The 2002 FIFA World Cup, jointly hosted by Japan and South Korea, was a defining moment for Asian football and its footballers. The significance of this World Cup cannot be overstated given that it was the first to be held in Asia, the first to be held outside the Americas and Europe, as well as being the first to be jointly-hosted by more than one nation.
More importantly, it put Japan and South Korea and their football talent, who are the best in Asia, on the map. Since then, football clubs in Europe noticed that Asia has some exceptionally talented players as more of them have come out and played in Europe.
The likes of Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Park Ji Sung, Yuto Nagatomo, Ki Sung-Yeung, Park Chu-young, Maya Yoshida, Shinji Okazaki and many more have made it big in Europe and have paved the way for the current crop of Asian football players to do likewise.
With that being said, here is a look at five of the best Asian football players currently playing in Europe.
Five best Asian football players currently playing in Europe
#1: Takefusa Kubo (Real Madrid)
Takefusa Kubo is widely regarded as the "Japanese Messi" and if his football career trajectory is anything to go by, he has all the qualities required to make it big in Europe.
The 19-year-old came to Europe and joined the famed La Masia academy of Barcelona as a 10-year-old where he was nothing short of sensational. In his first full season at the club, he played for the Barcelona Under 11's and scored 74 goals in just 30 games.
In his third season at the club, Kubo was promoted to the under 14's. He eventually moved back to his home country of Japan. In 2019, he returned to Europe to sign for Real Madrid and has seemingly continued where he left off.
Although his loan spell at Mallorca has not been going as expected given that they will be relegated at the end of this season, Kubo has been a standout performer for them. He has scored thrice and assisted five times in 32 appearances as the Real Madrid star-of-the-future looks to remain in Spain’s top flight.
Kubo is expected to go out on loan again next season to further his development, this time at Real Sociedad. La Real could prove to be the ideal next destination for him given that another Real Madrid loanee in Martin Odegaard has been sensational for them this season.
#2: Wu Lei (Espanyol)
Football fans who don't follow La Liga or Chinese football might not know who Wu Lei is, but the Chinese international is one of the best if not the best player to have come out of the Chinese Super League and make it Europe.
During his time in the CSL, Wu played for Shanghai SIPG and won the Domestic Golden Boot for six straight years. During his six-year stint with the Chinese club, he scored 102 goals and registered 57 assists from 172 appearances before making a move to Espanyol.
Apart from holding the record for being the youngest player to have appeared in a CSL match aged 14 years and 287 days, Wu is also only the second Chinese football player to play in the La Liga.
Wu has not been able to replicate his goal-scoring form in the La Liga, but in 60 appearances so far he has scored 11 goals and assisted three for Espanyol. At 28, Wu is in the prime of his career and while things might not get better for him any time soon, there is no denying he is one of the best Asian football players in Europe at the moment.
#3: Hwang Hee-chan (Red Bull Salzburg)
South Korea has produced several top football stars over the years. While several of them have ended up in Europe, only a few have truly made it big, with Red Bull Salzburg striker Hwang Hee-chan very well on his way to being the next one.
The 24-year-old South Korean football player has been constantly improving since moving to the Austrian club this season. He has made 39 appearances in all competitions this season, scoring 16 and assisting 22 goals to help Salzburg win their fourth league title in five years.
Overall, Hwang Hee-chan has made 125 appearances for Salzburg, where he has scored 45 goals and assisted 29. While a lot of football fans don't know who he is, that could change next season.
Chan's consistency and exceptional form have reportedly helped him earn a move to FC Salzburg's parent club RB Leipzig, where he is expected to take over from the departing Timo Werner. This only goes to prove how highly he is rated, and it is only a matter of time before the world knows his name.
#4: Son Heung-min (Tottenham Hotspur)
Son Heung-min is probably the face of Asian football in Europe right now. He is the first South Korean since Park Ji-sung to make it in Europe and the Premier League. Since leaving FC Seoul, Son has been consistently getting better and better from working he way up to the first team at Hamburger SV to establishing himself as one of the best at Tottenham Hotspur.
While his trophy cabinet in club football is empty, his best achievement is a runner-up Champions League medal with Tottenham. Son did, however, help South Korea win the Asian Games gold medal in football in 2018 and has also garnered numerous individual accolades to his name.
Son has won the Korean Footballer of the year award in 2013, 2014, 2017 and 2019 while he has also won the Best Footballer in Asia in 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019. He was also a Ballon d'Or nominee in 2019.
At 27, Son is probably in the best form of his life. There will be a lot more to come from him in the next few years as he looks to get even better and make an even bigger impact in Europe and Premier League football.
#5: Takumi Minamino (Liverpool)
Despite struggling to get going since joining Liverpool at the start of this year, there is no denying that Takumi Minamino is one of the best Asian football players in Europe right now and has the potential to become the best.
Before joining the Premier League champions, Minamino was unstoppable for Red Bull Salzburg, with the Japanese scoring 64 goals and assisting 44 from 199 appearances. The winger won the league title every year he was at Salzburg, including winning four Austrian Cups.
Minamino's record for the national team has been impressive as well; he has scored 11 goals in 22 appearances. So judging him on his first few months at Liverpool would be a little premature.
A lot of pfootball layers struggle after moving to a new club. Considering how drastic a move it has been for Minamino to move from the Austrian League to the Premier League, he deserves to take his time before he gets to his best. Jurgen Klopp has worked wonders with every Liverpool player, and it is only a matter of time before he does so with Minamino as well.Published 05 Jul 2020, 20:28 IST