Euro stars take centre stage at Asian Cup

AFP, Thursday 20 Jan 2011

Players plying their trade in some of football's top leagues are likely to have a major say in the knock-out stages of the Asian Cup, underlining the growing importance of the continent in the world game

Park Ji-Sung
Park Ji-Sung (Photo: AP)

Manchester United star Park Ji-Sung and experienced Australians Tim Cahill, Mark Schwarzer, Lucas Neill and Harry Kewell are the best known, but they are by no means the only ones.

And there are likely to be a few more Asians heading to Europe on the back of their performances in Doha. Like the African Cup of Nations, the Asian Cup is traditionally a shop window for players hoping to get a big move abroad.

With the quarter-finals starting on Saturday, European scouts have been sniffing around Japan's hat-trick hero Shinji Okazaki, with the 24-year-old striker said to be on the brink of a move to German Bundesliga side Stuttgart.

There is also reported interest from several top European teams in South Korean midfielder Koo Ja-Cheol. The 21-year-old, who has scored four goals so far at the Asian Cup, plays for Jeju United in Korea's domestic league.

Compatriot Lee Chung-Yong is one of those who have already successfully swapped his homeland for a higher profile club overseas after moving in 2009 from FC Seoul to English Premier League side Bolton Wanderers.

The slight but skillful winger has made a major impact at Bolton and has been instrumental in the team's resurgence under manager Owen Coyle.

South Korean defender Cha Du-Ri and midfielder Ki Sung-Yueng meanwhile play for Glasgow Celtic, and rookie striker Son Heung-Min is Hamburg's youngest-ever goalscorer.

Okazaki's teammate Keisuke Honda is another helping to banish old perceptions that East Asian players -- because of their relatively small frames -- cannot cut it in the rough-and-tumble of decent European leagues.

Honda is a regular at CSKA Moscow, where he plays as a defensive midfielder, but he is deployed in a more attacking role for his country, a position he prefers.

Several of the Japanese squad are with clubs in Europe, among them full-back Yuto Nagatomo, who plays for Cesena in Serie A; midfielder Makoto Hasebe of German side Wolfsburg; and striker Shinji Kagawa with Borussia Dortmund.

But it is not all about Australians and East Asians.

Iran may not have the players of yesteryear, but captain Javad Nekounam has forged a successful career with Spanish La Liga club Osasuna, where he plays alongside striker Masoud Shojai.

Teammate and midfield schemer Andranik Teymourian, 27, had spells at Bolton and Fulham and believes several of the Iran squad have what it takes to play in the Premier League.

"I'm very disappointed because most Iranian players are just playing in the Iranian league. They have good experience and they have good talent," he said, hoping a good showing in Doha will get him a move back to England.

Former Uzbek defender Andrew Fedorov is a scout scouring for talent at the Asian Cup.

"It is no secret that Asian football has been progressing rapidly over the past two or three years," he said.

"The ultimate aim is to find more Asian players for Europe and, in particular, for Russian clubs."

Among the players who have impressed Fedorov is midfielder Odil Akhmedov from his homeland.

"He is 23-years-old and this is the age when a player’s abilities start to shine through. He has left a good impression," Fedorov told the Asian Football Confederation website.

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