The fleet-footed forward only made his national team debut at the tail end of last year but has become a crucial part of the Iranian squad. Visa issues delayed the start of his international career for the former Dutch youth international, but he has been worth the wait, scoring eight goals in 2013 for Team Melli. There were some crucial strikes, too. At the start of June, Iran were struggling, but the 26-year-old scored in each of the following three wins over Qatar, Lebanon and South Korea -- the last goal sending Team Melli to Brazil and a nation of 80 million into dreamland. If he had played more often in Belgium, it could have been the perfect year.
9. Shinji Okazaki (Japan and Mainz, Germany) The attacker does not have the talent of Shinji Kagawa or Keisuke Honda, and does not get the headlines, either, but is the go-to guy for the Samurai Blue and has the trust of coach Alberto Zaccheroni -- the 27-year-old played more minutes than anyone else in Japan’s smooth qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup. Versatile and a real team player, he has started to make waves in the Bundesliga after moving from Stuttgart to Mainz in the summer. Now Okazaki is finding the back of German nets with increasing frequency. Eight very valuable strikes so far this season have helped the team steer clear of the relegation zone.
After being No. 1 in this list last year, the talented midfielder could have been forgiven for resting on his laurels, but he started 2013 in fine fashion by being the standout player as UAE won the Gulf Cup -- West Asia’s biennial tournament. It was expected that at some point he would be accepting one of the offers coming his way from some seriously big clubs in Europe. Instead, he stayed with Al Ain and was one of the stars of another title triumph. If that wasn’t enough, the 22-year-old was a mainstay of a very successful qualification campaign for the 2015Asian Cup. All the above means that even with Al Ain’s disappointing form this season so far, it has been quite a year for the big-haired playmaker.
Lost out once again in the official Asian Player of the Year award, but where it really matters, the Iranian captain had another solid 12 months. The 33-year-old is not quite the all-action midfielder he was in his La Liga prime, but was a steadying presence in Iran’s late surge to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. No more so than a frantic final game in Korea when, with both teams nervous about their chances to qualify and feelings running high, the skipper was a figure of supreme authority in leading his team to the most vital of victories. The Prince of Persia wasn’t bad for Esteghlal either, helping the Tehran giants to the semifinal of the Asian Champions League and the Iranian title.
6. Kim Young-gwon (South Korea and Guangzhou Evergrande, China)
“Good enough for Manchester United,” said club coach Marcello Lippi when that was a compliment to be more treasured. Kim has had a standout year and was the best central defender in the Asian Champions League as Guangzhou captured the title. The 23-year-old has started to make the same berth in the national team his own, especially after Hong Myung-bo, who knows a thing or two about centre-backs, took the reins in July.
5. Yoichiro Kakitani (Japan and Cerezo Osaka)
No longer the next big thing in Japan, 2013 saw Kakitani arrive on the international stage in style. The star of July’s East Asian Cup had quite a year and could be on his way to Europe, and a big club, even before the World Cup. An attacking midfielder who can play almost anywhere across the front line, the 23-year-old scored 21 goals in the J.League for Cerezo Osaka -- the club that sent Shinji Kagawa, Kim Bo-kyung and Hiroshi Kiyotake on their merry way to Europe. A composed finisher of a rare kind in Asia, he ended the international year by netting against Belgium and being linked with some of Europe’s elite.
4. Zheng Zhi (China and Guangzhou Evergrande)
It wasn’t long ago that Zheng’s career looked set to fizzle out after some promising early years. The 2008 Olympics were a nadir, but a move to Guangzhou in 2010 changed everything. This year was his best yet as the increasingly authoritative midfielder led the team to the Asian title and a third successive domestic crown. The former Charlton and Celtic man is Lippi’s lieutenant, doing the Italian’s bidding on the field and showing an increasingly tactical side to his play.
3. Ali Adnan (Iraq and Caykur Rizespor, Turkey) Sometimes a player comes along who looks like he was born to play football, and that is certainly true of this talented and powerful Iraqi left back. Already a member of a talented, if inconsistent, Iraqi national team, he starred as the under-20 side reached the semifinal of the World Cup, losing to Uruguay only on a penalty shootout. Adnan was one of the players of the tournament, where his runs up and down the left wing became a common feature. He can score, too -- a 93rd-minute equaliser against England went down well, and his spectacular free kick against Uruguay was worth the entrance fee, and then some. A move to Turkey followed for Asia’s Gareth Bale, but bigger clubs from bigger leagues are sniffing around.
Not many goalkeepers receive the credit they deserve, but Faqiryar got plenty when he led Afghanistan to the South Asian title in September. The triumph was painted as a shock -- which was far from the truth, and there was nothing surprising about the form of this Germany-based goalie. Solid in the group stage, he was excellent in the semifinal win over hosts Nepal and in the final against holders India. Helped to bring a smile to the face of Afghanistan, and you can’t ask for much more than that.
1. Son Heung-min (South Korea and Bayer Leverkusen, Germany)
It has been quite a year for the South Korean attacker with pace to spare and shooting to scare. His fourth season for Hamburg was his best as he, at times, ran riot in the Bundesliga. Dortmund, a team he enjoys scoring against, wanted him, but he chose Bayer Leverkusen instead, following in the footsteps of legendary compatriot Cha Bum-kun. A devastating hat trick against Hamburg in November earned him a special place in the hearts of fans -- it was just one of a number of match-winning performances throughout the year. The "Sonsation" also started to make a difference for the national team. A vital winner in the 96th minute in March against Qatar kept Korea on the road to Brazil and he is blossoming under new coach Hong Myung-bo. ------ ...