Shinji Okazaki is still revelling in his, and Leicester City’s English Premier League success. As unlikely and as fantastic as that triumph was, it is not the first time that an Asian player has lifted one of the most prestigious trophies in the biggest domestic leagues in world football.
Park Ji-sung became accustomed to seeing his reflection smiling back at him from the silver prize as he won it four times during his magnificent seven seasons at Manchester United. The South Korean was succeeded at Old Trafford by Shinji Kagawa in the summer of 2012 and the following May, the Japanese star was also a Premier League winner.
Kagawa had already claimed two Bundesliga titles to his name by the time he arrived in England. Germany has also been a happy place for Asian stars, again mostly from Japan and South Korea. There are a number from both countries playing regular Bundesliga football.
Before the current influx of East Asians, there had been a strong Iranian presence. Ali Daei, Ali Karimi, Vahid Hashemian and Mehdi Mahdavikia all had some good times in Germany. Serie A may have lost a little of its lustre in recent years but was regarded as the best in the world when Hidetoshi Nakata helped Roma to the Scudetto in 2001.
Of the big leagues in Europe however, Spain has been different. For years, Japanese media and fans have claimed that England was not the right fit for the technically-minded stars from the east. Yet despite the supposed physicality and aggression there, Kagawa and now Okazaki have been champions, while Maya Yoshida settling well in Southampton.
It was suggested that La Liga, the league that boasts the highest technical level in the world, was a more natural stage for the Japanese. There were high hopes when Shunsuke Nakamura headed to Espanyol in 2009. When it comes to technique, the continent has rarely produced a player better than the midfielder who had impressed in Scotland and Italy. Yet he was very plain in Spain and was soon on his way out.
Lee Chun-soo, one of Korea’s best players in the first decade of the 21stcentury, also made little to no impact with Real Sociedad and Numancia. Compatriot Park Chu-young went to Celta Vigo on loan from Arsenal and while the striker started okay, he didn’t really make much of a name for himself.
Javad Nekounam is the only one to have made a name for himself in Spain in the modern era. The Iranian legend spent six seasons with Osasuna and impressed at one of the league’s smaller clubs. His consistency earned him a special place among fans in Pamplona. The midfielder chipped in with quite a few goals too.
That’s pretty much it and it means this week’s news coming out of Qatar is both exciting and encouraging. Akram Afif has joined Villarreal and if the striker, still only 19, can settle and then shine in Spain then it would be huge for Qatar but also meaningful for West Asia and the continent as a whole.
The teenager has the tools: pace, a love of dribbling and an ability to find space inside the area. There are other advantages too. He already has experience in Europe with Eupen, a Qatari-owned Belgium club that is becoming a stepping stone for Qataris looking to head west. The Al Sadd star has already made his debut for the national team, which is becoming one of the best in Asia, and has big-game experience. Few will forget his tournament-winning goal in the final of the 2014 AFC Under-19 Championship against North Korea as a 17 year-old.
It is well-known that players from West Asia are shy to try their luck in Europe (Iran apart) but Qatar are starting to buck the trend thanks to the country’s ambition to become a major football power ahead of their hosting of the 2022 World Cup.
“I dream of playing for Qatar in the World Cup in 2022,” Afif told FIFA. “I think we will have a good team for Qatar 2022, our youth team is readying for the Asian Cup in October and they have a good team. We also won the last Asian Cup in Myanmar. We have a good young generation developing.”
Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates too, have an advantage over Japanese and Korean players when joining a big club in a big league. As soon as the latter happens, scores of scribes from Seoul and Tokyo turn up at the player’s training sessions and games and generally follow him around his new home. This kind of pressure and attention will not be an issue for Afif and he should be allowed to develop at his own pace without his every move being reported and debated back home.
He is also young enough for all to know it will take time to settle at a club that is the best of the rest this season behind the big three of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.
“Playing in the Champions League is an objective for me,” he said. “[Villarreal] are a big team and one of the best in Spain. I hope I can learn a lot of things in the next few years from the players and the coaches with the club.”
He can talk the talk and there is a genuine hope that he can walk the walk. If so, then he can pave the way for more from the region to follow and the move really will be historic.