Soon we will start revealing the names of our Top 100 Asian and African players of the year 2015. Before we get into that, though, let us first explain some of the more curious exclusions. Tom Danicek, Martin Lowe, Ahmed Hashim and Hamoudi Fayad together list some utter failures along with the bearers of insufficient promise. In other words, we highlight those who could’ve and/or should’ve but ultimately didn’t…
You may agree, you may disagree, either way let us know what you think. #SFGTop100
Guangzhou Evergrande (CHN) / China / Central Midfield
An act of rebellion on our part. Zheng Zhi was once again – for the third time in four years – shortlisted for the AFC Player of the Year award, yet he didn’t get nearly the same amount of love in the SFG headquarters. That’s not to say he had a bad year, not at all. In fact, this admittedly signals our failure to properly recognize someone who may easily be considered the most positionally disciplined central midfielder in Asia as well as the linchpin of Asian Champions League winners. Besides, Zheng Zhi surely ranked among the most reliable China performers at the Asian Cup.
However – and that’s a significant shortcoming – the veteran’s year fatally lacks an outstanding moment, a signature mark, whereas the likes of Wu Lei, Huang Bowen or Yu Dabao have somehow upped their game and set the bar higher for themselves. This particular perspective is unfair to a 35-year-old, absolutely, but you sometimes need to be a tad ruthless in this cruel, cruel world. And AFC’s slight bias arguably deserves to be balanced. TD
Al-Ain (UAE) / UAE / Centre Back
In all honesty, this player is an honourable mention for one reason and one reason only. That is because the centre back of Moroccan descent was nominated for the AFC Player of the Year just a year before and is a mainstay in the UAE national team – undeservedly.
Ismail Ahmed lost his touch as a powerful and reliable defender over the course of 2015. Ever since the Asian Cup, there has been nothing spectacular coming from his side of defence. Partnered with Mohanad Salem Al-Enezi for most of the year at Al-Ain and on the national side, Ahmed has lacked the qualities to suffice as the stopper in a versatile back two. He is constantly attracted to forwards on the flanks, leaving Mohanad alone for periods that see him suffer. South Korea under Uli Steilike took advantage of such an easy target in the June friendly.
Yet, as the end of the year crept up his performances have started to shape up once again. Not on hot form, but certainly a sound choice in the back line. Despite the improved showings, his good performances could be attributed to the addition of Ahmed Barman in defensive midfield for Al-Ain, a tactical masterstroke that Al-Ain head coach Zlatko Dalic can be proud of. HF
Al-Sadd (QAT) / Qatar / Attacking Midfield
Ever since winning the Asian Player of the Year award at the tender age of 18, Khalfan Ibrahim has been a talismanic figure for club and country. The mere appearance of him on the sidelines could lift up the spirits of fans. Although a spate of injuries hampered his progress and possibly prevented a move abroad, Khalfan had an admirable knack of springing back into form on recovery. Well, it hasn’t been so lately.
The diminutive midfielder has had a roller coaster year in 2015 with Asian Cup disappointment being followed by a personal best of 6 goals in the AFC Champions League. And then in April, he injured his back – an event that turned his year upside down again. After playing through the injury, Khalfan underwent surgery in Munich. It’s been downhill since then.
The 27-year old has made very little impact in the new season, unable to weave his magic as before or strike up the much-anticipated partnership with Xavi. It seems he is on track to finish with competitive goals in single digits for the first time in recent memory (since 2010/11). Fans have voiced their discontent – once the unthinkable – and it culminated in rumours of him departing Al-Sadd. That player and club had to quash those rumours on social media only reinforces the point that something is wrong. He has gone on to lose his place in the national team to club teammate Ali Assadalla. If recent signs are anything to go by, the same could happen at Al-Sadd too. AH
Al-Hilal (KSA) / Saudi Arabia / Striker
In the 30-year history of giving away the AFC Player of the Year award, there have been only three back-to-back triumphs and none in this century. Yet still, this Al-Shamrani’s title defence could easily be the worst of those ever seen. Granted, it all started with the unlucky pre-Asian Cup injury, but what followed after was mainly the player’s fault and no one else’s.
In June, the Al Hilal star once again spat at a fan and got fined as well as banned for four league games; four games which have ultimately turned into eternity. Overall, the fourth-highest paid player in the country has garnered a poor 191 minutes of league action this season, while his sudden appearance in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final was about as laughable as it gets.
Consequently, an invitation for a competitive national team fixture hasn’t arrived to his doorstep since the 2014 Gulf Cup, and the monster form of Mohammad Al-Sahlawi is doing him no favours either. At 32, Nasser Al-Shamrani seems to be all but done and may even soon pursue a move out of Saudi Arabia – an official declaration of failure. TD
Southampton (ENG) / Japan / Centre Back
On the face of it, it might seem a little harsh to write off a regular international who necessarily hasn’t put a foot wrong during the last year. However, the undisputed talent of Maya Yoshida leads us to continually ask for more from Japan’s leading central defender. At 27, he’s coming through to his prime, but is seen too often as the 7 out of 10 man in the side, rather than anything particularly eye-catching.
His dependable nature has been apparent domestically, the only Japanese player to be playing in the World’s best league; the English Premier League. But again, he’s been utilised as steady cover, even sometimes reverted to full back, rather than ever a first team regular. Yoshida represents Japan’s greatest defensive talent for a generation, however we want him to do more with it. A move out of Southampton may be the starting point, maybe a little more responsibility with the national team to orchestrate attacks from defence? Many will disagree with our assessment, but we can see much more from him. ML
Al-Arabi (QAT) / Qatar / Attacking Midfield
You never know what to expect from Khoukhi Boualem. From starring in Qatar’s WAFF Cup triumph and then scoring the winner in the Gulf Cup final, 2014 was just too good to be true for the Algerian-born 25 year old. Contrast that with 2015, in which he has had little to celebrate.
There was a lot of hype as Qatar flew into Australia for the Asian Cup as one of the most in-form teams and in Boualem as one of the tournament’s potential stars. Unfortunately for them, everything crashed like a house of cards. The trump card of Boualem was thrown but the Al-Arabi star’s listless displays ended up disappointing all those who had pinned their hopes on him.
Things got worse when after Qatar’s group stage exit, Boualem failed to report for training at Al-Arabi. Following a tense period of rumors and negotiations, he returned to play but the damage had been done. His star had faded and since then, he’s never quite been like the unlikely hero of 2014.
Boualem’s worrying dip in form could be attributed to him being played all over the pitch – be it by Carreño, Belmadi or Zola. He has lost the club captaincy to Rod Fanni and has seen his goal scoring duties taken over by Paulinho. Oh, how the mighty fall. AH
Lekhwiya (QAT) / South Korea / Attacking Midfield
There have already been dozens of players who tended to shine at the club level only to be continually failing on the international scene, and Nam Tae-hee is arguably the most obvious current example among all Asians.
Having struck some tremendous chemistry with the fellow foreigners at title-winning Lekhwiya, Yussuf Msakni and Vladimir Weiss, the South Korean particularly enjoyed this year’s Champions League campaign, where he almost single-handedly saved the club from exiting the competition with shame right after the group stages. Beside that, his 12 assists as well as some enviable work rate and pressing ability probably should’ve earned him the award for the best player in the Qatar Stars League 2014/15.
However, with Nam being such a persistent underperformer in South Korean jersey, we really do feel he hasn’t done quite enough to deserve a place among the best Asians of the year. Nam’s international form is indeed nothing short of embarassment; with “is he even on the pitch?” comment being the more polite alternative to “where the hell is he dribbling, and what for anyway?”. The best example was offered by the Asian Cup final itself, where he was routinely wiped out of the pitch by Mark Milligan and got subbed off as the first Korean. Arguably too vertical, too inaccurate, too useless. TD
Crystal Palace (ENG) / Australia / Centre Midfield
That first half of the Asian Cup quarter-final against China was something that could’ve easily put Australia’s hopes of gold medals to bed. And a seemingly drunk Mile Jedinak was at the centre of it. He was wandering around the middle circle, turning easy balls over and lunging into risky challenges. Had Wu Lei capitalized on some of his agile rushes early on, the tournament hosts might’ve never recovered that night.
Jedinak indeed didn’t enjoy a good Cup overall, missing two games through injury and being more of a liability even in the otherwise successful final. What is only more alarming, though, is that he’s fallen down the club’s hierarchy recently. And rather dramatically so.
During the last term, the Socceroos’ skipper had earned much love from WhoScored (averaging an impressively high match rating of 7.55) and was an absolute monster when it came to making interceptions. Yet up until December, Jedinak was yet to start a league game for Crystal Palace this season, while his longest (28-minute) cameo against West Ham on October 17 was characterized by some clueless running around; reminiscent of that shocking performance in Brisbane. TD
Al-Qadsia (KUW) / Kuwait / Forward
Bader Al-Mutawa is a legendary Kuwaiti footballer, without a shadow of a doubt. But one must ask what has happened to the old Bader? Not the on-pitch form of Bader, who continues to produce glamorous showings for his nation and club, but the off-pitch form, which led to him being on the periphery for possibly the first time in his career. At the age of 30, Bader Al-Mutawa contemplated retirement from football in its entirety.
Considering issues with the board, Kuwaiti football itself and the new arrival of Doris Salomo this summer at Qadsia, it seemed inevitable that Al-Mutawa would finally leave the club permanently. Arabian football fans are tired of seeing him stay at Qadsia, when the chance to move abroad – whether that is to the Jordanian League or the Saudi League – is wide open. Just a couple of weeks ago, Qadsia officially announced that Bader Al-Mutawa rejected a big offer from Amman giants Al-Faisaly in Jordan.
Despite these problems, Bader Al-Mutawa has proven himself as a versatile and tactical weapon in the hands of Kuwait national team coach Nabil Maaloul and now Qadsia manager Dalibor Starcevic. His movement from the right wing to the front line and even back to central midfield to dictate play is unprecedented. No longer is he the false no. 10/9 who terrorizes defenders, he is instead the leader from a deeper position, whether it is by creating passing lanes or mazing his way through defenders.
While he is still a fine footballer, off-pitch issues have stood in his way for quite some time… HF
Al-Weydat (JOR) / Palestine / Attacking Midfield
One of the stories of 2014, but it’s been an anti-climactic year for Palestinian playmaker Ashraf Nu’man. He single-handedly won his country a place at January’s Asian Cup, but failed to live up to countless “Player to Watch” previews ahead of the tournament. Since then he’s battled with national team coach Abdel Barakat and spent months out of the squad due to lack of form and continual injury niggles. Put simply, it’s been a year to forget for Nu’man.
Domestically he’s done well in spells but ultimately disappointed with his big decision of the summer. After performing promisingly with Al-Faisly in Saudi Arabia, a high profile move was in the offing, but instead he opted to move to Al-Weydat in Jordan, a massive club in the nation however a real step down in league quality. Nu’man returned for the last round of WCQs for Palestine, but failed to re-establish himself as the side’s key creator that he once was. At 29, we hope that 2014 wasn’t his last emphatic showing. ML