With much of the world coming to a halt due to the coronavirus, Asia got going again more quickly than most. The standard on the pitch may not rival that if Europe’s best but we can see that the best players from the top Asian countries such as South Korea, Japan and Iran can more than hold their own in the English Premier League and elsewhere. Just look at Son Heung-min at Tottenham Hotspur, Takumi Minamino at Liverpool and Alireza Jahanbakhsh at Brighton and Hove Albion. It shows that there is real talent.
South Korea’s K-League was the first major league to start. Not only is the league the oldest professional domestic competition in Asia it is the most successful in terms of continental success. K-League teams have been champions of Asia no less than 11 times.
It has been compared to the English Premier League at times. This is because the K-League is a more physical league than many others in Asia. The play is aggressive and the action is fast. Korea defenders are usually quick, technically good and aggressive. Jeonbuk Motors are the dominant team with five out of the last six titles and other heavyweights are Ulsan Horangi, Pohang Steelers and Suwon Bluewings –all former Asian champions. FC Seoul are the team that everyone loves to hate.
For many however, Japan has the best top tier in Asia and there is no doubt that the J.League is easy on the eye. If there was to be a comparison to a top European competition then it would have to be La Liga. While K-League teams tend to be more direct and perhaps go wide a little more when attacking, their Japanese counterparts are likelier to pass through the middle. It is fitting then that the biggest star there is one of the best midfielders in modern football history. Andres Iniesta has spent a season and a half at big-spending and big-dreaming Vissel Kobe.
Kobe are traditionally a mid-table team, at best, though finished third last season. Yokohama F Marinos won a first title since 2004, playing a brand of sweeping and fluid football under Australian coach Ange Postecoglou that was delightful even by Japanese standards. Yokohama pipped FC Tokyo to the post but the likes of Kashima Antlers, Urawa Reds and Kawasaki Frontale have had more success of late.
It is harder to put the other of the big three East Asian leagues into a European context. The Chinese Super League is, despite recent reductions, still probably the biggest spending league in the eastern half of the continent. China sees the biggest crowds in Asia and has some of the biggest teams too. Guangzhou Evergrande won the Champions League in 2013 and 2015, the Southern China Tigers have former Barcelona star Paulinho and are coached by Italian world cup winning captain Fabio Cannavaro. Throw in an average attendance of around 45,000 and a new 100,000 arena currently being built then this is a storied club and eight of the last nine Chinese championships help.
Then there is Shanghai SIPG. The 2018 champs have ex-Brazilian international stars Hulk and Oscar as well as former Premier League star striker Marko Arnautovic. Beijing Guoan, Jiangsu Suning and Shandong Luneng are also usually not that far away.
If we move across to the opposite side of the continent then we have the big boys of Saudi Arabia, Iran, United Arab Emirates and Qatar. The giants of Saudi Arabia are Al Hilal, defending continental champions and three-time titleholder, Al Ittihad and Al Nassr. There are some big stars in the kingdom with teams currently allowed to have seven foreign stars as opposed to the usual four.
Qatar’s national team are the current champions of Asia and some of that 2019 Asian Cup-winning team play for Qatar Stars League clubs, one of the better in Asia and who often get to the latter stages of the Champions League as do the likes of Al Ain, the biggest in the U United Arab Emirates.
Iran has no problem developing talent and Tehran giants Persepolis and Esteghlal are two of the biggest teams in Asia. A lack of money does hold the league back but you can never count an Iranian team out.
Move a little towards the east and the India Super League is expanding and going through some changes. The potential is major and then there is the whole, football-crazy region of Southeast Asia. Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia have lots of passion and are making strides but things are always changing in Asian football