From South Korea’s surge to the 2002 World Cup semi finals on home soil, to Japan’s victory at the 2011 Women’s World Cup, Asia has a proud footballing past.
As a result, the continent has produced a selection of top class footballing talent down the years who have graced the pitch in Asia and beyond.
Let’s take a look at the greatest male Asian footballers of all time.
One of just two Japanese players to win the Premier League, Okazaki was part of the famous Leicester side who stormed to an unlikely top flight triumph in 2016.
The forward scored a fabulous overhead kick against Newcastle to steer the Foxes closer to the title, and with 50 goals in 119 appearances for his country, he is Japan’s third all-time top scorer and fourth all-time appearance maker.
Saeed Al-Owairan is responsible for creating a piece of Saudi Arabian footballing history, netting the winning goal five minutes into his country’s 1994 World Cup group stage fixture against Belgium to send Saudi Arabia through to the knockout stages for the first – and thus far only – time in their history.
It is an iconic World Cup moment, Al-Owairan embarking on a mazy, Maradona-esque run from inside his own half. The versatile attacking midfielder was a force to be reckoned with in the domestic game too, netting 238 goals in 588 appearances for Al Shabab FC – the club he spent his entire career with.
Kazuyoshi Miura is best known as the oldest goalscorer and player in professional football – he’s still going strong for Yokohama FC in the Japanese top flight at age of 54.
But his age defying feats can take away from what a genuine quality player he was in his hay day. The 1992 Asian Player of the Year spent the first eight years of his career playing domestic football in Brazil, where his supreme technical ability, speed and control meant he slotted in effortlessly. The forward is his country’s second all-time top scorer, with 55 goals in just 89 appearances for Japan.
Abdullah Majed is another one club man, spending 21-year career with Al Nassr.
It was on the international stage where the forward really forged his legendary status, scoring 72 times in 117 appearances for Saudi Arabia to make him the country’s all-time top scorer. Three of these goals came in two successive Asia Cup finals, as Saudi Arabia won the competition twice in a row in 1984 and 1988.
Kunishige Kamamoto spent his entire club career with Yanmar Diesel, where he netted a ridiculous 202 goals in 251 appearances.
The forward hit a similarly outrageous 75 goals in 76 appearances for Japan, making hime the country’s all-time top scorer. Seven of these goals came at the 1968 Olympics to guide his country to a famous bronze medal, with Kamamoto the tournament’s top goal scorer.
Younis Mahmoud was at the very heart of an Iraq side that made history time and time again.
The striker was part of the 2004 side’s giant killing run the semi finals of the Olympic games, Portugal and Australia beaten along the way. Mahmoud netted a towering header to win the 2007 Asia Cup final and secure a remarkable, underdog triumph. With 57 goals in 148 appearances for his country, he is Iraq’s all-time top appearance maker and second top scorer.
Javad Nekounam is Iran’s record appearance holder, turning out for his country 151 times, netting 39 goals – a pretty good return for a midfielder – and establishing himself as Iran’s talisman.
He moved to Osasuna in 2006 and stayed in La Liga for seven years across two different spells and becoming one of the Spanish side’s most influential players. It was a bit of a rarity at the time for an Asian player to be so instrumental abroad.
Sami Al-Jaber is regarded as one of the finest players in Saudi Arabian football history. Prior to the forward had made his international debut, Saudi Arabia had never qualified for the World Cup. Al-Jaber would go on to feature at four successive World Cups for his country.
Al-Jaber is an institution in his homeland, and his 46 goals in 156 appearances for Saudi Arabia make the forward his country’s second all-time top scorer. He spent the majority of his career with Saudi side Al Hilal, but had a brief, rogue, four-game loan spell with Wolves in 2001.
A full-back or winger by trade, Mehdi Mahdavikia was renowned for his bursting pace, skill and pinpoint crossing ability. The former Iran captain is a recipient of both the Asian Young Player of the Year award in 1997, and the Asian Player of the Year award in 2003.
His performances at the 1998 World Cup – including a famous display against the USA – earned him a move to the Bundesliga, and after a short spell at Bochum, Mahdavikia joined Hamburg. He spent eight years with the German outfit, twice winning the club’s Player of the Year award, turning out in the Champions League and recording the most assists in the Bundesliga during the 2002/03 season.
The ‘Iranian Maradona’ is the current all-time top scorer in international football, with 109 goals in 149 appearances for his country. Cristiano Ronaldo is the only other male player to have netted a century of international goals.
Daei was renowned for his aerial ability and goal scoring instinct. Although his club career was less glittering than his international career, the forward still won the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich in 1998/99 – and was crowned Asian Footballer of the Year later that same year.
Intelligent, skilful and rapid, Shinji Kagawa had the makings of the greatest Asian player of all time. He won the Bundesliga twice with Borussia Dortmund by the age of 23, earning him a £12m move to Manchester United.
He suffered from injuries and a lack of playing time at Old Trafford – but still became the first Japanese player to win the Premier League. Kagawa has made 97 appearances for his country, scored 31 goals and won the Asian International Player of the Year award in 2012.
Blessed with supreme technical ability and dead ball skill, Shunsuke Nakamura is a fan favourite among Celtic supporters following the four glittering years he enjoyed at Celtic Park. He netted a stunning free kick winner against Manchester United in the 2006/07 Champions League to ensure he will forever have a fond place in the hearts of Bhoys supporters.
2007 was a particularly sweet year for the Japan midfielder; he was named the PFA Player of the Year, Scottish Football Writers’ Player of the Year and was nominated for the Ballon d’Or. Nakamura is still playing for Yokohama, but with Kazuyoshi Miura as a teammate, he’s a youthful face around the J League club at the tender age of 42.
Hong Myung-bo is a South Korean footballing icon, boasting superb vision, passing range and longevity in the game. His 136 caps make him his country’s joint top appearance maker.
The defender captained South Korea to their famous fourth place finish at the 2002 World Cup and his performances saw him scoop the Bronze Ball – the first ever Asian player to do so. The 2002 tournament was Myung-Bo’s fourth successive World Cup – again, the first Asian player to achieve such a feat.
Ranked second in IFFHS’s Asian Player of the Century, Kim Joo-sung was renowned for his pace and long mane of hair – which earned him the nickname ‘Wild Horse’.
The winger spent much of his career with Daewoo Royals in his native South Korea, before seeing out his playing days with a loan spell FC Bochum. Joo-sung won the prestigious Asian Footballer of the Year award three years on the trot between 1989 and 1991 – a feat that is yet to be repeated.
Hidetoshi Nakata is regarded as one of the most talented Japanese players of all time. The two-time Asian Footballer of the Year, three time Ballon d’Or nominee and four-time FIFA World Player of the Year nominee was renowned for his vision, balance and creativity.
The midfielder netted five goals as Japan secured qualification for their maiden World Cup in 1998 and spent five years in Serie A during a purple patch for Italian domestic football, even netting in 2002 Coppa Italia final for Parma. He hung up his boots in 2006 at the age of just 29.
Renowned for his athleticism, creativity and dead ball prowess, Keisuke Honda was a figure of consistency for Japan for a decade.
The attacking midfielder made 98 appearances for his country, shooting to fame at the 2010 World Cup with a selection of fine individual performances. Honda was the star of the show a year later, as he was named player of the tournament during Japan’s 2011 Asia Cup triumph. He spent much of his domestic career in Europe, winning titles in the Netherlands and Russia.
Park Ji-sung helped to put Asian football on the map. The South Korean international played out the best days of his career with Sir Alex Ferguson’s legendary Manchester United side, and with the Red Devils he became the first Asian player to win the Champions League in 2008.
Park won four Premier League titles, was nominated for the Ballon d’Or in 2005 and was an integral part of the South Korea side that reached the semi finals of the 2002 World Cup.
The infectiously charismatic South Korean was listed 22nd in the Guardian‘s 100 best players in the world in 2020, and his placing of 22nd in the 2019 Ballon d’Or is the highest ever achieved by an Asian player. Son also bagged the Puskas award in 2020 for his stunning solo goal against Burnley.
With 143 goals in 395 appearances for Barcelona, Paulino Alcantara is the Catalan club’s seventh all-time top scorer – and finds himself in some pretty prestigious company.
The forward was born in the Philippines to a Spanish father and Filipino mother, moving to Barcelona at the age of three. He made his Barcelona debut in 1912 aged 15 – and remains the youngest player to play and score for the Spanish side. He retired at the age of 31 to become a doctor.
Cha Bum-kun is South Korea’s all-time top scorer with 58 goals in 136 appearances – and became international football’s youngest centurion at the age of 24.
It was domestically where the forward really shone and established himself as one of the best in the world in the 1980s. Renowned for his explosive pace and ability to strike a ball, he scored 98 Bundesliga goals across spells with Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen – and won the UEFA Cup with both of them. His antics across his 13-year career saw him crowned Asian Player of the Century.