Expert’s View: Asia’s Greatest English Premier League Players
Kuala Lumpur: Fans have voted in their tens of thousands for their favourite Asian export to Germany, but now it's time to look at the Continental pioneers who shone in arguably the world's most popular league: the English Premier League.
To help us get more of an insight into the impact these famous Asian players have had, we enlisted the expert opinion of Dominic Fifield, Senior Writer at The Athletic, who previously spent 20 years covering English football at The Guardian newspaper.
So, just who is Asia’s greatest Premier League player? Fifield gives us his perspective.
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"It's a really, really difficult question to answer," says the English journalist.
"I do think it's easier for some players to come over here and thrive than others. For example, for an Australian to come over and settle in the culture, it's far easier than someone from Korea Republic, Japan or China PR, especially the physical aspects.
"Mark Viduka was one of those who would be considered a natural fit in terms of his robust style – he was almost like a traditional British centre-forward, although he did have a delicate side to him in terms of his touch and finishing.
"And, of course, he had a countryman when he was at Leeds United, Harry Kewell, who was a completely different type of player: smaller in stature but, my god, the skill he had!
"While things didn't work out for him when he made his big move to Liverpool, he was absolutely scintillating during his spell at Leeds, a brilliant, brilliant footballer."
"The third Australian who relished the physical side and made English football his home was Tim Cahill. He had the tigerish qualities that could help out defensively, but he was so effective in support of a lone striker and proved to be invaluable at Everton.
"Well over 200 appearances in the top flight and one of the most influential players from Australia to have ever graced English football, a real icon who is really cherished for the competitive nature of his performances."
Moving away from the Australians, Fifield, a Crystal Palace supporter, had the opportunity to see first-hand two of the most well-known imports from China: Fan Zhiyi and Sun Jihai.
"They were two players at different stages of their career," he recalls. "Fan was the China national team captain, he was experienced, physically strong and imposing and that helped him adapt.
"Sun Jihai was different. Quick, young, but naive and innocent, he couldn't have been more than 20 or 21 years old. But he had something about him; the pace and this energy that was irrepressible."
Although Sun's first stint in England was to prove shortlived, he returned some years later to join Manchester City and was, says Fifield, a different player.
"He was far more mature and ready. He was playing in front of big crowds and played well. Over 100 games for City was a huge testament to the way he had grown up. Sun was a trailblazer in terms of Chinese football and demonstrating their capabilities. Anyone who wants to follow in his steps can see what he achieved.
"Another player who has led the way for their nation would be Maya Yoshida. His strength, physical presence and dilligence helped him mix it up against big, powerful opposing forwards. There were Japanese players who came before Yoshida but, for me, he was the one who truly established himself as a regular in a starting eleven – no mean achievement."
Switching to the other end of the Continent, Fifield lauded "unsung hero" Oman national team goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi who had stints at Bolton Wanderers, Reading and particularly memorably at Wigan Athletic, with whom he won an FA Cup winners medal.
"I remember watching him play and, on his day, he was just unbeatable, right up there with the best. He could pull off the most ridiculous and remarkable instinctive saves.
"And he's a big man as well, he had a real presence to him and must have made opposing forwards think to themselves: 'How am I going to get past him?'.
But when it comes to the very best, Fifield highlights two players in particular, with the first perhaps not being the expected choice for many.
"I think I'd go for Mark Schwarzer. For the sheer number of games he's played and his influence off the pitch at every club that he's played for over here. He has over 500 Premier League appearances – that is an absolutely remarkable record.
"He's up there with the best and most consistent goalkeepers the Premier League has seen. He was a huge influence off the pitch too, he was somebody that other goalkeepers bounced ideas off, he was brilliant in training and a top professional.
"And of course he picked up two Premier League winners' medals at Chelsea and Leicester City at the end of the career, the deserved reward for an absolutely sensational player."
However Schwarzer, like his previously discussed compatriots, did come from a similar cultural background and language, and his acclimatisation would have been easier, so Fifield highlights another player who is often widely considered among Asia's greatest all-time exports.
"He has been in the headlines recently after Wayne Rooney was absolutely effusive in his praise [Rooney compared him in importance at Manchester United to Cristiano Ronaldo], Park Ji-sung made himself a key component of a team at the very top level and was winning titles in a period when everybody thought Arsenal and Chelsea were going to dominate.
"A selfless player with unbelievable industry and energy, who could make his presence felt at both ends of the pitch.
"He would do the dirty work so that others could draw the limelight and headlines, but it was only due to the solid work of Park in midfield that gave the base for them to do that, and he was clearly cherished by his teammates. That is an illustration of how good a player he was."
Park spent seven seasons with United between 2005 and 2012, winning four Premier League titles, three League Cups and the Champions League during his time in Manchester.
Not only was Park a key player in his own right, he also laid the groundwork for arguably Asia's greatest star in the Premier League right now, Tottenham Hotspur's Son Heung-min.
"The fact that Park thrived in England must have made it easier for Son to come over to Spurs and to do what he's doing here. Son is obviously a brilliant, brilliant player and he's a magnificient player for Tottenham. The team are diminished when he's unavailable, if suspended or injured, and he's getting better and better.
"He has the potential to have as brilliant an impact and perhaps a more eye-catching impact here than Park ever had.
"But Park was the trailblazer, and it's always harder for the first ones who come over and lay the path for others. So in that sense, the most admiration I have for an Asian player would be Park."
Who is your favourite Asian player in the Premier League? Vote below (Poll ends at 16:00 UTC +8 on May 28).
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