Our long-awaited release of our top African and Asian performers in 2015, otherwise known as the #SFGTop100, is set to be revealed over the coming weeks. We begin our journey with those Asian players who have impressed us just enough to make the cut.
Our three residents writers, Martin Lowe, Tom Danicek and Sina Saemian, have all chipped in to kick the series off, along with co-founder of the excellent Ahdaaf, Hamoudi Fayad, who kindly helped us in properly covering the rich Middle East region.
91. Omid Ebrahimi
Esteghlal (IRN) / Iran / Central Midfield
The year 2015 was a relatively successful one for Omid Ebrahimi. The central midfielder has been in consistent form throughout the year for his team, Esteghlal. The Tehran based club had a disappointing 2014/15 season with their failure to qualify for the AFC Champions League and finishing mid table. However, Ebrahimi remained a star performer, specifically after January, as boasting some of the best statistics in the Persian Gulf Pro League.
Esteghlal underwent a huge overhaul in their squad during the summer ahead of the 2015/16 season but Ebrahimi remained a crucial part of their plans and continues to be considered as their best player by many experts and fans alike. The central midfielder has had a good start to the season this term, carrying on his form from the last campaign with five goals so far, with Esteghlal at the top of the table going into 2016, it’s been a good year for them as a whole.
Internationally it’s also been a significant year for Ebrahimi. Following the retirement of Iran stalwart Javad Nekounam in March, Carlos Queiroz quickly recognised Omid as his successor in the heart of midfield for the national team. He’s been a regular starter in Iran’s steady start to the 2018 World Cup qualification campaign. His performances haven’t been as eye-catching as his club form, though, and with the emergence of young talents such as Saeed Ezatollahi, it’ll be interesting to see whether he can hold down his berth in the starting line-up for Team Melli in 2016 or not.
Highlight of the Year: Great start to the ongoing season
Arguably his highlight of the year came in the second week of the 2015/16 season when Esteghlal hosted Malavan. Ebrahimi earned his team a significant three points after their 2-0 win, with him scoring both goals of the game. A towering header following a Khosro Heydari cross for the first goal, and a thundering free kick which almost took the net off for his second. It was a complete performance by the midfielder and he proved why he’s so valued by the club. He currently has five goals in 12 games in this season and he’ll be hoping to surpass his record of 9 goals from the previous campaign. SS
92. Koki Yonekura
Gamba Osaka (JPN) / Japan / Right Back
Having been denied top flight football for four straight seasons from 2010 to 2013, Koki Yonekura pleasantly surprised many Gamba fans by settling in the starting line-up of the ambitious first division newcomers. Remarkably, the Osaka side returned as domestic treble winners in 2014 and enjoyed a similarly productive following year, with the ever-pushing-forward fullbacks Fujiharu and Yonekura taking centre stage alongside the devastating Usami-Patric attacking tandem.
“Akira Kaji had some big boots to fill, in the eyes of the fans as well as on the stats sheets, and Yonekura is well on the way to showing he can do both,” Alan Gibson of the excellent J-Soccer Magazine concedes, alluding to four goals and seven assists delivered by Yonekura over the year.
Aside from that, Gibson refers to the 27-year-old as “arguably the best right back in the J.League right now”, which is pretty difficult to argue against as Yonekura has recently been elevated to the national team alongside some exclusively Europe-based full backs. “Funnily enough, Halilhodzic has been playing him at left back in the national team, which, I guess, makes him versatile too!” Gibson adds further.
To be entirely fair, Koki Yonekura didn’t finish the league season on a particularly high note, and some would even have a case in arguing for the inclusion of Kosuke Ota instead, but there still remains one game that has comfortably kept the Gamba mainstay in the mix…
Highlight of the Year: Breaking Jeonbuk fans’ hearts in September
It was a memorable night to say the least; the night I made a complete fool of myself on the SFG Twitter account – claiming it’s a mistake to bench Yonekura and automatically expecting he won’t take any part in that crucial second leg of the AFC Champions League quarter-final. Instead, it was precisely the unorthodox joker who latched onto a prompt backheel pass and a bit luckily slot the ball past the Jeonbuk keeper; to add an incredible third goal scored in the last 15 minutes, sink the South Koreans with barely any second left to play and prompt his own coach to bizarrely invade the pitch. TD
93. Salmin Khamis
Al-Ahli (UAE) / UAE / Centre Back
If there’s anyone whose name screams controversy in Asian Football, it has to be Salmin Khamis’. Whether it’s accepting a red card before fighting with your own coach to get back on the field, or scoring a header and taunting the biggest fan base in the UAE – Salmin is never found without controversy.
His magnificent beard is a sure distraction from what the man can do when he’s mad. He doesn’t care if you’re his national teammate, fierce rival or if you are his head coach. Cosmin Olaroiu found that out when he was pushed off by Salmin during the AFC Champions League Final against Guangzhou.
Yet, despite all of his flaws, Salmin has been a rock at the back for Al-Ahli. Criminally underrated by Mahdi Ali – who should’ve done a better job in picking Salmin over Ismail Ahmed in many people’s opinion – for the national team (it’s only a matter of time before he finally takes that spot over Ahmed). Despite the good performances, it’s believed that Ali is shying away from the golden pick of Salmin Khamis due to his erratic behaviour. Certainly, Salmin would not provide a good image for the UAE as such, when he failed to do the same against Guangzhou with his outburst in the midst of the continent’s final.
Highlight of the Year: Scoring against Al-Ain in the Champions League Round of 16
It happened against all the odds, and it also helped Al-Ahli to go through on away goals. Moments after the game ended he showed off his muscles to the Al-Ain fan base in a cheeky gesture, taunting them and making fun – something he would regret come November when Al-Ain thrashed Al-Ahli in the return ACL match. HF
94. Hwang Ui-Jo
Seongnam (KOR) / South Korea / Striker
How much of a difference can one year make? Throughout 2014, Hwang Ui-Jo has been subbed on more often than he’s started and wasn’t even breaking the starting eleven for domestic cup games. In 2015 however, under the guidance of Kim Hak-Bum who’s given the man a chance to move a lot more freely upfront, the blueprint was noticeably different.
Nowadays, the same forward embodies the league’s joint second highest goalscorer, very much a fixture in the South Korea national team squad, and also someone who’s got on the scoresheet in the Korean FA Cup as well as in the Asian Champions League, where he caused numerous headaches to eventual semi-finalists Gamba Osaka.
The Seongnam striker is undoubtedly one of the revelations of this year’s K-League and it’s only legitimate to wonder where exactly his limits lie going forward. Had he shown a cooler head on numerous occasions, being particularly wasteful in 1-on-1 situations, he most certainly would’ve reached the 20-goal mark already – in a season following the one where his league goals total read a paltry “four”.
In reality, Hwang Ui-Jo was still able to produce a respectable 15 tallies (some of which were utterly cute like this one) and was much more consistent, with an all-round impact across the whole season, nicely articulated by the league-leading eight Man of the Match honours and three assists on top. That said, the latter aspect of Hwang’s game still comfortably allows for some polishing, as regular observer Mark Kelly points out: “His biggest weakness is his inability to spot a teammate, he rarely passes the ball to someone in a better position and usually tries to go it alone which is hugely frustrating.”
That the 23-year-old has been so central to Seongnam’s recent success is no surprise, though. As Football Radar scout Miroslav Tramita observes, Hwang Ui-Jo is usually highly involved – working extremely hard upfront, making some clever runs behind the defensive line and, in case of need, even drifting to the left to create more space for himself. He may not generally be as tidy as his debut goal for the national team was, but he surely boasts some efficient dribbling and a great love for cuts inside.
Highlight of the Year: Orchestrating the late turnaround against Jeonbuk in May
Jeonbuk may not be the most convincing champions out there, but only once this season have they given up a lead to eventually lose the game. The culprit? Hwang Ui-Jo and no one else, with the last 10 minutes proving to be a sufficient interval for him to complete the rare turnaround. Having missed two headed sitters beforehand (how typical of him!), the Seongnam no. 16 incidentally leveled the score from the air and then once again capitalized on a corner, only that time he stayed on the ground to tap the ball in from rebound.
To make the occasion of causing a heartbreak to the eventual title winners only more special, it was also Hwang’s first career brace. And slightly ironically, the striker then proceeded to bag one more – for a change against the very worst team of the lot (Daejeon in August). In Hwang’s eyes, the opponent’s relative quality really doesn’t matter. Otherwise, he probably wouldn’t have been able to score against each of K-League’s top four clubs. TD
95. Haitam Faour
Al-Ahed (LEB) / Lebanon / Central Midfield
Oh the irony. Haitham Faour was an exemplar of everything a Lebanese player usually isn’t: committed, intelligent and most importantly, professional. The heartbeat of Lebanese Champions Al-Ahed and infallible for the Lebanese national team, it was only time before Faour made his move out of the Lebanese Premier League and into the depths of Iranian football. That pathway would’ve taken him along similar lines as national teammates Ali Hamam and Walid Ismail took at Zob Ahan, the reigning Hazfi Cup Champions. Despite a statement announcing his departure from the club at the end of the 2014-15 season, though, a move didn’t surface and his time at Al-Ahed wasn’t yet finished.
After a 9-month period filled with success, highs and experience, Faour’s world tumbled into the ground at full speed. Al-Ahed kicked their 2015-16 season off slowly, with a loss to underdogs Nabi Chit, a massive kick in the teeth during the opening week of the Alfa Lebanese Premier League. Despite some rise in form, Faour locked horns with the wrong person at the wrong time – Miodrag Radulović, head coach of the Lebanese national team.
A verbal fight occurred between Faour and Lebanese hotshot Hassan Maatouk during the potential decider against South Korea, stemming firm comments from Radulović stating that he would kick out anyone in the team who were acting like little children. Faour was subsequently ousted from the national team and had it not been for a poor end to the year, he would have found himself much higher on this list. His reliable performances from the pivot were invaluable to both club and country in 2015, it’s a shame his personality is not very captain-like.
Highlight of the Year: Forming a reliable backbone to the title-winning Al Ahed team
Linking up with Ugandan box-to-box midfielder Dennis Iguma in the Lebanese Premier League to form a near-perfect duo for Al-Ahed, ultimately leading to a 2-0 victory over Lebanese giants Nejmeh to be crowned as the Lebanese Premier League champions. HF
96. Manuchekhr Dzhalilov
Istiklol (TAJ) / Tajikistan / Attacking Midfield
So often has Asia acted as a second chance saloon, rebooting players’ careers into national celebrities that have the capabilities of performing on the international scene, recently seen with the success of Philppines striker Javier Patino. Once again in not exactly the most recognisable of places, Manuchekhr Dzhalilov is making his name back in his homeland of Tajikistan.
After years of mediocrity in Russia, Dzhalilov returned at the beginning of the year with dominant Tajikistani club Istiklol and immediately repaid the faith. Nineteen goals in 12 league matches followed in a breathless, dominant league campaign, while his form also translated continentally as Istiklol went onto more than exceed expectations in the AFC Cup, making it through to the final, a first for a Tajikistani club. Dzhalilov helped himself to four across the continental campaign, including a goal apiece in each leg against Kuwaiti super club Al-Qadsia.
To underline such an emphatic year, Dzhalilov was as prolific for his country as he was for his club, including six goals in World Cup qualification. While results have been up and down, Dzhalilov’s performances continue to make the headlines. With the format changes taking place within AFC qualification, there’s no doubt Dzhalilov’s name tops those few to watch in the next round of Asian Cup preliminaries. At 25, with an ever increasing team of winners around him, born out of Istiklol’s success, Dzhalilov and the team itself could be set to make waves in 2016.
Highlight of the Year: His mauling of Bangladesh in World Cup qualifiers
Dzhalilov’s year has been dominated by emphatic gluts of goals for Istiklol, but his greatest calling card came in November against Bangladesh. Scoring four of Tajikistan’s five goals which instantly set fingers googling as his name continued to pop up across social media. Each of his goals was a work of desire and instinct: forget finesse, Dzhalilov had determination to take on his man and shoot on sight. As this year has illustrated it’s hardly something he needs to change. ML
97. Tsukasa Shiotani
Sanfrecce Hirishima (JPN) / Japan / Centre Back
While we’ve excluded national team stalwart Maya Yoshida from our Top 100 thoughts, we couldn’t overlook the growing impact of his centre back colleague/rival Tsukasa Shiotani who continues to demand another Samurai Blue call up. The fleet footed, cool head of Shiotani has much of the attributes Yoshida has shown over the years, but crucially his ability to move forward with the ball and interact higher up the pitch is something we feel would be best utilised in forthcoming World Cup qualifying by Japan coach Vahid Halilhodžić.
“I want to play football at a high level, so I need to know how far I can go and how my skills stand up,” Tsukasa Shiotani speaking at December’s Club World Cup.
His international snub aside, Shiotani has had yet another productive year, scoring goals, gaining rave reviews and crucially securing Sanfrecce’s third title in four years. While the defender only played a minor role in their first triumph in 2012, he’s been integral ever since, especially given the Purple Arrows’ unorthodox yet effective back-line. Shiotani regularly lines up on the right of a back three, given licence to roam forward, even to switch positions with those higher up the pitch. While this sounds like an example of his flexibility, it might have hindered his progress in the national side, as Sanfrecce players continue to be overlooked, maybe due to their lack of familiarity with a typical 4231 formation adopted by the current order.
That being said, the other stumbling block is a certain Southampton player in Yoshida. In his fleeting appearances for Japan, Shiotani has played instead of Yoshida, rather than beside him, unfortunately for the Sanfrecce man it was also against a Neymar inspired Brazil side that put Japan to the sword. While Halilhodžić has tended to go with Morishige or the ever more perplexing Makino, he’s yet to truly dip his toe with Shiotani. As the year comes to a close, the centre back with a magic touch is starting to grow in popularity.
Highlight of the Year: Making his name at the Club World Cup
In a year where domestic brilliance has been a weekly routine for Shiotani, his end of the year heroics at the Club World Cup have underlined his ability. Scoring in back to back matches over continental champions Auckland City and Mazembe, his appeal is now being muttered across the globe. His first showed his unique style, drifting up the pitch via some neat interplay before firing across the keeper. His second a more old fashioned defender’s goal smashing in from close range after a corner. He can play either way going backwards as well as forwards, accomplished in the air, genius on the ground, he has plenty to offer. ML
98. Amer Shafi
Al-Wehdat (JOR) / Jordan / Goalkeeper
What a year it could’ve been for Amer Shafi. So close to being ousted out of our rankings due to off the pitch problems (a common trend you will see across the Arabian footballers over the course of this series), his sweeper keeper-like performances have been just enough to help him edge the cut. There have been a couple of moments in 2015 that could even be the best moments of his career in hindsight.
The protector of Wehdat’s den alongside the Jordanian national team, it has certainly been an up and down year for both of his teams. On a positive note, the win against Australia in the World Cup qualifiers was something to remember. The national team embarked on a run that was unstoppable since they dropped points against Kyrgyzstan in the summer, but after taking care of Bangladesh, Tajikistan and Australia with relative ease, Jordan faltered once again against their bogey team (Kyrgyzstan) in remarkable fashion and now sit behind Australia in the group rankings.
Things didn’t get any better for Shafi or Wehdat, as the latter now trail Al-Faisaly in the league race – mainly due to a 3-0 thrashing received by dead last, previously winless and manager less Baqa’a. This ultimately led to Shafi informing the board of his will to retire from club and international football (Kuwaiti legend Bader Al-Mutawa style). Shafi claims that after the board accepted his retirement, it’s as if “a mountain was taken off my chest”. If he goes through with his retirement, we will miss one of the best Arabian goalkeepers of his generation…
Highlight of the Year: Confident penalty against arch rivals Al-Faisaly
His highlight of the year would have to be scoring a penalty against Al-Faisaly to confirm a 3-0 defeat and root their fierce rivals to a relegation battle in the Jordanian Pro League. It was great testament to Shafi’s confidence on the ball, consistently on the show since his impressive 2004 Asian Cup introduction and throughout the whole of his fruitful career. HF
99. Ali Hamam
Zob Ahan (IRN) / Lebanon / Right Back
Ali Hamam’s move to Zob Ahan from Nejmeh was a heartbreaking one for the Lebanese giants’ fans. Although the Iranian League is a big step up for Lebanese players and is key to their rise in terms of footballing talent, Ali Hamam was invaluable to Nejmeh at right back and proved himself such to his new club over the coming months in the Persian Gulf Pro League and amongst the national team ranks.
One of the biggest games of his career came against the vibrant Fahad Al-Enezi in the Kuwaiti national team. A deadly winger on his day, Al-Enezi was man-handled in a direct 1-on-1 battle with Hamam. Twists, turns and tricks weren’t enough to outpace the Lebanese superstar. Hamam’s performance was testament to how much he deserved a move abroad after consistently impressing for the Nejmawi.
His form didn’t falter in the second half of 2015, with his appearances for Zob Ahan increasing and influence for the Lebanese national team a major factor in their promising results over the course of the World Cup qualifiers. He may be entering his twilight years, now aged 29, but he does have a few good years left in him, with greater expectation put on him to create a legacy for Lebanese players moving to neighbouring leagues.
Highlight of the Year: His wonder goal against Laos in November
A compelling strike in the 7-0 demolition of Laos that ended his magnificent year on a high. Joan Oumari, unfortunately, topped his goal in the same game rooting Hamam only to a third place in the Lebanese Goal of the Year competition, compiled by the Lebanese FA English twitter account. HF
100. Chencho Gyeltshen
Surin City (THA) / Bhutan / Winger
Back in March, while many across the region were still digesting an outgoing Asian Cup and continental cycle, World Cup qualification had returned. In a space of five days, one man’s name was on everybody’s lips as a new footballing nation started making its way into every Asian football followers’ heart.
The first World Cup qualifying outing of Bhutan was always going to go down in history, whatever the outcome, however from the outset against a pretty complacent and ill-backed Sri Lankan side, the Bhutanese nationals grasped their place in the limelight, none more so than a young prodigy in the form of wide man Chencho Gyeltshen.
The 19-year-old overnight become a regional star nicknamed the “Ronaldo of Bhutan” for his explosive style, influence on his side’s play and adoption of his idols trademark CR7 boots. His commitment to take on the full back, instantly won admirers, and back in Bhutan for the second leg in front of an impressive 15,000, a cool brace clinched his country their first ever home World Cup qualifying victory and qualification to the next stage.
At such a young age, Chencho’s star is undoubtedly due to rise in the coming years. While Bhutan have generally struggled in Round 3 of qualification, Chencho has shown in bursts what we can expect from him in the future. His talent has already been spotted, quickly being snapped up by Thai giants Buriram United before being loaned out to third tier club Surin City, where he’s again taken little time to impress. The future’s bright for Bhutan’s “CG7”.
Highlight of the Year: His inspirational performance against Sri Lanka
The wing wizard, who had already proved a thorn in the Sri Lankan defence’s side a week ago, went on to grab a brace and ensure progression on his team’s return home. Chencho put everything into his performance, scoring early with a neat chip over the keeper to put Bhutan in the lead, before scoring late on with one of the last kicks of the match to ensure victory. Eruptions of joy were evident across the stadium as Bhutan and their talisman created history, who for a few months became every neutral’s favourite player. ML