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ACL Legends: International Stars


Kuala Lumpur: Players have come from far and wide to take part in the AFC Champions League, with FIFA World Cup winners from Brazil, France and Spain, as well as numerous household names, featuring in Asia's premier club competition.

Having highlighted many of the standout Asian performers over the past few months, this week the-AFC.com has picked out eight international stars who have helped light up the tournament since arriving at clubs across the Continent.

With candidates from South America, Europe and Africa, there is considerable talent in our selection. So, review the list and vote for your favourite at the bottom of the article.

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Elkeson
AFC Champions League Editions: 7

A name synonymous with the AFC Champions League, Elkeson boasts two titles and three goals in finals. Arriving at Guangzhou Evergrande ahead of the 2013 quarter-final against Lekhwiya, the Brazil-born now China PR native netted home and away against the Qataris and did likewise in the final against FC Seoul. His second-leg strike at Tianhe Stadium sealed an away goals win and the trophy.

Two years later, Elkeson netted a beauty in the second leg of the showpiece event, again at Tianhe Stadium, as Guangzhou edged the UAE's Al Ahli to claim the AFC Champions League crown for the second time in three years as they appeared to be turning into the Continent's dominant force.

The forward continued to find the back of the net in three and a half years with Shanghai SIPG, although a semi-final appearance in 2017 was the furthest they reached. Now back at Guangzhou and fourth in the competition's all-time scoring charts, he will be eyeing a third Asian title with the Guangdong club in 2020.


Tcheco
AFC Champions League Editions: 3

Al Ittihad remain the only side to have retained the AFC Champions League title and their midfielder Tcheco was the only non-Saudi to play a role in both campaigns. The Brazilian was inspirational in his side's remarkable comeback in the 2004 finale when, 3-1 down from the first leg against Seongnam, he set up his side's first two goals as the Jeddah club claimed a 5-0 win in Korea Republic and the title.

A year later and Tcheco was on the scoresheet in big quarter- and semi-final wins against Shandong Luneng and Busan IPark before the dead-ball specialist claimed another pair of assists as Al Ittihad ran out 4-2 winners in the second leg of the final against Al Ain to go back-to-back.

So often the creative spark in the side's midfield, Tcheco returned to Jeddah after three years away, but the Brazilian did not hit previous heights as Al Ittihad fell at the first hurdle in 2008.


Dejan Damjanovic
AFC Champions League Editions: 7

Only Lee Dong-gook boasts more AFC Champions League goals to his name than Dejan Damjanovic, who has wracked up 36 while representing FC Seoul, Beijing FC and Suwon Samsung Bluewings. While he netted 10 times in his first two campaigns (2009 and 2011), it was in 2013 when he really shot to the fore, with a match-winning goal in the quarter-final against Al Ahli and scoring home and away in the final only to suffer an away goals defeat to Guangzhou Evergrande.

In 2015 he was among the goals for Beijing before returning to FC Seoul and helping fire the Korean capital city side into the 2016 semi-finals with goals in the last 16 and quarter-finals, proving himself among the most consistent performers in the competition.

More recently, the Montenegrin scored nine goals as Suwon reached the 2018 semi-finals but fell just short against eventual champions Kashima Antlers. Damjanovic remains just a goal behind Lee in the scoring charts although, currently at Daegu FC, will play no part in the 2020 edition.


Bafetimbi Gomis
AFC Champions League Editions: 2

He's had just one full campaign in the AFC Champions League but there's little doubt of the impact Bafetimbi Gomis has had on the tournament and his club, with the charismatic Frenchman lighting up games with both his performances and celebrations. So good was the former Lyon and Galatasaray striker, that not only did he win the title at the first attempt, he also bagged the MVP and Top Scorer accolades.

Gomis netted 11 goals in 14 games in 2019, opening his account in a 3-1 group stage win over Al Hilal. A hat-trick against domestic rivals Al Ahli in the last 16 would have endeared him further to the Al Hilal faithful before he added three goals over two legs in the semi-final against Al Sadd as the Saudis returned to the final for the third time in six years.

And it was fitting that Gomis rounded off the convincing 3-0 aggregate win over Urawa Red Diamonds with a stoppage-time goal as Al Hilal finally claimed the AFC Champions League title. He started as he left off earlier in 2020, netting three goals in two group stage games before the tournament was postponed.


Paulinho
AFC Champions League Editions: 4

Announcing his AFC Champions League arrival in emphatic style, Paulinho rocketed home a free-kick against Kashiwa Reysol with one of the competition's most iconic goals. Guangzhou Evergrande progressed from that quarter-final, while Paulinho starred in the semi-final win over Gamba Osaka and in the final against Al Ahli as an Asian title meant a year that started in tough times at Tottenham Hotspur ended in glory.

One of the most consistent performers in the competition in recent years, Paulinho has made a habit of ghosting into the opposition box to net crucial goals. In 2017, goals in each leg against Kashima Antlers saw his team into the quarter-finals before he left for Barcelona, but he returned to the competition in 2019 and excelled as Guangzhou reached the semi-finals but fell just short of a third final.

The midfielder boasts nine goals in 31 games on the Continent and will be key to his side's chances in 2020 if they are to reach a third AFC Champions League final and climb back to the summit of Asian club football.


Nadir Belhadj
AFC Champions League Editions: 3

Nadir Belhadj enjoyed six trophy-laden seasons and three successful AFC Champions League campaigns with Qatari giants Al Sadd, but his legacy at the side can be defined by one cooly converted penalty on November 5, 2011 at Jeonju World Cup Stadium. It was a spot-kick that crowned Al Sadd as Asia's club kings, their first title under the AFC Champions League brand, and ended a marathon campaign that began in the play-off stage in February.

The Algerian played all but one of the 13 matches en route and also proved a near ever-present in Al Sadd's appearances in the 2014 and 2015 tournaments. Voted Qatar Stars League Player of the Year in 2014, Belhadj left Asia in 2016 to return to former club Sedan in France.

He re-appeared on the Continental scene in January this year with Al Sailiya but the Qataris were defeated in the play-offs. Nevertheless, the man born in Saint-Claude, France will always be remembered for making dreams in Doha come true.


Xavi
AFC Champions League Editions: 2

Having joined Al Sadd in 2015, it wasn't until 2018 that Spanish FIFA World Cup winner Xavi finally made his AFC Champions League debut; however, it was worth the wait as the midfield maestro proved he hadn't lost his touch. Pulling the strings in the middle of the park, it was the likes of the 2018 top scorer Baghdad Bounedjah and Akram Afif who benefited most from his supreme vision.

Xavi's presence inspired the Qataris to their first semi-final appearance since 2011 before they were edged out by Persepolis. The Spaniard returned a year later and scored some memorable goals in the group stage, including two perfectly executed free-kicks against Pakhtakor, before hanging up his boots mid-tournament to take on the head coach role.

The former Barcelona man guided Al Sadd to a second successive semi-final but they fell just short against eventual winners Al Hilal. Back again in 2020, the 40-year-old will hope he can take the Doha club one step further this time round.


Hulk
AFC Champions League Editions: 4

Hulk has been a revelation in the AFC Champions League since becoming Shanghai SIPG's marquee signing in mid-2016. Stunning long-range strikes and incredible solo goals have both featured in his repertoire as the Brazilian has lit up the competition and helped the Chinese side establish themselves as big-name players on the Continent.

The 2017 campaign remains Hulk's finest to date, with the forward scoring in all nine games he played in up until the second leg of the semi-finals, when both his and his side's run was ended by Urawa Red Diamonds. While 2018 and 2019 have been less spectacular, there have still been moments of brilliance, a bursting run from the halfway line to score against Kawasaki Frontale in the latter a prime example.

The former FC Porto and Zenit Saint Petersburg forward will be back in the spotlight when the East Zone resumes, and the big Brazilian will be expected to inspire Shanghai SIPG to even greater heights on the Continent.


Now you've read up on our eight International stars in the AFC Champions League, tell us who is your favourite by voting below (Poll ends at 1600 (UTC 8) on September 10).

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