Asian Football’s Myths and Legends of the 2010s — My Favourite XI


The end of each decade is usually marked by all kinds of Teams of the Decade and even more arguing about who should and should not be in. There’s no excuse for not getting involved, so I’m (belatedly) doing so as well, even if merely by picking my favourite XI instead of the usual — simply the best one…

There’s a simple reason behind that: I still see myself as a mere outsider to the beautiful Asian game.

I’ve never lived on the continent (heck I somehow haven’t even travelled there until 2019 when I popped by for the Asian Cup) and my interest in various leagues was never sustained for a period I would personally dare to call extended or substantial. At some points of the past decade, I had followed A-League, K-League or Qatar Stars League, in-depth but always briefly, meaning my knowledge of the said leagues is either stuck in ancient times, or scattered, or vague, or all at once.

All of the above is mostly why — having kept tabs on the scene with varied intensity ever since 2011 — I insist on calling myself an #AsianFootballPassionate, and nothing more. My interest was born out of, and is still almost exclusively powered by, sheer curiosity.

For all of these caveats, we’ll need some ground rules before getting into the whole exercise:

  • I really can’t stress enough how much of subjective calls these all are going to be. With the 2010s being my first decade of following Asian football (oh get over yourself already, Tom), I’m mostly listing names associated with my greatest memories. They can be positive, negative, hilarious, peculiar, you name it — as long as the moment, the game, the personality, the whatever caught my heart, it was likely in the mix.
  • You’ll notice a considerable bias towards the international scene, and there’s an explanation for it, too: there’s just too many club scenes to keep tabs on whereas the international stage is just one, sidelined by all the club breaks. In other words: when something happens on the national team level, it’s less likely to escape my attention.
  • We’ll go with one entry per country, for no good reason really, just to try to cover as much ground and aim for as little overlap of the individual storylines as possible.
  • Finally, a sidenote: I’m indeed only taking in account stuff that happened in the 2010s, so whatever the below listed did outside of the past decade won’t count for/against their respective cases.

Now, let’s get to it, and we begin with a true giant of a myth / legend of 2010s’ Asian football…

Goalkeeper — Qasem Burhan (Qatar)

With the fresh retirement of Ali Al Habsi, nearly all Golden Glove winners from the seven Gulf Cup editions crammed between the years 2003 and 2014 are no longer active on the top level. Only one is still going stro… well, going. Limping more like.

Noor Sabri and Nawaf Al Khaldi finally wrapped up their celebrated international careers towards the end of the 2010s, and while they would certainly earn some love from voters if a Middle Eastern Hall of Fame became a (long overdue) thing, the hero of the 22nd Gulf Cup edition is still stubbornly damaging his fragile reputation seemingly with every game he nowadays starts.

It all started with the comprehensively thrown away 2015 Asian Cup lead against the UAE. First there was the ill-advised rush out of the line preceding the equalizer; then the helpless flap at a tricky Ahmed Khalil free kick; and finally a spilled long-range effort – one of his many Nemeses, we’d soon come to realize.

At this point, we were barely two months removed from the famous Gulf Cup golden run, mind. And about 12 more months later, Al Gharafa were reportedly ready to drop Qasem Burhan as their starter altogether.

They decidedly didn’t, though, otherwise we couldn’t remind ourselves of his favourite discipline – deluded sweeping – time and time again, preferably at the height of the added time with both sides in a deadlock. Then there was the fabulous time he made a save by complete accident. Or that time he chose to ignore the rules of the game, as you do. (Only for me to realize while watching his tribute video full of blatant encroaching that he may have never known them in the first place.) He also did this and this – stuff I’m struggling to even come up with an appropriate introduction to.

In other words: Do I keep a folder with all the most fabulous burhanisms? Maybe.

Is there more to it? Oh you bet…

Right back – Cha Du-ri (South Korea)

I don’t get ask many questions in my Twitter DMs, but about half of those I’ve gotten concerned my header picture. The perfect reply to where the hell did that come from would probably read: “Oh just from the best thing that ever happened to the world of PR and advertisement”. But then I remember that FinnAir Korea kicked off this past decade by coining the term ‘Chaminator’, even making graphics to accompany it, and I’m unsure.

All I can definitely tell you is that whenever I have some cleaning up to do, I knock on Uncle Cha’s door to guide me and get distracted forever by whatever the hell he’s doing here

It’s, of course, only natural that Cha Du-ri turned out to be a natural in front of cameras. His infectious smile, ideally projected into a goal celebration, can only be rivalled by Shinji Okazaki, which is why it was so painful to see him not smiling at the end of the 2013 Asian Champions League, 2014 Korean FA Cup and 2015 Asian Cup finals. On all three counts, it was extra painful due to 1) the awkward away goals rule, 2) penalty shoot-out, 3) extra time.

It seemed like it just wasn’t to be. Cha began his final year by dominating 2015 Asian Cup as a two-way force, but spent the rest of it in chronic pain, battling through numerous injuries. Yet, in what turned out to be the last game of his career, the 35-year-old phenom played 90 minutes as FC Seoul’s captain to help the team to their 2015 Korean FA Cup triumph.

It was his first trophy earned back home, wearing the colours of his only Korean club that just recently made him the manager of their U-18 side. A beautiful, most fitting storyline.

Right centre back – A Hawsawi (Saudi Arabia)

At 2010 Gulf Cup, no Hawsawi suited up for Saudi Arabia yet, as was the case at the last Gulf Cup of the decade, with a wildly off-the-pace Osama bowing out after the 2018 World Cup (for which he was somehow highlighted by FourFourTwo as the key player of the side) and his slightly younger yet no quicker namesake Omar following the suit this past October.

For most of decade, however, there was seemingly not a single line-up without at least one Hawsawi in.

The peak, of course, came at 2018 World Cup which suddenly forced us all to realize that the best Hawsawi — Motaz — had been hidden away from our sights the whole time, having only started one World Cup qualifier to eventually break through in Russia and set up the marvellous scene of Mo(taz) Hawsawi winning a race over the mighty Mo(hamed) Salah.

Fortunately for the narrative, Motaz has since conveniently disappeared again, so I can continue using his last name as both a verb and a noun to describe any action that occurs in a magnificently confused manner and apparent slow motion.

As it turns out, Palestinian veteran Abdelatif Al Bahdari — born in the same year as Osama! — is now the heir apparent, while Osama Al Harbi had the cheek of pulling off a textbook Hawsawi next to an actual Hawsawi during the catastrophic 0:5 loss to Japan at 2011 Asian Cup.

See the guy just jogging around, leaving his markers all free, spinning around slowly and looking firmly disinterested on the first four Japan goals? That’s him, the other Osama. One fantastic tribute indeed.

Left centre back – Walid Abbas (UAE)

He’s been the UAE’s oldest regular and captain of the side throughout the current World Cup qualifying cycle, and only Amer Abdulrahman and himself can say they were present and considered starters at all three of this past decade’s Asian Cups.

Yet, the iconic status of Walid Abbas is not tied to his longevity or anything like that.

It would’ve arguably been enough to secure that iconic status for Abbas if he was just to redirect Younis Mahmoud’s hopeful pass into his own net well into the added time of the second 2011 Asian Cup group stage game. The unfortunate touch broke the deadlock of the Iraq game and very much broke UAE’s back, too, after an opening goalless draw with Korea DPR.

But that wasn’t enough for football gods, no no, and so they let Walid Abbas score an even more humiliating own goal, yet again inside the added time of the following match. At 0:2, it didn’t really matter anymore, but the fact that the unlucky UAE defender literally snatched the ball from the opponent’s feet and took care of the finish in a magnificently clumsy manner surely made us all cringe a little. Once it’s just unfortunate, but twice…?

Abbas ultimately bagged more goals at the tournament than Keisuke Honda, Maksim Shatskikh, Sebastián Soria, Bader Al-Mutawa or Younis Mahmoud himself.

Even though UAE technically didn’t score once…

Left back – Mehrdad Pooladi (Iran)

It’s hard to think of a player whose international career, in the big picture of a full decade, represents but a flash in the pan, yet who was all the same instrumental in creating two major memories of the decade for Iranians as well as all Asian football followers. They both had a bitter ending, but Pooladi himself played very different parts in each. Against Argentina at 2014 World Cup, he and Dejagah handled the ominous Zabaleta-Di María clique so well that the former was more seen in his own end while the latter was firmly pocketed. Not just that, though — there’s one more thing I fear some may not recall now. Honestly, there was more than just a tongue stuck in the cheek to this remark from Sam.

Back in summer 2014, Mehrdad Pooladi was suddenly a hero that came out of nowhere and the Argentina near-upset was a match I was ready to call “The Pooladi Game” forever…

… until I couldn’t anymore, because the 2015 Asian Cup quarter-final fiasco arrived soon, only 6 months later or so, armed with a much much stronger case. All it took was a (fair) bit of a dive, a (somewhat unfair) bit of Graham Poll-esque forgetfulness from Ben Williams… and off Pooladi went, even as plenty of Iraqis fronted by Mahmoud were not made to follow suit for similar antics.

Since then, Pooladi has struggled with injuries and Iranian authorities (some mysterious military issues basically ended his international career right after the infamous Asian Cup), ultimately not even reaching 30 caps. If ever I came across someone with hard luck…

Right central midfielder – Yaser Kasim (Iraq)

This is where I sense my general rule of thumb of “strongest memory” will prove most baffling. How come it’s not a Mahmoud panenka or just about any of the many impressive protagonists of the famous 2016 Olympics night in Rio representing Iraq here instead of this moody and somewhat disgraced “Iraqi Pirlo”. Well, just look at whom I picked from Iran — I might have an unhealthy fascination with sudden rises and even more sudden falls.

In a lot of ways, the Kasim story mirrors that of Pooladi. He too arrived out of nowhere as a London-born expat (while being an expat has, infamously, never been a good departure point for a talented Iraqi footballer) and became famous right off the bat, on his debut night in fact, helping to secure the 2015 Asian Cup tickets against China.

Kasim went on to star at the Cup itself, too, earning much love from journalists compiling their dream teams while venturing on runs like this one. At 23, the world lay at his feet. Soon, a Premier League club reportedly came knocking on Swindon Town’s door, and no one even blinked. Iraq were clearly set up for success with such a controller in midfield — a true maestro, a throwback of a playmaker.

Then the soap opera started…

In Autumn that same year, Yaser Kasim refused to join the rest of the national team for it was “controlled by a few individuals serving themselves”, who had “built a system in which intimidation and fear was used to control the team”. That feeling fortunately left him soon as he accepted a nomination for the 2016 Olympics as one of the three over-age players… only to suddenly request a three-day leave and going AWOL with his phone switched off. Still, Kasim was convinced to return to the national team later that year… only to look shockingly off the pace. In 2017, he announced retirement in what felt like a 107th letter of his career, citing FA’s inability to… secure a match ticket for his brother as the main reason? Oh come on now, I’m really hoping there’s a sweet redemption story at the end of this shit. And there it is, finally, in February 2018, Yaser Kasim was back with the national team… for just a friendly, and only to be released by a 4th-tier English club at the end of the year. Ugh.

And that’s probably it for Yaser Kasim; for now and ever. His attempt to hit the reset button once more had failed miserably as he’s now unattached after a brief stint in Sweden.

Left central midfielder – Odil Akhmedov (Uzbekistan)

I guess that Server Djeparov(‘s mullet) would be the popular choice from among Uzbeks for such an XI, and for a reason, but he unashamedly dropped his famous hairstyle about halfway through the decade and… well… the clue was in the URL link. You’d been warned.

Besides, I genuinely do not think it would be at all controversial to call Akhmedov the more influential Uzbek of the two, perhaps only trailing to Aleksandr Geynrikh for the title of the most influential one (another consideration of mine, by the way, especially for the selfie celebration and the unrivalled sexiest moment of the decade).

Firstly, you have the mid- to long-range shot that has cause multiple headaches and goal celebrations across the decade. His shots might often go way off target, they might even be outright deluded to begin with, but even those of dubious quality seemingly always find their way. Just ask this Philippines goalkeeper. Or the usually dependable Izwan Mahbud of Singapore who fell the most recent victim of the “late 2010’s Odil” translating simply as a cunning, innocent-looking free kick. He literally pulled the same trick at the last Asian Cup, or with one of his less famous but fresher goals against Qatar. Odil Akhmedov has simply figured it out as the decade dragged on — mastering the art of a tricky mediocre strike to kind of replace the irregular if still good ol’ cannon of early 2010s.

Secondly, even if you’re a dedicated proponent of the “Uzbekistan are the ultimate chokers” narrative, you simply can’t not to acknowledge the severity of the blow Uzbekistan suffered vs South Korea when Odil Akhmedov left the 2015 Asian Cup quarter-final just 30 mins in. More than ever, he was the beating heart of the resurgent Rashidov-powered side then, and South Korea looked largely stunned by the opponent’s energy in the early goings. The captain’s cruel injury robbed Uzbekistan of a large chunk of bite, setting up the inevitable heartbreak.

Right winger – Mathew Leckie (Australia)

Having grown up in the Czech Republic, I had the pleasure of witnessing Tomáš Rosický to gradually master the audacious cross-field outside-of-the-boot pass, or even better, an accurate side foot cross. Many have come after him, Czech or not, attempting to hone the same craft, and pretty much everyone failed to a varying degree. Then in January 2015, Mathew Leckie arrived on the scene, and thanks to the good ol’ Vine, we can now re-live the magic again:

His first outside-of-the-boot cross is perhaps the better one, only that it didn’t result in a goal due to some goalkeeping counter spell; and so the second peach of a cross against Oman, finished by an equally aesthetically pleasing slide, is the one most will remember.

Somewhat tragically, Leckie has spent most of the following months on the right wing where a side foot cross is no longer an option for him, but he continues to take our breaths away periodically. In summer 2018, in preparation for the World Cup, he stunned us by actually using his left foot to finish and score, whereas for this WCQ, he’s turned into an old-fashioned poacher, tapping balls in from six-yard box with all kinds of body parts.

Attacking midfielder – Keisuke Honda (Japan)

The variety of iconic stuff Keisuke Honda brings to the table is amazing. Initially, he was making headlines for all the orthodox (and great) footballing reasons. It started with him taking the 2010 World Cup stage by storm as a makeshift false 9, selling a long flat free kick to all of us. It continued with him cementing continental stardom as a 2011 Asian Cup MVP and the inaugural winner of the Best Footballer in Asia award (2013). In 2015, he was once again his country’s best Asian Cup performer, even if golden medals turned into a quarter-final upset.

That was the first half of the decade. The second one, though, was something else. Like… literally something else. From provoking “Hon-done” puns at the tail end of his A-League stint to his volatile fashion choices while co-managing Cambodia (see this whole thread), he may yet be most remembered for his awkward Zlatan-ing on Twitter that somehow earned a plain desperate spin-off just two days later and finally culminated in his signature at Vitesse on whom he quit just 1,5 month later because he “wanted to change the situation” but that turned out to be impossible once Leonid Slutskiy suddenly resigned or whatever.

A tarnished legacy? Maybe. But it definitely wasn’t a dull decade with Keisuke Honda.

Left winger – Chencho Gyeltshen (Bhutan)

Bhutan’s first ever World Cup qualifying victory and the subsequent journey to the next round was a fairytale stuff we, international football followers, hope and breathe for.

And while there has yet to be a meaningful sequel for the team as a wole, the name of then 19-year-old wizard Chencho Gyeltshen was forever etched into our collective memories. He was the only Bhutanese who remembered their last competitive game (20 months back), he was the only true professional of the side without any other job, and he was unstoppable in both legs vs Sri Lanka.

Fittingly for a national record holder in the 100m race – a record he’d set just one year prior, by the way – Chencho tormented Sri Lanka with his pace as well as technical ability and turned the nervous return leg into his own one-man show. A Chencho brace, completed in the last minute, now definitely put Bhutan through to the next round where the mazy winger attempted an incredible 25 dribbles throughout the wild 3:4 loss to Maldives.

Chencho Gyeltshen is now only 23 and his 36 national team appearances already mean the all-time high in the context of a country dominated by the tradition of archery. He became the first Bhutanese to try his luck abroad (at Buriram in 2015), and he further capitalized on his short trial by securing a pair of jobs in India and becoming a bit of a rockstar over there.

He recently returned back home, but the book is surely not closed on his extraordinary talent; Chencho shall merely attempt to run riot against a Sri Lankan opposition once more, in an attempt to help Paro FC – by sheer coincidence or not hailing from a district he was born in – past the AFC Cup preliminary round as the first Bhutanese outfit ever.

It’s fair to say such a milestone would be just another string to his bow – pun fully intended.

Striker – Sunil Chhetri (India)

I considered a fair few options for the striker position. The Al Sahlawi goal explosion followed by a never ending dry spell was one candidate. Younis Mahmoud would also deserve highlighting. And Tim Cahill is arguably the biggest snub here, falling just short (due to the Leckie nomination) to who is essentially his Indian version – an undying talisman of a goalscorer who’s like a fine French wine something something

Sunil Chhetri has a bit of an edge over Tim Cahill for the way he covers the entire decade, from start to finish, over which he’s delivered an incredible 56 international goals. At 2011 Asian Cup, he scored 2/3 of his country’s goals. At 2019 Asian Cup, his second goal against Thailand ended up being the deciding one in what, very fittingly, remains the only Indian victory at the continental showpiece since 1964. In the last two years of the decade, Sunil Chhetri sported a remarkable record of 15 tallies in 17 appearances, finally cracking the Top 10 of world’s most potent international goalscorers of all-time and giving himself a chance to retire as the second-highest scoring Asian, currently lagging just 6 strikes behind Hussein Saeed.

Who else but Sunil Chhetri – a two-time SAFF Championship MVP – could have then followed up on Bhaichung Bhutia (2008) as the only other modern-day footballer with the Padma Shri award, fourth highest civilian honour in India awarded for outstanding contribution in various fields like sports, arts, medicine, science and literature.

Coach – Marcello Lippi

It’s year 2023 and China are about to get their World Cup qualifying cycle underway with 75-year-old Marcello Lippi at the helm, having failed to agree to terms with Fabio Cannavaro, most likely. Zheng Zhi is now 42, full-time employed by Guangzhou Evergrande as playing coach, and arguably the least dispensable member of the team, acting as a makeshift libero for the national team that now officially doesn’t field any central midfielders. Chelsea’s Zhang Linpeng is the only other China-born international.

Akin to the case of Honda, Marcello Lippi had a stunning first half of the decade after which he should’ve ideally wrapped it all up. Becoming the first coach to win both UEFA and AFC Champions League seemed like the “too good to be true” ending of one remarkable career, and Lippi had initially arrived to the same conclusion – announcing his retirement from coaching in November 2014 a mere 9 months after signing on with Guangzhou Evergrande till 2017.

As it turns out, that was but a first hint of Lippi’s chronic indecisiveness, however.

At first, Lippi moved up to continue as the director of football, but then he quickly changed his mind and left the club altogether. In October 2016, he finally answered the call from the Chinese FA to take on the senior national team and… disappoint everyone. His 10-9-11 record was way worse than that of Alain Perrin (15-9-4) and his winning percentage somehow trailed even that of José Antonio Camacho (33% vs 35%, heh).

Naturally, that was enough of a reason for Lippi to resign.

And enough of a reason to seek improvement exactly four months later, too.

Did the improvement arrive? Yes, it did, actually, with Lippi bowing out mid-November sporting a 71,43% winning percentage. But did it help his reputation as well? Hardly.

Lippi quit after his first loss, somehow choosing to explain his decision by mumbling something about “taking responsibility” (for, again, a tight 1:2 loss to a good Syrian side) and referencing his “high pay” everyone had been so painfully aware of. His second yearly salary was cited to amount to 28 million USD, while it was later reported he’s earned up to 58 million USD (ie. grossing almost 4m per one win in charge) for seemingly not moving China forward by even a single inch.

But well, until he makes another shock return, we’ll at least have his two unforced subs inside the first 30 minutes of the 2019 Asian Cup Iran encounter as the perfect encapsulation of his chaotic, direction-less regime. God bless Alain Perrin, seriously.


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