John Duerden reckons it will take a bit of time but Asian football will produce their own version of Liverpool’s Mo Salah in time to come.
Once again Mo Salah is making headlines around the world after another goal and another stellar performance for Liverpool. The Egyptian has helped the Reds to the brink of the UEFA Champions League semifinals. He is the leading goalscorer in the English Premier League and is currently the hottest property in the game – anywhere.
North Africa has a goalscoring hero who is the talk of the football world. What would Asia give to have a similar goalscorer? And, more to the point, why isn’t there one?
Sami Al Jaber believes that the potential is there but that Asian strikers don’t challenge themselves as much as they should. The Saudi Arabian legend played at four FIFA World Cups and scored at three. Recently he insisted that there were plenty of striking talent in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
“There are so many Salahs in the region, “Al Jaber told Arab News. “But he went as a young player to many clubs and then he gets the chance at Liverpool and he is ready, he already knows and has adapted to the European game.”
Al Jaber has a point. What is striking about Salah is that he went to Europe as a teenager. He was 19 in 2012 when he signed for FC Basel of Switzerland. Now he is 25. As Al Jaber said, that gives him time to overcome the setback of not making it at Chelsea when he signed in 2014. That experience means that at even in his mid-twenties he is battle-hardened in the big leagues and there is time to learn and grow.
It is telling that the best attacking Asian players at the moment in Europe in Son Heung-min and Alireza Jahanbakhsh, though not out and out goalscorers like Salah, were also in Europe before their 20th birthdays. Hwang Hee Chan is starting to impress more with Salzburg and is another teenage mover. Going young may not be the only route to success but it certainly helps.
Only Japan, South Korea and Iran are sending players west at relatively young ages. Many countries don’t send players at all. Arab nations in the north of Africa have few issues with exporting talent.
Yet stars such as Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil have been scoring goals in the UAE and Asia for years but don’t look like leaving anytime soon. The history books will be full of articles claiming that such strikers are good enough to play in Europe’s bigger leagues but the video archives will be empty. If much of Asia’s best talent stays home, then the route to international stardom is always going to be more limited.
If there are other strikers who are good enough, the question is where are they? And that is a problem. All of the top leagues around the continent like to fill their attacking positions with foreign players.
A quick glance around the leagues confirms this. At the moment, Wu Lei is leading the early goalscoring charts in the 2018 Chinese Super League but the Shanghai SIPG star is the only local in the top ten and was the sole Chinese in the top 15 for the entire 2017 season. Japan is healthier but still has plenty of imported attackers and the pattern is repeated all across the continent. Other leagues follow similar trends.
There are opportunities for local strikers but not that many. If you are a full-back in Asia then you are going to be given chances to get up and down those flanks time and time again as coaches rarely import talent in that position. But if you are a goal poacher, you need to get goals and quickly or you will find that you drop down the pecking order or down the leagues.
It gives rise again to the age-old question. Do clubs in Asia sign foreign strikers because the locals are not up to scratch or are the locals not up to scratch because the clubs are full of foreign talent and there are no opportunities to play and learn?
That is a different debate but there is no doubt that the lack of opportunities makes it harder for striking talent to progress especially at the top clubs, those that have money to bring in top-class talent from overseas.
And couple that with the lack of moves overseas, then it is perhaps not surprising that Asia is not producing the quality and quantity of strikers needed.
It is only a matter of time, surely, before all that changes and Asia produces a genuine world-class goalscorer who can outscore all others in one of the best leagues in the world. Until then, fans in the east will have to enjoy the exploits of Mo Salah along with everyone else.