The time flies and our #SFGTop100 Asia series are slowly but surely nearing its finale. Today, we reveal the batch featuring players ranked 31-40, with the regulars Martin Lowe, Hamoudi Fayad, Sina Saemian and Tom Danicek once again chipping in, alongside with our Asean specialist Teng Kiat and Iraqi football expert Hassanin Mubarak, exclusively profiling the ever controversial figure of Asian football that is Younis Mahmoud.
31. Ismail Al-Hammadi
Al-Ahli (UAE) / UAE / Winger
His presence in the Al-Ahli side has stretched over eight years, starting his career off alongside Ahmed Khalil in the Al-Ahli front line. Al-Hammadi was never a consistent goalscorer but was always known for his invaluable goals such as the Gulf Cup winner in 2007 (or 2013?). Therefore, he has become a highly rated player in the Middle East and Asia as he enters his prime years at the age of 27.
He’s always been a team player, using his nimble running and off the ball intelligence to either aid his team’s attack or compensate for any fall in performances such as the one seen with Al-Ahli during the 2014-15 season. It’s a big shame for Al-Hammadi, though, as his performances are always in the shadow of someone else’s.
When he first came out as a youth product at Al-Ahli, a Cristiano Ronaldo-like Ahmed Khalil appeared with guns blazing. At the Olympics and World Cup qualifiers none other than Omar Abdulrahman overshadowed him. When it seemed like the hype died down for Amoory, Ali Mabkhout shot up the rankings to pry the hotshot title away from Al-Hammadi.
Despite the lack of recognition, he is very much appreciated in the UAE and across the region. Better players might have overshadowed his presence on the right wing, but Al-Hammadi certainly isn’t underrated.
Highlight of the Year: Double against undefeated Al-Ahli Jeddah in February
One of his more memorable games during the past Champions League season, where his club remarkably found its way to the final, was against Al-Ahli Jeddah in the group stages, when Al-Hammadi’s brace overturned a two-goal deficit to entertain the viewers with a 3-3 draw. Although he did score three league goals in the 2014-15 season – a poor return – his output only a few months into the 2015-16 season has seen him score five league goals already. HF
32. Cha Du-ri
FC Seoul (KOR) / South Korea / Right Back
Please don’t tell Alphaville, but Cha Du-ri has most definitely found the recipe for staying forever young. Otherwise he simply coldn’t have done what he has done throughout 2015 – looking like the fittest South Korean in the extra time of the Asian Cup final and once again making a legitimate case for being the best right back in the K-League.
It speaks volumes about your longevity when you become the only member of the 2011 Asian Cup All-Star Team to reclaim his spot four years later. As a soon-to-be 35 year old. And it was indeed a well-deserved nomination; the former Bundesliga regular was bombing forward with great appetite, assisting on the crucial goal in the quarter-final, and proving to be virtually unbeatable in one-on-one situations.
Cha Du-ri would usually own his line in both directions, showcasing his tremendous strength and knack for a last-ditch tackle or block, which both symbolised his following doings in the league, too. The retiring veteran may have spent some time on the sidelines, and may have even been taking pills for continuous pain in his foot, but he still managed to finally grab his first (!) pair of K-League goals and once again, ever so often, flourish in the convenient wing-back role in a 3-5-2 formation.
Highlight of the Year: Clinching his first trophy in South Korea at the very end of the road
It was a story for a proper football romantic; something Steven Gerrard would arguably kill for not so long ago. With the last kick to the ball, Cha Du-ri secured his very first domestic trophy having settled down in Seoul after long travels across Germany and a fine stint at Celtic, as his club prevailed in the FA Cup final against Incheon in a 3:1 win.
It was sweet redemption for the seemingly ever disappointed Cha, who’s lost three major finals in as many years since turning to the continent where he had never played professionally before. After failing to win Asian Champions League (2013), Korean FA Cup (2014) and finally this year’s Asian Cup, the finishing line didn’t taste too sour for the veteran after all. TD
33. Mehdi Taremi
Persepolis (IRN) / Iran / Striker
To put it simply, not many had a better year than this man. Twelve to 18 months ago, anyone had barely heard the name Mehdi Taremi, but fast forward to the present, and he’s become one of the biggest names in Iranian football. The 23-year-old striker comes from a humble background in the southern port of Bushehr, and it was there where he made a name for himself. He was picked up for Tehran giants Persepolis by the Iranian goalscoring legend, Ali Daei, while he was playing for Iran Javan of Bushehr in the second tier of Iranian football.
At first, he looked off the pace and he was rarely given a chance, but as the year turned, he slowly gathered momentum and started firing with new manager Branko Ivanković. Unlike their league campaign, their 2015 form in the AFC Champions League was much better, and with Taremi scoring up front, Persepolis qualified from their group which included the Saudi Arabian champions, the Qatari champions and the then Uzbek champions. His heroics earned him the “Striker of the Year” award at the end of the season.
Some may have been forgiven for thinking he was a one season wonder, but he made sure those assumptions were incorrect from the start of the current season. He is the top goalscorer in the Persian Gulf Pro League, as he looks absolutely unstoppable again. With Persepolis looking much better in recent weeks, Taremi has really been a revelation with his performances.
It’s not just his goalscoring record which is impressive, though, his movement off the ball and his intelligence to create space for his teammates are what makes him truly standout. Ivanković, the Persepolis manager, has certainly built his team around Taremi and, with the likes of Omid Alishah and Mohsen Mosalman playing behind him, it’s difficult to see his form dipping anytime soon.
His eye-catching performances understandably brought around some foreign interest. Kuwait SC as well as a few Dutch clubs were looking to recruit him last summer, but he’s maintained his loyalty to the Red side of Tehran; at least for now. Many experts hope he can follow the footsteps of fellow Iranians, Sardar Azmoun and Alireza Jahanbakhsh, to Europe and prove himself at a much higher level sooner rather than later.
Of course, being the main man for one of the most popular clubs in Asia makes it tough for him to be overlooked on the international stage. Subsequently, Iran manager Carlos Queiroz invited him to the Team Melli setup and handed Taremi his international debut as a second half substitute in June against Uzbekistan. He went on to score his first two international goals in a 6-0 win over Turkmenistan in Tehran as he currently holds a record of 5 goals in 7 international appearances.
Taremi’s stocks will only increase in 2016. He remains a very humble character but it’ll be interesting to see what decisions he makes for his future. Will he take a chance and move to Europe? I guess we will have to wait and see.
Highlight of the season: An audacious panenka against Al-Nassr in the Champions League
Iranian and Saudi Arabian clubs have had a long-standing rivalry. And of course this year was no different. Persepolis had travelled to Al-Nassr in the group stages but were hammered 3-0, so the return leg was a chance for revenge. As Azadi Stadium was packed with 100,000 ferocious Persepolis fans, there could only be one outcome between the two sides. The game was heading for a 0-0 draw until the hour mark when Mehdi Taremi was fouled in the box for a penalty. With the eyes of millions of supporters on him, the young striker showed nerves of steel when he stepped up and scored a beautiful panenka as the stadium erupted. The game ended 1-0 to Persepolis and after the match Taremi himself said he was inspired by the great Ali Karimi, who scored a panenka for Persepolis against another Saudi Arabian side, Al-Hilal. SS
34. Wu Lei
Shanghai SIPG (CHN) / China / Attacking Midfield
Quite predictably, the end-of-the-season Chinese Super League (CSL) Gala was dominated by Guangzhou Evergrande players. As many as seven of them found their way into the Team of the Year, while only two runners-up recruiting from Shanghai SIPG were allowed to accompany them. You would be forgiven, if not outright expected, though, to look outside Canton for the biggest domestic star – namely to the largest Chinese city, where the poster boy of today’s national team, Wu Lei, plies his trade.
Tremendously agile and usually uber-confident, blessed with almost inhuman acceleration and top speed, the Shanghai SIPG loyal arguably comes closest to the personification of counter-attacking mentality of the former China manager Alain Perrin. That was best captured by Wu Lei’s first-half performance in the Asian Cup quarter-final as well as some East Asian Cup patches, when his readiness to press the ball may have come in handy had it not been for the player’s hesitancy in the final third.
Rather unfamiliar hesitancy, to be clear, because if there’s one aspect of Wu Lei’s game no one can otherwise have objections against, it’s his end product. This year, he’s finished as the most prolific CSL homegrown player for the third time running, collected four vital deciders in the second half of the season, and averaged almost one goal/assist per game. On two occasions, he would create three goals during one match (although he would do so twice by winning a penalty, his favorite discipline).
There had already been a loud talk about Wu Lei’s move abroad right after his impressive debut season in the top flight, consisting of an unbelievable three hattricks (with Copenhagen being thrown around most frequently as Wu’s suitor). And there ought to be a re-run of the same debate soon enough. At 24, the right winger – formerly known as ‘Chinese Maradona’, having debuted among pros a whole decade ago – seems to be more than ready to test his talents in slightly deeper waters.
Highlight of the Year: The unexpected birth of an assist machine
To finish a season with the same total of assists as Darío Conca, that says something rather flattering about your playmaking abilities. And if you also happen to be a player often accused of being overly selfish, it’s besides a great testament to your willingness to work on eradicating your weaknesses. Wu Lei has done just that over the past few months, as he started the season with two goals and no assist in the first 11 rounds – to eventually blow numerous spectators off their seats.
He took off in style, setting up three strikes in the late May goal bonanza with Shandong Luneng (3:4), and proceeded to register an incredible 10 more helpers in the space of two following months. Granted, Transfermarkt’s rules for awarding assists are pretty loose, but this is still the kind of impact Wu Lei had never produced before. And God knows how it would look like if Asamoah Gyan managed to stay healthy the whole time, since it was Wu Lei who’s made three of his four goals possible in the first place. TD
35. Younis Mahmoud
Al-Talaba (IRQ) / Iraq / Striker
At the turn of 2015, Younis Mahmoud was travelling to the national team’s training camp in Dubai believing his international career was all but over after new Iraqi coach Radhi Shanaishel looked to the younger generation to make their mark at the Asian Cup in Australia. However, the enigmatic Shanaishel sat the veteran down and told him that he was needed to nurture the novices in the side. Younis slotted into his usual role as Iraq’s captain, leader and main goal threat and was key to the side’s charge to the semi-finals where they came undone by South Korea, with his stooping header against Iran being the highlight in the 3:3 quarterfinal thriller in Canberra.
Throughout the year, Younis has continuously proved his detractors wrong with his age defying displays and has the added objective, or a “far-fetched dream” as retired former team-mate Nashat Akram disparagingly put it recently, of reaching the 2018 World Cup in Russia and to break Hussein Saeed’s all-time goalscoring record for the national team – the two obvious reasons why the 36-year-old striker is yet to hang up his boots.
Criticism and the Iraqi captain come hand in hand, and even though he has been under immense pressure from the local media and a large section of fans to hand over the mantle as the team’s main forward to a younger player, Younis has continued to do the business in front of the goal, hitting the net in each of Iraq’s last four World Cup qualifying matches, including a 97-minute penalty which salvaged an important point in Hanoi against Vietnam.
Unattached to any club for the past two seasons, Younis returned last year to the Iraqi league and his beloved Al-Talaba, where he started his top flight career and now agreed to wear their kit for free, engineering a PR coup after he was placed in the middle of a conspiracy by his teammate Yaser Kasim in September last year, when the Swindon Town midfielder decided he would not dress up against Thailand. The pass-master later stated in a letter addressed to fans that the national team was being controlled “by a few individuals” serving themselves, who had “built a system in which intimidation and fear” was used to control the team; clearly insinuating Mahmoud was at the centre of the whole affair.
The striker has certainly had an eventful year and managed to break a number of national team records throughout 2015. He’s become Iraq’s oldest goalscorer at 36 years of age, the national team’s top scorer in a calendar year for the record 10th time, and finally overtaken Raad Hammoudi as Iraq’s all-time appearance maker as the team captain.
While Younis’ legs cannot go on forever, even though he believes they will, Iraq still need him very much. In February, he celebrates his 37th birthday and the following month, the national team play their make-or-break World Cup qualifying ties against Thailand and Vietnam, needing two victories from Tehran to top the Group F.
Highlight of the Year: The unforgettable panenka from Canberra, Asian Cup quarter-finals
There was one single moment in 2015 which symbolized the 2007 Asian Cup winning captain; it was in Canberra, in a nervy penalty-shoot. Younis Mahmoud stepped up to take Iraq’s final kick, having missed in a friendly game with Iran in Wollongong only a couple weeks before, with his failed panenka going viral on the world’s social media. A miss this time would have eliminated his side.
However, the captain walked calmly to the spot, gave a smile when he got a glance of the referee, took the ball from his hands and placed it on the spot. The Iraqi coach was looking more nervous, chewing gum on the sidelines, brushing sweat off his brow as he looked on as his captain would take the kick. Younis turned his back to the goal, and then stood with his hands on his hips, waiting for the referee’s whistle. The whistle was blown and the Younis stepped up, the fans held their breath and the coolest man in the stadium chipped the ball – Panenka style – leaving the Iranian keeper on his backside, diving to his left, as he watched the ball in the air and drop into the opposition side.
The beIN Sports commentator Essam Al-Shuwali screamed: “That is the strength of Al-Safah Younis Mahmoud, who doesn’t have a team, and doesn’t play for a club, who trains by himself and gives all to Iraq.” That penalty seemed to relieve all the pressure off the young Iraqi players and in a post-match interview the Iraqi captain told Al-Kass that he had executed the panenka to have a psychological impact on his team-mates. “There was a little pressure on the players, they missed a penalty and we missed a penalty, so I think there was a lot of pressure on the players. I wanted to make them feel that taking a penalty was normal, very normal,” explained the veteran. HM
36. Izwan Mahbud
Lions XII (SIN) / Singapore / Goalkeeper
Most football supporters in Singapore knew about Izwan Mahbud’s ability. But 2015 would be the year when the world took notice of the goalkeeper.
He made his senior international debut at 21 and on just his second cap, was thrown into the cauldron in a World Cup qualifier against bitter rivals Malaysia in the same month. Despite letting in three goals in a 5-3 victory, Izwan served notice of his potential with a display that belied his tender age. He started the return leg as well and Singapore drew 1-1 to go through on aggregate – it was to mark an upward trajectory in his career.
Now 25, Izwan has firmly established himself as number one for both country and his club LionsXII, for whom he is the record appearance-maker. He captained them in the recently-concluded season and saved his team numerous points – as he did throughout his four years with him in the Malaysia Super League.
Of course, the headline moment of arguably his whole career came earlier this June – again, in a World Cup qualifier. Against Japan, four-time Asian kingpins, the Singapore custodian played the game of his life by making a staggering 18 saves to keep out the hosts in a full-house stadium.
Naturally, worldwide recognition instantly followed and now hopes are high that Izwan can take his career even further by playing in a top overseas league in the bigger Asian leagues.
Highlight of the Year: Bravely defying Japan on June 16
There is a meme floating around that has an image of Izwan spliced together with some forest. It reads: 68.6% of Japan is covered by forest, the rest is covered by Izwan Mahbud. That is the esteem in which Izwan is held now after his marvelous exploits in Saitama, where he more or less single-handedly helped Singapore pull off a shock 0-0 draw against the mighty Samurai Blue.
It was a performance that showcased Izwan’s very best qualities: lightning-quick reflexes, fearlessness, command of the box and calmness under pressure. The likes of Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki were denied and left baffled by the agile Izwan, who has since gone for a trial at J2 League side Matsumoto Yamaga FC and is regarded as one of the best in Southeast Asia currently. TK
37. Dhurgham Ismail
Rizespor (TUR) / Iraq / Left Back
It’s been a good year for the Iraqi left back. From playing local football for Al-Shorta in the Iraqi league, to starting off 2015 with a memorable Asian Cup, he ended 2015 by playing for Rizespor in the Turkish League, which now makes him a Middle Easterner Abroad, part of Ahdaaf’s series on players who move outside the region.
Able to play at left back and deputise at left wing, Dhurgham’s attacking talents are very promising and he has many years ahead to prove himself. His debut at Rizespor consisted of him playing at left wing but he adapted well to make nippy runs in and out of defenders, using his left foot to cross and also stretch the opposition when needed.
At the Asian Cup he was also fantastic, arguably Iraq’s best player, showcasing his defensive abilities and attacking prowess. Six months later he’d move to Turkey, using his work rate and pace to hurt opposition players. Dhurgham, at 21 now, looks like he has a bright future ahead.
Highlight of the Year: Those penalties against Iran in the Asian Cup quarter-final
It’s often unorthodox to see a left back being the team’s main penalty taker, especially with Younis Mahmoud in the team. However, the then 20-year-old local superstar stepped up against Asian giants to score what was initially the winner for Iraq in the 116th minute. Iran equalised in the 119th minute but Dhurgham stepped up again in the penalty shootout to help Iraq to a historic win against rivals Iran.
38. Majed Hassan
Al-Ahli (UAE) / UAE / Central Midfield
Majed Hassan is the latest of UAE stars to be touted for stardom and fame, at least locally. Now the fifth best paid local player in the league, it’s only time before he takes his ready-made spot in defensive midfield over the next few years for the UAE national team. He has to fill the shoes of Amer Abdulrahman in the coming years, which doesn’t look so easy anymore.
Although individually Hassan is a brilliant defensive midfielder on the ball and is better than one would assume without it, his partnership with Habib Fardan for Al-Ahli during the second half of the season was a key factor. They both led Al-Ahli to a wonderful run in the Asian Champions League and helped them to second place in the Arabian Gulf League due to the reliability that they offered in the centre of the pitch.
Hassan is the epitome of the modern day defensive midfielder, for the region at least, with his ability to dribble, pass and tackle always strong across all matches. His consistency is unmatched and his ability to keep up for 90 minutes is also another trait that he delivers. One thing that Al-Ahli and the UAE need are probably more goals from central midfield, as all of Majed, Habib, Amer and Khamis don’t score enough goals from the centre of the pitch and rely on three players only: Khalil, Mabkhout and Al-Hammadi.
Highlight of the Year: Asian Champions League revival
A testament to his strong character? He came off crying against Al-Ahli Jeddah after receiving a harsh red card in front of 30,000 fans, before using that match as a platform to become the best U-23 player in the 2015 Asian Champions League (read more here).
It would have been hard to see Al-Ahli make it to the final of the Asian Champions League without Hassan. Sure, Lima did get the goals, but Al-Ahli had to operate in balanced and losing situations for most of their Asian Champions League matches. They needed a calm and intelligent player in the centre of the pitch, and Majed Hassan offered exactly that. HF
39. Park Joo-Ho
Borussia Dortmund (GER) / South Korea / Left Back or Central Midfield
Long admired for his steady presence at left back, Park Joo-Ho had fallen out of favour it seemed as South Korea went into their Asian Cup preparations at the end of last year. An injury to QPR’s Yun Suk-Young offered Park an opening as back up in the squad but few could’ve anticipated the impact he would make in a totally different role.
One of the most prominent stories coming from the Asian Cup was Uli Stielike’s reaffirming of the Korean backline. While his tactical methods have taken much of the plaudits, individual players such as Park Joo-Ho should be credited for their efforts, too. Park’s movement to anchor the midfield in an unfamiliar role, offering reassurance to the rampaging runs of Kim Jin-Su down the left flank and stability to Ki Sung-Young next to him to join the attack when needed, Park became a sensation amongst the Korean following.
His flexibility ironically became part of Korea’s undoing, as he moved out to the left in their final defeat to Australia, incidentally the only match they conceded in the tournament. His importance might have been brushed under the carpet somewhat in the forthcoming year, but Park’s status within the squad remains crucial, even if he’s found it more difficult to nail down a starting berth.
His club form has largely mirrored his national team successes, kicking off with Mainz for the first half of the year, mainly utilised as a full back in a back four or five before being rewarded with a well-deserved move to German giants Borussia Dortmund to reconnect with former coach Thomas Tuchel. As with the national team, Park has often found himself as a squad member rather than a regular starter, but his flexibility and stability continue to see him put in a decent shift when called upon.
Highlight of the Year: His smooth Asian Cup transformation into a central midfielder
Over his career Park Joo-Ho will unlikely have a better month than he did in January 2015. His positional stability, which has long been admired at full back, was being utilised perfectly in a more central covering role in which Korea could build upon. For a defence that leaked goals continually in Brazil, Stielike positioning of Park was key; a selfless, destructive player as not only a defensive enforcer but as an offensive enabler, allowing the likes of Cha Du-Ri and Kim Jin-Su to bomb forward with little concern for what was behind them. ML
40. Mohammed Musa
Lekhwiya (QAT) / Qatar / Right Back
We recently bemoaned in our Qatar Series that the national team has often lacked identity over their history, with a tendency to adopt a South American flavour due to the ramped up numbers of nationalised internationals from the region. How ironic that the truly symbolic embodiment of Brazilian football comes in form of rampaging Doha born full-back Mohammed Musa.
Despite coming into his latter years as a pro, Musa’s outrageous gallops down the flank continue to gather pace, in as much as he is often seen as not only a right wing back, but also a right sided forward at times for Lekhwiya and Qatar. While he’s often got into good positions, 2015 has been the year for Musa to take his output up a couple of notches bagging four goals over qualification so far, at one point leading the Asian scoring rates outright.
He’s far more than the goal scoring threat he personally offers, though. His physique isn’t a typical full-back’s build; muscular, tall and ferociously direct, he’s become one of Qatar’s most prominent attacking plays. Mirroring the runs of Abdelkarim Hassan on the left, Musa’s threat continues to keep Qatar stretched across the pitch, offering an out-ball to the more creative midfielders such as right side colleague Al-Haydos who now has more time to turn in as an option. Musa alongside his colleagues are the first side to make it through to the next stage of World Cup qualification, so the continual bombing forward of full backs will continue into the New Year, much to visiting defences’ horror.
Highlight of the Year: His September goalscoring spree for Qatar
While goals for right backs are not necessarily held in the highest regard, Musa’s four goals within a fortnight at the beginning of September will be seen as the defender’s most special memory from the year. On the back of a goal against Singapore, and a quick-fire brace (where he could, and maybe should have, collected a hat-trick) against Bhutan, Musa’s late strike in Hong Kong proved the difference maker in their qualification progression. Where others, namely rivals from China, have struggled, Qatar had blown away a previously sturdy looking Cantonese rearguard, and Musa’s attacking exploits were at the forefront of their display. 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.
#SFGTop100 – 61-70; featuring two fairytales written in Suwon, an Asian Cup rock from the UAE, a skilful Thai, or one of the brightest goalkeeping talents on the continent.
#SFGTop100 – 51-60; featuring the next big Arab thing, author of the Asian Cup winning goal, the sole Filipino, a Japanese making waves in the Premier League, or an ‘Australian Iniesta’.
#SFGTop100 – 41-50; featuring Marcello Lippi’s favourite, a controversial Iranian figure, the Australian sidefoot pass master, the main Lebanese and Syrian star, or the first North Korean.