Best Footballer in Asia: How long more before the West wins?

With the East dominating the award thus far, we take a look at how far away the West is from producing the Best Footballer in Asia.

A look back at the past four years – and the 12 players who have occupied the top three places – in the Best Footballer of the Year award, and West Asian fans must be wondering where their heroes are.

Only one player from the region has made the podium and that was Omar Abdulrahman. The United Arab Emirates playmaker came second to Shinji Okazaki in 2016.

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Okazaki had played his part in Leicester City winning the English Premier League in one of the biggest sport stories in decades. It was always going to capture the hearts and votes of Asian jurors.

Even so, the race for the award was close, very close. Right until the final vote was cast, there was doubt as to whether representatives from Titan Sports would be heading to Leicester to hand over the prize to the Japanese attacker or Al Ain, the UAE city where the Saudi-born star currently plies his trade in. In the end, it was Okazaki who collected the individual prize to go along with the Premier League winner’s medal.

Omar can lay claim to be the most-talented player in the whole continent but just fell narrowly short of the prize. It may have been different had Al Ain not lost the final of the AFC Champions final to Jeonbuk Motors just days before voting started. Omar had a fine season for Al Ain but was not at his best in the final. Had he been able to be the inspiration to drive his team to victory, it could have been different.

Therein lies part of the problem for players from West Asia, which makes it a little more difficult for them to win the big prizes. In recent history, East Asia has dominated the Champions League. Winning the big prizes with your team puts you a step closer to winning the personal awards. It may not be entirely fair but, when you are lifting trophies, it gives the kind of public relations boost that all brands would welcome.

It is the same in the international arena. West Asian teams have been inconsistent of late in qualifying for the FIFA World Cup.

Look at when Son Heung-min won in 2014. The talented forward had a good season in Europe and, while Korea Republic struggled in Brazil at the World Cup, Son was his team’s best player. Good performances and a goal or two at the biggest sporting event on the planet will result in international headlines and a growth in reputation.

Few would argue that Iran have been Asia’s best team in 2017

And then there is always the case of moves to Europe. With the exception of Iran, West Asian players rarely move outside their countries. The likes of Omar have the talent to go and succeed in any league in the world but he has not made the move. There are almost as many articles these days about why the player doesn’t go to Europe than about his exploits on the pitch.

Maybe it is because he makes too much money at home, maybe he does not want to leave the place where he feels comfortable and valued, or maybe he just does not want to go. Yet, if he were to test himself in a better league week in and week out and perform well, as he surely would, then more plaudits would follow. Shining on the biggest domestic stages can only help. The UAE star has received plenty of offers to move to Europe, but has taken none of them up.

As long as South Korean and Japanese teams win the Champions League, qualify for World Cups and send the majority of Asian players to Europe, they are always going to be in with a better chance of winning prizes such as the Best Footballer in Asia.
But West Asia have all the potential and every chance to change just that.