guerrero, Zizhao could have a bright future as he continues to blaze the trail for Asians in South American football.
One to Watch: Ryo Miyaichi, Japan
If there is one thing Arsene Wenger knows, it is how to identify quality talent. The Arsenal manager helped stars such as Ashley Cole, Cesc Fabregas, Patrick Vieira, Robin van Persie and countless other players to break into the first team and make a name for themselves on the world stage; which suggest that Miyaichi is in exactly the right place.
The speedy winger was brought to the Emirates in 2010, starring in a trial with the Premier League club in the same summer that he helped his Japanese high school reach the finals of a national tournament. Since signing terms he has continued his football apprenticeship elsewhere, playing on loan with PSV, Bolton Wanderers and with Wigan in the current season.
Although a breakthrough with Arsenal is still to come, Miyaichi certainly has the faith of his manager.
“We got the work permit for him because he is an exceptional talent,” said the manager in an exclusive interview with the club's official website back in 2011.
“Overall we are very happy because he is one of the players who can have a big impact this season. He will play as a striker, right or left, he is a winger type and he is very keen.”
One to Watch: Terry Antonis, Australia
While the name Terry Antonis may not sound familiar at the moment, the attacking midfielder is one to keep an eye on as he prepares for the adventure of a lifetime this summer.
Still only 19, the Sydney FC star nevertheless has done more than enough to convince European scouts of his quality. Several sides were interested in taking Antonis from his home, but Parma eventually came out on top as they agreed an undisclosed fee for the teenager, who will move at the end of the 2012-13 season.
Duties for the national team have disrupted his playing time at Sydney somewhat, but Antonis has already managed to rack up 40 appearances for his club, also representing the Socceroos at Under-17, Under-20 and senior level.
He may have to be patient before breaking in to the starting lineup of a Serie A side, but the youngster has been marked for greatness for years, and has all the potential to become a hero for Australian football.