We’ve now broken into the Top 50 in our #SFGTop100 series countdown. We’ve pulled together our team of Sina Saemian, Tom Danicek, Jun Kim, Hamoudi Fayad, Ahmed Hashim and Martin Lowe to bring you those players ranked 50-41, including an Under 23 champion, a Suzuki Cup golden boot winner and a player who moved to a Top 4 club in England over the summer. We hope you enjoy and please do feel free to leave us your thoughts on our rankings on Twitter using the usual handle.
50. Ryu Seung-Woo (New Entry)
Ferencvaros (HUN) / South Korea / Attacking Midfield
In stark contrast to his stop-start club career, Ryu Seung-Woo had a year to remember with the South Korean U23 national team at both regional and Olympic level. Five goals and some dazzling performances across two showpiece tournaments illustrate what potential this attacking midfielder has, and why Bayer Leverkusen snapped him up when they did.
In Qatar, at the AFC Under 23 Championships, Ryu played an integral part of the Korea squad which made it all the way to the final, finally usurped by Japan. Playing in-behind a fluid attack, Ryu laid on one and scored another in their opener against Yemen, before opening the scoring in Korea’s high profile victory over the hosts and favourites for the tournament in the semi-finals. While in Brazil, in a South Korea side that made the knockout stages of the Olympics, Ryu was arguably the team’s most eye catching performer alongside the likes of Son Heung-Min and Suk Hyun-Jun.
As stated above, while his performances on the national stage have gained plaudits, he still struggles to replicate such form on a regular basis with his club. On loan with Arminia Bielefeld in 2. Bundesliga for the latter part of last season, before heading off to Hungary with Ferencvaros this term, Ryu hasn’t yet caught fire, with a K-League return more than a likely scenario in the coming year. Looking back on his role with the Korean youth side this last year, there will sure be plenty of suitors for his signature however.
Highlight of the Year – A one man show in Korea’s Olympic opener against Fiji
An up and down Olympic campaign for South Korea, who started fantastically, only to go out on a whimper. Their 8-0 thrashing of debutants Fiji was broadly a frustrating affair despite the score line, however Ryu stuck out as the real deal breaker, having been involved in all but two of their goals, including a well-crafted hat-trick. His knack to evade his markers, drifting into the box late was far too much for the Fijian defence, felled twice for penalties before completing his trio of efforts late on. ML
49. Saad Al-Sheeb (New Entry)
Al Sadd (QAT) / Qatar / Goalkeeper
Saad Al-Sheeb will always remember 2016 as the year he finally made it – the year he made the national team’s goalkeeping spot his own.
Despite being a product of the Aspire Academy and impressing at his club Al-Sadd, local boy Al-Sheeb was somehow always ignored when it came to the big call with the spot going to a naturalized keeper. It was as if homegrown talent was not good enough and it was something that infuriated many a passionate Qatari fan.
However, in 2016, even the coaching staff of the national team felt that enough was enough. A series of blunders from multiple naturalized keepers (Qasem Burhan, Baba Malik and Amine Lecomte) meant that Qatar were struggling to find a reliable man in goal. When Al-Sheeb’s chance came, he grabbed it with both hands.
Although the World Cup qualifier against South Korea – his first competitive international in three years – finished in a heartbreaking 3-2 defeat, Al-Sheeb went on to impress in the next two qualifying games against Syria and China, keeping clean sheets in both as he kept alive his country’s slim World Cup hopes. In between, he also inspired Qatar to a morale-boosting 2-1 friendly win over Russia, in which he kept out Alexander Kokorin’s penalty.
The international step-up followed what has also been a great year for Al-Sheeb at club level. While he could only manage a single clean sheet in the 2015/16 season, Al-Sheeb has improved enormously this year, going on to record 7 clean sheets already with the season only halfway through. Al-Sadd finished the first phase of the league unbeaten and two points behind league leaders Lekhwiya and their keeper had a big role to play in it.
Highlight of the Year: Ending the year as Al-Sadd’s player of the month
At the end of December, Al-Sadd fans chose Al-Sheeb as their Player of the Month following a string of impressive performances which included three straight clean sheets and a penalty save from Al-Sailiya’s Paul Efoulo. Finally, in the last game of the year against title rivals El-Jaish, he showed brilliant reactions to keep out Ahmed Moein’s low curling shot which almost crept in. In a game in which most of his teammates were slightly off-colour, it was Al-Sheeb’s save that maintained Al-Sadd’s unbeaten record and kept them in the title race. AH
48. Aleksandr Geynrikh (New Entry)
Ordabasy (KAZ) / Uzbekistan / Striker
Every continent has those players: a myth, a legend, but mostly the former. A bracket tailor-made for Qasem Burhan, the Gulf Cup-winning but blunder-loving Qatari goalkeeper. Aleksandr Geynrikh is a different case, somehow ticking both myth and legend boxes equally convincingly.
He is a man with top fashion sense, a knack for an original goal celebration, typically following a crucial strike, and a unique authority. He is a man who cried after the October loss to Iran; not because Uzbekistan were doomed or anything (it was only the third round and their first defeat), but simply because he cares that much.
We used to think about Uzbekistan in terms of Djeparov and co., with Geynrikh being his prominent collaborator. But in fact, Geynrikh was barely ever truly in his shadow, since he boasts the rare achievement of scoring in three consecutive Asian Cups (and six times in total). However, with the arrival of Mirjalol Qosimov, a chance for the fourth one (2015) was gone and Geynrikh seemed forever frozen out.
What’s particularly remarkable now is that Aleksandr Geynrikh features on our list, and positioned rather high, even though he’s still waiting for his first full national team competitive start since October 2013. That’s more than three years of not being a starter. All his eight appearances in these WCQs came off the bench, and yet, in quite a few of them, he still managed to look like an influential figure.
In 2015, there are two glaring instances: on September 3, he comes on at half-time and instantly decides the Yemen game; on November 12, Geynrikh turns up in the 53rd minute and delivers the winner after a quarter of an hour. This past year, he did the same against Syria in September.
And even when he doesn’t score, the bold baldy injects some energy into a somewhat paralyzed offence which couldn’t rely on Rashidov in 2016 nearly the same way it could’ve the year before. Geynrikh’s corner kicks were much more inventive and dangerous than those of Djeparov, and his presence in the hole, as a second striker, was felt every so often.
Highlight of the Year – That celebration against Syria
I understand this may look a bit childish, celebrating a grown-up man doing what’s essentially a thing for teenagers during a high-profile World Cup qualifier, but it simply illustrates what a fabulous man Aleksandr Geynrikh is; a committed professional with a somewhat refreshingly laid-back demeanor.
And so right after he killed off Syria in the second game of the current WCQ round, Geynrikh hanged out a bit next to the goal and took a selfie of himself, with the fans celebrating wildly in the background. I mean… what a man! Francesco Totti might’ve done it before him, but really, there’s no shame in replicating the AS Roma loyal’s connection with fans, is there? TD
47. Jamie Maclaren (New Entry)
Brisbane Roar (AUS) / Australia / Striker
We’re half way through the final leg of qualification for Russia 2018, and we’re still no further along the line to answering who will take over from Tim Cahill as the Socceroos’ future number 9 (or number 4 in this case). Timing his run perfectly to take up the role at the World Cup in a year and half’s time is domestic goal scoring machine Jamie Maclaren who will look back on a personally eventful year in the Australian spotlight.
Domestically he spearheaded Brisbane Roar’s unlikely title challenge, at times single-handedly, bursting back on the A-League scene at the start of the year (back from the U23 Champs where he impressed in a below average Olyroos squad), scoring 11 goals in nine games, including a stunning hat-trick against then champions Melbourne Victory. He was also part of one of the best Asian games of the year, scoring a brace away against Western Sydney Wanderers in their 5-4 final series semi-final defeat.
After finishing as the top scoring home born player in the A-League, sitting only behind Melbourne City poacher Bruno Fornaroli in the overall standings, Maclaren’s deserved national team bow came in May against England, while he returned in Australian colours this last international window for a first competitive start where he adorned the famous number 4. Time and time again, Ange Postecoglou continues to talk up the young striker who is only 23 as a future leading man. Provided he replicates his form going into the new season, we could see him move to Europe in the summer, and with it an inevitable Confederations Cup call up.
Highlight of the Year – National team debut in England
It’s a once in a generation event that Australia face England, some 13 years ago since they last time faced each other. So to be entrusted with your debut in such a pressurised match, with the world watching, shows the trust which Postecoglou has put in Maclaren. In a match where Australia made plenty of friends, Maclaren alongside his peers showed how far the national team has come, instead of the overly physical, direct tactics of the past, the Socceroos were incisive, full of running and decent on the ball. There aren’t too many better opponants to make your debut against that’s for sure. ML
46. Takuma Asano (New Entry)
VfB Stuttgart (GER) / Japan / Striker
It came as a bolt from the blue when English giants Arsenal swooped for Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s Takuma Asano in August, with many in the British media dismissing the transfer as merely a marketing stunt to break Asia, akin to the failed attempt of Ryo Miyaichi. The difference couldn’t be starker given Asano’s career to date, in particular a whirlwind year where he’s blossomed across three continents.
Following up 2015, which ended with him scoring in last December’s Club World Cup, Asano’s year 2016 has been productive to say the least; scoring the winner in the Asian Under 23 Championships final in January, before returning to his club scoring in the season opening J-League Super Cup. He’d go on to notch three goals in the Asian Champions League, before scoring on his debut for Japan in June against Bulgaria.
It didn’t stop there for the inventive forward, who starred amongst a pretty average looking Japanese Olympic squad in Brazil, scoring twice in their group stage exit, before scoring again in his first competitive start for Japan against Thailand in World Cup qualification. Throw in there his high profile move to England and you can tell what an eventful year it’s been for him.
Going forward, he’ll no doubt look to nail down a starting spot with a recovering Stuttgart squad in 2. Bundesliga where he’s been loaned our for the season, while early signs suggest he’s already moved ahead of national team stalwart Shinji Okazaki in the Samurai Blue striker pecking order. He has the willingness, the pace and with increasing regularity in finishing to emulate his peer going into 2017.
Highlight of the Year – Scoring the winner against South Korea in January’s Asian U23 Championship final
If one match sums up Asano’s telling 2016 impact the best, it would’ve been his 30 minute cameo in January’s Asian U23 final win over arch rivals South Korea. 2-0 down, Asano climbed off the bench, scoring within 10 minutes, before claiming the winner late on.
He illustrated all his plus points, no doubt quickly jotted down by Arsenal scouts in Qatar; blistering speed which Korea couldn’t handle, with an unerringly ruthless finishing style. Often overlooked from the start due to his raw, unpredictable nature, but undoubtedly Japan’s most exciting attacking prospect at present. ML
45. Abdulmajeed Al-Ruwalli (New Entry)
Al-Hilal (KSA) / Saudi Arabia / Central Midfield
After an unprecedented role change under the current Baniyas manager Jose Gomes during his time at Al-Taawoun, Abdulmajeed Al-Ruwaili has never looked back. His development as a central midfielder after years of being stationed out on the right wing was the key factor in the Buraydah-based side’s qualification for the AFC Champions League group stage; the first instance of this happening in the club’s history.
Al-Ruwaili, now popularly known as the “King of Free Kicks” in Saudi Arabia, was recognised across the world as one of the best in this respect. He overcame the likes of Lionel Messi and Miralem Pjanic in the amount of free-kicks scored during the 2015/16 season, converting eight of his 13 attempts in a league where teams play a total of 26 games. The comparisons to one of the best free-kick takers in contemporary Saudi football, Elton Jose, subsequently emerged.
His stellar season, where he was by far the best Saudi player in the first half of 2016, was topped off by a move to Saudi giants Al-Hilal to strengthen their bid for a first league title in more than 5 years. However, despite taking up a starting spot at the beginning of the season, Al-Ruwaili was unable to keep foreigner Nicolas Millesi out of the side after his arrival, and after a magnificent performance that helped eliminate Sami Al-Jaber’s Al-Shabab side out of the Crown Prince Cup, Al-Ruwaili played the rest of the games from the bench and failed to rack up any minutes since the winter break.
Highlight of the Year – Call-up to the Saudi national team
After a four-year absence from the national team ranks, Al-Ruwaili returned to the “Greens”, earning three competitive caps as Saudi Arabia impressed in the World Cup qualifiers; losing only to Japan on the way. He’s managed to strike up a decent partnership with his club teammate Abdumalik Al-Khaibary in the centre of the park. HF
44. Mohammad Tayyebi (New Entry)
Esteghlal Khuzestan (IRI) / Iran / Central Defence
The year 2016 was regarded by many as the year of the underdogs. The achievements of Leicester City and their incredible journey to become the English champions had a major role to play. However, in Iran, the footballing community had their own unlikely heroes and unlikely champions to celebrate.
Esteghlal Khuzestan rose from survival in Persian Gulf Pro League in 2014-15 to winning the league in 2015-16 in emphatic fashion. Their fairytale rise to the top of Iranian football had many heroes to celebrate, from manager Abdollah Veisi, to key players such as Hassan Beit Saeed and Mehdi Zohaivi. But in amongst all those players, one man always stood out, their skipper and the man they nicknamed “barbed wire”, Mohammad Tayyebi.
The Ahvaz born central defender kick-started his career at a late stage and at the third tier of Iranian football with Naft Omidiyeh when he was 25 years old. After a season at Naft, he earned himself a transfer to Esteghlal Khuzestan who were sitting comfortably midtable in the Azadegan league, the division below the PGPL. When manager Abdollah Veisi arrived at the club, he galvanised the team and won promotion to the top division and the rest, as they say, is history.
Last season Esteghlal Khuzestan boasted one of the best defensive units the league had ever seen. They kept an amazing 17 clean sheets in 30 league games, conceding just 14 goals across the season. Tayyebi was at the heart of the defence, leading by example and making sure his teammates around him always stayed disciplined. His manager nicknamed him “barbed wire” due to his incredible ability to keep strikers at bay as he marked some of the best strikers in the country out of the game.
His brilliant performances for his club didn’t go unnoticed and Carlos Queiroz has invited him to several national team training camps in squads for the World Cup qualification matches. At the age of 30, and with the presence of several top central defenders at Queiroz’s disposal, it is unlikely that Tayyebi will make himself a regular in the national team setup, but he was handed his international debut in June when he lined up for Team Melli at the Azadi Stadium in a friendly against Kyrgyzstan.
Highlight of the Year – Tayyebi’s equaliser away at Malavan
Tayyebi is not a goalscoring defender, he has only scored 3 times in over 110 appearances for Esteghlal Khuzestan. So when they were losing 1-0 to struggling Malavan away from home, not many people saw the equaliser coming from him. Malavan had missed a penalty and arguably deserved to have scored more than just the one goal, but on the stroke of half time and from a corner, Tayyebi popped up at back post to control the lose ball at the edge of 6 yard box and as he swung his right foot at the ball, it ended in the back of the net which earned Esteghlal Khuzestan a previous point away from home. SS
43. Wataru Endo (New Entry)
Urawa Red Diamonds (JPN) / Japan / Defensive Midfield
Currently playing for arguably the strongest team in J-League, Wataru Endo’s football career did not start off so smoothly.
Picking up football at elementary school, Endo trialled for Yokohama F. Marinos’ youth team but failed to impress the officials there. While playing for his middle school team, Endo was spotted by Shonan Bellmare U-18 coach, Cho Kwi-jea – Shonan Bellmare head coach since 2012 – who then recommended the plucky youngster to the senior team head coach Kouji Sorimachi.
After seeing his development through the club’s youth ranks, Sorimachi had this to say about Endo: “very good at playing the ball, not very tall but he [Endo] is good with his head”. Sorimachi eventually gave Endo his first-team debut in 2010. It was the following year when Shonan were relegated from J1, Endo was able to gain more game time and establish himself in the heart of Shonan defence.
In his third season , with his mentor Cho at the helm of Shonan Bellmare, Endo was handed even more responsibility, assuming the role of captaincy at the tender age of 19. However, Endo coolly handled the pressure; also as the penalty kick taker, he scored 7 goals in J2 and led his team back to the top flight in 2013.
His standout performances and leadership skill have earned him many admirers and eventually in December of 2015, Endo signed for his current club, Urawa Red Diamonds. Endo played his first game for Urawa Reds on 24th February 2016, in an AFC Champions League group stage match against Suwon Samsung Bluewings. Only three days later, Endo made his Urawa J1 league debut against Kashiwa Reysol.
Endo Wataru’s nose for danger, reading of the game, and tactical awareness makes him the perfect successor to the current Japan national team captain Makoto Hasebe. Although he plays in defence for his club, Endo’s attributes have allowed him to play in central midfield with the U-23 national team under Makoto Teguramori.
Highlight of the Year – Winning the AFC U-23 Championship in Qatar
Drawn in group B alongside North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Thailand, Wataru Endo helped his team to finish top of the group after winning all three games. His team scored seven but only conceded one penalty goal against Saudi Arabia. After beating Iran and Iraq in knockout stages, Endo’s Japan were up against Korea Republic U-23 in the final.
The Koreans played fast attacking football and soon Endo and his Samurai Blue U-23 found themselves 0-2 behind with less than 40 minutes to play. Miraculously, with a brace from Takuma Asano, Japan came back from two goals down to win the final 3-2. How sweet it must’ve been for the captain Wataru to lift the trophy after such a turnaround against the arch rivals? JK
42. Hwang Hee-Chan (New Entry)
RB Salzburg (AUT) / South Korea / Striker
There are few Asian footballers who’ve participated in so many competitions as Hwang Hee-Chan over the last year. Playing domestically, in Europe, at the AFC Under 23s, for the senior national team and at the Olympics, it’s been a year the South Korean striker will be hard pressed to forget. While it’s been a bumpy ride, in and out of the starting line-up for club and country, Hwang’s inventiveness inside the box promises some bright years ahead for the 20 year old.
Domestically, Hwang transferred to Austrian kingpins Red Bull Salzburg from feeder club Liefering at the start of the year after he finished 2015 in devastating form, scoring 7 goals in six matches to end November. Despite initially finding it difficult to bed in at the domestic champions, alongside multiple outings with the national team, Hwang started the 16/17 season well, scoring four goals in 12 domestically, but also notching one in the Europa League against an in-form Nice side.
While he was developing his name in Europe, Hwang was also impressing in Taegurk Warrior red. Featuring at the AFC U23’s that finished second in Qatar, Hwang had a greater impact in Brazil, proving a constant threat in the penalty area at the Olympics scoring the opener in their 3-3 draw with eventual silver medalists Germany. His Rio performances gained plaudits back in Korea, with Uli Stielike quick to call the striker up to make his senior debut against China in September.
The greatest strength to his game is that he’s so different to his competitors in South Korea’s attack, as he’s a pure finisher harking back to the likes of Lee Dong-Gook of old. Just wait for this pocket rocket to fire club and country into a successful 2017.
Highlight of the Year – His October scoring run for Salzburg
It took a while to settle in, but this season is looking set to be Hwang’s breakthrough moment in Europe. Five goals in four matches at the end of October, including braces away at St. Polten (in the Bundesliga) and Nice (in Europe) was the burst of form needed to gain rave reviews. Amongst a promising set of multinational strikers in Salzburg at present, Hwang seems to have the best knack of putting the ball in the net, which is always handy! ML
41. Teerasil Dangda (New Entry)
Muangthong United (THA) / Thailand / Striker
In a year which brought so much joy on the pitch, but so much sorrow off it, Thailand striker Teerasil Dangda’s influence on the achievements of the national team will go down in history after a memorable year. Long been relied upon to lead the line for his country, his all round game continues to bring the best out of others, but goal scoring remains his headline-grabbing attribute, as he finished the year with an impressive nine goals from 15 appearances.
Continuing on from his performances at the beginning of WCQ Round 2, Teerasil was part of the side that usurped Iraq to top spot in Group F, providing one of only a few surprises in the early rounds of qualification. Then came the standout points, in the shadow of King Bhumibol Adulyade’s death in October, Teerasil became the picture of emotion scoring twice in the homecoming draw with Australia. He went on to finish the year for the War Elephants in a successful manner, retaining the Suzuki Cup in December, finishing as the Golden Boot winner with 6 goals, including the away opener in the first leg of the final against Indonesia.
Domestically, his impact remains at a consistently high level, so much so that there are still calls for him to return to Europe for a third stint. While the domestic season was cut short due to national mourning, Muangthong United were firm favourites to clinch the title. Teerasil, relied upon less so for his goals and more for his creativity with Adisak Kraisorn and Brazilian Cleiton Silva leading the line, is set to lead United into 2017 with a Champions League group appearance. If he isn’t swayed back to Europe in the meantime, it’ll be Teerasil’s first appearance in the group stage of the competition in four long years.
Highlight of the Year – An emotional brace clinches a historic point with the continental champions
One of our favourite moments of the year, that in the end probably won’t mean too much in terms of the final group standings, but for its symbolism it was truly memorable. A match that was called off initially, before having crowd restrictions put upon it, the final encounter eventually proved a fitting response to the memory of the passing of a monarch.
By no means were the Asian champions taking this lightly, but Thailand were fantastic from the word go. Coming from behind, Teerasil first flicked Thailand back into it from Tristan Do’s slide cross before scoring an early second half penalty that initially put Thailand into a winning position. While the game was pegged back, his celebration and those from the home support will be long remembered by Asian football fans for years to come. ML