Eastern promise: Ten to watch in 2012
Hiroshi Kiyotake (Japan)
A visitor to Japan could be forgiven for thinking that tucked in among the Nissan and Toyota factories there must be a technically-minded midfielder production line somewhere. If you are such a player then it is not easy to stand out from the crowd in the Land of the Rising Sun but Kiyotake has what it takes to follow in the slipstream of models such as Shinsuke Nakamura and Shinji Kagawa and be successfully exported to Europe. Just 22, the Cerezo Osaka star has already helped fans of the Kansai club forget Kagawa but they are resigned to losing him sooner or later. He always seems to have time on the ball and scores, creates and breaks up attacks – what’s not to like?
Shin Young-Rok (South Korea)
The 24-year-old is not likely to be making a big move to the English Premier League or the Bundesliga anytime soon, but the spiky striker will be delighted with any kind of playing time at all – anywhere. It would be cause for national celebration if he did so. Due to heart problems, Shin collapsed during a K-League match for Jeju United in May and only swift medical attention saved his life. He was in a coma for 50 days and only made it out of hospital in September. Shin, who helped Suwon win the 2008 K-League title, has said repeatedly that he wants to play again and few doubt his determination. It would be really something if he made it in 2012.
Yu Hanchao (China)
Liaoning used to be a big club in China but those days, the ones before Chinese Super League clubs were outmuscling European giants in the transfer market, are history. Now the northerners play a very distant second fiddle to the new moneybags outfits in the south and, as such, they will struggle to hold on to the left winger who scores goals – 12 in 2011 – and makes them. His talents helped the team, in only their second season back in the big time, finish third to qualify for the 2012 Asian Champions League – ending a wait for continental competition dating back to 1995. That may just make the 24 year-old stay for a while longer and fans are praying that he does.
Fahad Al-Enezi (Kuwait)
The sight of the 23-year-old’s trademark headband provokes fear among full-backs all over West Asia. Laidback off the pitch, the Kuwaiti Aaron Lennon is like lightning on it – at times too fast for the rest of his team-mates at Jeddah giants Al-Ittihad. The Saudi-based speedster doesn’t care on which wing he plays, he just wants to run at defenders. A succession of coaches have pointed out that Al-Enezi needs to score more goals and, if he could improve that part of his game and be a little more aware of his surroundings when he starts to burn that pace of his, he really would be a fearsome opponent.
Ibrahim Ghaleb (Saudi Arabia)
A composed defensive midfielder who plays with an assurance that belies his 20 years, Ghaleb has already caught the attention of clubs in Spain and France who will have to work hard to convince Al Nassr to let him go. Hardworking, with an eye for a pass and an ability to start attacks that almost matches his more destructive talents, the Saudi Arabia international has a long and fruitful career ahead. Few of his compatriots have made the move abroad but Ghaleb looks to be different.
Pak Song-Chol (North Korea)
There is a promising crop of young players coming through the system in North Korea with a number playing for the country’s leading club April 25. Pak is 20 and nicknamed “the dagger” due to his ability to penetrate defences. A product of Pyongyang’s Central School of Physical Education, Pak has the skills to build quite a reputation at home and overseas – not easy as two players with the exact same name have appeared for the national team in recent years. As active on the pitch as he is shy off it, Pak has great awareness in the penalty area and is an instinctive finisher.
Ali Ashfaq (Maldives)
If Ashfaq was Indian, he would already have been offered trials and contracts all over Europe but while scouts and chief executives from Europe may holiday in the Maldives, they are much more interested in breaking into the huge and ever-growing market to the north. Bangladesh coach Nikolai Ilievski called the prolific marksman the best player at the South Asian Cup last month and he has been recognised as one of the best, if not the number one, striker in a region that accounts for almost a quarter of the world’s population. A huge star at home, in a country better at football than you may think, ‘The Man of Steel’ deserves a bigger stage to show his unquenchable thirst for goals. Previous interest from Benfica didn’t materialise into anything concrete, but 26-year-old Ashfaq is strong with either foot, boasts impressive balance and close control, remains keen, sharp and single-minded in the penalty area and averages a goal every other game for his country.
Amer Shafia (Jordan)
Shafia is perhaps the best goalkeeper playing in Asia at the moment and the success of Ali Al-Habsi in the English Premier League has opened doors for other goalkeepers from the western reaches of the continent. Shafia hasn’t shown much interest in pursuing such a move but he is certainly capable of doing so. It is his great form in recent times that has helped Jordan become the most improved national team in Asia. The 30-year-old is as acrobatic as the best of them but it is his ability to organise the backline that really helped Jordan reach the quarter-final of the Asian Cup last January and then stroll into the final round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup a few months later.
Andik Vermansyah (Indonesia)
He swapped shirts with David Beckham and received words of praise from the superstar just a few weeks ago and, if rumours are to be believed, the 23-year-old could soon be mixing with such lofty company on a more regular basis – his club chairman at Persebaya 1927 has talked of overtures from the likes of Benfica and AC Milan. He could be accused of simply looking to drive up any potential transfer fee but, with growing European interest in Indonesian football, such moves for Vermansyah are not as unlikely as they may seem. The attack-minded midfielder is slight and skilful and has been called the Indonesian Messi. That may be unimaginative and predictable but, when he has the ball at his feet, Vermansyah is anything but.
Fareez Farhan (Singapore)
One European coach with extensive experience in South-East Asia recently said that Farhan is the most talented 16-year old that he has ever seen in the region. Now 17, there are hopes in the city state that the speedy striker can become a genuine star along with an acceptance that he may need to leave Gombak United and the S-League in order to do so. He has already impressed at a higher level, training with Dinamo Zagreb with an offer of a longer stay, although he was unable to accept due to FIFA regulations. Farhan is already the S-League’s youngest ever player but wants to go on making history at home and selection for the Under-21 team is a good start.