Asian Icons

Asian Impact Abroad


Kuala Lumpur: Many players grow up dreaming of playing at the biggest clubs in the most prestigious leagues around the world, and for decades some of Asia's finest have travelled far and wide to showcase their talent.

In the first of a new series, the-AFC.com select four players from the Continent who have departed their homeland and gone on to star overseas – winning titles, performing on the biggest stage and gaining millions of new fans along the way.

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Son Heung-min – The World Class Performer
(Hamburg, Bayer Leverkusen, Tottenham Hotspur)

Perhaps Asia’s most renowned current player and among the best the Continent has ever produced, Son Heung-min has enjoyed considerable success since moving to Germany to join Hamburg’s youth academy as a 16-year-old.

After breaking into Hamburg’s first team and impressing between 2011 and 2013, Bayer Leverkusen liked what they saw and snapped up the then 20-year-old for a reported 10 million euros – a club record at the time – and the Korean continued his upward trajectory.

Two seasons at Leverkusen resulted in two fourth-placed finishes, a stellar goal return and a breakthrough in the UEFA Champions League, where his goals helped the German side progress to the knockout rounds in 2014-15.

The summer of 2015 saw Son on the move again, with Tottenham Hotspur making him the most expensive Asian player of all time by splashing out 30 million euros to bring him to White Hart Lane, where he has developed into a truly world-class talent.

Since Son arrived at Spurs, the North London side have never failed to finish outside the top four, while a UEFA Champions League final appearance in 2019 – after he had earlier scored three to help eliminate Manchester City in the quarter-finals – is among the many highlights.

Spectacular goals, a tireless work rate and an infectious smile have all helped him become a fans’ favourite. What’s needed next for Spurs' 2018-19 Player of the Season is silverware.


Mehdi Mahdavikia – The Club Legend
(VfL Bochum, Hamburg, Eintracht Frankfurt)

An Iranian icon who made more than 100 appearances for his country, Mehdi Mahdavikia was another player who shone in the Bundesliga.

Mahdavikia first shot to stardom with Persepolis, where he won three league titles in the mid to late-90s, before he was lured to Germany by VfL Bochum.

While his first campaign ended in relegation from the Bundesliga, the versatile Tehran native had done enough to earn a move to Hamburg, and it was here where he made his name and ultimately developed into a club legend.

In eight seasons in northern Germany, Mahdavikia amassed over 200 appearances and was voted the fans’ Player of the Year in both 2003 and 2004, while the side achieved third-placed finishes in 2000 and 2006.

In the UEFA Champions League, Mahdavikia found the back of the net in a 4-4 draw against Italian giants Juventus and against then Spanish champions Deportivo La Coruna in the 1999-2000 campaign.

He went on to spend three seasons with Eintracht Frankfurt before eventually leaving the Bundesliga to return to IR Iran after well over a decade in Germany. In recent years Mahdavikia returned to work with Hamburg's youth sides.


Keisuke Honda – The Globe Trotter
(VVV-Venlo, CSKA Moscow, A.C. Milan, Pachuca, Melbourne Victory, Vitesse, Botafogo)

Boasting a career path as interesting as it has been successful, Keisuke Honda has turned out in the Netherlands, Russia, Italy, Mexico, Australia and Brazil since departing his native Japan as a 21-year-old in early 2008.

After leaving Nagoya Grampus to join VVV-Venlo in the Dutch Eredivisie, Honda experienced relegation and then promotion in his first 18 months overseas before taking on a new challenge, in Russia, with CSKA Moscow.

The midfielder was an instant hit at CSKA, scoring the winning goal in the 2009-10 UEFA Champions League Round of 16 to oust Seville and book the Russians’ first and, to date, only quarter-final appearance.

After four years in which Honda picked up both league and cup honours, he headed for Italy to join Serie A giants A.C. Milan, where he made more than 80 appearances and finished as runner-up in the 2015-16 Coppa Italia.

Since his departure from Italy in 2017, Honda’s choices of club have truly caught the imagination. He has spent a season with Mexico’s Pachuca and Australia's Melbourne Victory, had a short stint back in the Netherlands with Vitesse and is an integral part of the Cambodia national team’s coaching set-up.

A new venture, with Brazil’s Botafogo, began in early 2020, with Honda arriving to mass fanfare in Rio de Janeiro. The Japanese maverick, still only 33, enjoyed a scoring debut before the COVID-19 outbreak saw the season suspended.


Theerathon Bunmathan – The Title Winner
(Vissel Kobe, Yokohama F. Marinos)

Left-back Theerathon Bunmathan won trophies galore with Buriram United and Muangthong United in his native Thailand between 2011 and 2017.

But while it could be argued that some players from ASEAN have struggled to adapt overseas in recent years, the same cannot be said for Theerathon.

Indeed, it was perhaps the dead-ball specialist's performances against Japanese opposition that convinced first Vissel Kobe and then Yokohama F. Marinos to hand him a chance in the J.League.

The Thai international had netted stunning goals against Osaka sides Cerezo and Gamba, as well as Kashima Antlers, in the AFC Champions League prior to a season-long loan with Visssel in 2018.

Australian coach Ange Postecoglou brought Theerathon to Yokohama – again on loan – in 2019 and the move proved an unequivocal success as he played a key role in the side winning their first J.League title since 2004.

Having signed permanently for the Japanese club at the end of last year, the 30-year-old showcased his talents on the Continental stage once more at the beginning of 2020 as Yokohama won their opening two AFC Champions League games.

Now you've read up on our first four Asians who have enjoyed success overseas, tell us who is your favourite by voting below (Poll ends at 1600 (UTC 8) on April 1).

Photos: Hamburg, AFP

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