Selecting an all-time top 10 list for the greatest ever Asian footballers like all lists are based on a persons subjective point of view and can differ from person to person. How can you compare players from different era’s, who have played in different leagues? How do we distinguish whether a right back or a left winger had the better footballing ability when both roles require a different skill set? The criteria for selection will be not solely based on a players ability but also the impact the player has made domestically and more importantly abroad.
Asia is still developing its contemporary football culture; the Asian Cup continues to grow in stature, (though still behind the African Cup of Nations) the AFC Champions league has grown increasingly popular and the state backed influx of capital has raised the profile of the Chinese Super League overseas due to purchases of high profile players, whilst the lucrative salaries available in the Middle East has made it a popular destination for many footballers. Despite this Asia still lags far behind Europe and South America in terms of overall quality and many players have made this list due to rising to the step up in quality to stamp their mark in Europe. We also must take into account the players who did not venture to Europe but their legacy will remain in the footballing consciousness across the Asian continent.
In addition footballers who have played for Australia since the country joined the AFC in 2006 will be eligible for this list.
Let the debate begin.
10. Yuto Nagatomo — Japan
Years Active (2007 — Present )
Starting off this list is Inter Milan’s Yuto Nagatomo. Nagatomo has shown his versatility over the years operating as a full-back and wing-back positions whether on the right or left. Since he joined Inter Milan in 2011 he has been one of the more consistent performers for his team, truly cementing himself as one of the better full backs Serie A has to offer. In his 5 years at Inter Nagatomo has become a mainstay at one of European football’s powerhouses, a feat not many Asian players have been able to accomplish.
9. Park Ji-Sung — South Korea
Years Active (2000–2014)
Park Ji-Sung is the most successful Asian player of all time, winning 19 trophies during his career and was the first asian player to win the UEFA Champions League and also the first Asian player to win the World Club Cup. Park was talented footballer who was able to play across the midfield, his most outstanding attribute was his exceptional fitness levels and often referred to as “three lung Park”.
During his time at Man Utd, he was seen as an important big game player by the then manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who utilised Park’s tactic nous and work rate to both negate opponents attacks and produce the goods at the other end. However, he was not seen as indispensable and Park often found himself on the substitutes bench. For South Korea Park was the go to man, he played 100 times for his country scoring 13 times and featured in 3 World Cups in 2002, 2006 and 2010 scoring a goal in each of them, the second asian player to score in three consecutive World Cups.
8. Kunishige Kamamoto — Japan
Years Active (1967–1984)
Kunishige Kamamoto was Japan’s first real footballing superstars and was a prominent player in the Japan Soccer League (JSL). Yamamoto was a renowned striker who possessed clever movement and sharp shooting became an idol in Japan. During his career he finished as top goalscorer and footballer of the year 7 times for his club Yanmar Diesel a precursor for today’s Cerezo Osaka.
He played 84 times for Japan scoring 80 times, which is still the national record. In addition Kamamoto featured in two Olympics for Japan in 1964 and 1968 in the latter helped his team achieve a bronze medal.
7. Tim Cahill — Australia
Years Active (1998 — Present )
Premier League on-lookers will be very familiar with the sight of Tim Cahill aggressively attacking aerial balls with the ferocity that belies his 5ft 10 height. During the last decade Cahill was one of the best goalscoring midfielders the Premier League had to offer and is considered an idol for his former club Everton. Cahill is Australia’s record goalscorer with 47 goals and was the first Australian to score at a World Cup finals in 2006 and was also the first Australian to score in the Asian Cup in 2007. In 2015 he helped his country to their first Asian Cup victory and was named in the team of the tournament and who can ever forget his goal at the 2014 World Cup against Netherlands (pictured above) which was arguably better than James Rodriguez Goal of the Tournament strike against Uruguay.
6. Majed Abdullah — Saudi Arabia
Years Active (1977–1997)
Made Abdullah also known as the “Arabian Jewel” was a Saudi Arabian player born from Sudanese parents. He spent his entire career for Saudi club Al-Nassr FC where he has an impressive goalscoring record for his club scoring 260 goals in 240 appearances. Additionally Majed is Saudi Arabia’s record goalscorer with 71 goals in 116 appearances. A quick glance at various youtube video compliations demonstrate why he warrants a place on this list instead of other Saudi icons like Saeed Al-Owaira and Sami Al-Jaber.
Despite Youtube compilations often distorting the abilities of a player usually in their favour, on this occasion you can truly grasp how talented this player was. He was quick, agile, technically gifted and had a flair akin to the Brazilian players of the time, a nation he scored against not one but on two occasions at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and in 1988 during a Gold Cup game. Not to mention he was voted Asian Footballer of the Year 3 times in a row in the years 1986, 1985 and 1986. Majed Abdullah was the Crown Jewel of Arabia and no player from the region has taken the shine away from him since.
5. Hidetoshi Nakata — Japan
Years Active (1995–2006)
Hidetoshi Nakata is undoubtedly the most famous Asian player of his generation, as well as being one of the greatest Japanese players of all time. Nakata was a quick, creative offensive minded midfielder with a keen eye for goal; his defining trait however was his overall technical ability, his passing and his vision to spot a pass made him stand out. Nakata rose to prominence during the 1998 World Cup at the age of 21, his performances particularly against Argentina made the world stand up and pay attention; subsequently leading to a move to Serie A side Perugia. He managed to cope with the step up in standard and became an instant success and in doing so broke a lot of Italian stereotypes surrounding asian players.
During his time in Italy he won the Scudetto with AS Roma in 2001 and was brought by Parma the following season for €28.4M the most ever for an Asian player until Son Heung-Min in 2015. Despite Nakata’s talents his on the pitch exploits will always be in the shadow of his cultural impact, he was labelled the “Japanese Beckham” with 10x the celebrity hysteria surrounding him. He paved the way for footballers to become not just superstars but global brands in themselves. An icon if there ever was one.
4. Hong Myung-Bo — South Korea
Years Active (1992–2004)
Hong Ayung Bo known to some as the “Korean Libero” as the nickname suggests operated mainly as a sweeper but was more than capable at centre-back. He had an elegance about his play, similar to Italian legend Paolo Maldini, his reading of the game was impeccable and his technical ability on ball far exceeded those of a run of the mill centre back. He was able to play it around the back with consummate ease and was the starting point of many attacking moves.
His crowning moment came at the 2002 World Cup where he led joint-host South Korea to a surprise and historic 4th place finish. Myung-Bo was at the peak of his powers at this tournament and was awarded the Bronze Ball award, he was the first ever Asian player to be named in the top 3 players at the World Cup. Myung-Bo retired after the conclusion of the World Cup finishing his international career with 136 appearances for South Korea which remains the record for the nation.
3. Shinji Kagawa — Japan
Years Active (2006 — Present)
The best placed Japanese player on this list and 3rd place overall, Shinji Kagawa is the best Asian player of his generation. He warrants a place over other contemporary rivals such as Shinji Okazaki, Ki Seung Yueng, Son Hueng-Min and Keisuke Honda (who was very unlucky to miss out on a place in this) all four are very talented individuals; however they lack the X-factor Kagawa possesses who has the ability to decide matches on his own. He also beats his iconic countrymen Nakata for a place on the podium, because unlike Nakata, Kagawa played a starring role in his team Borussia Dortmund title winning conquests. Kagawa made a storming start to his Borussia Dortmund career in 2010/11 his performances during the first half of the campaign gained wide acclaim until his season was cut short due to injury. Nevertheless, Kagawa was named in the Bundeliga team of the season and his team Borussia Dortmund went on to win the title.
He went on to continue his form the following season and the attacking midfielder managed to score 13 goals in 31 appearances which earned him a money spinning move at the leagues conclusion to Premier League giants Manchester United. Despite this move not working out as well as he may had hoped, Kagawa returned to his beloved Borussia Dortmund and regained the form preceding his move to the Red Devils. And at 27, Kagawa still has time to progress further and fulfil his potential to become greatest asian footballer of all time; only time will tell.
2. Paulino Alcantara — Philipines
Years Active (1912–1927)
Paulino Alcantara was born in the province of Iloilo in the Philippines. Alcantara spent the majority of his playing career at Spanish giants FC Barcelona, making his debut for the club at the tender age of 15 and still remains the youngest ever goalscorer for the club. He is considered to be the clubs first hero who was famed for having a ferocious shot and was given the names “El Rompe Redes” or “Trencaxarxes” (the net breaker) after he broke the net with a shot against France in a friendly whilst playing for Spain. Alcantara played international for Catalonia, his native Philippines and Spain; he was selected to play for Spain at the 1920 Olympic games but chose to stay at home to complete his medical exams. Still to this day the name Paulino Alcantara is revered by Barcelona fans and remains the 6th highest scorer for the club with 143 official goals but ranks 2nd behind Lionel Messi in total goals for the club with 369.
1. Cha Bum-Kun — South Korea
Years Active (1978–1989)
Cha Bum-Kun is the man who paved the way for East Asian footballers to play in the German Bundesliga. He made his move to Germany from South Korea in 1978 where he signed for SV Darmstadt 98 just making one appearance for the club. Despite not being the first, that title belongs to Japanese national Yasuhiko Okudera who moved to FC Koln in 1977, Cha Bum-Kun certainly made the bigger impact. A year after his move to SV Darmstadt 98, Cha Bum-Kun moved to Eintracht Frankfurt and the rest they say is history. Cha soon forged himself a reputation as one of the premier attacking talents the Bundesliga had to offer and was given the name “Tscha Bum” (Cha Boom) for his thunderous striking ability.
His prominence extended beyond the Bundesliga and began making a mark in Europe and in his first season at the club won the UEFA Cup. His most notable performance came against Sir Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen side where the Scotsman labelled Cha “unstoppable”.
Cha made over 120 appearances for Frankfurt scoring over 40 goals before moving to fellow Bundesliga outfit Bayern Leverkusen in 1983. He went onto make 185 appearances for Bayern Leverkusen scoring 52 goals and in 1987/88 season won the UEFA cup again. Cha was genuinely considered a world class talent with German magazine Kicker naming him among the greatest footballers of the 1980’s. To further highlight Cha’s talents he placed 60th in FIFA’s one-off award’s ceremony to decide the Player of the Century. He was also placed 1st in AFC’s Asian Players of the Century and was also 1st in both ESPN Fc’s and International Federation of Football History & Statistics for their Asian Player of the Century awards. All Cha Bum Kun’s aforementioned accolades both individual and team, demonstrates his impact not only in Asian football but also European which has immortalised his legacy as the greatest Asian footballer of all time.
Anyone you believe should have been on this list? If so please leave a comment.
Ali Daei, Son Heung- Min, Keisuke Honda, Javad Nekounam, Mark Schwarzer, Shunsuke Nakamura, Ali Karimi, Shinji Okazaki, Ki-Sueng Yueng, Mehdi Mahdivikia, Yasuhito Endo, Marcus Tulio Tanaka, Al Daieya, Makoto Hasebe, Lee Wai Ton, Saeed Al-Owaira, Kazuyoshi Miura, Kim Joo-sung, Harry Kewell, Lee Young Pyo.