Our #SFGTop100 Asia series returns with its fourth batch, listing players ranked from 61st to 70th place. Our regular writers Tom Danicek, Martin Lowe, Hamoudi Fayad and Sina Saemian have all chipped in again, while South East Asian expert Teng Kiat makes his first guest appearance of the series profiling the sole Thai inclusion in our countdown.
61. Sanharib Malki
Kasimpasa (TUR) / Syria / Attacking Midfield
Given the ongoing Syrian crisis, one of the most rewarding stories of the last year has been the remarkable growth of their national team. In the midst of civil war, the side who for obvious reasons have played all their matches away from their home has taken World Cup qualifying by storm, amassing 20 goals in six matches and only tasting defeat once, against Asian big boys Japan. In the side, there’s a flurry of talent plying their trade across Asia, however it’s their biggest name who has impressed in Europe throughout his career who continues to knit things together.
Sanharib Malki – a creative, dynamic attacking midfielder come auxiliary forward – may be finding himself further down the ranks for his club side now, despite an illustrious domestic career especially with Roda JC in Holland, but his lack of minutes has proven to be Syria’s gain as the playmaker continues to put in an impressive number of performances. His willingness to bring the side forward, collecting possession back in his own box before spurring on attacks, makes him the key transition point often missed if you simply peruse the highlights. Syria have scored 5 or more on three occasions this year, Malki only recorded two in those matches, but provided countless assists or, at the very least, telling contributions.
His interplay with the side’s attacking spearheads, the clinical Omar Khribin, the diminutive Mahmoud Al-Mawas and the up-and-coming Osama Omari, makes Syria a tricky opposition to prepare for with attacking threats being shared across the pitch. Going into 2016, Syria are poised to clinch Asian Cup qualification, their first since 2011. Amongst the turmoil and blood shed back at home, football well and truly pales into insignificance, however the national team continues to remind the continent of their winning spirit which can’t be suppressed.
Highlight of the Year: Setting up the crucial winner against Singapore
While on the face of it Syria have breezed through qualification, there have been times where they have had to dig deeper than others. Their narrow victory over Singapore will no doubt be seen as a turning point in their progression through qualification. Neither side were at their attacking best, but Malki predictably was running Syria’s game. One piece of individual brilliance took him past the helpless full back before setting up Obay Abd Al-Jafal for the game decider. A critical moment in a critical campaign for Syrian football. ML
62. Yeom Ki-Hun
Suwon Bluewings (KOR) / South Korea / Winger
A resurrected Yeom Ki-Hun, once a Jeonbuk talisman in the successful 2006 Champions League bid, undoubtedly makes for one of the most pleasing stories K-League has recently written. Off to serve his military duty at Ansan Police in 2013 and rather underwhelmingly back in Suwon the following year, hardly anyone had foreseen such a formidable season from the 32-year-old veteran.
Yet here he is, the Champions League 2015 assist king with five assists across seven games, by far the K-League’s most reliable producer of key passes (24 ahead of Jeonbuk’s Leonardo), with his personal best in league assists (17) and a fine eight goals on top of that (with this free-kick stunner, his third set piece tally on the season, capping the total), representing a constant threat to opponents in an attacking free role.
From April to June in particular, Yeom was absolutely tearing the league apart in collaboration with another enlivened old sport Jong Tae-Se; something that’s best illustrated by their combined efforts in the memorable Supermatch (derby vs Seoul), where Yeom contributed to the 5:1 debacle with a goal and two assists.
Albeit the Suwon captain has indeed experienced a mild and logical slump since his North Korean comrade left the Bluewings for Japan halfway through the season, Suwon’s second-place finish is mostly Yeom’s work. His immaculate left-footed delivery – usually carrying the perfect blend of curve and power – never ceases to scare K-League defensive lines. His cross has found its target in a staggering 30.8 % of cases, which makes him the most frequent as well as accurate crosser in the league.
Highlight of the Year: Recalled to the national team in June
Even though he had earned his last national call up more than a year ago, Yeom Ki-Hun’s reinstatement was unanimously desired, since his start to the new season was simply too strong to be ignored. Coming into the June international break, Yeom would be directly involved in 13 goals (scoring seven of them himself) in as many rounds, and given three man-of-the-match awards in the process.
His eventual return to the national team was maybe a one-off sentimental thing, but it was a good one nonetheless. Yeom instantly bagged only his fourth international goal in a friendly against the UAE and then proceeded to start a competitive match for the first time since the 2013 East Asian Cup. TD
63. Dostonbek Khamdamov
Bunyodkor (UZB) / Uzbekistan / Attacking Midfield
Born in 1996, Dostonbek Khamdamov burst onto the scene in a way that could have hardly been any more pronounced. He had flashed his talent before, getting on the scoresheet in every other scarce league start in late 2014 (four goals in eight appearances), but only this season was meant to be his definite breakout one. And it indeed proved to be just that, with the both-footed midfielder even being allowed to take numerous set pieces as an early specialist in that area.
You could perhaps argue that the departure of Sardor Rashidov made it all too easy for Khamdamov to force his way into the Bunyodkor starting line-up. And yes, that’s true. But the lightning quick right winger also left behind some pretty big shoes to fill; the shoes Khamdamov actually never could have fully stepped into with his slower tempo, pondering character and superior passing ability.
Khamdamov therefore needed to make the position his own, to define it from scratch; and he succeeded to a rather great extent. While his playing style indeed differs dramatically from that of Rashidov, the right-hand side remains to be the channel of focus for Bunyodkor fans as well as ball distributors, because that is where the most reliable source of goals continues to operate.
If Rashidov was the club’s top league goalscorer in 2014 with ten and became only the third local to reach that round mark in Bunyodkor history, Khamdamov obediently followed the suit. Incredibly, before this season, a Bunyodkor player had only reached the 10-goal threshold ten times with an average age of almost 29 years. Khamdamov only turned 19 in July. That’s a whole decade of contrast.
However impressive his first full professional season was, though, the fresh Asian Young Footballer of the Year obviously isn’t short of weaknesses at this stage of his career. Khamdamov is not the best runner, his stamina has some serious limits, and my Uzbek consultant, a high-profile player agent, also pinpoints his poor judgement when it comes to lunging into tackles.
But for all these shortcomings only get Khamdamov closer to Juan Manuel Mata; one creative mind he may resemble on some occasions. On the other hand, due to his ruthless finishing and smart movement, Khamdamov may as well be compared to the young Robin van Persie, as knowledgeable Twitter user Nurafshon suggests.
Highlight of the Year: Red hot form throughout the summer
‘Summer’ is a pretty loose term, I am aware of that, and that very fact actually flatters Dostonbek Khamdamov, because for a 19-year-old, he was able to remain on a high level for a remarkably long stretch of about two months.
It all began at the U-20 World Cup where he – as the team’s second youngest regular – opened Uzbekistan’s tournament goal account and later pushed his country onto the historic back-to-back quarter-final with two tallies against Austria. Only God knows, then, how Uzbekistan would have fared versus Senegal hadn’t Khamdamov collected too many yellow cards.
Visibly boosted by his World Cup exploits, Khamdamov then proceeded to be a devastating force on the club scene. At one point, he scored in five consecutive competitive games, collecting an impressive four winners in the process, and he was arguably the one player mainly responsible for Bunyodkor’s progression past Sogdiana (three goals over two legs) and rivals Pakhtakor (the key opening strike in the first leg away from home) all the way to the domestic cup final. TD
64. Alireza Beiranvand
Naft Tehran (IRN) / Iran / Goalkeeper
The past 12 months has seen the rise of several young Iranian players. We already pointed out Morteza Pouraliganji as a future star, but now it’s time for his former club-teammate, Alireza Beiranvand. Iran has a reputation in producing some of the best keepers Asia has seen, from Naser Hejazi and Ahmadreza Abedzadeh, to more recent stars such as Mehdi Rahmati. So it’s no surprise to see yet another top goalkeeping prospect making a name for himself.
Beiranvand has amassed quite a fan base amongst Iranian football fans, as his eye-catching performances for his club, Naft Tehran, has seen him become one of the most sought after talents in the Iranian domestic league. At 1.95m, he is a tall commanding goalkeeper who has gained the confidence and praise of many of his teammates. Good positioning and even better decision-making made him a key figure at Naft as they finished in the top 3 for back to back seasons, and became the surprise package in last year’s Champions League by making the quarter-finals. Their incredible journey on the continental scene saw Beiranvand increase his ever-growing reputation, with the rest of Asia witnessing his trademark monstrous throws which tend to be as dangerous as any attacking move.
These performances predictably brought around some interest from Europe, specifically from neighbouring Turkey, but Beiranvand has continued his football at Naft for now. The 2015/16 campaign, however, has been up and down for him, some disagreements with the club saw him being put aside from the squad for a few games, but both parties solved their differences and Beiranvand has recently been back in the starting 11 for his club.
On the international stage he has affirmed his place as Iran’s number 2 behind Rubin Kazan’s Alireza Haghighi. However, with Haghighi’s recent performances raising some question marks over his right to be Iran’s starter, Beiranvand could very well be in contention to be a regular much earlier than expected. Carlos Queiroz has praised his talent and at only 23 years of age, it’s hard to argue he is one of the best young goalkeepers around in Asia.
Highlight of the Year: Great comeback against a strong Persepolis
Following a few disputes with the club hierarchy, Beiranvand was left out of the squad for several weeks but after the problems were resolved, he was back in the starting 11 in an important game against Tehran giants, Persepolis. Naft had made a poor start to the season and were occupying a spot in the bottom half of the table. Beiranvand showed his qualities with a top class performance, making a string of saves including a fabulous penalty save from the league’s top goalscorer, Mehdi Taremi. His stellar performance in this game earned his side a 1-1 draw in a game which they probably deserved to lose. Since his return to the team, Naft Tehran have made a steady improvement on the pitch and have risen further up the table. SS
65. Yoshito Ōkubo
Kawasaki Frontale (JPN) / Japan / Striker
For a long time, Yoshito Ōkubo had been considered a black sheep of sorts, grazing Japanese and European lands with little to be truly proud of. While he did reach the 10-goal mark in four of his five first top flight seasons, he’s also managed to experience three relegations – first two with Cerezo in 2001 and 2006, the last one with Vissel Kobe (2012) where he had suffered rather mightily for four long years.
Then came the dramatic upturn in his fortunes. After a disappointing season marked by his worst goals per game ratio since 2001, the short but combative and brash striker was snapped by Kawasaki Frontale in 2013, and just like that, he’s been promoted to a proper monster. Now, three seasons later, we talk about Yoshito Ōkubo as if he has somehow acquired a brand new identity.
Last year, he became the first player in J-League history to clinch the top scorer’s crown twice in a row (if we don’t count shared titles, or in other words, the particularly weak 2010), in order to come on top once again this year – as the oldest J1 leader in goals scored after Ramón Díaz and his 28 tallies in the inaugural 1993 season. Moreover, this was just his second season since returning from Europe (2009) Ōkubo has completed a hattrick in.
At 33, Ōkubo simply doesn’t appear to be slowing down in any tangible way. He’s still ever lively and sometimes even overly keen; the overwhelming impression he may have left at the 2014 World Cup as Zaccheroni’s sudden favorite. One glaring difference is that, while he continues shooting very often (only Usami could match his nine attempts in one 2015 game), Ōkubo actually capitalizes on a fine percentage of opportunities over in Japan.
Highlight of the Year: Ōkubo edges closer to J-League goalscoring history
In a perfect world, the highlight of the year would read “Ōkubo overtakes Masashi Nakayama and becomes the J-League 1 record goalscorer”. Sadly, a poor performance against Yokohama on October 15, made only worse by his first red card of the season and consequent suspension, proved to be a little too big obstacle for the 33-year-old veteran.
But anyway, to draw this close to the said landmark is well worth recognising nevertheless. After all, with Nakayama (not a pro anymore) and Ōkubo’s peer Hisato Satō (also on 156 goals) markedly slowing down, it seems to be just a question of time when Ōkubo catches up and fittingly concludes his remarkably late transformation from the ‘meh’ striker for Vissel Kobe to the Kawasaki Frontale assassin. TD
66. Saad Suhail
Al-Oruba (OMA) / Oman / Right Back
It says quite a lot about your ability and overall influence if your late withdrawal is very much at fault of national team’s poor tournament showing. It may not have been the sole reason in case of the disappointing Asian Cup, but it was certainly a crucial factor – in injured Saad Suhail, Oman lost an explosive right back whose absence had to be covered up by a wholesome change of formation.
It would hardly be an overstatement to call Saad Suhail irreplaceable for Paul Le Guen. After all, the experienced fullback has been ever present in all qualifiers since February 2013, and there’s a couple of good reasons for that. When properly at it, Suhail easily makes for the most imposing right back in the region; capable of creating chances from deep, on a overlap, or as the designated set piece taker.
Arguably the most positive aspect of Suhail’s 2015, though, is his club form. Falling guilty of ill-discipline and haughty approach during his previous stints at Dhofar and Fanja, the 28-year-old has finally been able to show some signs of maturity and actually spent most of the year pleasing the demanding fans of Al Oruba, the reigning Omani champions.
That said, Suhail was threatened to be forced to sit out the November international break (something that proved to be a stretch), because he was – yet again – banned by his club for skipping training sessions on a more or less regular basis.
Highlight of the Year: Putting Oman in front against the strong Iran
Up until then, Saad Suhail had been nothing but a fine provider for Oman. His inviting crosses from extreme deep can make for a surprising way how to beat opponent’s defence and his appetite for surging runs forward was particularly on show against Guam and Turkmenistan earlier in the qualifiers.
On October 8, though, something different happened; the former Arsenal trialist bagged his first international goal. Arriving late to the far post, Suhail tapped in a good cross from the left and made the fancied Iran sweat heavily for the eventual equalizer. The outcome could’ve been better, sure, but still – what a way to score your first for your country, what timing! TD
67. Kwon Chang-Hoon
Suwon Bluewings (KOR) / South Korea / Central Midfield
There was a good number of breakout stars in this year’s K-League. Son Jun-Ho was impressing for the quietly overperforming Pohang, Hwang Ui-Jo has stepped up for Seongnam and even acquired a big-ish role within the national team, and then there’s Lee Jae-Sung from Jeonbuk… but Kwon Chang-Hoon’s rise to prominence still makes for arguably the most noticeable and pleasant surprise of all.
Don’t get me wrong, the Seoul native had long been on everyone’s radar as South Korea’s influential starter at the 2013 U-20 World Cup. He was also getting some calls into the starting line-up by Suwon’s manager Seo Jung-Won later in 2014. Yet still, the way Kwon has established himself this year – which, by the way, includes him being a part time penalty taker for the ambitious club – caught many off guard.
If there was one Suwon Bluewings player who clearly benefitted from Jong Tae-Se’s sudden departure halfway through the season, it was Kwon Chang-Hoon. Since the forward’s farewell on July 12, Kwon has been subbed off only three times (as opposed to six before the key event in club’s year) and bagged as many as seven goals in the process, from his position of a box-to-box central midfielder. Moreover, only once out of six occasions, his strike didn’t back a vital win for the title-chasing Bluewings.
In the end, Kwon Chang-Hoon became the first homegrown Suwon player to collect 10 league goals over the course of a season since Seo Jung-Won and his well-worn efforts from 2001. Furthermore, he was shortlisted for the K-League Young Player award and his three nominations for the Most Valuable Player of a league round has been matched only by two phenomenal Brazilians, Adriano and Lopes.
All things considered, there’s a good possibility we won’t see such a quality season from a 20/21-year-old for quite some time. After all, if we can properly read into it, only the likes of Lee Chung-Young (2008), Ki Sung-Yueng (2009), Yoon Bit-Garam and Koo Ja-Cheol (both 2010) have recently been nominated into the K-League Best Eleven while falling roughly into the same age category Kwon now represents. And that’s not bad company to find yourself in. The reported interest from Germany, then, means nothing but a fitting end to Kwon’s memorable year.
Highlight of the Year: His accelerated ascension in the national team hierarchy
As the youngest member of the squad, the fresh 21-year-old first caught everyone’s eye at the East Asian Cup. With an unorthodox body posture and dynamic character, Kwon was driving the game from deep with the sort of urgency and fearlessness South Korean fans hadn’t been used to. It was a refreshing view for all of them and Uli Stielike appeared to be on the same page.
In September, therefore, the German coach bet on a midfield triangle hardly anyone saw coming. In a shape strongly resembling the one Suwon usually roll, Jung Woo-Young, Ki Sung-Yueng and Kwon Chang-Hoon created an incredibly effective partnership that, above all, earned South Korea six points from the two toughest away trips in the qualifying group (to Lebanon and Kuwait).
With the latter playing further forward than for his club, South Korea finally had a smart dribbler at the forefront of their midfield unit, and unlike the East Asian Cup reality, Kwon wasn’t even a wasteful shooter. The youngster has scored in two of the three qualifiers he started (including a brace on his debut) and he surely would’ve got a chance to improve his balance had he not been needed by the Olympic squad in November. TD
68. Eid Mohammed Al-Farsi
Al-Raed (KSA) / Oman / Central Midfield
Contrary to what Wikipedia says, Eid Al-Farsi is 25 and is yet to hit his prime. He was the main factor in helping Al-Orouba win the Omantel Professional League in the first half of the year, and in return he won the award of best Omantel Professional League player in 2014-15. Al-Farsi, though, had already made his move to new club Al-Raed which shows how much he was in demand by the lower Saudi clubs.
A central midfielder for the Oman national team and his clubs too, Eid Al-Farsi is not shy to use his lanky body to shield the ball away from players in the final third or even provide safe option for passing. Moreover, when he sees a gap vacated by a forward he calculates his next move which can end up with him scoring.
Despite that, his finishing isn’t the best for a central midfielder who pushes forward, with his body positioning very awkward at times. Al-Farsi is also able to operate in central attacking midfield, giving him the ability to make shorter but defense-breaking passes. He did so against India in the first match of the World Cup qualifiers, although the quality of finishing from his teammates in that match was atrocious. His run on the ball later in the game saw him win a penalty for Oman and a valuable three points, which in hindsight, look very important for them.
He’s grown into a tactical weapon and a fan favourite for Oman but may be ousted out of Al-Raed due to their lack of stability at the club. Looking at it from an expert view, he will probably return to the Omantel Professional League by summer 2016.
Highlight of the Year: Well-deserved big money move to Saudi Arabia
Eid Al-Farsi made the move to a bigger league, to relegation threatened Saudi Arabia club Al-Raed in the summer. The fee of the move was said to be around 800,000 SAR ($215,000) which is rather big, considering Omani football isn’t at the highs it was under Fawzi Bashir and Imad Al-Hosani in his prime. However, Al-Hosani himself made the move to the Saudi in 2010 for $700,000 – a significantly larger number than Al-Farsi’s. HF
69. Chanathip Songkrasin
BEO Tero Sasana (THA) / Thailand / Attacking Midfield
How good is he going to be? That is what many wonder about Chanathip Songkrasin, who is arguably the hottest talent in the Asean region. The attacking midfielder’s rise to prominence began the year before as he starred in Thailand’s AFF Suzuki Cup-winning campaign, where he left onlookers breathless and in awe with his skill.
No wonder the 22-year-old has been compared to Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi, both for his wizardry and stature. Nicknamed “Messi Jay”, Chanathip is a pleasure to watch when in full flight – twisting, turning like a slippery eel as he wriggles out of tight spots, while masterfully retaining control of the ball. The BEC Tero Sansana star can pick a pass too and the Thai Premier League side suffered in his absence when he was ruled out for a period due to injury this season.
Chanathip has now firmly established himself as Thailand’s leading light despite his age as he makes the transition from youth star to fully-fledged international this year. He is leading a War Elephants team who look heads and shoulders above their Southeast Asian peers, and are one point away from making it to the third round of World Cup qualifying and the Asian Cup proper.
With that sort of genius in his feet, it would not be a surprise to see Chanathip head abroad soon, with J-League clubs reportedly monitoring him.
Highlight of the Year: His buttressing of the SEA Games 2015 triumph
Having made waves in Thailand’s AFF Suzuki Cup triumph the year before, much of the spotlight was naturally cast on Chanathip during their Under-23s’ SEA Games campaign. He had been part of the victorious 2013 SEA Games squad, but Chanathip was a bit-part player then. This time though, the Thai star did not wilt under pressure as he took centre stage and helped power his team to a second consecutive gold medal.
The midfield wizard delighted spectators with a bewildering array of tricks and flicks and although he probably should have scored more than his one goal – which came in the semi-final – there was no doubt he ran the show for Thailand. The Thais were a class apart from everyone else but Chanathip was in his own galaxy even amongst them, as he confirmed his status as the brightest young star in Southeast Asia. TK
70. Mohanad Salem
Al-Ain (UAE) / UAE / Centre Back
The clear defender of the tournament, who besides the mercurial talent of Omar Abdulrahman was the find of the Asian Cup for many outside viewers. However, Salem’s rise can hardly be seen as an overnight rocket, more of a building consistency in a side that under Mahdi Ali remains a side growing towards Asian heavyweight’s status and who knows maybe a World Cup place in the coming cycle.
In Australia, Salem looked an imperious figure, arguably the only calm head amongst a fidgety looking backline. His sheer stature intimidated, but his distribution was far from lazy, opting for the simple and effective into a cultured centre midfield rather than the long and hopeless which tends to attribute itself to physical centre backs. UAE were, by a clear margin, the popular choice at the Asian Cup, beating Qatar in the group stage before knocking out favourites Japan in the quarters, where Salem notably had his best performance of the tournament.
Domestically he remained a star attraction, but with the attention came often lapses in concentration which his critics leapt upon since his successful Asian Cup. However, his record can continually be pointed to as a reminder to what a breakthrough year he’s had, adding an Arabian Gulf League title to the mix for his club Al-Ain and back with the national team, inching his side closer to Round 3 of qualification, where Salem remains an ever present.
Highlight of the Year: Heroics in the Asian Cup quarter-final
Probably the highlight of the year for Emirati football as a whole, their rearguard action to deny Japan a place in the semi-finals of the Asian Cup prompted many to sit up and finally take notice of the nation’s footballing growth. Salem’s influence in a back four, who generally you wouldn’t be comfortable in relying upon was integral as they frustrated the likes of Kagawa and Honda into odd pot-shots more than incisive effective probing. ML
Have you missed previous segments? Don’t worry, you can easily continue here…
#SFGTop100 – 91-100; featuring a ‘Bhutanese Ronaldo’, the prominent Tajik goalscorer, two Lebanese mainstays, or a couple of Japanese defenders.
#SFGTop100 – 81-90; featuring the first truly high-profile name, the sole Kuwaiti and Indian representatives, or a keen Khalfan Ibrahim understudy.
#SFGTop100 – 71-80; featuring two of the very best centre backs at the Asian Cup, the first Saudi representative, or a trio of outstanding goalkeepers.