With the 2011 Asian Cup just around the corner, most of the Asian Football Confederation's best players are preparing to wing across the world to join their national teams. The tournament will run from January 7 through until the end of the month, with most of the players leaving their European clubs as early as this week to ensure that they're fully prepared for the Qatar-based campaign. There will be a mix of traditional Asian powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea mixed among random entrants such as India, the UAE, North Korea and Australia.
Players from Asia rank among some of the most consistent in the European leagues. In the Premiership Tim Cahill of Everton and Australia robs the Toffees of their best goalscoring threat, while South Korea's Ji-Sung Park has been Manchester United's saviour on more than one occasion this term. Countryman Lee Chung-Yong has been an attacking force on the right for Bolton Wanderers, while Australia custodian Mark Schwarzer is one of the premier shot-stoppers in the league. His backup, Brad Jones, is still a work in progress at Liverpool while David Carney plies his trade down the left of Ian Holloway's Blackpool. Australians are more prevalent in the EPL than any other Asian players because many of them have English or European ancestry allowing Premiership clubs to sign them as Europeans, avoiding hassles with work permits. The last of the Aussies in the English top flight is Blackburn's workhorse Brett Emerton.
The Spanish League restricts the number of non-EU players each team is allowed to field per game, meaning that of the named squads, only Osasuna is sending players to the tournament in Iranian pair Javad Nekounam and Masoud Shojaei. Whereas Italy's quota system for non-EU residents is more complex and as such there are fewer professional Asian players in Serie A.
Because of the difficulty in obtaining these work permits in these most famous leagues for non-EU residents, many of the elite Asian players play elsewhere in Europe. Germany in particular has an affinity for players from the Asian Confederation: North Korea's Jong Tae- Se and Japan's Shinji Kagawa are the two prime examples. Tae-Se's (Bochum) abilities were evident during the World Cup this year and the strong, bustling centre-forward could well be the most important player in his Group - a group that, given their occasional brilliance during the World Cup they should be favourites to win. Dortmund's Kagawa is joined in the Bundesliga by his brethren Hasebe (Wolfsburg), Makino (Koln) and Uchida (Schalke).
Russia has been the first step in the journey towards more lucrative leagues for some time for both African and Asian players. CSKA Moscow boasts probably the Confederation's best player, flame-haired Japan dynamo Keisuke Honda. The best Blue Samurai player - potentially ever - is still young and CSKA will struggle with his loss while cross-city rivals Dinamo will have to cope with with the departure of that most dependable Socceroo, Luke Wilkshire. The "other" back-route into Europe, Turkey, provides four Aussies including star man Harry Kewell and captain Lucas Neill from Galatasary and Besiktas' Ersan Gulum, a 23-year old defender who opted for the green and gold jersey rather than that of his adopted homeland, much to the dismay of former Socceroo coach Guus Hiddink
The favourites at this point must be perennial powerhouses South Korea and Japan, but Iran's squad boasts fewer players than usual playing in Europe and as such are a complete unknown. Unknowns, perhaps, could benefit as in 2007 Iraq surprised the continent with their enterprising play to take the chocolates. With Qatar on a high after winning the rights to host the 2022 World Cup, it would be a surprise not to see them in the second round as well. With many of the top players in the Confederation playing in the top leagues in the world, this year's Asian Cup promises to be an exciting series of matches.