Over the past week, three of Asia’s biggest stars, Ali Karimi, Shunsuke Nakamura and Park Ji-sung appeared in competitive games for three of the biggest teams in Europe, Bayern Munich, Celtic and Manchester United respectively.
While there are more stars from the east than ever before, Asian players have been around in Europe for almost a century. It all started in 1910 when 14 year-old Paulino Alcantra moved from the Phillipines to Barcelona and after scoring a hat-trick on his debut (causing the team’s President to ask ‘who the hell is this skinny kid?) went on to become the team’s all time top scorer with a phenomenal 374 goals in 375 games.
Nakamura isn’t the first Asian player to don the famous green and white hoops in Glasgow, for in 1936, Mohammed Salim moved from Calcutta to Celtic. It is not known how the UK’s first Asian star felt about leaving the Bay of Bengal for less sunnier climes by the Clyde but it can’t have been too cold for him as he played in bare feet.
On seeing the young Indian, one newspaper wrote, "Indian Juggler - New Style - Ten twinkling toes of Salim, Celtic FC’s player from India, hypnotised the crowd at Parkhead. He balanced the ball on his big toe, lets it run down the scale to his little toe, twirls it, and hops on one foot around the defender."
The Japanese playmaker has much to live up to.
Nine years later Frank Soo lined up alongside Stanley Matthews in an England team that faced Scotland just before the end of the war at Villa Park. Soo, played in the top flight for Stoke City, Leicester and Luton before moving into coaching, and is the only player with an Asian heritage to have played for England until now.
Scotland has Paul Wilson, the Celtic star from 1970-78 who scored 52 goals in 214 games, many of them against Rangers. Wilson, whose mother was Indian, won a solitary cap for the national team in 1975, coming off the bench for 15 minutes in a European Championship Qualifier with Spain that ended 1-1.
The first man from the giant continent to be a success in modern times, was South Korea’s Cha Bum-keun. The striker spent nine years in the Bundesliga from 1979-1988 winning UEFA Cups with Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen. ‘Cha Boom!’ scored 98 goals in 308 games in Germany’s top flight.
The former coach of South Korea and current boss of Suwon Samsung Bluewings is still fondly remembered in that country and his legacy literally lives on as son Cha Du-ri is currently helping Frankfurt re-establish themselves in the top division.
Cha opened the door for players like Hidetoshi Nakata and Medhi Mahdavikia to make a name for themselves in Europe as well as for clubs like Sheffield United in the Championship to sign an Iranian and South Korean in the space of a week.
All eyes in the east will be fixed on the future exploits of Park, Karimi and Nakamura on the domestic and international stage but the three musketeers won’t be the last Asians to star for some of the world’s biggest clubs.