Best Footballer in Asia 2018: Chanathip, Quang Hai & Etheridge fly the ASEAN flag

John Duerden John Duerden

With the Best Footballer in Asia 2018 set to be announced on January 4, we take a closer look at Southeast Asia’s three contenders for the prize.

It was fitting that the football year in Asia ended with the AFF Suzuki Cup in November and December.

While restricted to just a region, Southeast Asia’s biennial tournament proved to be a very big deal indeed, with crowds of around 90,000 gathering in Kuala Lumpur and other impressive attendances in Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and elsewhere.

That tournament eases smoothly into the 2019 Asian Cup in January which has three ASEAN qualifiers for the first time.

It would not be a surprise to see Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines reach the knockout stage and that would be an impressive achievement indeed.

And as one, two or three teams get far into the competition then it will not do the region’s chances of getting a player into the top five, three or even the top one of the Best Footballer in Asia award any harm indeed.

So far, the prize has been the exclusive property of East Asia, specifically  Japan and Korea Republic. There has been Keisuke Honda, Son Heung-min (no less than three times) and also Shinji Okazaki presented with the most prestigious prize in Asian football.

West Asia has come close with the likes of Omar Abdulrahman of United Arab Emirates and Syria’s star striker Omar Khribin setting standards on that side of the continent and earning plaudits for doing so.

As yet however, none from Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE or anywhere else have yet to be number one.

This is partly because of the fact that East Asian teams tend to go to more World Cups, do better in the AFC Champions League, and they certainly go to the big leagues of Europe in much greater numbers and have greater opportunities to play in the UEFA Champions League, the most prestigious club competition in the world.

Southeast Asia is starting to make waves and has made a greater impact in this year’s list than any in the past.

Firstly, there is Neil Etheridge who broke into the top ten based on the fact that he played a major role in Cardiff winning promotion to the Premier League.

The Philippines goalkeeper became the first Southeast Asian player to appear in the most popular league in the world and did it the hard way.

Unfortunately, so important is the shot-stopper to Cardiff’s battle for survival in the Premier League that he will not play any part in the Asian Cup.

But Nguyen Quang Hai will be in the United Arab Emirates and he has the possibility of bursting out of that regional bubble to become a star on the continental stage.

The Vietnamese star even made the top 15 in the vote this year and was easily deserving of such a place.

His performances in 2018 from a 21-year-old were truly impressive at home and in Asia and he has the chance to forge an Asian-wide competition to do even better.

And then there is Chanathip Songkrasin.

The Thai playmaker also received plenty of votes and that was based on his fine performances in the J1 League for Consadole Sapporo.

His outstanding displays in Japan – the first time a Southeast Asian player has become a real success in what many regard Asia’s top league – even meant that he was excluded from the Suzuki Cup.

Had ‘Messi Jay’ been available for selection in November and December, then perhaps Thailand would not have been eliminated at the semi-final stage and would have gone all the way to take a third successive regional title.

A Southeast Asian player has never been named “The Best Footballer in Asia” but the region’s best are getting closer and are now being named alongside the best in the continent.

Two players in the top 15 is a fine achievement and it may end up being bettered in 2019.