Asia 50, 2017: Kagawa, Omar, Chanathip... Where were they then?

It’s often said that the journey is as good as the destination and every good journey must have a beginning.  

While those in our Asia 50 countdown have all reached varying heights in their careers, how did they get there and where did it all start?

We took a look at five of this year’s list to see where they were five years ago.

Omar Abdulrahman – Asia 50 No.1

Widely regarded as Asia’s best player for the last few years, Abdulrahman’s reputation was already growing before he truly introduced himself as a superstar-in-waiting at the 2012 London Olympic Games, following a series of eye-catching performances for the UAE.

That led to a five-day trial with Manchester City and expectations that he could become the flag bearer for Emirati football and this golden generation of players.

“I wish for this because three years ago I had an offer from Espanyol but that didn’t happen for certain reasons, it was a destiny from Allah,” Abdulrahman said at the time.

“It is a dream of any player to go abroad and be a professional player. There isn’t a certain league that I think of because I might think I would be good in, say, the Italian league but then I might be good somewhere else.

“It is not necessarily about the country or the city itself but what is most important would be to go abroad and make it as a professional player and to show what I can do and honour UAE football.”

While a move to Europe has, unfortunately, still yet to eventuate, Abdulrahman has gone on to be the standout player in Asia, capped by being named AFC Player of the Year in Abu Dhabi last year.

He's come a long way, but where to next?

Aaron Mooy – Asia 50 No.5

Before Aaron Mooy was tearing up the A-League with Melbourne City and dominating the midfield for Huddersfield Town, he was just another promising young Australian trying to make his way in Europe.

After graduating from the Bolton youth team, he joined Scottish side St Mirren in 2010. By 2012, after an injury-plagued season at ‘The Buddies’, the reserved 21-year-old returned back to Australia to play for the newly-created Western Sydney Wanderers as one of their very first recruits.

While he enjoyed plenty of minutes in the Wanderers’ debut season, in which they would go on to win the Premiers’ Plate and make the Grand Final, he remained a fringe player, overshadowed by the likes of Japanese superstar Shinji Ono, and didn’t really display the form we’ve seen over the last 18 months.

At the end of the 2013/14 season he sought a move away from Western Sydney in search for more regular game time, making the move south to Melbourne City. After two standout seasons he signed for Manchester City, spending this season on loan at Huddersfield Town and helping them to within one game of Premier League promotion.

Mooy's career is going from strength to strength

Alireza Jahanbakhsh – Asia 50 No.11

Today, Jahanbakhsh is an established member of both Dutch Eredivisie side AZ Alkmaar and an Iranian national team that has been conquering all before it during the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.

But five years ago, he was an 18-year-old prospect just commencing his professional career with local side Damash Gilan, having graduated from their academy.

Two years later he would leave Iran for Europe, beginning the Dutch journey that continues today, initially with NEC, a club situated on the east of the Netherlands, close to the border with Germany.

Jahanbakhsh in his NEC days. Photo: Persianleague.com

He helped NEC avoid relegation in the 2013/14 season before ultimately signing with AZ Alkmaar, a regular in European competitions, who handed him the No.9 jersey.

Helping AZ to the final of this year's Dutch KNVB Cup, which they lost to Vitesse Arnhem, 23-year-old Jahanbakhsh is a hot prospect and has been linked with a number of big clubs across Europe. 

He has also made our Asia 50 the past two years, rising from No.34 in 2016 to sit just outside the top 10 in 2017.

Chanathip Songkrasin – Asia 50 No.15

In 2017, 23-year-old Chanathip Songkrasin is regarded as one of the most exciting talents in all of Asia, with a series of scintillating performances for Thailand and Muangthong United wowing fans across the continent.

But in 2012, Chanathip was a little known 18-year-old just making his debut for Thai Premier League side BEC Tero Sasana in a match against his future club, Muangthong.

“I wouldn’t have thrown him into such a big game if I didn't think he had what it took,” his coach at the time, Andrew Ord, told FourFourTwo.

“I don't think I was really thinking ‘can he be the best in Asia?’, it was more ‘is he good enough to be in the team at 18 years old?’ and he showed that day against Muangthong he was by winning the penalty to make it 1-1.”

It was a debut season in which his talent was on show for everyone to see, with four goals in 28 appearances enough to see him named TPL Young Player of the Year.

“I have worked with lots of players over the last 10 years in different countries and I can honestly say he (Chanathip) was the most enjoyable to work with,” Ord said.

“(He) loved to train and play and he is the player that can unlock a tight defence, which makes the difference.”

The pint-sized Thai star is a joy to watch

In 2014 he starred for Thailand at the AFF Suzuki Cup, a tournament the War Elephants won, and his influential role saw him named tournament MVP, the youngest player ever awarded that honour.

A move to Muangthong United in 2016 took his game to another level, setting up a loan move to J. League side Consadole Sapporo in July this year, while he added another Suzuki Cup MVP for good measure in Thailand’s title defence in December.

Shinji Kagawa – Asia 50 No.19

What a difference five years can make. In 2012, Shinji Kagawa was coming off two standout seasons with German giants Borussia Dortmund, scoring 21 goals from 49 matches and winning back-to-back Bundesliga titles.

It was therefore no surprise to see him named the AFC’s inaugural International Player of the Year.

His form in Germany made Kagawa a wanted man across Europe and the 23-year-old looked set to become one of Asia’s greatest exports to Europe after sealing a move to one of the world’s biggest clubs – Manchester United.

“Shinji is an exciting young midfielder with great skill, vision and a good eye for goal,” Sir Alex Ferguson said at the time of his signing.

“I am delighted he has chosen to come to United. I believe he will make an impact upon the team very quickly as he is suited to United’s style of play. We are all looking forward to working with him."

But despite the promise and winning the English Premier League title in 2012/13, his two seasons at Old Trafford didn’t work out and his career hasn’t reach the heights many expected.

With his form for the Samurai Blue also suffering, and limited opportunities on the horizon at Old Trafford, Kagawa returned to the Westfalenstadion in 2014, which at club level has seen a return to the form he first displayed in Germany.

Kagawa's best club form has come in Germany