Asia 50, 2017: Why do West Asian footballers tend to stay at home?
A quick look at FourFourTwo's top 50 Asian players reveals plenty of patterns and provokes dozens of questions.
One of which is why, of this half-century of continental talents, most West Asians tend to play in West Asia, while those from Korea, Japan and Australia are largely in Europe?
Every good rule has an exception, however, and in this case it is Iran.
The country has a proud football tradition and also a habit of encouraging its best to leave for different fields.
There is our No.4 overall Sardar Azmoun at Rostov in Russia – and surely a bigger club in a bigger league soon – plus No.7 Reza Ghoochannejhad and No.11 Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who are both in the Dutch Eredivisie and feature prominently on this year’s list.
But if you take a look at the Arabian nations of West Asia, a region that has significant influence in the politics of the continental scene, finding a player in Europe is almost as hard as stopping Omar Abdulrahman when he is in full flow.
The United Arab Emirates’ playmaker was named No.1 this year, while compatriots Ahmed Khalil and Ali Mabkhout are seven and 11 places lower respectively. All three still play in the UAE.
A little further down we find No.14 Omar Al Somah, a Syrian who plays in Saudi Arabia, No.18 Hammadi Ahmed still plays in Iraq, and the list goes on.
By contrast, you have to go all the way down to No.33 to find a Korean or Japanese player still inside their own borders, Jeonbuk Hyundai midfielder Lee Jae-Sung.
During those Olympics, on a sunny afternoon in Manchester, the playmaker’s curls caught the attention, but what really captivated was the skills: the vision, the footwork and the passing stood out even in the storied surroundings of Old Trafford.
A trial at Manchester City followed, as did a contract offer – though for work permit purposes he would likely have played in Spain for a while – but he chose to stay at Al Ain.
Every year, the question was asked: “Where is he going?” This was boosted by regular comments from the player that he was looking to head to Europe sooner rather than later. It reached a crescendo at the 2015 Asian Cup. Not only did he wow the crowds in Australia but at almost every press conference he was asked which elite European league he would soon grace with his presence.
Yet he returned home to sign a new, improved and very lucrative contract with Al Ain worth a basic $4 million a year, with add-ons and bonuses that take it considerably higher.
It was a strong signal he was staying put for a while at least. And with the lack of history of West Asians moving west, the question started to move from "where" and "when" to "if".
And, if not, it should be "why".
There is nothing that says players have to make the move. It is obviously not right for everyone and if too many go, it can create issues for the leagues left behind.
But the four countries with the most players in Europe – South Korea, Japan, Australia and Iran – were Asia’s four representatives at the 2014 World Cup and could well be again in Russia next summer.
It is accepted that at least sending some players to Europe is a positive step in the development of a football nation. Playing with and against the best players in the world on a regular basis can only be a good thing.
There are various reasons why it happens, or rather does not happen, for most West Asian nations.
One is financial. Big stars in the west command salaries that are equally as big. Omar’s pay packet would not look out of place in a big EPL or La Liga club.
For such a European club, gambling on a player from West Asia is one thing but when you have to pay serious bucks to do so, it becomes less attractive.
Omar may be the most talented player in Asia but the big European clubs have plenty of cheaper options from regions of the world with a long history of producing world-class players.
Fans in Europe are not going to raise an eyebrow when a big fee is given to Boca Juniors or Corinthians, but it is a little different when it comes to Al Ain or Al Ahli.
Shopping in Korea, Japan and Australia is also more familiar and much cheaper.
Another issue can be sometimes the players are willing, but their clubs are not.
Ismail Matar, the star of UAE football before Omar came along, told this writer in 2016 that there had been interest from European clubs after he won the Golden Ball at the 2003 World Youth Cup, but his club refused to consider it.
In 2008, Ahmed Khalil’s older brother Faisal went to France, but so incensed was his club he was ordered back by the crown prince of Dubai.
There is also a suspicion that many players are not that desperate to go. At home, these big fish are well paid, well known and well looked after. Getting out of that comfort zone to the uncertainty of Europe may not be that attractive.
There is hope. Ali Adnan is coming to the end of a second season with Udinese in Italy. ‘Asia's Gareth Bale’ has played his part. Perhaps it is time for Omar.
The longer he stays in his own backyard, the less likely he is to keep winning such plaudits as FourFourTwo's No.1 Asian player.
As big as that prize is, there are bigger issues at stake.