Kuala Lumpur: After a month of discussion, and more than 200,000 votes from fans across the continent and beyond, our series of ‘Greatest Players’ polls concludes this week with a look at the contribution of Asian footballers to the Russian Premier League.
Helping us analyse our star-studded shortlist is Denis Romantsov, a football journalist for the Russian Premier League’s major broadcaster, Match TV.
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Based in Moscow, Denis previously wrote for Sports.ru, and has conducted interviews with Pakhtakor head coach Shota Averladze, as well as Kyrgyz Republic boss Alexander Krestinin, in addition to his coverage of the Russian game.
There is much to discuss, and there are three names that jump to his attention when it comes to our list of nominees.
“Well, I think in the first place Mirdjalal Kasimov (pictured below),” says Romantsov. “As a midfielder, he won the Russian championship in 1995 and he was a key player in his team, Alania Vladikavkaz.
“He scored against Liverpool in the UEFA Cup - and this was also an important achievement for his team and for himself - and he came several times to Vladikavkaz, and each time played very successfully. Plus, in 2000, he moved to Krylia Sovetov in Samara, and he was also great there."
“Eldor Shomurodov (pictured below) is a star of the league now. I will also single him out, because this is an example of great selection and scouting for Rostov and the entire Russian Championship.
“This is also a great example of patience from the player and the club, because he arrived in 2017 and he only began to play like a real star two years later. Now he is one of the best strikers in Russia, and he has a great chance to leave for some big European club."
“I’ll also highlight Dmitry Khomukha (pictured below) on this list. He helped Zenit Saint Petersburg to enter the major league in the mid-90s, then he helped CSKA Moscow to qualify for the Champions League in second place, which was big progress then for CSKA.
“With Terek Grozny he won the Russian Cup and finally, for the Russian youth national team he won the UEFA Youth Championship. For Russia, he has been a very important player and coach.”
The Central Asian connection
Kasimov and Shomurodov are both Uzbeks, while Khomukha was born and raised in Turkmenistan, and with seven of our 10-man shortlist representing Central Asian former Soviet republics in international football, a firm footballing link to Russia still exists in the region.
According to Romantsov, the very concept of a foreign player becomes blurred when discussing the likes of Kasimov and Tajikistan’s Mukhsin Mukhamadiev, who were both active in the final years of Soviet league football and part of a proud tradition of Central Asian players.
“It must probably be said here that these countries are very close to Russia in principle, and these players are not really considered foreigners,” explains Romantsov.
“We have Mukhsin Mukhamadiev (pictured below) on the list, who played one match for the Russian national team and for some other matches he played for his national team in Tajikistan. Dimitri Khomukha played for Turkmenistan and coached the youth team of Russia."
“It is a strong relationship at a human, cultural level, and because of this, there is no relation to them as foreigners, especially since they all know the Russian language quite well and they have no problems adapting. They are perceived by many as local players.
“If we take the history of Pakhtakor, who reached the final of the USSR Cup: When the Pakhtakor team were lost in a plane crash in 1979 - because it was necessary to assemble a new team - there were a lot of Russian players from Moscow clubs who arrived there, and this strengthened the connection between Russia and Uzbekistan.
“Plus, there are still many football stars from Uzbekistan who were part of the USSR national team. (Yuri) Pshenichnikov was one of the top 10 goalkeepers, and there were other players like Vladimir Fyodorov and Mikhail An. They also belonged to the national team. In this sense, Uzbekistan is a football country.”
Honda and Azmoun: Modern day superstars
One player to establish himself as a leading light of Asian football during his time in Russia was Japan’s Keisuke Honda, who not only won the Russian Premier League, but gave it an unprecedented surge of attention in his homeland.
Japanese journalists are known to travel in numbers when covering their national team, and Romantsov recalls them doing exactly that when their star man joined CSKA Moscow in 2010.
“The fact that he is from Japan,” says Romantsov. “It attracted great interest from journalists for every CSKA game.
“Several Japanese journalists came, and for absolutely every game, wherever they happened, whether they were played abroad or in Moscow, or in other Russian cities. At first, this was not familiar, plus they asked some questions to the CSKA coach at each press conference. There was a huge interest in him."
“As soon as he arrived, in the spring of 2010, he scored one of the most important goals in the history of Russian football, it was a Round of 16 match of the UEFA Champions League in Seville, and he scored the winning goal, which took CSKA to the quarter-finals.
“Since the tournament expanded to 32 teams, not a single Russian team had reached the quarter-finals and, as soon as Honda came here, he immediately contributed to this historic achievement.”
Islamic Republic of Iran star Azmoun arrived on the Russian scene in 2013 - the same year Honda departed - but, like the Japanese star, he has exposed the competition to a new audience in his footballing-loving homeland.
The 25-year-old, whose early days at Rubin Kazan and Rostov were characterised by his close relationship with Turkmenistani head coach Kurban Berdyev, has blossomed into an outstanding striker at Zenit, and Romantsov believes he is capable of excelling for Europe’s top clubs, should one of the many rumoured moves come to fruition.
“When he first came here, little was known about him,” Romantsov recalls. “Nevertheless, he started very brightly, then because of his youth and instability he somehow went into the shadows, scored less, and played less. He took off, when he followed the trainer Berdyev to Rostov. Some kind of transformation took place with him."
“At Zenit, from the beginning, he simply scored a lot. He began to help his club achieve high positions and he became the champion. I believe that he has everything required to continue to move further, including to a more powerful European league.
“He has adapted well enough to Europe and he shouldn’t have any problems. He is a versatile, international player, so I believe that in Italy and Spain he can do well for himself.”
The final analysis
So, having weighed up the contenders, who should be considered the top man on our list? According to Romantsov, there is a clear standout, albeit with a caveat.
“Who was the best Asian player? It was Mirdjalal Kasimov,” he declares.
“Because he won the Russian championship with one team, then moved to another team, which was also not considered a favourite, and made them a favourite. That was Krylia Sovetov in Samara.
“He played brilliantly with Andrey Tikhonov, and with Andrei Karyaka. They had such a great combination in the middle of the field. It was excellent. In the Russian provinces they love (Kasimov) very much
“(If we are discussing the overall influence) as a person, then it is (Dmitri) Khomukha, since he made a contribution as a player and as a coach.”
Who is your favourite Asian player in the Russian Premier League? Vote below (Poll ends at 16:00 UTC +8 on June 25).
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