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Despite remaining underrepresented and often underappreciated in the industry, Asian footballers stand tall as an integral part of the beautiful game. With their flair and passion, several iconic Asian natives have made their way from relative anonymity to global superstars.
The likes of Ali Daei, Park Ji-sung and Cha Bum-kun have all written their name into Asian folklore, with players such as Shinji Kagawa and Son Heung-min proudly representing the continent in more recent times.
We take a look at the top ten Asian wonderkids who could set the footballing world alight in the near future.
10. Keito Nakamura
After scoring four goals at the 2017 U-20 World Cup, FC Twente called the signature of Japanese youngster Nakamura ‘a small miracle’ when they brought him in from Gamba Osaka on a two-year loan deal. The left-winger immediately repaid the faith with two goals in his first two appearances for the club.
Despite two more goals across a total of 17 Eredivisie appearances, he looks set to end his spell in the Netherlands. His future is certainly up in the air, but at just 19, he has plenty of time to get things back on track and rediscover the potential that is undoubtedly there in abundance.
9. Jun Nishikawa
Operating mainly as an attacking midfielder, the 18-year-old is causing quite the stir in Japan. Having honed his talents at local club Yokohama F Marinos, he became a huge hit in the continent when he received the Player of the Tournament award at the 2018 AFC U-16 Championship.
His performances – including the only goal as Japan lifted the trophy against Tajikistan – caught the eye of Bundesliga outfit Bayer Leverkusen, who are keeping tabs on the teenager’s progression. The youngster may just follow in the steps of a certain Kagawa, who made the switch to Germany from Cerezo Osaka a decade ago, with Nishikawa showing similar traits to those of the former Borussia Dortmund playmaker.
8. Jeong Woo-yeong
A 2018 move from Incheon United to German giants Bayern Munich didn’t quite work out, despite the winger becoming the first-ever South Korean to play for the club when he appeared against Benfica in the Champions League later that year.
A move to SC Freiburg followed, but the 20-year-old has returned to Bayern’s reserves on a loan deal, where he has since scored once and registered eight assists in 15 outings. His stuttering start to life on the pitch can certainly be forgiven, having only taken up the sport at the age of ten, practising Taekwondo as a child.
7. Kim Min-Jae
The stand-out centre-back in the Chinese Super League this season, the South Korean already has plenty of honours under his belt, winning the K League 1 title twice with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, and receiving the Young Player of the Year award in his debut campaign. He also featured in the Team of the Season on both occasions.
Current club Beijing Guoan have witnessed his rapid progression at the back ever since signing him last in January 2019, but he might not be there for much longer. At six-foot-two, the ‘Monster’ possesses a footballing brain and plays out from the back, so the heavy interest from both Tottenham Hotspur and Everton is certainly no surprise.
6. Ritsu Doan
After starring at the 2017 U-20 World Cup with Japan, the Gamba Osaka winger earned a move to the Eredivisie with FC Groningen, where he immediately hit the headlines with nine goals in his debut campaign, eclipsing the tally of a teenage Arjen Robben. Cutting in from the right onto his deadly left foot, there are obvious similarities.Doan’s dazzling displays earned him a spot in the 10-man shortlist for the inaugural Kopa trophy in 2018, the under-21 equivalent of the Ballon d’Or, with a call up to the Japan national team also going his way. Despite interest from Manchester City and Juventus, he once more followed in Robben’s footsteps with a move to PSV last summer, where he has netted on three occasions.
5. Takehiro Tomiyasu
Disciplined and clever on the ball, the young defender has been a regular in the Serie A this season. One campaign at centre-back for Belgian club Sint-Truiden was enough to convince Bologna to bring in the youngster, where he has since been converted to one of the top right-backs in the league.
Pace, versatility and a strong aerial presence are just some of the reasons behind the 21-year-old’s growing reputation. With Japanese company DMM.com taking over the Belgian outfit in 2017, Tomiyasu may just be the first in a long line of successful exports from the country to make the switch to Europe’s top leagues.
4. Hiroki Abe
Enjoying success everywhere across the front-line, Abe has been dubbed the next Lionel Messi, having signed from J-League side Kashima Antlers last summer. Despite being just 21 years of age, the forward has already secured a spot in the Japan national team, beginning with plenty of minutes in last year’s Copa America.
Four goals in 20 appearances for Barcelona B have furthered his reputation in Spain, with his season cut short in February due to a hamstring injury. With a €100m release clause in his contract should he feature for the first team, it’s evident just how highly he is rated at the Catalan club.
3. Kang-in Lee
Asian Football Confederation Youth Footballer of the Year and Korean Young Player of the Year, while at the same time becoming an official first-team player at Valencia, 2019 was a busy year for the 19-year-old. To further increase his stock, the attacking midfielder scooped the Golden Ball at the U-20 World Cup last summer, following in the footsteps of the likes of Diego Maradona, Sergio Aguero, Lionel Messi and Paul Pogba.
The teenager has been in the south of Spain since the age of ten, and became the youngest ever Korean to play in the Champions League when he appeared against Chelsea in September. Another export from the bright lights of Incheon, he has a big future ahead.
2. Daichi Kamada
Plucked out of thin air from J League side Sagan Tosu, the attacking midfielder has enjoyed a stunning breakthrough season in the Bundesliga. Another to have spent time in Belgium with Sint-Truiden, where he recorded 16 goals and nine assists in 36 outings on loan, Kamada has ensured his parent club don’t make the same mistake again.
Joint-top of this season’s Europa League goalscoring charts with six – including a match-winning double at the Emirates and a hat-trick against RB Salzburg – the Japan international is sought after by many, with Frankfurt keen to tie him to a long-term deal this summer.
1. Takefusa Kubo
Perhaps the most wanted teenager in world football, 19-year-old Kubo has suitors lining up all over Europe. The winger spent four years in Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, but was forced to leave when the club were sanctioned for illegally signing underaged players.
But once 18, the ‘Japanese Messi’ was allowed to return to Europe, with Barca’s fierce rivals Real Madrid making their move. The youtube sensation is currently spending a season-long loan at Real Mallorca, where he boasts four goals and five assists for the relegation-threatened side.