Ten Asian players to watch
With the success of Asian players such as Park Ji-sung (Man United), Shinji Kagawa (Dortmund) and Lee Chung-yong (Bolton), many clubs in the world are constantly on the lookout for the next big thing in the region. Even more so when one considers that Lee ($3.5M) and Kagawa ($500,000) were obtained at bargain basement prices. Here are 10 possibilities.
F, Ahmed Khalil, UAE
The 20-year-old Khalil is the best player in the Gulf according to UAE national team boss Srecko Katanec and has also been called the Arabian Eto'o. It may be a little early for that but the international striker is fast, skillful and loves to run at defenders — the teenager plays with a confidence that belies his tender years.
His stock is good with his father and a number of brothers all involved in the game though Ahmed is the most talented of the lot — certainly more so than his fellow international and older brother Faisal who once fell foul of the law for reportedly hiring a witch doctor to curse his rivals for a starting spot.
Ahmed has no such need of sorcery and prefers to trust to the magic in his boots. His one step free-kicks are already the stuff of legend in Dubai where he plays his club soccer alongside Fabio Cannavaro. He may not be in the city for much longer, rumors of Chelsea interest have come and gone but similar stories are sure to return.
F, Yoo Byung-soo, South Korea
South Korea doesn't really do strikers. Speedy fullbacks and wingers are a specialty but the national team has always been a goal scorer away from moving up to the next level. That is why in a league where Brazilians often top the scoring charts, the emergence of Incheon United's 23-year-old Yoo — a tough all-around goalgetter, strong in the air, good at free-kicks and able to make own chances or convert those created by others — has been warmly greeted. He scored 14 goals in his first season, then 22 in his second — five more than the next man and nine more than the next Korean.
His record is all the more remarkable when you consider that Incheon have been one of Korea's least creative and attacking-minded teams in recent years. A club official once remarked that he has "an international body" — the strength and size to play anywhere in the world. He still can't get into the national team though — one of those mysteries of the east.
F, Kensuke Nagai, Japan
With Takashi Usami about to sign for Bayern Munich any day now, attention is already turning to the next Japanese star. It could be Nagai. The 22 year-old forward, who shot Japan to Asian Games gold in 2010, is one of the latest to rise to the top — literally as he has just joined champions Nagoya Grampus. His graduation from Fukuoka University last year sparked a frantic race for his signature, one that was won by Nagoya boss Dragan Stojkovic.
On the field, the striker wins pretty much every race he is involved in as he showed on his league debut for the titleholder, speeding free of the Yokohama defense in the final minute to be brought down in the area. Nagoya assistant coach Dido Havenaar is reminded of a certain Flying Dutchman. "Kensuke Nagai is a player with a lot of speed; I compare him with Marc Overmars during his Arsenal time as he likes the ball behind the opponent's back line. He is an explosive player also in the air as his jumping and heading are terrific. His tactical thinking is not yet there he just came from the University and the level of this league is far below the J-League."
GK, Kawin Thamsatchanan, Thailand
Asia is not known for its goalkeepers and while there are an increasing number of continental stars in the big leagues, the sole No. 1 is Ali Al Habsi who just helped Wigan preserve its English Premier League status.
The 5-foot-11 Thamsatchanan plays for ambitious Thai champions Muangthong United and has been earning rave reviews in Southeast Asia. Thamsatchanan has even been linked to Manchester United.
"I would love to play in England or Spain but I have to go to a small league first, go step-by-step. It is very difficult to go to a team like Manchester United immediately," said the 21-year-old Thamsatchanan. "Two years ago, I spent two weeks training with Manchester City. It was a great experience and I want to have that every week."
"Asian goalkeepers are smaller than European goalkeepers so there are not many playing there but this can be overcome if you work and train hard. I want to go to Europe because that is where the best soccer is played and it is there you have to prove yourself."
Thailand assistant coach Steve Darby is a former goalkeeper himself and believes that the youngster has what it takes.
"Kawin has the complete picture for a top class keeper. He has excellent technique aligned with great athleticism, a true professional attitude has meant that he is a dedicated trainer and has got himself into perfect physical condition. Plus most of all, he is mentally strong."
D, Zhang Linpeng, China
In the past, Chinese central defenders were rough and tough and not much more but the 22-year-old Zhang is different. He is already a mainstay of the national team and expected to be there for years to come.
The central defender cost "The Chinese Manchester City" Guangzhou Evergrande $2 million earlier this year. Good on the ball — his long-range shooting is impressive — strong in the tackle and already displaying the kind of leadership qualities that the Chinese national team has long lacked.
Fan Zhiyi said that when he first saw Zhang Linpeng, "he reminded me of me when I was young. I hope he can be the next 'me'." No disrespect to the former Crystal Palace defender but there are hopes in China that he can be a little more.
D, Eshan Hajisafi, Iran
His nickname of the "Iranian Fabregas," immediately suggests the 21-year-old Hajisafi can play but he also has a throw-in to rival Rory Delap. Started out in the middle of the park and impressed with his vision and passing but is now usually employed at left-back. Wherever he plays, Hajisafi is a class act.
Already with 38 appearances for his country, he wants to move to Europe and former national team coach Afshin Ghotbi thinks he has what it takes.
"With a high demand for left-footed defenders around the globe, Hajsafi will be on the list of many clubs in the coming years," said Ghotbi. "For his further development, he needs new challenges to train and play at the highest level."
His need to complete his military training which will limit his time in Europe but for now, Hajisafi is ready, willing and able. He is struggling to find consistency and perhaps a move out of Iran, where he plays too many games for club, country and Olympic team, may help.
F, Jong Il Gwan, North Korea
There is some serious young talent in North Korea at the moment. The government has invested in facilities and the federation has been reorganized and put under the direct control of the military. They have a new weapon in the shape of 18-year-old forward Jong.
The teenager can play on the left, right or in the middle but his pace and acceleration puts him in goal scoring positions time and time again. Jong lit up the Asian U-19 championship last year with five goals including a memorable hat trick against Australia. More and more North Koreans are heading overseas and it is only a matter of time before the forward, who plays for esteemed military club April 25, does the same.
F, Jeje Lalpekhlua, India
Bhaichung Bhutia has been the main man in India for too long and while the 20-year-old Lalpekhlua is not be the first to be labeled as Bhutia's successor, he may be the one that can actually manage to do it.
"It always feels good to be compared with one whom you have always idolized or look up to," said Lalpekhlua. "But Bhaichung has reached his prime and has done so much for the country. As for me, I have just started off my career and still have a long way to go. So comparing with Bhaichung at this point is not done. It's too early. I will have to prove myself at the highest level."
Four goals in three internationals is a great start and he has also been enjoying himself for the Indian Arrows, a club set up by the federation for promising young players to get regular I-League football. This team is supposed to be the way into the 2018 World Cup. That still remains doubtful but by then Jeje, not the biggest of forwards but with the ability to find space inside the area, could easily be rubbing shoulders with the stars.
"As of now I am happy with where I am. I need to mature more as a player. I need to learn many things more. However I would like to play for a big European club one day."
F, Naif Hazazi, Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia has produced a number of talented strikers over the years with Sami Al-Jaber and Yasser Al Qahtani attaining star status at home but never really showing what they could do in Europe. The 22-year-old Hazazi could change all that.
"He has all the qualities to be the best in Asia," said renowned Saudi midfielder "The Patrick Vieira of Asia" Mohammed Noor. "He can be a star for Saudi Arabia for years."
Hazazi burst on to the international scene in 2009 during World Cup qualification. Here was a strong, quick and direct striker, not afraid of a physical battle and dangerous in the air. Fans were talking about a new Didier Drogba. Unfortunately, a cruciate ligament injury in August 2009 kept him out of crucial qualification games that most Saudi fans think would have been won with their star striker. Has not been quite as impressive since his return to fitness last year but has time and skill on his side.
F, Irfan Bachdim, Indonesia
It wasn't that long ago when every Asian nation had its own "Beckham" and had Bachdim, a striker with the pace and talent to fashion chances for himself, been born a few years earlier he would have been Indonesia's version with his looks, tattoos and Indonesia's premier WAG who models lingerie in Germany. Born in Holland to a Dutch father and Indonesian mother, he rattled around the Dutch lower leagues (Utrecht, HFC Haarlem) as a teenager before arriving in his mother's homeland.
After his performances at the 2010 AFF Cup, when Bachdim scored on his international debut in Jakarta against rivals Malaysia, he has been perhaps the biggest star in South East Asian soccer — especially among the ladies.
Some of this has perhaps gone to his well-groomed head as suspicions grow that he is more interested in his commercial activities than football– his 700,000 plus followers on twitter are regularly subjected to plugs for a variety of products and he's preparing to appear in his first movie — but injuries haven't helped. The jury is out on whether he has what it takes to star in the big leagues but one thing is for sure, a high proportion of people in the world's most populous country would follow his every move.
John Duerden has been living in Asia for more than a decade and has been called "The voice of Asian football" by the BBC.