Asia’s newest stars grabbing headlines
History proves that Asian qualifying for the FIFA World Cup™ has provided a platform for the continent's brightest and best young talents to emerge and shine. The campaign for Russia 2018 has proven to be no exception, with a series of highly-regarded young guns living up to expectations. FIFA.com runs the rule over some of the newer names making their mark in the race for Russia.
Ahmed Khalil Forward, Al Ahli and United Arab Emirates In a sense, the ongoing campaign for Russia 2018 has seen the 25-year-old striker truly establish himself as one of Asia's brightest stars. Khalil exploded onto the global scene at the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup where he helped fire United Arab Emirates to the quarter-finals. He rose to the occasion at last year's AFC Asian Cup by skippering UAE to the last four, before going on to help his side through Asia's second qualifying round for Russia 2018. Named AFC Player of the Year at the end of 2015, Khalil has continued his form into third-round qualifying and recently completed a stunning brace as UAE inflicted a rare defeat upon Japan in Saitama. Khalil now has extended his scoring tally to 13 – just one shy of tournament top-scorer Mohammad Al Sahlawi of Saudi Arabia. His goal-scoring form and leadership will be key if UAE are to end their 28-year World Cup drought.
Son Heungmin Winger, Tottenham Hotspur and Korea Republic Needless to say, Son Heungmin entered the competition as a truly established star following his exploits for Korea Republic and also several European clubs. Four years ago, Son came off the bench to score the match-winning goal as Korea Republic edged Qatar 2-1 in a qualifier for Brazil 2014. Now 24, Son has developed into the team's new talisman. With six goals, Son is Korea Republic’s top-scorer in qualifying. His importance was such that he nearly single-handedly steered his side to a 3-2 victory over China PR in the third round opening game at home, having a hand in all three of their goals. With Son missing the last outing against Syria, though, Korea Republic could manage no better than a goalless draw. The Tottenham man’s pace, thrust and goal-scoring form will be a welcome boost for Korea Republic as they aim to bounce back in their next fixture against Qatar.
Sardar Azmoun Forward, Rostov and Iran With superb pace, aerial ability and consummate control of the ball, 21-year-old Sardar Azmoun is a promising star for Iran. His rise to fame was, indeed, meteoric when he helped Team Melli to the last eight with two of the tournament's finest strikes at the 2015 Asian Cup. With the striking prodigy raring to go, Asian World Cup qualifying provided him with the stage to further showcase his predatory talents. Seven goals from five matches is his impressive goal-scoring rate leaving Azmoun as the team's top-scorer. With the qualifying campaign reaching the decisive third round, expectations are growing that Azmoun can continue his prolific form and help Iran advance to Russia 2018.
Igor Sergeev Forward, Beijing Guoan and Uzbekistan Like Khalil, the 23-year-old Igor Sergeev originally made a name for himself at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, and his two goals helped Uzbekistan into the last eight at Turkey 2013. By doing so, he underlined his status as one of Asia's hottest prospects having finished as the tournament’s top-scorer with seven goals in the 2012 AFC U-19 Championship. The slim striker further learnt his trade with local giants Pakhtakor Tashkent, with whom he managed 51 goals from 97 appearances across four seasons. Now battle-hardened, Sergeev began to make a real impact with the national team, scoring the match-winner against Korea DPR in last year's Asian Cup, and he has now netted four times as Uzbekistan reached Asia's final qualifying round for Russia 2018.
Massimo Luongo Midfielder, Queens Park Rangers and Australia It seemed that Massimo Luongo came from nowhere to take last year’s Asian Cup by storm, dazzling with an array of goals and assists as hosts Australia clinched their maiden continental title. Indeed, such was the then 21-year-old’s impact he was named Player of the Tournament. He has continued that form scoring three goals in the Russia 2018 campaign. With an uncanny ability to dribble past rival defenders, plus a nose for goal, the fleet-footed youngster adds an extra dimension to Australia’s attack.
Takuma Asano Forward, VfB Stuttgart and Japan Takuma Asano's record for Japan may be modest thus far, with just two goals from seven international appearances. One of those two goals came in the last outing against Thailand in Asia's World Cup qualifying, when the 21-year-old sealed an important 2-0 away victory as the Samurai Blue bounced back from their 2-1 home loss to UAE. The Thailand game marked only his second outing during qualifying, but Asano's potential cannot be underestimated considering his form in the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016. After joining Arsenal mid-year, before being loaned to Stuttgart, Gunners’ manager Arsene Wenger referred to Asano as "a talented young striker and very much one for the future".