When legends return: Eight favourite sons who came home and conquered
Kuala Lumpur: The return of the prodigal son. It is a footballing plot point nearly as old as the game itself, with the reappearance of a long-departed local hero possessing a special ability to stir the passions of even the most jaded of fans.
Asia has had no shortage of these storylines, with a range of pioneering football exports and national team icons going back to where it all started to cap off their careers.
To coincide with FC Seoul’s signing of former Korea Republic captain Ki Sung-yueng, the-AFC.com looks at eight local heroes who returned, and thrived, after years abroad.
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Home is where the heart is
Younis Mahmoud - Iraq
Departure: Al Talaba to Al Wahda: July 2003
Return: Unattached to Erbil: February 2015
A national icon, and a Ballon d’Or nominee thanks to his key role in Iraq’s 2007 AFC Asian Cup win, Younis Mahmoud was also a star at club level, particularly in Qatar, where he won three league scoring titles in the space of five seasons.
Mahmoud returned to his native Iraq following the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, signing for Erbil, but he appeared solely in AFC Cup matches, playing three times, and scoring two goals, both in a 3-2 defeat to FC Ahal of Turkmenistan.
Mahmoud’s absence from league matches stemmed from his loyalty to former club Al Talaba, who he ultimately re-joined, and captained, in September 2015, scoring three goals as the club finished third in his final season.
Ali Daei – IR Iran
Departure: Persepolis to Al Sadd, July 1996
Return: Al Shabab (UAE) to Persepolis, July 2003
One of the biggest names of all when it comes to Asian football, Ali Daei was already 27 when he departed Persepolis for Qatari outfit Al Sadd, but he was only a fraction of the way to establishing the legendary statisctics he is known for today.
Daei left the Iranian club game with 21 international goals to his name. When he returned seven years later, that tally had ballooned to 81, with the prolific striker also winning a Bundesliga title with Bayern Munich in the intervening years.
He scored 16 league goals in his return season with Persepolis, then bagged 35 goals in all competitions in two seasons with Saba Battery, before scoring 10 times to help his final club Saipa win the Iran Pro League title as a 38-year-old in 2007.
Daei also added another 28 international goals during his four-season farewell to Iranian football, finishing with a world record 109, and a reputation as one of the global game’s great scorers.
Roda Antar - Lebanon
Departure: Tadamon Sour to Hamburger SV: July 2001
Return: Hangzhou Greentown to Tadamon Sour: July 2016
Lebanon’s Roda Antar departed Tadamoun Sour at the age of 20, earning a loan move to former European champions Hamburger SV before carving out a stellar 15-year career in Germany and China PR.
With a Chinese Super League title and a German League Cup crown among his list of accomplishments, Antar finally returned home in 2016, re-joining the very club he had departed a decade and a half earlier.
The star man’s return came shortly after Tadamoun had been promoted as undefeated champions, and he performed well in what would be his final campaign, playing 16 matches and scoring six goals as the club finished a respectable sixth.
Tim Cahill – Australia
Departure: Sydney United to Millwall: July 1997
Return: Hangzhou Greentown to Melbourne City: August 2016
Tim Cahill was 36 when he was signed by Melbourne City ahead of the 2016-17 A-League season, but such was his iconic status in the Australian game, his arrival was seen as one of the competition’s biggest ever signings.
Nearly 20 years after departing for Europe, Cahill finally made his domestic league debut that October, immediately scoring a remarkable 40-yard half-volley against local rivals Melbourne Victory, and scoring the winning goal as City won the FFA Cup Final the following month.
A total of 11 league goals in his first season marked a successful return to Australia, but declining game time hastened his departure part-way through the 2017-18 campaign, with Cahill completing his career with stints in England and India.
Igor Shkvyrin – Uzbekistan
Departure: Pakhtakor to Spartak Vladikavkaz, January 1992
Return: Maccabi Jaffa to Pakhtakor, January 1998
A true journeyman, former Uzbekistan striker Igor Shkvirin enjoyed a career which included spells in Russia, Ukraine, Malaysia, Israel and India, but it was his 1998 return to his homeland which earns him a place on this list.
At the age of 35, and six years after leaving the club for Russia, Shkvirin returned for a third spell at Pakhtakor and showed precisely why had been so sought after, bagging 22 goals in just 14 matches to help guide the club to the 1998 title.
The 1994 Asian Games gold medallist moved to India at the end of the season, and would eventually rack up five separate stints for Pakhtakor before finally hanging up his boots at the age of 38 in 2001.
The endless final acts
Zheng Zhi – China PR
Departure: Shandong Luneng to Charlton Athletic, December 2006
Return: Celtic to Guangzhou Evergrande, June 2010
He didn’t spend as much time away from his homeland as the other players on this list, but few players anywhere have had as successful a final act as evergreen Chinese midfielder Zheng Zhi, who turns 40 next month.
China’s Player of the Year in 2002 and 2006, and the scorer of 21 league goals in the latter campaign, Zheng was snapped up by Premier League outfit Charlton Athletic, before making the move to Scottish giants Celtic in 2009.
He returned to China to join Guangzhou Evergrande halfway through 2010, and has enjoyed remarkable success, winning eight league titles, two AFC Champions Leagues and AFC Player of the Year Award, having featured in more than 300 matches in all competitions.
Shunsuke Nakamura - Japan
Departure: Yokohoma F Marinos to Reggina, July 2002
Return: Espanyol to Yokohama F Marinos: February 2010
Known across Europe for his exceptional ability to strike a dead ball, 98-time Japan international Shunsuke Nakamura has a built a reputation every bit as impressive for his remarkable longevity.
Six seasons into his career with Yokohama F Marinos, Nakamura departed for Serie A outfit Reggina in 2002, becoming a fan favourite in Italy, then Scotland – where he won three league titles with Celtic – before returning to his first professional club as a 32-year-old in 2010.
That might have signalled that the end was near for some players, but Nakamura was only just getting started. He played seven more seasons for Yokohama F. Marinos – winning league player of the year in 2013 -, then a further two for Jubilo Iwata, before joining promotion-bound Yokohama FC in July 2019.
Amazingly, he is still playing, in the top-flight no less, at the age of 42, but Nakamura is still a youngster compared to his age-defying 53-year-old teammate Kazuyoshi Miura.
Sun Jihai – China PR
Departure: Dalian Shide to Crystal Palace: August 1998
Return: Sheffield United to Chengdu Blades: July 2009
Unlike Zheng and Nakamura, Sun Jihai’s playing career did reach a definitive end, but it took seven years after his 2009 return, before China’s English football pioneer finally called time.
The first East Asian to score in the Premier League when he netted for Manchester City in 2002, Sun made over 150 appearances in the English game before returning to China for a loan spell at Chengdu Blades.
He moved to Shaanxi Renhe - which later moved to Guizhou, then Beijing – with Sun memorably captaining the side to a 2012 FA Cup win, going on to appear in the AFC Champions League before finally retiring at the age of 39 in 2016.
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