Scouts from top European soccer clubs have flocked to the Asian Cup in the hope of unearthing new talent, with the likes of AC Milan, Arsenal and Liverpool said to be homing in on the region’s best.
South Korea’s impressive young midfielder Koo Ja-cheol is chief among those to have sprung to prominence at the tournament, which like the African Cup of Nations, is a treasure trove of untapped players available at cheap prices.
“I firmly believe the future of the game is in Asia,” said Hedna Mustapha, who was scouting for French club Monaco at the continental showpiece. “Asian players display the same mentality as their European counterparts. They’re strong in dribbling, passing and controlling the ball. They’re also fast on their feet.”
“Asians play beautiful football, which isn’t just about kicking the ball and rushing in. They’re -tactically more consistent. I feel an Asian nation will win the World Cup soon,” Mustapha said.
Monaco have already tapped into the region to great effect having signed South Korean striker Park Chu-young, who was strongly linked with a summer move to Liverpool. He was not in Doha because of injury.
“Asian strikers can be successful in Europe, provided they get a chance to prove themselves,” Mustapha was quoted as saying by Qatari media, adding: “We’re keen to have more Asians in our team.”
Koo, 21, who scored four goals from midfield in the group stages, spoke of his strong desire to play in England or Spain.
“My dream is to become one of the top players in the world and to achieve that dream, going to Europe is part of my plan,” said Koo, who currently plays for Jeju United in Korea’s K-League, though perhaps not for much longer.
However, it is not just South Koreans. The neighboring impoverished North, not known for exporting soccer talent, could be a gold-mine, Mustapha said.
“North Korea have many talented players,” he said. “I saw some of their youngsters at several competitions, but the biggest problem has always been inaccessibility to their officials. Even in Doha, there were quite a few players I would have liked to meet, but couldn’t. They’re still an unknown quantity and I feel the next big thing in world football.”
Asian Cup semi-finalists Japan have several players with clubs overseas, one of whom, midfielder Keisuke Honda, 24, is said to have courted the attention of numerous major English clubs including Arsenal, Aston Villa and Liverpool.
“Several clubs have confirmed their interest,” said his agent Kees Pleogsma, adding that AC Milan were also keen on the CSKA Moscow man.
Honda’s Japan teammate Shinji Okazaki, who blasted a hat-trick against Saudi Arabia, is reportedly on the brink of a move to Stuttgart.
Andrew Fedorov, a former Uzbek defender, is another who jetted in to run the rule over Asia’s hottest new players.
“It is no secret that Asian football has been progressing rapidly over the past two or three years,” he said. “The ultimate aim is to find more Asian players for Europe and, in particular, for Russian clubs.”
While looking at a range of players, as an Uzbek he took a particular interest in his home nation, and singled out central midfielder Odil Akhmedov for praise.
Akhmedov, Uzbekistan’s player of the year in 2009, scored a stunning 30-yard goal against hosts Qatar in the opening game of Asia’s premier tournament.