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Asia’s Greatest Serie A Players

Kuala Lumpur: Long considered one of Europe's, and the world’s, premier domestic competitions, Italy’s Serie A has featured some of football’s most decorated names.

But beyond the likes of Maldini and Maradona, several Asian players have thrived in the competition, with players from all over the continent turning out for Italian clubs.

Italy’s top league, cup and super cup titles have all been won by Asian players, who have now been a regular fixture in the race for the Scudetto for more than a quarter of a century.

But who is the greatest of them all? Which player has earned the title of Asia’s Calcio king?

Here are our nominees:

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Hidetoshi Nakata (Japan)
Clubs: Perugia, AS Roma, Parma, Bologna, Fiorentina
Games: 182
Goals: 24
Honours: Serie A (2000-01), Coppa Italia (2001-02), 2x AFC Player of the Year, 3x Ballon d’Or nominee

In the lead up to Japan’s co-hosting of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, few, if any Japanese footballers had the global reputation of Nakata.

His fame was well deserved. The midfielder won a league title alongside the likes of Gabriel Batistuta and Francesco Totti with Roma in 2000-01, scored against Juventus in the final to help Parma win the Coppa Italia the following season, and was nominated for the Ballon d’Or three times in four years from 1998 onwards.

Intelligent and sophisticated, Nakata retired at the age of just 29 following the 2006 FIFA World Cup, but not before leaving a memorable mark on the Italian game across seven fruitful seasons.

Rahman Rezaei (IR Iran)
Clubs: Perugia, Messina, Livorno
Games: 129
Goals: 6

Considered one of the best Iranian defenders of the modern era, Rezaei was tasked with keeping clean sheets at a time when several world class strikers called Serie A home.

After joining Perugia from Zobahan in 2001, Rezaei had some of his best memories at Messina, first helping them earn promotion from Serie B, then playing 36 of 38 matches as they finished seventh in the top division in 2004-05, beating both AC Milan and Inter in the process.

In a period where several Team Melli stars were plying their trade in Germany’s Bundesliga, Rezaei performed with distinction in Italy, where he remains the league’s most successful Iranian import.

Ali Adnan (Iraq)
Clubs: Udinese, Atalanta
Games: 68
Goals: 1

The first Iraqi to play in Italy’s top competition, Adnan arrived at Udinese two years after starring at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, and quickly became a regular starter.

Club veteran Danilo was the only Udinese defender to best Adnan’s 31 appearances in all competitions in 2015-16, and a free-kick against Genoa made him Iraq’s inaugural Serie A goal scorer, but his bright start in Italy would prove a tough act to follow.

A total of 37 appearances in the next two league campaigns, and a three-game loan spell with Atalanta, preceded a shift to North America, where he now plays for MLS outfit Vancouver Whitecaps.

Yuto Nagatomo (Japan)
Clubs: Cesena, Inter Milan
Games: 186
Goals: 9
Honours: Coppa Italia (2010-11), AFC Asian International Player of the Year (2013)

An energetic and hard-working full-back, Nagatomo arrived at unfashionable Cesena in the summer of 2010 and made such an impact that he was brought in to bolster reigning UEFA Champions League winners Inter after just half a season.

The first East Asian player to join the Nerazzurri, Nagatomo made a significant impact, winning the Coppa Italia in his first season, and playing an average of 40 games per season in all competitions for the next three campaigns.

His total of 186 appearances makes him the Serie A games record-holder among his countrymen, and he also became the Japanese player with the most league assists before his 2018 move to Galatasaray.

Mark Bresciano (Australia)
Clubs: Parma, Palermo, Lazio
Games: 250
Goals: 31

One of two Australians of Italian descent on our list, Bresciano spent three seasons with Empoli in Serie B, before a 2001 move to Parma made him not only a Serie A player, but, at the time, Australia’s most expensive footballer.

For almost a decade, the goal-scoring midfielder was a permanent fixture in the top flight, making more than 20 league appearances for eight consecutive seasons, and playing a key role in European campaigns for both Parma and Palermo.

Bresciano once announced his intention to be Australia’s best ever Serie A player, and with 250 appearances, 31 goals and 17 assists, it’s difficult to argue that he fell short.

Keisuke Honda (Japan)
Clubs: AC Milan
Games: 81
Goals: 9
Honours: Supercoppa Italiana (2018)

One of Asia’s top players for much of the previous five years, Honda arrived in Milan in January 2014 amid high expectations after stints in Holland and Russia as well as a starring role for the Japanese national team.

His time with Rossoneri coincided with a lean patch for a club with such a storied history – they finished eighth, 10th and seventh in his first three seasons – but he showed moments of quality, contributing nine goals and 12 assists as either a winger or midfielder.

An unused substitute as Milan beat Juventus to claim the 2016 Supercoppa Italiana, Honda’s tenure in Italy ended with a moment of triumph, scoring a free-kick against Bologna in his final home match to help the seven-time European champions return to continental football after a four-year absence.

Ahn Jung-hwan (Korea Republic)
Club: Perugia
Games: 30
Goals: 5

Several of the players on this list have brought joy to Italian football fans but the name Ahn Jung-hwan is more likely to elicit a sense of dread.

That’s because the former Perugia forward is best remembered for scoring the golden goal which knocked the Azzurri out of the 2002 FIFA World Cup – a header which famously ended his career in Italy – and his two-year spell in Umbria is one of the only times a Korean player has appeared in Serie A.

Despite limited game time, Ahn showed his potential in Italy, leaving us all to wonder what might have been if the talented forward had been given the chance to continue what he started.

Takayuki Morimoto (Japan)
Clubs: Catania, Novara
Games: 104
Goals: 19

Having made his professional debut in Japan before the age of 16, Morimoto was still only 18 when he scored moments after coming off the bench in his Serie A debut and, despite a serious knee injury, he returned to become a regular contributor in the following seasons.

Regularly used as a substitute, Morimoto chipped in with nine goals in all competitions in 2008-09 and added another six the following season, ultimately scoring more Serie A goals in open play than any other Japanese player.

Despite his early promise, his days in Italy were over by the age of 24, with the forward going on to win the J1 League title with Kawasaki Frontale in 2017.

Vince Grella (Australia)
Clubs: Empoli, Parma, Torino
Games: 173
Goals: 4

A reliable defensive midfielder, Grella joined Empoli alongside close friend Mark Bresciano in the late 90s, going on to forge a terrific career for three different Serie A clubs.

Given the task of marking Zinedine Zidane on debut, Grella’s early glimpse of top-level football was followed by three seasons in Serie B, but he moved to Blackburn Rovers in 2008 with more than 170 appearances in the top league, and was part of the Parma side which reached the UEFA Cup semi-finals in 2004-05.

Shunsuke Nakamura (Japan)
Club: Reggina
Games: 81
Goals: 11

A prized signing for newly promoted Reggina in 2002, Nakamura starred in his first season in Italy, scoring eight goals in all competitions to help the Calabrian side avoid relegation by the barest of margins.

Hindered by injury, Reggina’s on-field struggles, and the club’s frequent turnover of manager, Nakamura never quite revisited those lofty heights while in Italy, going on to become a fan favourite and win three league titles with Celtic in Scotland.

An exceptional talent, particularly with a dead ball, Nakamura left his mark on Italian football, but he is arguably best remembered in Europe for what he did after he moved on from it.

Who is your favourite Asian player in the Serie A? Vote below (Poll ends at 16:00 UTC +8 on June 4).

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