10 best Asian footballers currently

Son Heung-min is carrying the Asian flag aloft in the Premier League.
Son Heung-min is carrying the Asian flag aloft in the Premier League.
Aaditya Narayan

Despite significant progress in recent years, Asian football continues to be a fair way behind their European counterparts at the moment.

However, whether in Europe or in their own homelands, many Asian footballers show the progress made by the continent in recent years.

There has also been progress made in the sense that the best players from the continent don't just come from the traditional hotbeds such as Japan, South Korea, and Iran.

That was exemplified during the AFC Asian Cup in 2019, which was won by Qatar, who emerged as champions for the first time in their history.

The hosts of the 2022 FIFA World Cup have had plans in place to improve their football, and those are clearly paying off for the moment.

On that note, we take a look at the 10 best footballers from Asia at the moment.

Note: Even though Australia forms part of the Asian Football Confederation, we have not included Australian players in this list.

#10 Alireza Jahanbakhsh

Alireza Jahanbakhsh fights to win a header.
Alireza Jahanbakhsh fights to win a header.

The Brighton & Hove Albion winger is currently the only Iranian playing in the Premier League. Even though Jahanbaksh hasn't particularly set the league alight with his performances so far, he remains a reference point for players across the continent still harboring intentions of playing at that level.

Jahanbakhsh joined Brighton a couple of years ago now and, unfortunately, hasn't yet nailed down a spot for himself.

However, he already has written for himself a Premier League moment for the ages. Last season, Jahanbakhsh scored a bicycle kick to earn Brighton a point in a match against Chelsea.

Jahanbakhsh has played his football in Europe since 2013, spending five years in the Netherlands before making the move to Brighton.

He joined NEC Nijmegen in 2013 and spent two seasons there before impressing during a three-year stint at AZ Alkmaar.

#9 Akram Afif

Akram Afif.
Akram Afif.

Qatar's Akram Afif was named the AFC Player of the Year for 2019 in a year when he played a pivotal role in the Gulf nation's triumph at the AFC Asian Cup.

In that tournament, held in the UAE in early 2019, Afif provided 10 assists in seven appearances, as Qatar motored to the title by eventually beating Japan in the final. They had even beaten Son Heung-min's South Korea in the semifinal of that tournament.

Afif, who plays his club football for Al-Sadd in the Qatar Stars League, has gone from strength to strength since.

Earlier in his career, Afif has also spent time with La Liga side Villareal, but things didn't quite work out as he would had expected.

He continues to be a pivotal member of the Qatari national team and will be one of the players to watch out for when the FIFA World Cup comes to Qatar in 2022.

#8 Hassan Al-Haydos

Hassan Al-Haydos in action during the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup.
Hassan Al-Haydos in action during the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup.

Al-Haydos will forever be remembered in Qatari football's history as the captain who lifted the country's first-ever Asian Cup title.

Next year, he will make further history by becoming the first-ever captain to lead Qatar at the World Cup.

Like Afif, Al-Haydos also plays for Al-Sadd, coached by Spanish legend Xavi Hernandez. The 30-year-old has been a one-club man so far, after having made his debut for Al-Sadd in 2007.

He has also made 135 appearances for the Qatari national team. Currently, Qatar are top of their group in the joint FIFA World Cup-AFC Asian Cup qualification campaign.

Even as defending champions, they have to qualify for the next tournament in China, and at the moment, are well placed to enter that competition. Qatar are top of a group that also includes Oman, India, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh.

#7 Takashi Inui

Takashi Inui
Takashi Inui

At the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Inui was Japan's brightest spark and even scored a couple of goals in the competition.

Despite the eventual result of that game against Belgium at the FIFA World Cup in 2018, Inui will remember it for his sensational goal that gave Thibaut Courtois no chance in the Belgian goal.

Inui currently plies his trade for Eibar in La Liga, where his team are currently 15th in the division. They are fighting against relegation, but the Japanese will look to have a bigger impact than he already has had in the Basque outfit's colors.

#6 Abdelkarim Hassan

Abdelkarim Hassan
Abdelkarim Hassan

Qatar's left-back Hassan was Afif's predecessor as the AFC Player of the Year when he won the award in 2018.

Like both Afif and Al-Haydos, Hassan also plays for Al-Sadd in the Qatar Stars League.

Hassan is one of the best full-backs in the continent; his surging runs forward form an integral part of the way Qatar play under Spanish head coach Felix Sanchez.

Hassan, though, will look to make further progress in the AFC Champions League this season. His team Al Sadd had to endure heartbreak in the Round of 16 against eventual finalists Persepolis, when an 88th-minute goal knocked them out of the competition.

#5 Hiroki Sakai

Manchester City v Olympique de Marseille: Group C - UEFA Champions League
Manchester City v Olympique de Marseille: Group C - UEFA Champions League

Right-back Hiroki Sakai has been one of the flagbearers for Japanese footballers in recent times.

Since 2012, when he moved from Kashiwa Reysol to then-Bundesliga side Hannover 96 - Sakai has been a constant feature in the big European leagues.

In 2016, Sakai moved from Hannover to Marseille and is now their starting right-back under head coach Andre Villas-Boas.

This season, Sakai featured for Marseille in the group stages of the UEFA Champions League in a group also featuring Manchester City, Porto, and Olympiacos.

Sakai has also made 64 appearances for the Japanese national team, including in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, when his team finished the tournament with heartbreak in the Round of 16. Japan were two goals up against Belgium but were stunned by a second-half comeback from the Red Devils, eventually losing 3-2.

#4 Hwang Hee-Chan

Hwang Hee-Chan
Hwang Hee-Chan

Currently at RB Leipzig, Hwang Hee-Chan is one of the shining lights of Korean football outside their bonafide superstar in Son Heung-min.

Hee-Chan was truly thrust into European football's limelight last season, when he was playing for Austrian side RB Salzburg.

In particular, Hwang was excellent at Anfield against Liverpool in a group stage game of the UEFA Champions League.

However, since his move to Leipzig, Hee-Chan hasn't yet nailed down a starting spot for himself in Julian Nagelsmann's side. The South Korean has already been linked to moves away from Leipzig within months of joining the side.

#3 Sardar Azmoun

Sardar Azmoun
Sardar Azmoun

Fondly dubbed as the Iranian Lionel Messi, Azmoun has been one of Asia's best players since his move to Europe in 2013.

As an 18-year-old then, Azmoun left Sepahan in his native Iran to join Rubin Kazan in Russia. Since then, he has stayed in Russia and has become one of the best strikers to grace that league.

After spending four seasons in two different spells at Kazan, he has also moved to Russian giants Zenit St. Petersburg from Rubin.

However, like many big players in the continent, Azmoun has not yet won the AFC Asian Cup, which will be a prime motivation for him.

In the last edition in the UAE, Iran were well-beaten in the semifinal by Japan.

#2 Takumi Minamino

Takumi Minamino
Takumi Minamino

Minamino has found life tough since moving to Liverpool from RB Salzburg in January 2020. He has scored just one league goal for the Reds so far and is struggling to find game-time in Jurgen Klopp's side at the moment.

However, there were enough glimpses of just how good Minamino could be during his time with RB Salzburg and his appearances with the Japanese national team.

Like Hwang, the Japanese was one of those who was thrust into the limelight during his stint with RB Salzburg in Austria. In a side that also contained Erling Haaland, Minamino was reportedly singled out for praise by the Liverpool players.

It was also reported that the players themselves urged Klopp to proceed with bringing Minamino to Anfield.

Even though he hasn't quite managed to hit the heights expected from him at Anfield, he still has age on his side.

#1 Son Heung-min

Son Heung-min has become a global superstar since his move to Tottenham Hotspur.
Son Heung-min has become a global superstar since his move to Tottenham Hotspur.

The undisputed superstar of Asian Football, there is also a good case to be made for Son being the only current world-class player from the continent.

He has consistently been near the top of the Premier League goal-scoring charts in the last few seasons. Son is contending for the Premier League Golden Boot once again this season.

He is currently second in the Golden Boot standings, just behind Liverpool's Mohamed Salah and level with his Spurs team-mate Harry Kane.

Son also won the gold medal at the Asian Games in Jakarta in 2018, which enabled him to exempt himself from the mandatory military service in South Korea.

However, he still hasn't won the AFC Asian Cup with South Korea. In 2019, he only joined the team for the competition's knockout stages, where they lost in the semifinal to eventual champions Qatar.

Edited by Zaid Khan


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