Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 May 2019

Where are the Asian players in European football?

Pushing more Asians into football's highest levels would be a good example for youngsters, but it must not be prioritised over broader player development, writes Paul Freelend
Japan's Keisuke Honda, centre, and Marios Nikolaou of Cyprus fight for the ball during their friendly match in Saitama, Japan, on May 27, 2014. Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP
Japan's Keisuke Honda, centre, and Marios Nikolaou of Cyprus fight for the ball during their friendly match in Saitama, Japan, on May 27, 2014. Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP

When Asia’s top football talent last took the world stage, the results were not pretty.

Their next chance to hold the world’s attention is the 2015 Asian Cup, less than three months away. After the embarrassment in Brazil, though, it is worth examining where Asia’s best players ply their trade and if that benefits Asian football.

A good place to start is the highest-profile club competition in the world – the Uefa Champions League. Five Asian players are registered for the group stage, led by Shinji Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund and Son Heung-min of Bayer Leverkusen. The others are Atsuto Uchida (Schalke), Yoichiro Kakitani (Basel) and Junya Tanaka (Sporting Lisbon).

Five Asian players among 32 Champions League teams is not much of a presence at club football’s top table, but that may not be a representative sample. There are plenty of quality teams not taking part in the Champions League, and having an abundance of players in the competition is not a guarantee of success for a particular country.

A more thorough look shows 93 Asian players on the books of top-flight European clubs – meaning clubs in Uefa-member countries taking part in that country’s highest-tier league. A full list is included below. Here are a few notes on the findings:

• Japan have the biggest contingent with 40 players, 13 of whom are in the German Bundesliga. More surprising, though, is the number of Japanese playing throughout eastern Europe, in countries such as Poland, Latvia and Montenegro. South Korea are next with 11, followed by Uzbekistan (nine).

• The Arabian Gulf region has 15 players in European top-tier leagues between Lebanon (four), Iran (three), Iraq (two), Syria (two), Palestine (two), Jordan (one) and the UAE (one). The latter representative is Hamid Al Kamali, who became the first Emirati to play in the Champions League when he came on as a substitute for Maltese club Valletta in the qualifying rounds.

• Astute readers will notice a lack of Australians in the list. It is because Australians are more likely than players from other Asian Football Confederation countries to have European heritage through which they can claim a passport, thus sidestepping non-EU player restrictions.

• An argument could be made that some second-tier leagues – such as the English Championship, German 2 Bundesliga or Spanish Segunda Division – are at a high enough level to be a benefit for Asians to play there. There is merit to this argument, especially as the likes of Ali Al Habsi (Wigan), Lee Chung-yong (Bolton), Kim Bo-kyung (Cardiff City), Stephan Schrock (Greuther Furth), Javad Nekounam and Karim Ansarifard (both Osasuna) play in such leagues. This list was restricted to top-tier leagues in the interest of time and simplicity.

Sifting through all these players and clubs, two primary questions come to mind.

First, why are there so few Asians playing in Europe? Restrictions on non-EU players are a factor, but they are not the whole story. There is ample evidence Asian players are capable of succeeding at a high level. Are these players’ clubs not making them available to move, or do European clubs just not want them?

There is also the question of whether the players want to move. Whether it is family concerns, bad timing, the potential buyer not being a good fit or just being happy where they are, players may feel staying put is best for their careers. Look no further than Omar Abdulrahman, who has remained loyal to Al Ain and the UAE despite interest from top European clubs.

The second big question is whether Asian nations need their best players to leave for Europe in order to improve as a whole. Japan’s rise to Asian and global prominence started well before Japanese players were a regular sight in European leagues, and there have been suggestions that having so many players overseas has led to a dip in the quality of the domestic J-League.

In addition, focusing too much attention and investment on players at the top of the football pyramid deprives the vast majority of players who are not in a position to move overseas of needed resources. There are only so many jobs in Europe to be had, and emphasising the top level while ignoring youth development is akin to building a house by starting with the roof.

Clearly, the problems plaguing Asian football extend well beyond not having enough players in Europe. Still, having the likes of Kagawa and Son succeeding at the highest level is useful in the short term as a rallying point for fans and an example for young players.

The key in the long term is raising the level of football across Asia so that players going to Europe is seen as a potential career option for individuals, not a necessity for national success.

Asians in top-flight European leagues

Japan (40): Maya Yoshida (Southampton, ENG), Ryo Miyaichi (Arsenal, ENG), Yuya Osako (Cologne, GER), Kazuki Nagasawa (Cologne, GER), Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund, GER), Mitsuru Maruoka (Borussia Dortmund, GER), Shinji Okazaki (Mainz, GER), Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt, GER), Hajime Hosogai (Hertha Berlin, GER), Genki Haraguchi (Hertha Berlin, GER), Hiroki Sakai (Hannover, GER), Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart, GER), Atsuto Uchida (Schalke, GER), Hiroshi Kiyotake (Hannover, GER), Takashi Inui (Eintracht Frankfurt, GER), Keisuke Honda (AC Milan, ITA), Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan, ITA), Mike Havenaar (Cordoba, ESP), Junya Tanaka (Sporting Lisbon, POR), Yoichiro Kakitani (Basel, SUI), Yuya Kubo (Young Boys, SUI), Eiji Kawashima (Standard Liege, BEL), Yuji Ono (Standard Liege, BEL), Taisuke Akiyoshi (Sturm Graz, AUT), Takafumi Akahoshi (Ufa, RUS), Takuya Murayama (Pogon Szcecin, POL), Shohei Okuno (Pogon Szczecin, POL), Takayuki Seto (Astra Giurgiu, ROM), Keisuke Hoshino (Liepaja, LAT), Yuta Kinowaki (BFC Daugavpils, LAT), Ryotaro Nakano (BFC Daugavpils, LAT), Taisei Yamazaki (BFC Daugavpils, LAT), Kiyoshi Nakatani (BFC Daugavpils, LAT), Hidetoshi Wakui (Nomme Kalju, EST), Kohei Kato (Rudar Pljevlja, MNE), Masato Fukui (Sutjeska Niksic, MNE), Hirofumi Ueda (Lovcen Cetinje, MNE), Yusaku Toyoshima (Berane, MNE), Yosuke Saito (Slutsk, BLR), Soma Otani (Slavija Istocno Sarajevo, BOS)

South Korea (11): Ki Sung-yueng (Swansea City, ENG), Yun Suk-young (QPR, ENG), Son Heung-min (Bayer Leverkusen, GER), Ji Dong-won (Borussia Dortmund, GER), Koo Ja-cheol (Mainz, GER), Park Joo-ho (Mainz, GER), Kim Jin-su (Hoffenheim, GER), Hong Jeong-ho (Augsburg, GER), Yoo Byung-soo (FC Rostov, RUS), Suk Hyun-jun (Nacional, POR), Chung Woon (NK Istra, CRO)

China (3): Wei Shihao (Boavista, POR), Wang Shangyuan (Club Brugge, BEL), Wang Chu (Jeunesse Esch, LUX)

North Korea (1): Pak Kwang-ryong (Vaduz, SUI)

Iran (3): Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan, RUS), Alireza Haghighi (Penafiel, POR), Daniel Davari (Grasshopper, SUI)

Iraq (2): Ali Adnan (Rizespor, TUR), Ahmed Yasim (Orebro, SWE)

Syria (2): Sanharib Malki (Kasimpasa, TUR), Ahmad Kalasi (FK Sarajevo, BOS)

Lebanon (4): Abbas Hassan (Elfsborg, SWE), Feiz Shamsin (Pandurii Targu Jiu, ROM), Firas Aboulezz (Tarxien Rainbows, MAL), Mohammad Kadouh (Suduva Marijampole, LIT)

Palestine (2): Imad Zatara (Atvidabergs, SWE), Alexis Norambuena (GKS Bechatow, POL)

Jordan (1): Thaer Bawab (Universitatea Craiova, ROM)

UAE (1): Hamid Al Kamali (Valletta, MAL)

India (1): Gurpreet Singh Sandhu (Stabaek, NOR)

Thailand (1): Teerasil Dangda (Almeria, ESP)

Indonesia (1): Arthur Irawan (Waasland-Beveren, BEL)

Philippines (2): Jerry Lucena (Esbjerg, DEN), Ray Anthony Jonsson (Keflavik, ICE)

Uzbekistan (9): Vitali Denisov (Lokomotiv Moscow, RUS), Vagiz Galiullin (Ufa, RUS), Odil Ahmedov (FC Krasnodar, RUS), Nikolay Markov (FC Krasnodar, RUS), Temurkhuja Abdukholiqov (Hajduk Split, CRO), Maksim Shatskikh (Hoverla Uzhhorod, UKR), Shavkat Salomov (Shakhter Karagandy, KAZ), Kamoliddin Murzoev (Shakhter Karagandy, KAZ), Timur Kapadze (Aktobe, KAZ)

Turkmenistan (3): Ruslan Mingazov (Baumit Jablonec, CZE), Arslan Satubaldin (Tobol Kostanay, KAZ), Arslanmyrat Amanov (Irtysh Pavlodar, KAZ)

Kyrgyzstan (5): Tamirlan Kozubaev (Siauliai, LIT), Kirill Pryadkin (Kaisar Kzyzlorda, KAZ), Anton Zemlianukhin (Kaisar Kyzylorda, KAZ), Raul Dzhailov (Tobol Kostanay, KAZ), Sergey Ivanov (Irtysh Pavlodar, KAZ)

Tajikistan (1): Davron Ergashev (Zhetsyu Taldykoran, KAZ)

pfreelend@thenational.ae

Follow us on Twitter at @SprtNationalUAE

Updated: October 14, 2014 04:00 AM

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