Bin Hammam Aside, European Season Finishes Well for Asia
Seoul. A season that should have been celebrated across Asia for the accelerated development of its players in the big European leagues has ended instead with the region’s top football administrator provisionally suspended amid bribery allegations and with the sport’s world governing body in turmoil.
The most famous Asian football figures on and off the field both had weekends to forget in Europe but unlike Mohamed bin Hammam, the suspended president of the Asian Football Confederation, Park Ji-sung can at least look back on a successful season for Manchester United.
In Zurich, Bin Hammam withdrew from the race for the top job in FIFA, hours before he was provisionally suspended by the governing body’s ethics committee for alleged corruption. That came a day after South Korea’s Park missed the chance to become the first Asian player to lift the top prize in European club football as his English club was defeated 3-1 by Barcelona at Wembley Stadium in London.
The defeat ended a largely impressive season for a number of Asian players working in Europe’s biggest competitions. Park may have failed to collect the continental silverware but he played a key role in helping Manchester United to a record 19th English title — his fourth since moving to Old Trafford in 2005.
Perhaps of even more significance in an Asian player development sense has been the success of Ali Al Habsi in the English Premier League. Not only is he a goalkeeper, he comes from Oman and is a rare representative of the western side of Asia in Western Europe.
Al Habsi spent the season on loan from Bolton Wanderers to fellow Premier League club Wigan Athletic. His deeds in goal helped Wigan avoid relegation to the second tier and earned him the club’s player of the year award.
According to reports in England, he is being chased by former European champion Aston Villa. Al Habsi is uncertain of his future but is sure that he doesn’t want to return to Bolton and play understudy to established goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen.
“I’m not going back to being second choice ‘keeper after the season I’ve just had at Wigan,” Al Habsi said. “I won’t go back to sitting on the bench, it’s not fair. I fought hard to get here; it’s time to play week after week.”
An established figure at Bolton is Lee Chung-yong, though the South Korean had a mixed season in England. The winger impressed while the club was riding high in the first half of the season, but looked tired after returning from the Asian Cup in January and Bolton slipped down the standings.
The Qatar tournament also deprived Shinji Kagawa of a fairy-tale first season in Germany. The midfielder was little known outside Japan when he made the move from Cerezo Osaka to Borussia Dortmund in July last year but then proceeded to become one of the hottest newcomers in the league.
Kagawa starred as his new club stormed to the top of the Bundesliga with eight goals from midfield in the first half of the season. A broken bone in his foot during the Asian Cup ruled him out for the rest of the season, though Dortmund went on to win the title. Kagawa, who is expected to be offered an improved and extended contract by the club, is looking forward to playing in next season’s Champions League.
“It will be interesting to see how well I can do and I am really looking forward to the challenge,” Kagawa said. “It is going to be a tough season but I want to play a full year.”
With Kagawa on the sidelines, much of Japan’s football focus switched to the wingbacks from the national team — Atsuto Uchida of FC Schalke 04 in Germany and Yuto Nagatomo, who joined Italian giant Inter Milan in January on loan. Nagatomo, 24, is expected to join Inter on a permanent deal this summer.
Iran captain Javad Nekounam once again impressed in Spain at Osasuna along with compatriot Masoud Shojaei, despite the club flirting with relegation until late in the season.
In France, South Korean striker Park Chu-young scored 12 goals but could not prevent AS Monaco from being relegated from Ligue 1.