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Asian soccer's best and brightest
Updated: 2005-04-29 09:26

Gone are the days when Asia was looked down upon by her European cousins, and going are the times when players from the world's biggest continent were cynically signed for marketing and merchandising reasons.

The 2002 World Cup and the performances of Japan and South Korea formed the catalyst for this shift in thinking, and now many top leagues have Asian stars.

Here's a list of 10 of the best.

Shunsuke Nakamura -- Reggina and Japan

Shunsuke Nakamura, No. 10 [AP]

Overlooked by ex-Japan boss Phillippe Troussier for the 2002 World Cup, the elegant midfielder simply tried harder for Reggina, and despite initially finding life in Italy difficult, has now become an indispensable part of the Serie A team. Legendary Brazilian midfielder Zico knows talent when he sees it, and upon taking the reins of Japan's national team, he brought Nakamura back into the fold. The 26-year-old repaid his coach's faith with a string of excellent performances in 2004 that brought his country the Asian Cup and was the competition's MVP.

Medhi Mahdavikia -- SV Hamburg and Iran

The 2003 Asian Player of the Year is a speedy winger and provides a steady supply of morsels for Iran and Hamburg's strikers to feast on. Like England's Michael Owen, "Kia" has been around for years, making his debut for Iran in 1996, but is still relatively young at 27. The Hamburg star already wrote his own page in his country's World Cup history in 1998 when he scored in the famous 2-1 victory over the United States in "the mother of all matches," Iran's first-ever World Cup win.

Alexander Geynrikh -- Pakhtakor and Uzbekistan

The 20-year-old striker burst onto the scene with a wonderful individual goal in the Asian Cup in July 2004, when he ran half the length of the field before unleashing an unstoppable 25-meter shot past the Saudi Arabian goalkeeper. The former CSKA Moscow hitman is fast, powerful and direct and has gone from strength to strength since last summer. The six-footer may be short of experience but he makes up for it in self-belief and could be the first Uzbek to make a name for himself around the world.

Ahn Jung Hwan -- Yokohama F. Marinas and South Korea

Ahn Jung Hwan [AP]
Probably the most recognizable Asian footballer in the world. The hero of 2002 scored the golden goal that sent Italy crashing out of the competition and South Korea into the quarter-finals. The strike prompted his departure from Italian club Perugia, as the club's owner famously "sacked" the forward the very next day. The skillful attacker returned closer to home and has become Yokohama F. Marinos' most important player. At 29, this creative player has critics who accuse him of lacking a killer instinct, but the glamorous striker is capable of making something out of nothing.

Shao Jiayi -- 1860 Munich and China

The left-sided midfielder hasn't let his country down since making his international debut in September 2000. The 25-year-old has grown into China's best player; if he plays well, then so does his team. The free-kick specialist can be seen week in and week out playing for 1860 Munich, but unfortunately, when the World Cup comes to Bavaria next summer, the powerful former Beijing player will have to watch from the sidelines, as China was eliminated from qualification by the narrowest of margins.

Bashar Abdullah -- Al Kuwait and Kuwait

The Ronaldo of the Middle East has a strike record that his Brazilian namesake would be proud of, with over 60 goals for the tiny Gulf state. The 26-year-old is a real "fox in the box," and comes alive in the penalty area. His predatory instincts helped Kuwait pip China in the race to reach the last eight of qualification for the 2006 World Cup. In the final stage, his two strikes against Uzbekistan have provoked dreams of a second World Cup qualification among his countrymen.

Ali Al Habsi -- Lyn and Oman

Oman's goalkeeper made a name for himself during the 2004 Asian Cup and the first stage of World Cup qualification with a string of impressive displays. The giant stopper was voted the best goalkeeper in Norway in 2004 after he helped his team, Lyn, finish in sixth place. So impressive were the 23-year-old's performances that English Premier League giants Liverpool were reportedly interested in signing him. Al Habsi is still in Oslo but it is only a matter of time before he becomes one of the Gulf's few footballers in Europe's big leagues.

Ali Karimi -- Al Ahli and Iran

Mohammad Ali Karimi [AP]
As the nickname, "The Wizard of Tehran," suggests, the long-haired Iranian is a magician with a football. The 2004 Asian Player of the Year is fast, direct and skillful with an eye for the goal, as South Korean defenders, who were left chasing shadows in July 2004 by the 26-year-old, will testify. If the striker has a weakness, it is his inconsistency. A move to a more competitive league than the one he currently plays in for Al-Ahli of the United Arab Emirates would provide him the stiffer weekly challenge he needs.

Shinji Ono -- Feyenoord and Japan

The recent spat between Ono's club, Feyenoord and the Japanese Football Association over the release of the midfielder for two World Cup qualification matches shows how much the stature of Asian players has grown. The Rotterdam club was reluctant to release the 2002 Asian Player of the Year as it felt his ankle hadn't sufficiently recovered from injury. The 25-year-old central midfielder can tackle, pass and score, and he quickly established himself as an integral member of the Dutch giants' team. Only a series of injuries has prevented the former Urawa Reds star from moving to a bigger league.

Park Ji Sung -- PSV Eindhoven and South Korea

The 23-year-old Korean has developed into his country's best player and is becoming increasingly important to PSV Eindhoven. The Incheon-born midfielder has excelled in the Dutch team's charge to the last four of the Champions League. As often happens in football, success brings its own dangers and clubs from Europe's "big three" leagues can be seen circling overhead. A move to England, Italy or Spain could make the skillful, energetic playmaker into a star.

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