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Expert’s View: Asia’s Greatest Players in Spanish Football

Kuala Lumpur: Over 120,000 votes have already been cast on Asia's greatest exports to England, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. This week we turned to Spain's La Liga to review the candidates for the Continent's best representative. 

Unlike the Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga and Eredivisie, the success stories of Asian footballers in Spain belongs to a more exclusive cast, often due to the challenging nature of the country's footballing landscape.

To help us study this select group of players, we have enlisted the go-to-guy for all things Spanish football, Sid Lowe.

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A journalist, author, pundit and columnist, Lowe has written for many years on La Liga for numerous publications including the Guardian, ESPN and World Soccer.

He also works for Spanish radio and La Liga TV, and was David Beckham’s translator when he first moved to Real Madrid.

"The player I know the best [from the candidates] is John Aloisi," says Lowe (pictured above, left, with Real Oviedo legend Diego Cervero). "I met him when he was playing for Alaves, and he'd been at Osasuna before then. He was very aware of his environment, he'd made a real success of playing in Spain and enjoyed his time there.

"He was popular at the clubs he played for in Spain because he embraced the experience and he played in a whole-hearted, competitive manner.

"That particularly put him in good stead at Osasuna: a team that is aggressive with a stadium that has the fans right on top of you."

Indeed, Pamplona-based CA Osasuna have played a key role for footballers from Asia, with three of our nominees enjoying successful spells at Los Rojillos.

"Osasuna is a club where the fans play a really significant part and because of this there is a sense of closeness, community and identity," explains Lowe. "If players can connect with that then they are in a really strong position to succeed.

"It's a smaller club where the expectations and pressures are less. There is a mentality there that it is a club that is a bit different from others in Spain and so there is a different attitude to foreign players coming in, especially ones that are willing to embrace the community."

"Normally what happens when a foreign player comes in if he doesn't play well he leaves, and if he does play well he leaves for a bigger club. Even if he plays averagely, he'll hang around for a year and then leave.

"So what is striking about Javad Nekounam is that he was at Osasuna for a long time; Javad Nekounam's longevity tells you that he had this connection at the team, he found a club that he could perform at.

"But he wasn't someone who came in and just embraced everything and hung around for a while, he was a very good player too and played really well. For at least two to three seasons at the club he was the best player in the team.

"A genuinely different footballer with talent and that touch of competitiveness that Osasuna fans appreciate."

"[Masoud] Shojaei was a more defensive player than his countryman, but also a very talented player who was at Osasuna for a while.

"In both of their cases, they are two huge figures at international level for their nation and played in La Liga for several seasons.

"And, although maybe there wasn't a huge amount of noise about them at the time in the league if you ask people in Pamplona there will be a huge amount of fondness for what they achieved at the club."

Switching to the other end of the Continent, Lowe admits that while it has often been harder for Japanese players to make their mark in Spain there has been a notable exception in recent times: Takashi Inui.

"Whenever a Japanese player signs in Spain there is almost this crushing inevitability about the discussion of marketability – at times it can be pretty infuriating. There is also a lot of focus, interest and limelight shone on them by the Japanese journalists here.

"With Takashi Inui, it's an interesting case that I think is as much as anything to do with the club that signed him, SD Eibar.

Asia’s Greatest Players in Spanish Football

"They are club from a very small town who are massively overachieving and with a coach, Jose Luis Mendilibar, who is very close to his players and he is very fond of Inui, almost like a father-son relationship.

"And in his two spells at Eibar, Inui has played really, really well and is a really great footballer. Although his loan spell at Real Betis didn't work out for various reasons, he's certainly talented enough to play there.

"At Eibar, this tiny town of 27,000 in the middle of nowhere, at a team with an old school coach, that is known for playing direct football, he's been a great success, absolutely fantastic."

A fellow East Asian, who joined Espanyol to much pomp and circumstance in January 2019, China PR forward Wu Lei has been able to silence the doubters with several impressive performances, marking a number of milestones for footballers from his nation.

"I really like him; he's a forward who has almost all the qualities that you want a really good forward to have," says Lowe. "His movement is very clever, he seems to understand the movement of the players around him.

"His finishing is good, he's got a variety of contributions; he's not just a goalscorer. He combines well with others, he's quite big, strong and quick.

"He played well quickly enough that it felt like we could put aside any conversations about marketing to China etc. and just focus on him as a good footballer.

"Give it time, and if he continues to play consistently and well, I do think it's not at all impossible that we end up talking about Wu Lei as a really great player in La Liga. And similarly, give him a couple more good seasons, I think the same might be said of Takashi Inui."

However, when it comes to players who have truly left an impression that has withstood the tests of time in Spain it's hard to look beyond Filipino and Barcelona icon: Paulinho Alcantara.

"His legacy is huge. He is the first great goalscorer, the first superstar of Barcelona. He broke all the goal-scoring records in the Catalan championship.

"He is a huge part of Barcelona's early history and enormously popular at the club.

"He is one of those players that if you say to even contemporary Barcelona fans: 'Name three great players from Barcelona's distant history.' Then most of them will name him in there."

Pressed to give his opinion on Asia's greatest, there is an important distinction that needs to be made, according to Lowe.

"Spanish football's greatest Asian player is undoubtedly Alcantara, however if the question relates to La Liga then that did not being until 1929, by which point he had retired," he says.

"So, if we have to say who is the best right now...for longevity, for impact, for the sense of consistency, for the sense of being part of a team I would go with Javad Nekounam as Asia's greatest in Spanish football.

"You can strip it down to something simple: how fondly was he remembered by the fans?

"And I think he's probably the one who's at the top."

Who is your favourite Asian player in the La Liga? Vote below (Poll ends at 16:00 UTC +8 on June 18).

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