Let’s be honest. Most people from this side of the world don’t know much about Asian soccer. Other than watching them in the World Cup, we rarely get a glimpse of how good it actually is.
As a matter of fact, Asian players have made their way towards Europe’s elite over the past couple of decades and it’s more common to find them now proving their talents on the best competitions on earth.
That’s why today we decided to put together the ultimate ranking of the top 30 best Asian players of the century, featuring those who paved the way for the younger generation and the rising stars we see nowadays.
30. Shinji Ono
Shinji Ono was one of the main reasons why the Japanese national team was able to take such a step forward over the past decade. Known as ‘Tensai’ (which is Japanese for genius), he’s made a name for himself for his sweet touch with the ball on his feet.
Thus far, Ono has found great success in his homeland and was even named Asian Footballer of the Year in 2002, and he also won the UEFA Cup with Feyenoord that year. He’s still active at age 40 with FC Ryukyu.
29. Yoshinori Muto
Yoshinori Muto hasn’t been around for that long but you can already tell he’s going to be special. The 27-year-old made his way to Newcastle United and even though he’s still working his way to the starting lineup, he’s quite a prolific finisher.
Muto scored 23 goals in 72 caps for German side Mainz 05 and became the second Japanese player in Bundesliga history to score a hat-trick. He’s also made 29 appearances for his national team.
28. Hong Myung-bo
Hong Myung-Bo played a big part in South Korean’s golden generation. His intelligence and versatility allowed him to play on every spot of the midfield but he also thrived as a center-back for most of his career.
He then went on to pursue a career as a coach, serving as his nation’s tactician and leading South Korea to the 2014 World Cup after winning the Olympic bronze medal with the U-23 squad in London 2012.
27. Koo Ja-cheol
Koo Ja-cheol was one of the most promising young Asian players of the past decade. His goalscoring ability as an offensive midfielder put him in the radar of European giants like Liverpool before joining VfL Wolfsburg.
He led the K-league in assists in 2010 and was the Asian Cup’s leading scorer the next year, but his career didn’t take the turn everybody expected despite his vast skills. He’s currently playing for Al-Gharafa SC.
26. Ki Sung-yueng
Ki Sung-yueng has found vast success thus far in his career in Europe, playing for Celtic, Swansea City, Sunderland, Newcastle and now R.C.D Mallorca thanks to his great conduction skills.
He’s a versatile playmaker that can play on every spot of the midfield and is even known as the ‘Korean Gerrard’ for his passing and striking abilities. Also, he’s made 116 appearances for South Korea.
25. Lee Woon-jae
Lee Woon-jae may not be the most beloved guy in Europe, as he was in the spotlight for a couple of controversies vs. Spain and Italy in the 2002 World Cup. However, he earned his spot on this list thanks to his durability.
Woon-jae spent his entire career playing in the K-League and made it to 3 World Cups, 3 Asian Cups, 1 Olympics, and 1 FIFA Confederations Cup as South Korea’s main stopper, making 133 appearances.
24. Younis Mahmoud
There was a time when Younis Mahmoud was considered as the greatest Iraqi soccer player in history. He was just 22 years old. That’s why Sunderland tried to sign him, although he eventually decided to join Al-Gharafa in Qatar.
Mahmoud made 148 appearances for Iraq and scored 57 goals and is the only Iraqi player to ever be nominated to the Ballon d’Or. He led his country to silverware in the WAAF Championship (2002), West Asian Games (2005), and AFC Asian Cup (2007).
23. Lee Keun-ho
Lee Keun-ho was once one of the biggest offensive menaces in Asian soccer. His pace and dribbling skills make him a nightmare upfront, as well as his ability to read opposing defenses and always find an open teammate.
However, the lack of exposure prevented him from taking his talents overseas as he’s spent his entire career in Asia. He’s made it to 4 K-League best XI, won 1 Asian Footballer of the Year, and 1 AFC Champions League MVP.
22. Shunsuke Nakamura
Shunsuke Nakamura was one of the first Japanese - and Asian - superstars that earned a lot of interest from European clubs, with teams like Atlético de Madrid, Lazio, Parma, and Borussia Dortmund demanding his services.
His great skills as an offensive midfielder led him to 2 Japanese Player of the Year awards, 1 AFC Asian Cup MVP, and 2 J-League MVPs among many other accolades, including a very successful stint with Celtic.
21. Zheng Zhi
Zheng Zhi is the ultimate Chinese kaiser. He’s the master of the defense and the biggest vocal leader you’ll find on the court, as he’s proven to be able to play as a center-back or as a defensive midfielder.
Zhi helped Guangzhou Evergrande win 16 titles in 10 years and has made 9 Chinese Super League Team of the Year appearances, which tells you how dominant he is. Also, he was the Asian Footballer of the Year in 2013.
20. Ali Al-Habsi
Not many Omani players found their way to Europe’s top-5 leagues, but that’s not the case with Ali Al-Habsi, whose solid goalkeeping took him to West Bromwich Albion after a stint with Bolton Wanders and Wigan Athletic.
He was a part of that historical Wigan team that won the FA Cup in 2013 and won the Arab Goalkeeper of the Year in 2004. He’s also made 135 appearances with his national team over his 18-year career.
19. Eran Zahavi
Eran Zahavi was the main reason why most people from this side of the world tuned in on Palermo and Maccabi Tel Aviv every time they set foot on the court, as his antics upfront and ability to embarrass defenders were a treat to the eyes.
Zahavi is an incredibly skilled finisher but also thrives playing near the sidelines as a winger. Now, the Israelian is completely dominating the Chinese Super League with 87 goals in 99 caps for Guangzhou R&F.
18. Ashkan Dejagah
Ashkan Dejagah almost plays for Germany after representing them at a youth level. Now, he’s Iran’s captain and one of the greatest players ever after putting together a great career in the Bundesliga.
With his versatility as a winger, offensive midfielder, and even false nine, Dejagah helped VfL Wolfsburg win the national tournament in 2009. He’s also scored 11 goals for Iran in 52 senior team caps.
17. Lee Young-pyo
Most young fans won’t remember it, but there was a time when Lee Young-pyo was considered to be one of the best left-backs in Europe thanks to his speed, defense, and link-up plays.
Young-pyo played for Anyang LG Cheetahs, PSV Eindhoven, Tottenham Hotspur, Borussia Dortmund, and Al-Hilal before retiring with the Vancouver Whitecaps. He was also a part of the South Korean team that finished in 4th in the 2002 World Cup.
16. Daisuke Matsui
Daisuke Matsui didn’t find the success he’d hope in Europe. Other than his long tenure with Le Mans, he bounced around the continent and struggled to find playing time. Still, he became a Japanese legend for his role in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup.
Matsui lacked the physicality and speed of most European midfielders but he made up for it with outstanding court vision and passing skills. He’s now a bit of a player-mentor in Japan for Yokohama FC.
15. Yossi Benayoun
Yossi Benayoun, AKA ‘The Diamond from Dimona’, was a huge menace during his prime. He had a sweet touch with the ball on his hand but you couldn’t forget about his power either. With a cannon for leg, he was a threat from all over the court.
Benayoun’s well known for his tenure at Liverpool as one of the Red’s steadiest contributors. He scored 144 career goals in 547 appearances won the UEFA Europa League in 2013, although with a lesser role.
14. Makoto Hasebe
Makoto Hasebe was a bit of a late bloomer but he’s now established himself as Japan’s captain, both on and off the pitch. Also, he’s a regular member of Eintracht Frankfurt’s starting XI as one of the Bundesliga’s best defenders.
Hasebe has found a lot of success throughout his career, winning 1 Bundesliga, 1 DFB Pokal, 1 AFC Asian Cup, 3 Kirin Cups, and 1 AFC Asian International Player of the Year, even making it to the 2018-19 UEFA Europa League squad of the season.
13. Omar Abdulrahman
Omar Abdulrahman Ahmed Al Raaki Al Amood, also known as Amoony, is one of those incredibly talented players most people don’t know because of the lack of exposure Asian soccer has on this half of the world.
Still, he’s won four AGL Emirati Player of the Year, 1 Asian Footballer of the Year, 1 AFC Champions League MVP. He’s a master at set-pieces and his accuracy, dribbling, and change of pace made most people consider him the greatest player in United Arab Emirates history, winning 13 titles over his career.
12. Ali Karimi
Ali Karimi made a name for himself as one of Iran's deadliest players throughout the early years of his career, even making his way to Bayern Munchen in 2005. He’s considered the greatest Iranian footballer of all time.
Karimi made 127 caps for his national team and scored 101 career goals in 298 club matches. He won 1 Asian Footballer of the Year. He went on to pursue a career in coaching after retiring.
11. Atsuto Uchida
Atsuto Uchida is yet another example of Japanese players taking the Bundesliga for assault, as he established himself as Schalke 04’s full-time right back thanks to his speed and defense.
His incredibly successful off the court as well, being known as the ‘Japenese Beckham’. He won a couple of titles in Germany and was a part of the AFC Asian championship team in 2011. He’s now back at his country playing for Kashima Antlers.
10. Maya Yoshida
Maya Yoshida is a synonym of consistency. He’s a reliable center back that can also play on the flanks, and even as a midfielder. That’s why he’s one of the best Southampton players in modern history.
Yoshida spent 8 seasons in the English Premier League before joining Sampdoria. He’s made 100 caps for Japan’s national team but other than the AFC Asian Cup of 2011, he hasn’t won any silverware.
9. Ji-Sung Park
Ji-Sung Park was one of the first Asian players to put the continent on the map. After dominating in PSV Eindhoven, he made it to Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, where he lived the best years of his career.
His off-ball movements and change of pace were his signature as a disruptive player for opposing defenses. He won 13 titles with the Red Devils, including one UEFA Champions League.
8. Hidetoshi Nakata
Hidetoshi Nakata is considered the most talented Japanese player of all time. He was a huge celebrity in Asia and spent most of his career in Europe, playing for Perugia, Roma, Parma, Bologna, Fiorentina, and Bolton Wanderers.
Nakata won 2 Asian Footballer of the Year and a couple of international trophies with Japan. He made just 77 appearances for his national team and durability was always an issue with him, but the talent was definitely there.
7. Ali Daei
You may not know much about him, but Ali Daei actually holds the record for the most international goals of all time. With 109 goals in 149 caps for Iran, the ‘Iranian Maradona’ made his way to soccer’s elite over a 20-year career.
Daei led his national team to the Asian Games gold medal, the AFC/OFC Cup Challenge, and the WAAF Championship, won 1 Asian Footballer of the Year, and is a part of the Asian Football Hall of Fame.
6. Shinji Okazaki
Shinji Okazaki may not be the most talented Japanese striker ever but he’s by far one of the most effective. As a matter of fact, he’s the country's active leading scorer with 50 strikes in 119 appearances for his national team.
Okazaki also holds an impressive resume thus far, playing for VfB Stuttgart, Mainz, Leicester City, Málaga, and now Huesca. Also, he was a part of that historical Foxes team that took the Premier League for assault in 2016.
5. Shinji Kagawa
Shinji Kagawa had it all to become the greatest Asian player of all time. He was as fast as a cheetah, incredibly skilled as a dribbler, and had the ability to finish with both feet even from way outside of the box.
Sadly, injuries and lack of playing time at Manchester United were a major bump on a promising career. Thus far, he’s scored 31 goals for Japan and won one AFC Asian International Player of the Year.
4. Yuto Nagatomo
There are only three certain things in life: Death, taxes, and Yuto Nagatomo. He’s reliable, consistent, efficient, and does all the little things well, even though he doesn’t exactly stand out from the rest of the pack.
Nagatomo can play as a winger, center-back, midfielder, or full-back. He’s made 122 appearances with Japan, won 1 Asian International Footballer of the Year, and has made a great career with Cesena, Internazionale, and now Galatasaray.
3. Yasuhito Endo
Yasuhito Endo is basically Mr. Japan. He’s the country's all-time leader in caps with 152 appearances and has represented his nation in 3 World Cups, and 3 Confederation cups. Some consider him the best player in the Japanese national team history.
Endo has never played outside of his country at a club level but not because of a lack of offers. His great abilities as a shooter are only topped by his passing skills, and he’s won 7 titles with Japan thus far.
2. Son Heung-min
Talent-wise, preparation-wise, role-wise, Son Heung-min may end up being the best Asian player ever. He’s already a superstar in one of the English Premier League’s best teams and is just 27 years old.
Son is unstoppable near the sidelines with his speed and dribbling skills but he can also play inside of the box or as an offensive midfielder if needed. He’s already scored 26 goals for South Korea after thriving at Bayer Leverkusen and Tottenham. Also, he was named the Best Footballer in Asia 5 times, an AFC Asian International Player of the Year 3 times, and was a 2019 Ballon d’Or nominee,
1. Keisuke Honda
For most of his career, Keisuke Honda was always the biggest entertainer on the pitch. Versatile, strong, fast, dynamic, he was the ultimate attacking midfielder and he could also play as a false nine or on both flanks of the offense.
Had he handled his professional career better, he could’ve easily made his way to a European giant like Real Madrid, as he was a major game-changer every time he set foot on the field during his earlier days. His career will always be a big ‘What If’, but talent-wise, he’ll go down as the best Asian player of the century until further notice.