Are the AFC awards up to scratch?

Scott McIntyre Scott McIntyre

A couple of years ago I had the curious pleasure of attending several league matches in various cities throughout Tajikistan.

On the way to one of them I was accosted by a crooked policeman who wanted a bribe for trying to take a photograph at the same time as selling me a can of Coke.

The next day I travelled on a team bus that was stoned as it left the stadium with the whole back window blown out by rocks and at another match the teams changed at half time in the middle of the pitch surrounded by staff wearing 2006 Sweden World Cup tracksuits.

It’s fair to say that the standard on the pitch was reasonably closely aligned with that off it and it’s little surprise that the nation has never produced a bona fide superstar and has had barely of handful of players to have plied their trade at any serious level abroad.

One of the better players to have emerged from the country in recent years is forward Manuchekhr Dzhalilov who was a key contributor for his club, FC Istiklol, as they reached the final of the AFC Cup this year and he’s now earned himself a move to the Indonesia club Sriwijaya as a result.

Fair play to him but you’d find few who could argue that the Indonesian – let alone the Tajik – leagues are on a par with those in the major European centres.

The question then naturally arises as to just what he’s doing on a shortlist of 23 players nominated as the best in the entire Asian continent, bearing in mind that the list also includes foreigners who turn out for Asian teams.

With the AFC’s Player of the Year Award riddled with flaws, headlined by the fact that junket-hunting match commissioners actually vote on a weekly basis, it’s well overdue that another award has emerged that aims to more accurately forecast the leading Asian players.

That progress took a step forward this month as Fox Sports Asia partnered with Chinese outlet Titan Sports who conceived and who have overseen the award for the past couple of years. In principle, the award is a fantastic initiative that uses a panel of judges from across Asia to nominate and then cast their votes as to who will be crowned Asia’s best footballer and without doubt it comes closer to hitting the target on this fraught exercise of assessing individual talent across more than a hundred nations than any other prize does.

The problem with these kinds of shortlists though is that often players are included that are eye raising ones at the same time that others are bizarrely excluded. 

The beauty of football though is that it elicits a host of different opinions and in that spirit I want to raise – before a host of angry Iranian and Saudi fans beat me to it – a list of players that were for some reason or another overlooked.

In the way of full disclosure, I’ve been a member of the voting panel for numerous editions, including the current one, and I cast my top five votes this year as follows: Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Kengo Nakamura, Kosuke Nakamura, Mathew Leckie and Yasser Al Shahrani.

Given the blazing form he’s been in over the past month or so there’s certainly a clear case to be made for including Son Heung-min but not a single one of the five players I voted for were even included on the shortlist which, as someone who watches an awful lot of Asian football, I find curious in the least.

From the nation where I live, Japan, we had four players from an Urawa side who as anyone that watched even part of the ACL this year would instantly know were not by any margin the ‘best’ side in that tournament – they weren’t even the best from their own nation.

Sure, they won the title and that won’t change but this isn’t a team award, it’s an individual one and not a single one the four players nominated in keeper Shusaku Nishikawa, defenders Tomoaki Makino and Yuki Abe and forward Rafael Silva, even made the J.League’s official Best XI this season.

The leading Japanese football newspaper, El Golazo, listed Nishikawa as the 15th best of the 18 regular starters in the league this season and with modest ACL displays and fleeting national team involvement it’s criminal that he is included on this list over the superb Kosuke Nakamura – a player who, in my opinion and that of many others, is already in the top handful of Asian keepers either on the continent or beyond.
 
The same publication had Makino behind two defensive teammates and Abe four other midfield choices at Urawa – as in, they weren’t considered even in the top five players at their own club, let alone Japan or the entirety of Asia.

As a result of the inclusion of these players we saw the likes of wingback Leckie – a mainstay and standout in the Bundesliga and the sensational Al Hilal fullback Al Shahrani not even make the shortlist.

Iraq’s Ali Adnan is a regular feature in the Serie A with Udinese, Australian keeper Brad Jones smashed decade old clean sheet records in Holland this year with Feyenoord – as well as being a star in the Europa League where he was named by UEFA in their Best XI at the end of the group stage and they too didn’t make the 23-man shortlist.

As impressive a story as the arrival of Chanathip Songkrasin in Japan was he wasn’t even the best player at his own club (former English forward Jay Bothroyd was, by some margin) and Tomi Juric might be scoring goals in Switzerland but he isn’t doing it in England or Germany where the likes of Shinji Okazaki and Shinji Kagawa (both excluded) are.

All these are points of conjecture and debate but in a moment akin to omitting Messi or Ronaldo from a global awards list, the exclusion of Alireza Jahanbakhsh is right up there.

For those that follow Asian football closely he is, without question, in the top five players anywhere on the planet so to not even have been included on a ‘shortlist’ of 23 is mind-boggling in the extreme.

Not only has he started 17 of 18 matches for a team that’s flying high in third place in the Eredivisie, he’s scored at better than a goal every three matches with his seven league strikes second at his club and just four off the outright leader.

He’s a crucial part of easily the best national team in Asia and was just named in the Best XI at the halfway point of his major European domestic league yet we’re led to believe a journeyman Tajik striker as well as one of his own national teammates in the domestic based Mehdi Taremi have had more influential seasons.

The Best Footballer in Asia Award is a fantastic initiative and one that we all hope will grow and prosper but when one of the continent’s undisputed superstars doesn’t even make the shortlist it’s certainly worth wondering why.

To quell the gathering hordes of irate Iranian fans it’s worth stating that he was my top choice. 

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