For Europe-focused football fans, who the best Asian players in the world are isn't always obvious. Not compared to the best European players, anyway.
But with a World Cup taking place in Asia for the first time in 20 years later this year – and with five Asian countries competing – it's worth boning up on who it's worth keeping an eye out for.
Chances are, you'll know more of them than you thought...
Best Asian players in the world: 10. Ali Mabkhout (Al-Jazira and United Arab Emirates)
Mabkhout is the fourth-highest active international goalscorer in the world with 80 so far for the United Arab Emirates. At the age of 31, there is still time to reach three figures. Has consistently been one of Asia’s most feared strikers for a decade even if his form during 2022 World Cup qualification was not the best. That robbed him of the, probably last, chance to show an international audience what he is made of.
9. Eldor Shomurodov (Roma and Uzbekistan)
The top player from the often overlooked Central Asian region is one of the few that the former Soviet Republics to make a name for himself overseas and especially in Italy. The 26 year-old joined Jose Mourinho’s Roma last August on a five-year deal after impressing for Genoa in his first season in Serie A. An energetic forward who does plenty of work outside the area, bringing others into play, ‘Shomo’ is prolific for Uzbekistan.
8. Almoez Ali (Al-Duhail and Qatar)
To be top scorer at two international tournaments is no mean feat and the Sudan-born striker did just that at the 2019 Asian Cup and the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup (as well as the 2018 Asian U-23 Championships). He also scored at the 2019 Copa America. As the focal point of Qatar’s attack, will be hoping to score at a fourth international tournament at the end of the year, the biggest of them all.
7. Takehiro Tomiyasu (Arsenal and Japan)
Can play anywhere across the defence in a back three or four and, despite injuries, had a very good season in North London, adding calmness and composure to a team that just missed out on the Champions League. A great athlete and competitor and very comfortable in possession, big things are expected of the 23-year-old next season and that includes at the World Cup when Japan will need all his qualities against Germany and Spain.
6. Waturu Endo (Stuttgart and Japan)
People talk about Son Heung-min as being under-rated but that label really belongs to the Japanese defensive midfielder. Has been a standout in the Bundesliga for Stuttgart, has become the vice-captain of the team and has also caught the eye of bigger clubs both in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Is excellent with and without the ball and anything he does for his club, he also does for Japan.
5. Akram Afif (Al-Sadd and Qatar)
The 2019 Asian Player of the Year was also named in the team of the tournament in CONCAFAF’s Gold Cup last year. Plays alongside Almoez Ali in attack but roams deep and especially wide to seek the ball and make chances, there were a record 10 assists at the 2019 Asian Cup, and score a decent amount too. Has a little experience in Europe and likes the big international stage. The World Cup is a huge opportunity for Afif and Qatar.
4. Salman Al-Dawsari (Al-Hilal and Saudi Arabia)
In terms of current form, Al-Dawsari is perhaps the best Asian player currently playing in Asia. For both club, he was the tournament MVP as Al-Hilal won a record fourth AFC Champions League in 2021, and country, he was the best player in Asian qualification for the World Cup, he has been excellent. Likes to cut in from wide positions and score great goals. Has a little bit of attitude that makes him an exciting player to watch.
3. Sardar Azmoun (Bayer Leverkusen and Iran)
Probably spent too long in Russia, though starred for Zenit St.Petersburg, moving to Bayer Leverkusen only in January. The 27 year-old, who averages almost a goal every 1.5 games for Iran, has been slow to settle in Germany but his undoubted class will surely shine soon. A striker’s striker who is clinical in the area, Azmoun is approaching his peak and will relish the chance to face England, the United States and Wales.
2. Mehdi Taremi (FC Porto and Iran)
When the striker joined Iran’s biggest club Persepolis in 2014, he had established himself as a hard-working forward but there was little sign that he was on his way to becoming one of Asia’s top forwards. After joining Rio Ave in 2019, he scored 18 goals to earn a move to FC Porto where he has continued to score on a regular basis. Ready to lead Iran at the World Cup and enhance a burgeoning reputation.
1. Son Heung-min (Tottenham and South Korea)
The Tottenham Hotspur star has done things that no other Asian has managed: he has become one of the top players in one of the best, perhaps the best, leagues in the world. Winning the golden boot without scoring from the spot is something that none other have come close to. It is not just a great season as Son’s performances in the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League have been consistently excellent for years.
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John Duerden has covered Asian sport for over 20 years for The Guardian, Associated Press, ESPN, BBC, New York Times, as well as various Asian media. He is also the author of four books, including Rovers Revolution: Blackburn's Rise from Nowhere to Premier League Champions (opens in new tab) and Lions and Tigers: The Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (opens in new tab).
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