The best Asian footballers ever

Son Heung-min
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From Saudi Arabia to Japan and beyond, the vast continent of Asia contains some of the most football-mad populations on earth.

And it's produced its fair share of top players throughout history, from World Cup trailblazers to Premier League superstars.

Here, FourFourTwo counts down the greatest Asian footballers of all time...

33. Sun Jihai (China)

Sun Jihai

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Sun Jihai was one of the first two Chinese players to play in England, initially joining international teammate Fan Zhiyi on loan at second-tier Crystal Palace in 1998.

Sun went one better than Fan, though: in February 2002, he joined Manchester City, becoming the first Chinese player to feature in the Premier League.

The defender made over 150 appearances for City, before a short stint with Sheffield United in the Championship.

32. Eldor Shomurodov (Uzbekistan)

Eldor Shomurodov

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Uzbekistan’s captain and all-time leading goalscorer, Eldor Shomurodov is among a handful of players from the former Soviet republic to establish themselves in one of Europe’s top five leagues.

After impressing in his first season in Serie A with Genoa in 2020/21, the striker earned an even bigger move to Roma – where he won the 2021/22 Europa Conference League.

31. Ahn Jung-hwan (South Korea)

Ahn Jung-hwan

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Capped 71 times by South Korea between 2007 and 2010, Ahn Jung-hwan became a national hero in 2002 when he headed in the golden goal that sent his country through to the World Cup quarter-finals at Italy’s expense.

Usually deployed as a second striker, Ahn also played domestically in Italy with Perugia – as well as in France and Germany with Metz and MSV Duisburg respectively.

30. Wataru Endo (Japan)

Wataru Endo

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A surprise signing by Liverpool when he arrived from Stuttgart in the summer of 2023 at the age of 30, Japan midfielder Wataru Endo proved to be a bit of a revelation in the Premier League.

An extraordinarily hard-working ball-winner, Endo was a key member of the Japan side who stunned Germany and Spain en route to winning their group at the 2022 World Cup.

He captained the national team for the first time shortly before his switch to Anfield.

29. Salem Al-Dawsari (Saudi Arabia)

Salem Al-Dawsari

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Skipper and somersaulting scorer of the decisive goal as Saudi Arabia produced one of the great World Cup shocks to defeat eventual winners Argentina at Qatar 2022, Salem Al-Dawsari was bestowed with the honour of 2022 AFC Player of the Year (awarded to best player from clubs within the Asian Football Confederation).

A multiple Saudi Pro League champion with Al-Hilal, the tricky winger had a brief loan spell at Villarreal in 2018.

28. Mohamed Al-Deayea (Saudi Arabia)

Mohamed Al-Deayea

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One of the most-capped players in the history of international football, goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Deayea represented Saudi Arabia a whopping 178 times – in just 13 years.

A 1996 Asian Cup winner, Al-Deayea – who lifted four Saudi Pro League titles with Al-Hilal – was named Asia’s Goalkeeper of the Century by IFFHS in 1999.

27. Younis Mahmoud (Iraq)

Younis Mahmoud

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Captain of the Iraq national team for a decade, Younis Mahmoud scored 57 goals in 148 caps, finishing as joint leading marksman as the Lions of Mesopotamia sprung a surprise to win the 2007 Asian Cup.

Nominated for that year’s Ballon d’Or (he placed 29th), Mahmoud notched the only goal of the game in the final against Saudi Arabia, firmly cementing his status as a national hero.

26. Eiji Kawashima (Japan)

Eiji Kawashima

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Japan’s first-choice goalkeeper at the 2010, 2014 and 2018 World Cups, Eiji Kawashima helped his country reach the last 16 of the latter tournament – where he produced a fine performance in the Samurai Blue’s dramatic exit to Belgium.

A 2011 Asian Cup winner, Kawashima spent 14 years in Europe, turning out for clubs in Belgium, Scotland and France – and lifting the 2018/19 French League Cup with Strasbourg.

25. Yasuhito Endo (Japan)

Yasuhito Endo

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The first Japanese player ever to pass the 150-cap mark, the enduring Yasuhito Endo turned out 152 times in all, featuring at four World Cups.

When he eventually retired in 2023, the midfielder – who won the Japanese top-flight title, cup and the 2008 AFC Champions League with Gamba Osaka – had chalked up more than 1,000 career appearances.

In 2009, Endo was voted Asian Footballer of the Year.

24. Takumi Minamino (Japan)

Takumi Minamino

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A regular goalscorer for Japan since making his international debut in 2015, Takumi Minamino featured in the Samurai Blue’s run to the last 16 of the 2022 World Cup, featuring in the historic victory over Germany.

Signed by Austrian giants Red Bull Salzburg shortly before his 20th birthday, the versatile attacking midfielder joined Liverpool in January 2020 – and collected a Premier League winners’ medal six months later.

He left the Reds for Monaco in 2022.

23. Ali Karimi (Iran)

Ali Karimi

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Capped 127 times by Iran, Ali Karimi scored 38 international goals and helped Team Melli to third place at the 2004 Asian Cup – as well as featuring at the 2006 World Cup.

A divine dribbler who left opposition players “dizzy” – so said ex-Germany defender Per Mertesacker – Karimi did the 2005/06 Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal double with Bayern Munich, and he later returned to Europe with Schalke.

22. Shinji Okazaki (Japan)

Shinji Okazaki

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Only a handful of players have bagged more goals for Japan than Shinji Okazaki (50) – who became the second player from his country to win the Premier League title, making 36 appearances and netting five times during Leicester’s miraculous 2015/16 campaign.

Having made his World Cup debut at South Africa 2010, Okazaki starred as Japan lifted the 2011 Asian Cup. He featured at two more World Cups and won 119 caps in all.

21. Saeed Al-Owairan (Saudi Arabia)

Saeed Al-Owairan

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Saudi Arabia marked their World Cup debut in 1994 by reaching the last 16 – and they got there thanks to Saeed Al-Owairan making quite a mark of his own by scoring one of the greatest goals of all time, a Maradona-esque solo winner to knock out Belgium.

Capped 75 times by his country, Al-Owairan spent his entire career with Al-Shabab, where he won three straight Saudi titles at the beginning of the 90s.

20. Makoto Hasebe (Japan)

Makoto Hasebe

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Still going strong for Eintracht Frankfurt aged 40, former Japan skipper Makoto Hasebe has to go down as one of his nation’s most successful exports.

The ex-Urawa Red Diamonds centre-back joined Eintracht in 2014, going on to win the 2017/18 DFB-Pokal and 2021/22 Europa League.

At international level, he captained the Japanese to 2011 Asian Cup victory and appeared in three World Cups.

19. Ahmed Radhi (Iraq)

Ahmed Radhi

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Iraq’s greatest player of all time, Ahmed Radhi starred in his country’s first and only World Cup appearance in 1986, scoring their sole World Cup goal against Belgium.

Named Asian Footballer of the Year for 1988, the legendary striker averaged better than a goal every other game for Iraq, netting 62 times in 121 caps.

18. Kazuyoshi Miura (Japan)

Kazuyoshi Miura of Oliveirense, 2023

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Astonishingly still playing professionally into the latter half of his 50s (yes, you read that right), Kazuyoshi Miura is one of the all-time greats of Japanese football.

While he was unfortunate never to play at the World Cup, the striker – who, curiously, started his career in Brazil and has also had spells in Italy and Croatia – tasted glory at the 1992 Asian Cup and racked up 55 goals in 89 caps.

17. Yuto Nagatomo (Japan)

Yuto Nagatomo

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One of Asia’s best ever defenders, Yuto Nagatomo won his first Japan cap mere months after making his professional debut for FC Tokyo – and he would go on to amass well over 100 appearances for his nation.

The adaptable full-back – a 2011 Asian Cup winner and a veteran of three World Cups – joined Inter Milan in 2011 and featured more than 200 times for the Serie A giants, before spells with Galatasaray and Marseille.

16. Kim Min-jae (South Korea)

Kim Min-jae

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Courted by some of the world’s biggest clubs after just one season with Napoli – where he won the Serie A title – and only two seasons in Europe overall, South Korea’s Kim Min-jae joined Bayern Munich for €58m in the summer of 2023, making him the most expensive Asian footballer in history.

An elite, complete modern centre-back, Kim missed the 2018 World Cup through injury but was involved four years later.

15. Javad Nekounam (Iran)

Javad Nekounam

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Among the very best players in Iran’s history, Javad Nekounam amassed 149 caps over the course of a 15-year international career, starring at the 2006 and 2014 World Cups – the latter as skipper.

The goalscoring midfielder played made the majority of his club appearances for Tehran club Pas, but he also spent seven years, across two spells, with La Liga outfit Osasuna – who he helped to the 2006/07 UEFA Cup semi-finals.

14. Hong Myung-bo (South Korea)

Hong Myung-bo

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The first ever Asian player to appear at four consecutive World Cups, South Korean sweeper Hong Myung-bo was included in Pele’s 2004 FIFA 100 list of the greatest living footballers.

Capped for the first time in 1990, his international career went on just long enough for him to captain his country at their home World Cup of 2002 – where he scooped the Bronze Ball as one of the players of the tournament.

13. Shunsuke Nakamura (Japan)

Shunsuke Nakamura

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A Japan international on 98 occasions, featuring at the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, legendary playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura spent the best years of his club career at Celtic – where he won three Scottish top-flight titles and became the first Japanese player to score in the Champions League.

An exceptional free-kick taker, Nakamura was once said to be able to “open a tin of beans with his left foot”. High praised indeed.

12. Kunishige Kamamoto (Japan)

Kunishige Kamamoto

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Japan’s record scorer by some distance, the prolific Kunishige Kamamoto bagged 75 goals in 76 caps between 1964 and 1977.

The Samurai Blue never qualified for the World Cup during his career, but Kamamoto – who top-scored at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City – is an undisputed legend of Japanese football.

11. Sami Al-Jaber (Saudi Arabia)

Sami Al-Jaber

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One of Saudi Arabia’s most-capped players, Sami Al-Jaber starred in his nation’s first four World Cups, scoring in three of them.

A 1996 Asian Cup winner, and a five-time Saudi champion with Al-Hilal, the forward became the youngest men’s player to 100 international caps when he hit the milestone in 1998 aged 25 years and four months.

10. Mehdi Mahdavikia (Iran)

Mehdi Mahdavikia

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Asian Footballer of the Year in 2003, Iranian icon Mehdi Mahdavikia enjoyed a distinguished career on the right flank for Hamburg and Tehran giants Persepolis, among others.

Capped 110 times by his country, Mahdavikia played at the 1998 and 2006 World Cups, in addition to helping Team Melli to third-placed finishes at the 1996 and 2004 Asian Cups.

9. Ali Daei (Iran)

Ali Daei

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With 108 goals in 148 caps, Ali Daei was the all-time leading men’s international goalscorer for more than 15 years (eventually losing that crown to a certain Mr Ronaldo).

Voted AFC Asian Footballer of the Year in 1999 – having won the Bundesliga title and reached the Champions League final with Bayern Munich – Daei played at the 1998 and 2006 World Cups (sporting a sublime moustache at the former).

8. Shinji Kagawa (Japan)

Shinji Kagawa

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Having spent most of his career with two of Europe’s biggest clubs – Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund – Shinji Kagawa is one of the most prominent footballers in Japan’s history.

A Premier League and Bundesliga champion, the adaptable playmaker helped his country to victory at the 2011 Asian Cup and featured at the 2014 World Cup.

7. Hidetoshi Nakata (Japan)

Hidetoshi Nakata

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In 1998, 77-cap Japan international Hidetoshi Nakata became the first Asian player ever to be nominated for the Ballon d’Or (he was nominated three times in the space of four years, in fact).

A highly gifted, tirelessly hard-working midfielder, Nakata spent the bulk of his career in Serie A – where he won the 2000/01 Scudetto with Roma – and finished his playing days in the Premier League, on loan at Bolton Wanderers.

6. Kim Joo-sung (South Korea)

Kim Joo-sung

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Nicknamed ‘Wild Horse’ for his long, wavy hair, Kim Joo-sung was one of South Korea’s first footballing superstars, earning 76 caps for the Taegeuk Warriors from 1985 to 1996.

A swashbuckling winger who could also operate as a sweeper, Kim played almost exclusively for South Korean club Daewoo Royals – but he did have a loan spell at German outfit Bochum, where he won the 1993/94 2. Bundesliga title.

5. Paulino Alcantara (Philippines)

Paulino Alcantara

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For 87 years, Paulino Alcantara held Barcelona’s record for the most goals in official and friendly matches (a certain Mr Messi surpassed his total of 369 in 2014).

Born in the Philippines, Alcantara moved to Barcelona aged three as his family fled their homeland in the aftermath of revolution. He went on to win five Copas del Rey with the Blaugrana.

While he later played for Spain, the striker did represent the Philippines at international level, starring in a 15-2 victory over Japan at the 1917 Far Eastern Games.

4. Park Ji-sung (South Korea)

Park Ji-sung

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Sir Alex Ferguson described Park Ji-sung as one of the most underrated players he ever worked with – and went as far as to claim that Manchester United would have won the 2011 Champions League final against Barcelona had he brought the South Korean great on to man-mark Lionel Messi (Park was part of United’s Champions League-winning squad three years earlier, though).

That’s the regard in which the 100-cap midfielder – who starred in his nation’s run to the 2002 World Cup semi-finals – was (and still is) held.

3. Keisuke Honda (Japan)

Keisuke Honda

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Japan’s greatest player of all time, the incredibly entertaining Keisuke Honda scored 37 goals in 98 caps for the Samurai Blue and was named 2010 Japanese Footballer of the Year.

A year later, the ex-AC Milan and CSKA Moscow set-piece specialist – who struck an outrageous 30-yard free-kick against Denmark at the 2010 World Cup – helped his country to Asian Cup victory.

2. Cha Bum-kun (South Korea)

Cha Bum-kun

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Among the first Asian players to establish themselves in Europe, Cha Bum-kun is an absolute icon of South Korean football. The explosive winger amassed 136 caps for his country from 1972 to 1986, scoring 58 goals and featuring at the 1986 World Cup.

Cha made over 150 appearances for Eintracht Frankfurt and more than 200 for Bayer Leverkusen, lifting the UEFA Cup with both clubs.

1 Son Heung-min (South Korea)

Son Heung-min

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South Korea’s biggest sporting superstar – and arguably the biggest in Asia – Son Heung-min made history in 2023 by becoming the first Asian player to score 100 Premier League goals.

Joint Golden Boot winner in 2021/22, the Tottenham legend – who has represented his nation at multiple World Cups – was bestowed with the 2020 Puskas Award for this simply sensational solo goal against Burnley.

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