Hidetoshi Nakata, Ali Daei, Park Ji-Sung — in the history of the FIFA World Cup, there has been no shortage of Asian players that have shone on football’s biggest stage.
And with the World Cup once again here, returning to Asian soil for the first time since Japan and South Korea co-hosted the competition in 2002, there are plenty who will be hoping it is their turn in the spotlight.
– 2022 World Cup: All squad lists for Qatar
For traditional heavyweights Japan, South Korea and Iran — who have no shortage of Europe-based stars — it could be some fairly recognisable names lighting up the World Cup.
Here, we look at ten who could do just that.
Almoez Ali (Qatar)
Born in Sudan but having moved to Qatar as a child, Almoez Ali is now widely regarded as one of Asia’s leading strikers — largely owing to his scintillating displays in his national team’s triumphant AFC Asian Cup campaign in 2019.
Almoez racked up a staggering nine goals in just seven games, including crucial strikes in the semifinal and final, to claim the tournament’s Golden Boot and Most Valuable Player awards.
Since then, the 26-year-old has also netted at the Copa America and CONCACAF Gold Cup when the Qataris featured as an invited team, and will be hoping to add at least a goal at the World Cup to his collection.
Abdelkarim Hassan (Qatar)
Defenders are less often in the spotlight but, in Abdelkarim Hassan, Qatar do boast an excitement machine at left-back.
The Al Sadd man is more than capable of performing his defensive duties but is more often seen rampaging forward — racking up goals and assists at will — and thriving when his team adopts a particularly adventurous approach.
The 2018 Asian Footballer of the Year, being part of the first Qatar team to ever grace a World Cup will come as some form of redemption for the at-times volatile Abdelkarim, who did tarnish his reputation three years ago when he was hit with a five-month ban by the Asian Football Confederation for excessively confronting a referee during an AFC Champions League tie.
Mehdi Taremi (Iran)
At the last World Cup, Mehdi Taremi was still plying in Asia and will perhaps be remembered for a crucial injury-time miss that denied Iran a shock win over Portugal — and a historic place in the Round of 16.
A key member of the Porto team that won the Portuguese league and cup double last season, Taremi has racked up an impressive 62 goals in three and a half seasons since earning a move to Portugal — initially with Rio Ave — and is fully capable of hurting any of the teams Iran come up against in Group B.
Alireza Beiranvand (Iran)
While it was Taremi who missed the chance to hand Iran a historic win over Portugal in that game at the last World Cup, the fact that they were even in such a position was due to goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand — who instantly put himself in the limelight when he denied a certain Cristiano Ronaldo from the penalty spot.
Beiranvand, a four-time Iranian league champion with Persepolis, eventually earned a move to Europe with Belgium’s Royal Antwerp and also had a loan spell in Portugal with Boavista, although he has been hampered by injuries in recent times.
Now back with Persepolis, the 30-year-old faces stiff competition for Team Melli’s No. 1 jersey following the emergence of other viable options like Amir Abedzadeh, although he should still be Carlos Queiroz’s first-choice in goal for a second consecutive World Cup.
Salman Al-Faraj (Saudi Arabia)
One of the most-gifted playmakers in Asia for the past decade, it is somewhat of a shame that Salman Al-Faraj has never plied his trade outside Saudi Arabia — having spent his entire career with local heavyweights Al Hilal.
Always composed on the ball and with immaculate distribution, the 33-year-old can already lay claim to having scored at a World Cup having netted in his country’s win over Egypt at Russia 2018.
With Saudi Arabia will facing tough tests against Argentina, Poland and Mexico in Qatar, where scoring chances should be at a premium, Al-Faraj and his wand of a left foot might just be their best bet to creating any openings.
Salem Al-Dawsari (Saudi Arabia)
After an Al-Faraj penalty had fired Saudi Arabia level against Egypt at the last World Cup, it was Salem Al-Dawsari whose clinical volley would go on to seal a 2-1 victory — only the nation’s third in five tournament appearances.
Like Al-Faraj, Al-Dawsari has spent his entire career to date contracted to Al Hilal but did have a brief spell on loan at LaLiga outfit Villarreal, where his solitary appearance memorably came against Real Madrid as a substitute.
Now 31 and likely at the peak of his powers, the lively wide attacker has also proven to be one for the big stage — having inspired Al Hilal to AFC Champions League glory last season with a series of MVP-winning displays — and there will be no larger occasion for him to perform than in the coming weeks.
Takehiro Tomiyasu (Japan)
Although Japanese football has had no shortage of successful exports to Europe, there are only a handful that have made a mark in the Premier League but one man who is promising to change that is Takehiro Tomiyasu.
While he is usually deployed out wide for his club, Tomiyasu will line up alongside veteran captain Maya Yoshida in the heart of the Samurai Blue defence and will also be entrusted to initiate attacks with his composed distribution out from the back.
Daichi Kamada (Japan)
With the Japan squad consisting four attackers with just ten internationals goals among them, there has been understandable concern as to whether coach Hajime Moriyasu has enough firepower at his disposal — especially given they will have to take on both Germany and Spain.
Thankfully for the Samurai Blue, perhaps they have no need for a traditional out-and-out striker given the form midfielder Daichi Kamada has been in so far this season.
The Eintracht Frankfurt man’s blistering start to the new campaign has already seen him net 12 goals in just 21 outings in all competition, and his dynamic style of play should certainly catch the eye of many a neutral watching on in Qatar.
Kim Min-Jae (South Korea)
The fact that Napoli have hardly felt the departure of Kalidou Koulibaly — who established himself as one of Serie A’s leading centre-backs over the past few years — to Chelsea is largely down to their savvy acquisition of Kim Min-Jae as his replacement.
In just his second month in Italy, Kim was named the Serie A’s Player of the Month back in September and he will be eager to grace the World Cup having missed out four years ago through injury.
Standing at 1.9 metres and built with an imposing physique, the 25-year-old will be more than capable of holding his own against the likes of Ronaldo and Luis Suarez — which should make for some enticing one-on-one duels.
Son Heung-Min (South Korea)
Of course, there is no bigger footballer in the Asian game at the moment — or for the past five years for that matter — than South Korea captain Son Heung-Min.
A player that hardly needs an introduction, Son arguably attained world-class status last term when his 23-goal haul in the Premier League saw him win the competition’s Golden Boot alongside Mohamed Salah.
The Tottenham man has however struggled for form so far this season and is currently an injury concern after suffering a facial fracture while on club duty, although he has reiterated his determination to lead the South Koreans at the tournament — which should come as good news for anyone hoping to see a trademark Son screamer in Qatar.