Kuala Lumpur: With well in excess of 100,000 fans casting their votes in our Asia’s Greatest Players polls in recent weeks, the attention turns to the top level of football in the Netherlands, and a league where numerous Asian players have excelled - the Eredivisie.
Joining us to examine the nine-man shortlist announced on Friday is Jeroen Kapteijns, a seasoned football journalist for De Telegraaf, the country’s largest daily newspaper.
There is much to discuss, but when it comes to the core question of which nominee should be considered the continent’s most impactful player in Dutch football, Kapteijns found himself unable to separate two East Asian stars.
See also :
Asia's Greatest Eredivisie Players
FIFA World Cup
Asian Classics: DPR Korea vs Italy (1966 FIFA World Cup Finals)
Asian Qualifiers: The story so far
“Can I say (Park) Ji-sung and Shinji (Ono) together as number one?” he asked the-AFC.com. “The number three would be Lee Young-pyo.
“Ono was very important for the Feyenoord team which won the UEFA Cup. He was a very creative player and he’s still very popular among fans of Feyenoord. He’s one of the best Japanese players of all time and he really made a big impression.”
“I saw him play a lot, because at that time I was reporting on Feyenoord, and he was a very important player.
"If you wanted to know the players who made the biggest impression, for me it’s a close call between Shinji Ono and Ji-sung Park.”
Hiddink’s heroes: PSV’s Korean class of 2002
While Ono starred at Feyenoord, becoming the first Japanese player to lift a European trophy, a number of the players on the-AFC.com’s list enjoyed their best days just over an hour away at PSV Eindhoven.
Among those players were Park Ji-Sung and Lee Young-pyo, standouts in Korea Republic’s history-making run to the 2002 FIFA World Cup semi-finals, who were brought to the Eredivisie by their former international boss Guus Hiddink later that year.
Both Lee and Park, who came second in last month’s Asia’s Greatest Premier League player poll, would go on to win titles and move to some of Europe’s top clubs, but Kapteijns recalled the long road each player had to walk in to order scale those heights.
“(Hiddink) knew the guys. He had worked with them before and at first there was some criticism on them.” he said.
“Lee fit in relatively quickly, but especially Ji-sung Park, he had a lot of problems in adapting. He had problems with homesickness, being so far away.
“He was a very gifted player, but his personality was very quiet and not very outgoing, so he really had difficulties, but Guus Hiddink kept confidence with him despite criticism in the press, and also criticism in the squad.
“Mark van Bommel, who was a very well-known player, was criticising how they were performing, but, in the end, they were very good. Hiddink kept his confidence in them and they really developed in a fantastic way.”
The Korean duo reached their peak in 2004-05, when PSV not only won the league title 10 points ahead of Ajax – losing only one of 34 Eredivisie matches – but also lifted the KNVB Cup, and only narrowly missed out on reaching the final of the UEFA Champions League.
Consistently excellent performances meant both Lee and Park would move to major English clubs in the summer of 2005, and Kapteijns recalled their influence on an exceptional PSV side.
“In the 2004-05 season - which I think was the best PSV season since the 1988 season in which they won the European Cup. They got close to the final of the Champions League, they got kicked out by AC Milan in the last minute of the semi-final - in that season Lee and Park were very good."
“They were in excellent condition; they were very strong, and they kept working all the 90 minutes. They were very important in those teams.
“Park scored some very important goals that season and really made his reputation in Europe and he deserved his transfer to Manchester United, and he also did a great job there.
“I think he’s not only one of the best Asian players in the Dutch league, but maybe one of the best Korean players in any league.”
Reza and Alireza: Two Team Melli masters
Another nation with a strong representation in the poll is Islamic Republic of Iran, with Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Reza Ghoochannejhad both establishing themselves as Eredivisie stars over a number of years.
With the two players combining for more than 100 goals in Dutch football, and sitting neck and neck in the poll at the time of writing, many fans throughout Asia are contemplating which player has been more influential.
Kapteijns, who is a fan of both players, believes former NEC and AZ star Jahanbakhsh deserves to be slightly ahead.
“He’s a really interesting, technical and creative player,” he declared. “A nice player to watch and very skilful.
“He grew to this level. He was not immediately there. He needed a few steps in between, and he had those steps at NEC. He had a wonderful last season at AZ Alkmaar. He made a lot of beautiful goals and beautiful assists. He really deserved his move to the Premier League, but he has not been very successful in the Premier League, I believe.
“In the football perspective: technical skills, creativity, he’s a wonderful player, and a really good player for the audience to see. A real artist in football shoes."
“Reza (Ghoochannejhad) is interesting because he grew up in Holland, so we tend to see Reza more like he’s someone from Holland. He speaks our language and he grew up at Dutch football teams.
“Reza is a real goal machine. Very clinical in the box and had a few seasons with really great statistics. I think Alireza is the better football player, but Reza is a clinical finisher.”
Culina, Holman and the pioneers
Australian duo Jason Culina and Brett Holman also feature on the list, with both becoming Eredivisie champions during long stints in the Netherlands.
Culina was another Hiddink protégé at PSV, among other clubs, while Holman’s title success come in Louis van Gaal’s AZ side, but Kapteijns believes the best Australian player to feature in the league did so before the country was part of the Asian Football Confederation, when Brett Emerton was part of the UEFA Cup winning Feyenoord side.
“(Holman) very useful team player. Like all Australians, he had a great mentality and a great workability, but he was not the star of the team or the one you were looking for all the time,” said Kapteijns.
“Jason (Culina) had an excellent mentality and did quite a good job at PSV, but he’s not on the top of my list from these players.
“I think he’s not the greatest Australian player (in the league), I think Brett Emerton was a better player, and more influential.”
While Kaptiejns saw all the players mentioned so far up close, his memories on the two oldest nominees – Korea Republic’s Huh Jung-moo and Singaporean icon Fandi Ahmad – are less clear.
Huh and Fandi both spent limited time in the Netherlands during the 1980s, but, at a time when Asian players were a distinct rarity in European football, the duo not only paved the way for generations of Asian talent but left their own mark on a great footballing nation.
“I think Jung-moo Huh (was the first from Asia),” recalled Kapteijns. “That might be the front runner, in the 80s.
“I was very young then, so I was not very busy with following professional football, but I think he was the first to really make an impression.
“It was something really new, because most clubs had players from our country, and even mostly players from their own region, so it was quite surprising then, and someone completely new."
“(Fandi) is very popular at FC Groningen – the team he played for. He’s kind of a cult figure and there’s still a lot of attention, also on social media, about his time at FC Groningen.
“He’s still got a big name and a big reputation. I know he’s a still very popular player there.”
Who is your favourite Asian player in the Eredivise? Vote below (Poll ends at 16:00 UTC +8 on June 11).
Photos: AFP, AFC
Recommended Stories :
Asia’s Greatest Serie A Players
Asia’s Greatest Premier League Players
Asia’s Greatest Bundesliga Players