As we edge closer to the unveiling of the Best Footballer in Asia 2017, we take a trip down memory lane and revisit the previous winners of the prize.
A look back at the four previous winners of the Best Footballer in Asia shows that the prize has yet to be given to a player not from Japan or Korea Republic.
Keisuke Honda was the first winner back in 2013. That was followed by back-to-back triumphs from Son Heung-min as the South Korean started to impress on a regular basis in Europe. In 2016, Shinji Okazaki edged out Omar Abdulrahman from United Arab Emirates.
It is fitting that Japan and South Korea have dominated. The two rivals are the most successful FIFA World Cup participants that Asia has ever produced in terms of quantity and quality. They also have won more Asian club titles than any other.
2013: KEISUKE HONDA
At the end of 2013, when the first prize was announced, it was confirmed that Honda was leaving CSKA Moscow. The deal to move to AC Milan, the club that he supported as a boy, had been announced in October. He went to Italy in January 2014.
It was an exciting time to see one of Asia’s best talents heading to one of the world’s biggest clubs though he had had a good campaign in the 2013/14 UEFA Champions League, even if the Russian club could not get out of a tough group.
For the national team too, Honda had been in fine form as he helped Japan qualify for the 2014 World Cup. At that time, the blond bombshell pulled the strings in attack for the Samurai Blue and his interplay with team-mate Shinji Kagawa bordered on breathtaking.
2014: SON HEUNG-MIN
2014 was the year of Son Heung-min. At the time, Son was very busy indeed and it was the year when he confirmed his reputation as one of the best Asian attackers and one of the rising stars of the Bundesliga.
Domestically, he was improving and scoring goals for his club but it was in the UEFA Champions League where he really made headlines. He netted five times in the group stage of the elite competition. It really helped to seal his reputation around Europe and the world.
Add the fact that he was Korea Republic’s best player at an admittedly poor World Cup campaign in Brazil, and Son’s star really was in the ascendancy.
2015: SON HEUNG-MIN
The Son continued to shine and the South Korean won the prize again in 2015. He started the year impressing at the AFC Asian Cup, where he played a major part with the Taegeuk Warriors reaching the final as they were a little unlucky to lose in extra-time to Australia in Sydney.
He then continued to impress back in Europe and found himself in the knockout stages of the Champions League. In the summer, he was then on the move to England.
Tottenham Hotspur paid over $30 million to take the player to North London. It was, and remains, the most ever paid for an Asian player.
2016: SHINJI OKAZAKI
Son has gone from strength to strength with Spurs but, in 2016, the prize stayed in England but headed north.
Shinji Okazaki had raised some eyebrows from leaving Mainz in Germany, where he had scored at an impressive rate, to join Leicester City the summer of 2015. Why was the Japan international signing for a club that had only just avoided relegation weeks previously?
Yet, the striker was about to play a part in one of the greatest sporting stories. Leicester started well and – while all expected the Foxes to fade and drop from the Premier League’s top spot – they did no such thing and won the league by an incredible ten points.
Okazaki may not have captured the headlines to the same extent as Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez but, at important parts of the season, he made a difference in something truly amazing. And that is why he is the current holder of the prize.
Nonetheless, there will be a new one very soon…