20 Best Asian Players in the World Right Now
This article profiles the 20 finest Asian players in the world today.
Although only a handful of the continent’s stars feature in the Champions League, Asia still possesses a number of excellent players, making pertinent contributions across the world of football.
Japan’s performance at the recent Confederations Cup, and their fascinating approach under Alberto Zaccheroni, could raise the benchmark for Asian football.
The rejuvenation of the Bundesliga has benefited the continent’s football as numerous Japanese and Korean players have emerged as major players at some of the division’s stronger sides.
Naturally, Japan and South Korea, two of the continent’s giants, are strongly represented within this list, while Iran, who will also head to the World Cup next summer, have their own fine players as well.
Australia, who take part in Asian qualification, were not considered, as the country is not part of the Asian continent, while the likes of Turkey, Armenia and Russia, countries that straddle Europe and Asia, were also excluded from consideration.
20. Maya Yoshida
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Japan’s attacking players naturally steal the show and the headlines, but within his ranks, Alberto Zaccheroni possesses some talented individuals who will be responsible for holding the fort next summer.
The team certainly demands an improvement on the Confederations Cup performance, where both Brazil and Italy tore the back line to shreds.
With Yasuyuki Konno heading towards retirement, Southampton man Maya Yoshida looks to be the best prospect around which to construct the defence.
He may have had a tricky beginning to life in the Premier League, as part of a Southampton defence that haemorrhaged goals, but Yoshida gently managed to grow to meet the demands imposed upon him.
Whilst he hasn’t started this season in the Saints’ first team, manager Mauricio Pochettino has insisted that the Japanese defender remains in his plans.
Yoshida’s role as Zaccheroni’s on-field defensive organiser has won him many plaudits and also earned him an unlikely spot on the Japanese cover of FIFA 2014.
19. Lee Chung-Yong
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Out of sight has unfortunately meant out of mind for Lee Chung-Yong in English football; the South Korean winger’s stock has fallen dramatically in the UK following a succession of devastating injuries and Bolton’s relegation.
Lee, like his American teammate Stuart Holden, burst into the Premier League with a number of terrific performances before injury robbed them both of their momentum.
Shorn of two of their finest players, not to mention the retiring Fabrice Muamba, it was perhaps no surprise that Bolton dropped.
Still only 25, Seoul-born Lee has time on his side. I believe, however, that we are unlikely to see his best in the rough and tumble of the Championship. It could be that a move away will be the only way for the winger to recreate his impressive international form at club level.
Everton and Sunderland were both interested during the summer transfer window, according to Sky Sports.
18. Omar Abdulrahman
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Could Emirati winger and attacking midfielder Omar Abdulrahman be the Arabian peninsula’s first global superstar?
During the 2012 Olympics in London, he starred for the United Arab Emirates, sizzling with his bold offensive play, his sublime ball control and effortless technical prowess.
Abdulrahman, unfettered by expectation or fear, sought to drive forward at every opportunity; caring not for reputation or heritage, he tore through the opposition in a manner not dissimilar to Diego Maradona in his pomp.
The similarity continues with the small stature and the dark curly hair.
Abdulrahman’s reputation is already well known to clubs such as Manchester City and Arsenal, but for now he remains at Al Ain. Expect to see him in a major European league some time soon.
17. Younis Mahmoud
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It is a great shame that Iraqi goal-getter Younis Mahmoud will not be showcasing his ability on the international stage next summer.
Like Egypt’s Mohamed Aboutrika, he is a player whose national importance transcends the sport.
Despite threats of assassination and kidnap, Mahmoud led Iraq to the AFC Asian Cup in 2007. It was his winner in the final that buried Saudi Arabia, but his overall contribution was terrific, enough to earn him both the top scorer award and the player of the tournament award.
Six years on, he remains a fine goalscorer.
He currently sits in second place in Iraq’s all-time scoring charts, with seven of his goals coming during Iraq’s ill-fated World Cup qualifying attempt.
Despite this failing, the year has been a successful one for Mahmoud. He was top scorer in the 2013 Gulf Cup of Nations, where he guided Iraq to the final, and he won the Qatari Stars League with Al Sadd.
16. Javad Nekounam
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He may be 33, but Javad Nekounam remains one of Asia’s most important midfielders.
In 2012, he drew a close on six years in Europe with Osasuna, where he consistently kept the team in La Liga with some sterling, consistent performances in the heart of the midfield, ahead of the back four.
Having captained the Iranian side to World Cup qualification, Nekounam will now get the chance to enjoy an international swansong on the global stage.
He was part of the squad eliminated in the group stage in Germany in 2006 and will be hoping to make amends this time around.
15. Ali Al-Habsi
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It has been a tough 12 months for Ali Al-Habsi, who was relegated with his beloved Wigan after a season where he was often displaced from the team by the young loanee Joel and encountered various injury woes—some of which still persist.
Despite this, he still remains a cut above the rest of Asia’s stoppers.
The former Lyn stopper has become the symbol of Omani football, captaining the side throughout their recent, steady transformation, and also producing some dazzling performances during the 2004 Asian Cup.
He escaped Wigan’s relegation with his reputation intact and should now look to improving the fortunes of both his club and his country—the latter missing out on World Cup qualification from a group that included Japan, Australia and Jordan.
14. Kim Bo-Kyung
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Upon his retirement from international football in 2011, Park Ji-Sung identified Kim as his eventual successor for the Korean No. 7 shirt.
The former Cerezo Osaka man admires David Silva and has named the Manchester City man as his hero, and, in truth, he is a much more creative, inspired player than Park.
When Cardiff acquired the Korean midfielder in the summer of 2012, they saw off competition from clubs with genuine European pedigree, such as Celtic, Borussia Dortmund and Monaco. The attacking player struggled to adapt to the Championship initially but after Christmas emerged as an important member of Malky Mackay’s promotion-winning side.
He is an excellent passer of the ball and reads the game well. Even though there have been calls for Jordan Mutch to replace him in the faltering Cardiff side this term, I have little doubt that Kim will play an central role in the Welsh club’s campaign this term.
A bargain at £2.5 million.
13. Ashkan Dejagah
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Despite being outshone occasionally by some of the bigger names that populate the Fulham team, Ashkan Dejagah is gently proving himself to be a valuable component of Martin Jol’s team down on the banks of the Thames.
His time at Fulham, following a move from Wolfsburg, began slowly with adaptation issues and injuries disrupting his progress. His flair, natural ability and pace have been hard to suppress, however, and he has begun to express himself more consistently in the Premier League.
Dejagah can also look forward to a trip to Brazil next summer after his Iran team secured qualification for the World Cup ahead of South Korea and Uzbekistan.
His impressive form has even led to Liverpool being linked to his signing, a move that Cottagers fans would be keen to prevent. Fortunately, Dejagah rebuffed any suggestions that he might be departing.
The Iranian will be sticking around in West London a little longer yet.
12. Park Ji-Sung
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Park, like so many others, was tarnished badly by the incompetent failings of Queens Park Rangers as a Premier League side.
Jose Bosingwa, Stephane Mbia and Esteban Granero may have received the majority of the media’s criticism, but Park wasn’t far behind. Having arrived from Manchester United, a Champions League winner no less, he was impotent and uninspired as QPR were relegated.
Park’s form made a mockery of his installation as club captain by Mark Hughes.
The South Korean midfielder isn’t finished, however. In the summer, he moved back to former club PSV on loan and the early signs suggest that he is beginning to rediscover the form that made him such a respected professional.
In the 4-0 romp over Ajax, he was particularly impressive, instrumental even, and won the Man of the Match award—proving he still has what it takes to influence big matches.
Having retired from international football, it looks unlikely that PJS will be making the trip to Brazil with his compatriots next summer. Saying that, however, stranger things have happened.
11. Ki Sung-Yeung
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He may have received some criticism following an uncertain start to life in England's North East with his new club Sunderland, but be under no illusion—Ki is a fine central midfielder.
At Swansea, he replaced the departed Joe Allen and proved an excellent addition to the Swans' midfield, where he operated with maturity and drive alongside Leon Britton.
Unlike at Sunderland, Ki had little trouble adapting to life with the Swans, where his technical ability made him an ideal addition to Michael Laudrup’s midfield.
Ftbpro identified Ki as the EPL’s most accurate passer last term, with the Korean achieving a 92.7% success rate over 29 EPL matches.
He could be a key building block as Gus Poyet attempts to get the Black Cats purring again.
10. Lee Keun-Ho
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The AFC Player of the Year in 2012, Lee Keun-Ho has risen to be one of Asia’s finest forwards.
He was irrepressible during Ulsan Hyundai’s run in the 2012 Asian Champions League and demonstrated not only an ability to thrive in taxing locations and adverse conditions but also a capacity to raise his game for the big encounters.
This big-game mentality should serve Lee and South Korea well next summer. Indeed, the forward’s performances have been one of the key contributing factors in the Red Devils’ competent run to next summer’s tournament.
He opened the scoring in the 88th minute away to the United Arab Emirates in November 2011, changing a contest that was heading towards a scoreless draw. He also finished off Kuwait in the third round before further key contributions against Qatar, home and away.
He has become even more important for the national side in light of Park Chu Young’s calamitous stagnation at Arsenal.
9. Shinji Okazaki
He may not be one of the world’s most recognisable frontmen, but I believe that Mainz striker Shinji Okazaki has the potential to make a major impact.
He is a versatile player who has operated in wide positions for Japan, but he is likely to be the team’s spearhead next summer. His goal record recently has been impressive, and he has contributed both quality and quantity for the national side.
During the Asian qualification programme, he was the continent’s top scorer—with eight goals—while his aptitude for big-game contributions was evidenced this summer, with his delightful headed goal against the Italians.
At only 5’9", don’t expect too many aerial contributions from Okazaki. Regardless, he is a mobile, energetic forward who plays his part well in Japan’s fluid front four.
8. Atsuto Uchida
Japan’s full-backs are often identified as one of the side’s most potent weapons and both of the players who start in these positions are featured in this list.
Uchida has become a much more composed defender since settling into the Schalke team in 2010.
Uchida possesses both fantastic speed and the kind of tactical acumen that has made him one of Alberto Zaccheroni’s most trusted personnel. His energetic displays and fantastic work ethic could make him one of the stars of next summer’s centrepiece.
7. Yasuhito Endo
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Makoto Hasebe may be the more celebrated centrepiece of Japan’s midfield, but Yasuhito Endo plays an important role alongside the former Wolfsburg man.
Endo is the old head in this exciting, progressive Japanese side. He is the most-capped player in Japan’s history with a remarkable 138 caps, and featured for the national side at the 1996 Olympics in the United States.
Unlike most of his revered teammates, Endo has never made the move away from Asia. He is an icon at club side Gamba Osaka where he has played nearly 400 times.
At 33, he brings valuable experience to anchor the likes of Honda, Kagawa and Okazaki for Japan. Beyond that, expect a few finely struck set-pieces next summer.
6. Koo Ja-Cheol
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Since moving to Wolfsburg in 2001, the youngster has developed into an impressive midfield talent.
Despite being plagued by injuries, his reputation has rocketed following a loan move to Augsburg, and he has emerged as an important part of Wolfsburg’s future.
He may still be slender in years, but Koo has a mature approach to the game—it was he who captained South Korea at the 2012 Olympic Games.
The future is likely to be exciting for the Red Devils, with Koo in the centre of midfield alongside Sunderland man Ki Sung-Yueng.
The duo contrast well: Ki is a more conservative player, whilst Koo, with a ferocious shot and a creative eye, can be a much more offensive contributor. He is shaping up to be one of Asia’s finest midfielders.
5. Yuto Nagatomo
Along with Atsuto Uchida, Nagatomo is one of the two wing-backs who add another dimension to the Japanese set-up.
The pair add width to the side with their persistent desire to get forward and to provide service for the forward players.
Such attacking options, particularly from deep, could make Japan an enticing proposition next summer.
But Nagatomo, like Uchida, is not a purely attacking talent. Against Brazil earlier in the year, he and his compatriot managed to contend with Hulk and Neymar, while Nagatomo also found time to threaten the sanctity of Dani Alves’s right flank.
After a few consistent seasons in Serie A, albeit in a transitional Internazionale side, Nagatomo has blossomed into an established player. Could be a bit hit next summer.
4. Makoto Hasebe
Nuremberg man Hasebe is the pivot in the exciting Japanese side that is so strongly represented in this list.
He is captain, talisman and the glue that keeps the Blue Samurai ticking over.
I would argue that the central midfielder is one of Europe’s most underrated players. He possesses excellent passing ability—a skill that sees him in the function of the team’s deep-lying playmaker—he has the tactical discipline and determination to operate in a holding position, while he is energetic enough to drive the team forward in a box-to-box role.
He won the German title with Wolfsburg back in 2009 and, alongside Yasuhito Endo, is a vital component in Alberto Zaccheroni’s 4-2-3-1 formation.
3. Shinji Kagawa
It just doesn’t seem to be going right for Shinji Kagawa at Manchester United, does it?
During the Red Devils’ early season struggles, the calls for Kagawa’s inclusion have intensified; however, when selected, he has featured wide on the left, a position from which he struggled to impose himself last term.
He may have the backing of the fans, but few, at this stage, would prefer Kagawa behind Robin Van Persie rather than Wayne Rooney.
It has been mooted that Kagawa’s best bet for realising his potential might be a return to the Bundesliga, the division in which he excelled for Borussia Dortmund before being snapped up by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Jurgen Klopp remains a fierce admirer and with little hope of change under Moyes, it may be that a move away is the best bet for this fine playmaker.
2. Son Heung-Min
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Son became Leverkusen’s most expensive signing of all time this summer, following his 10 million euro switch from Hamburg.
During his five years at HSV, the Korean proved himself to be one of the Bundesliga’s most exciting forwards. His dazzling displays and impressive development even prompted attention from Arsenal and Spurs.
Chief among his qualities are his effortless control of a football and his technical prowess, both of which have been on display at Leverkusen since his arrival to replace Chelsea-bound Andre Schurrle.
In a fairly lean era for Asian forwards, Son is the standout name, even at this tender stage of his development.
1. Keisuke Honda
Topping this list is Keisuke Honda who, in my opinion, stands head and shoulders ahead of the rest of the pack as Asia’s finest player at the moment.
There is a reason why it is Honda that plays as Japan’s No. 10 rather than Shinji Kagawa, who is shunted out to the flanks in deference to the CSKA Moscow man.
A delicate, majestic playmaker, Honda has developed his game in Russia, away from the major leagues of Western Europe.
Transfer rumours have long connected him to a more exalted setting and this summer is proving to be no different. AC Milan and Everton are on the prowl, and either would benefit from Honda’s expert movement, his delicious ability to strike a ball and his set-piece prowess.
The former VVV-Venlo man was one of the stars of the 2010 World Cup but could go on to emerge as a genuine global star at next summer’s centrepiece.