Southeast Asia's Best Imports Ever
5. Cleiton Silva
Speaking to Thai media last year, Cleiton Silva made the astute observation that wherever you go in the world you always have a Brazilian striker who makes the difference.
After leaving his homeland and arriving in Thailand as a 23-year-old, that difference maker at every club he’s been at has been the powerful forward himself.
Starting out at Osotsapa, he then spent two hugely productive years at BEC Tero Sasana before returning to Thailand after a brief stint in Mexico and in the two-and-a-half seasons he was with Muangthong United the goals continued to rain down.
In claiming the 2016 Golden Boot he matched the feat he achieved in 2012 and during that season he also became the first foreigner to score more than 100 goals in Thai football.
Most impressively, he sits atop the all-time list since the arrival of professional football in the country.
Naturally right-footed he’s almost as strong with his left and combines the best qualities of silk and steel, making him a player that’s deadly both inside and outside the box.
So rounded are his talents that he’s one of the very few players to have made the leap from Southeast Asia to an even higher level, continuing his goalscoring form this season with Shanghai Shenxin in China. – SM
Once a hot property in Europe before a disappointing spell in Greece, Diogo rebuilt his career after signing for Buriram United in 2015.
The talent was undoubtedly there but it was only when he arrived in Thailand that it became clear that the former Olympiakos striker was the real deal.
Powerful and as strong technically as physically, Diogo’s thirst for goals – any kind of goal from the spectacular to the mundane – stands out. In three seasons,he averages one every game.
His first season was special as he scored 45 goals in all competitions and had to learn the Thai word for ‘quintuplet’ as United took no less than five domestic trophies and he was named Player of the Year.
A hat-trick against Guangzhou R&F in the Asian Champions League was another highlight.
His injury in 2016 was then a major reason for Buriram’s disappointing league campaign. They simply are not the same team without him. – JD
3. Mirko Grabovac
He was 28 when he arrived in the S.League with SAFFC, but there was no stopping the Croatian from banging in the goals from left, right and centre even into his 30s.
A lack of pace never bothered him as he relied on shrewd movement in the penalty box to create an extra yard for himself to get the money shot away.
His goal-scoring ability was evident in his first season in 1999, scoring an incredible five goals in an 8-1 thrashing of Cambodia’s Royal Dolphins in the old Asian Club Championship (now the AFC Champions League).
Winning two S.League titles and a Singapore Cup with the Warriors, Grabovac went on to win another two S.League crowns, two Singapore Cups and the now-defunct ASEAN Club Championship in 2005 with Tampines Rovers.
Named the S.League Player of the Decade in 2005 and winning five Golden Boots along the way, he scored a total of 244 goals which makes him the second-highest scorer ever in the S.League. – KT
2. Gaston Merlo
They’ve come with his left and with his right and especially via his dominance aerially, but no matter the avenue the goals have flowed continuously for a man who’s spent virtually his entire career at Vietnamese club Da Nang.
In 2009, at the age of 24, Merlo became just the sixth non-Vietnamese player to be crowned the V.League’s top scorer. Then having backed up that feat in both 2010 and 2011 he did what many thought was impossible.
A serious leg injury forced him out of the game for close to a year and after returning to Argentina to recover he arrived back in Vietnam in 2016 and without missing a beat he once again won the Golden Boot.
He also did it at an astonishing rate with a goal a game over his 24 appearances for Da Nang – a mark that was the second highest tally in the close on 40-year history of the league.
Many players can shine brightly for a season or two abroad, but what Merlo has done is close to unrivalled amongst any foreign forwards in the history of Southeast Asian football as he’s plundered goals and scooped up awards year after year for close to a decade.
Furthermore, he’s done it all without crisscrossing clubs and countries as can be commonplace in the region.
Known as Do Merlo after being granted Vietnamese citizenship this year, he chose his new name to honour his club chairman at Da Nang, Do Xuan Hien, a club that is clearly as close to his heart as he is to theirs. – SM
1. Cristian Gonzalez
There are many foreign players who achieve fame in their adopted home solely due to their performances, others via intrigue or scandal, while others still manage it through their longevity or ability to blend into local society.
Cristian Gonzalez did all of that and more in a career spanning two decades in Indonesia with a burning flame that refuses to dim.
At the age of 41 he’s still a regular – and key – contributor for Arema, but regardless of when he finally decides to retire it’s unlikely his achievements will ever be surpassed.
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Not just the highest scoring foreigner in the history of the Indonesian top flight, he’s the highest scorer full stop.
Four times across the various incarnations of Indonesian professional football he has won the Golden Boot and on several others he was named the league’s most valuable player in a remarkable career that’s yielded more than 200 top-flight goals at PSM Makassar, Persik Kediri, Persib Bandung, Putra Samarinda and Arema.
Raised in a devout Catholic family in Uruguay, he converted to Islam when he met his current Indonesian wife and whilst his past is littered with various bans for fighting everyone from his own teammates to opposition players and referees, these days he’s regarded as an elder statesman of the game and just as renowned for his charitable deeds off the pitch as he is for his continued lethal finishing on it. – SM