Despite another decade of football coming to a close, Asian representation in top European teams remains on the fringes. Very few from the continent make it to Europe and even fewer go on to represent the big boys. Among those who did in the 2010s, we try to list out five of the best ones.
#5 Yuto Nagatomo (Japan)
Japan international Yuto Nagatomo may not be a very popular name across Europe, however, the full-back was a key part of Inter Milan for a major chunk of this decade. Nagatomo signed for the Nerazzurri from Cesena in 2011, after an impressive loan spell. He then went on to play at the San Siro until 2018, helping the fallen giants return to glory.
Nagatomo played over two hundred times for Inter during his seven and a half-year spell, scoring eleven goals. Furthermore, the Japan international showed versatility in his play, as he took up both the left-back and the right-back spots when required. His particularly impressive 2012/13 season also saw him win the AFC Asian International Player of the Year award. He left Inter for Galatasaray in 2017 and has since won four trophies with them.
Since 2010, the defender has been a part of almost all major tournaments Japan has played in. During this period, he played in three FIFA World Cups, one Confederations Cup, and two AFC Asian Cups.
#4 Shinji Okazaki (Japan)
Leicester City’s move for Shinji Okazaki back in 2015 wasn’t met with much fanfare. England did not know much about the Japan international and the low transfer fee meant that there weren’t many expectations with him either. Ten months later, the forward had a Premier League medal in his pocket.
Okazaki formed a deadly striker partnership with Jamie Vardy in his first season at Leicester. While the latter supplied a major chunk of the goals, the Japanese star was a key cog in Claudio Ranieri’s league-winning side. He scored five times in thirty-six appearances during the title-winning season and was named the AFC International Footballer of the Year for the same.
Before his Leicester exploits, Okazaki was displaying his talents in Germany with VfB Stuttgart and Mainz 05, where he became the most prolific player from his country. He’s currently playing in the Spanish second division with Huesca and has made over one hundred appearances for his national team.
#3 Shinji Kagawa (Japan)
Like his compatriot Shinji Okazaki, Shinji Kagawa is currently playing in the second division with Real Zaragoza. However, the Japan international was one of the most in-demand midfielders in Europe at one point in this decade.
Jurgen Klopp’s rock-and-roll brand of football propelled Kagawa to the top, attracting interest from heavyweights Manchester United. The attacking midfielder had won two Bundesliga titles by then and a move to Manchester eventually went through.
The Red Devils picked up the Japan star for a bargain £12 Million plus add-ons in 2012, with many calling it the deal of the season. Kagawa, however, failed to replicate his best form for the club, despite winning another title in England. He returned to Dortmund in 2014 and was on their books until 2019.
Apart from the AFC International Footballer of the Year award for 2015, Kagawa also holds the record for most appearances by a Japanese in UEFA competitions. His three titles also mean that he will be counted among the most successful players from his country to play in Europe.
#2 Makoto Hasebe (Japan)
Not many Asian players can claim to have represented a European club on more than a hundred occasions. Makoto Hasebe, however, has done it twice.
The Japanese defensive midfielder moved to Germany from his native country eleven years ago. He was signed by Wolfsburg from Urawa Reds in 2008 and a year later he won his first domestic title with the club. He spent seven years at the Volkswagen Arena before completing a move to FC Nürnberg.
Hasebe spent just a year with Nürnberg and moved to Eintracht Frankfurt as the former were relegated. He has been with Frankfurt ever since and has gone on to make over one hundred and eighty appearances for them.
The defensive midfielder enjoyed his best season in Europe in 2018, aged thirty-four. He was deployed in a three-man defence by head-coach Adi Hutter and was a key member of the squad which reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Europa League. He was awarded a spot in the UEL Team of the Season for his performances and was later named the AFC International Footballer of the Year.
#1 Son Heung-min (Korea Republic)
Son Heung-min stands to be the odd one out on this list. The Tottenham star is the only one on here not from Japan. Furthermore, he is the only one to win the AFC International Footballer of the Year more than once and is the only one yet to win a domestic European title.
While the final point may prevent Son from taking the top spot in the list of most successful Asian footballers, he is arguably the best from his continent to have played in Europe in this decade, and the decades before.
The fast-paced winger has been one of the most consistent stars in Europe for the last eight years. He has scored ten or more goals for his club in seven of those eight years, across three clubs and seven competitions. He was duly awarded a Ballon d’Or nomination for his performances in 2019 and subsequently achieved the best-ever finish by an Asian footballer in the final standings. Add to that countless national and international awards, and his impact in Europe becomes clearer.
The Korea Republic star has come within touching distance of both the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League title in recent years, but his wait for a European trophy goes on.