With regards to World Cup performance, teams from within Asia (or Australia, though they don’t technically count as “Asia” in many places other than in the eyes of FIFA) tend to be hot and cold. They might fall flat during some World Cups – take for example, Japan and South Korea in 2006 and 2014 – but in other ones, such as 2002 and 2010, teams from the AFC (Asian Footballing Confederation) are more than capable of springing up a surprise against some of the world’s elite footballing talents. Not only that, but many Asian footballing stars are succeeding on a more elite club level in Europe. With that in mind, we will be counting down the 10 most valuable footballers from within the AFC.
Some of these players are mainly based in Germany – take for example Shinji Kagawa, Atsuto Uchida and Son Heung-Min – but these 10 men have played for some of the best clubs from all around Europe, proving that Asian countries are not only football lovers, they’re producing some top-grade talent for the game outside their borders. In other words, countries like Japan and South Korea are starting to really reap the benefits of having co-hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
More than anything, it shows that the gap in terms of quality between the AFC and other confederations such as UEFA or CONMEBOL is steadily shrinking, even if it’s at a fairly slow rate. With talent such as the 10 men on this list hailing from within the AFC, there could be a different list based on talent from other AFC nations such as Australia and Iran, who aren’t featured in this list solely because their players’ market values don’t stack up enough. In any case, here are the 10 most valuable footballers from the Asian Footballing Confederation, ranked based on their market value according to Transfermarkt and converted to American dollars.
10 Vitali Denisov - Market Value: $7 million
Unfortunately for Uzbekistan, they have continually failed to qualify for the World Cup finals despite being relatively high in the rankings for an Asian side, and despite boasting some talented players who ply their trade in Russia, Ukraine or elsewhere. One of those players is Lokomotiv Moscow defender Vitali Denisov. Valued at roughly $7 million, Denisov has become a favourite among the Lokomotiv faithful, and the 27-year-old left back won the award for the best left-back of the Russian Premier League this year. Having previously played for six seasons with Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in Ukraine, Denisov has truly started to come into his own at Lokomotiv.
9 Koo Ja-Cheol - Market Value: $7 million
Known for his vision, Koo Ja-Cheol has shown some great performances for the South Korean national team despite not always getting a ton of playing time for his club team Mainz 05. Previously with VfL Wolfsburg and FC Augsburg, Koo – rated at about $7 million – joined Mainz during last year’s January transfer window. Although he might be known to Bayern Munich supporters for getting into a scuffle with Franck Ribery in 2012 – which led to the French superstar slapping him – the former South Korean national team captain also got a taste of World Cup goalscoring success during a losing effort against Algeria this past summer.
8 Shinji Okazaki - Market Value: $ 7.7 million
With 39 international goals to his name, Shinji Okazaki is the third-highest goalscorer in Japanese national team history. The Mainz 05 forward has seen his share of success in Germany, too: last season, he scored 15 goals in 35 matches for Die Nullfünfer, and is doing even better than that at the early stages of this Bundesliga season – to the tune of seven goals in nine games. The man whose market value comes up to about $7.7 million is scoring at a blistering pace for his club right now, and is currently the Bundesliga’s top scorer so far for a team that is currently sixth in the league table.
7 Odil Ahmedov - Market Value: $8.5 million
Deployed primarily as a central midfielder – though he can play occasionally as a centre back in case of injuries – Odil Ahmedov is one of Uzbekistan’s best footballers, and for good reason. Currently playing with FC Krasnodar in Russia following a long spell with Anzhi Makhachkala, where he was one of the club’s best players, Ahmedov was also once courted by clubs as big as Arsenal and AC Milan – the former bidding about $6.5 million for him this past summer. With a market value of about $8.5 million, Ahmedov has the potential to find a bigger stage than Krasnodar in the coming seasons.
6 Atsuto Uchida - Market Value: $10 million
Ever since he joined Schalke 04 from Kashima Antlers in 2010 (with whom he was twice selected as part of the J-League Team of the Year), he’s established himself as a consistent player in the German outfit, winning the DFB-Pokal and DFL-Supercup during the 2010-11 season. Rated at a market value of about $10 million, he’s also become a mainstay in the Japanese national setup, selected for the Samurai Blue during the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and gaining 71 caps and two goals since his international debut in 2008. His fame has extended somewhat beyond football, too: he voiced a character in a Pokémon movie released in Japan earlier this year.
5 Ki Sung-Yong - Market Value: $11.5 million
A year-long loan at Sunderland appears to have helped Korean central midfielder Ki Sung-Yong, as he’s now playing regularly again with Swansea City, who he’s been with since 2012 following a three-year spell in Scotland with Celtic. Known for his set piece abilities as well as his prowess with long-range passing, he’s also a regular with the South Korean national team. With 64 caps and five goals to his name, his performances while on international duty helped him get a place on the Taeguk Warriors’ 23 man squad for the World Cup in Brazil this past summer.
4 Keisuke Honda - Market Value: $17 million
As far as playmaking abilities, free kicks and dead ball prowess, there’s probably no one from Asia better than Keisuke Honda. AC Milan have certainly taken notice of this, after the Rossoneri signed him from CSKA Moscow on a free transfer back in January. So far, his time at the San Siro this season has gotten off to a fantastic start, with four goals in his first six matches for Milan. Internationally, the man with a market value of $17 million is one of Japan’s best players, and scored a goal in a losing effort against Cote d’Ivoire at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil this past summer – one of 23 goals he’s scored in 61 appearances for the Samurai Blue.
3 Yuto Nagatomo - Market Value: $19.8 million
With regards to the other team who plays at the San Siro, they’ve got another star player who hails from the land of the rising sun. Yuto Nagatomo has made himself a consistent part of Inter Milan’s setup, after the fullback was signed by the Nerazzurri following his performances at the 2011 Asian Cup as well as on loan to fellow Italian outfit Cesena. Nagatomo has also been a consistent part of the Samurai Blue, playing for Japan at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. With a market value of around $19.8 million, Nagatomo will hope to win a Scudetto with Inter before he’s done playing in the Serie A.
2 Son Heung-Min - Market Value: $19.8 million
His pace and his finishing abilities as a winger for Bayer Leverkusen are among his best qualities, and Son Heung-Min has been known for putting those skills on display on numerous occasions for both club and country. His market value of $19.8 million is certainly justified: in 11 total appearances for Bayer this season, he’s got six goals and an assist. For the South Korean national team, he’s also put up solid performances, even getting a goal for his country against Algeria at last summer’s World Cup. At 22, Son’s star is bright and the Bundesliga is a very good stage for him to develop further.
1 Shinji Kagawa - Market Value: $21.2 million
A return to his old club Borussia Dortmund following a stint at Manchester United where he was arguably both underused and misused could very well be the break Shinji Kagawa needs to be the kind of midfielder everyone knows he’s capable of being again. His return to BVB after leaving the German club for Old Trafford in 2012 hasn’t been as productive as previous seasons so far, with only one goal to show for in his first six matches with the club. His market value of about $21.2 million is certainly a good indicator of his abilities, but Kagawa – known both for creating scoring chances as well as bagging goals himself – has plenty of time to reaffirm his place at Signal Iduna Park.