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AFC Champions League

Top 10 overseas players to play in AFC Champions League

Published at :May 21, 2024 at 10:09 PM
Modified at :May 21, 2024 at 10:10 PM
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(Courtesy : AFP)

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One of these players have played in the ISL as well.

It’ll be the end of an era in Asian football as the AFC Champions League bids farewell and makes way for the AFC Champions League Elite and the AFC Champions League 2 from next season.

During its 21-year run, Asia’s premier club competition has witnessed some of the biggest stars in world football turn up for clubs from across the continent and leave an indelible mark on the tournament.  

With the second leg of the final between Al Ain FC and Yokohama F. Marinos set to bring down the curtains on the tournament, we walk down memory lane to showcase some of the best imports to have graced the competition. 

Dejan Damjanovic

Montenegrin striker Dejan Damjanovic etched his name into the AFC Champions League history books in golden letters as the tournament’s all-time leading goalscorer, bagging a total of 42 goals in the competition wearing the colours of FC Seoul, Beijing FC, Suwon Samsung Bluewings and Kitchee SC over the years. 

Damjanovic’s impressive showing in the tournament spanned three decades and saw the striker announce himself in style with a hat-trick for Seoul against Indonesia’s Sriwijaya FC in 2009, take the Korean side to the final in 2013, net a personal best nine goals in the 2018 edition with Suwon and finally overtake Lee Dong-gook’s all-time record of 37 goals with Hong Kong’s Kitchee in 2021 – earning legendary status in Asian club football. 

Abderazzak Hamdallah

Since his arrival to Asian football a decade ago, Moroccan striker Abderrazaq Hamdallah has scored goals for fun wherever he has been. At the age of 24, he joined China PR’s Guangzhou R&F from Norway, scoring on his AFC Champions League debut, a 2-0 win over Gamba Osaka in the 2015 group stage.

Since then, Hamdallah’s career saw him ply his trade in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, amassing 28 AFC Champions League goals and becoming the only player in the competition’s history to score in the colours of five different clubs; Guangzhou R&F, El Jaish, Al Rayyan, Al Nassr and most recently Al Ittihad.

Hulk

Having spent his early days in Japan, Brazil international Hulk returned to Asian football in 2016 joining Shanghai Port from Zenit St Petersburg for a then-record Chinese Super League fee and fully lived up to the billing, bagging 19 goals and 12 assists in 29 AFC Champions League appearances over his four-and-a-half season stay.

The striker was unplayable in 2017, scoring in all eight of his appearances and contributing eight assists to guide the Chinese side to the semi-finals where he netted again in the first leg, but saw their campaign end in a 1-0 loss in the return fixture. Two seasons later, the striker scored thrice in two outings against former side Kawasaki Frontale but Urawa once again stood in his way. Though failing to win the AFC Champions League, Hulk’s reputation as a deadly forward reached far and wide in Asia, thanks to his exploits with Shanghai. 

Baghdad Bounedjah

Another North African striker whose name became synonymous with the AFC Champions League, unlike Hamdallah, Bounedjah has very much been a one-club man since joining Qatar’s Al Sadd from Tunisian side ES Sahel in 2015, representing the Qatari side in 44 AFC Champions League matches and scoring 26 goals in the competition.

The Algerian marksman’s finest campaign came in 2018 when he fired Al Sadd into the semi-finals with 13 goals, winning the top scorer award and matching the record for the most goals in a single AFC Champions League campaign, a record he continues to hold alongside Muriqui (2013) and Adriano (2015).

Paulinho 

Paulinho left Tottenham Hotspur to reunite with his former Brazil head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari at a star-studded Guangzhou FC in 2015 and wasted no time in helping the Chinese Super League side become Asian champions for the second time in three seasons by defeating Al Ahli 1-0 on aggregate in that year’s final. 

The midfielder made a dream AFC Champions League debut, slamming home a sensational free-kick from 40 yards against Kashiwa Reysol in the quarter-finals and did not miss a single minute in six knockout ties to help Guangzhou lift the title. His best return in the tournament came in 2017 when he scored five times, earning him a move to Barcelona. But Paulinho returned to Guangzhou and was a key cog in their title challenge in 2019 which ended at the hands of Urawa in the semis. 

Caio Lucas

Despite hailing from Sao Paulo, winger Caio Lucas is largely unknown in Brazil as he never played professionally in his native country. He moved to Japan as a teenager and started his career at Kashima Antlers where he made his continental debut in 2015, scoring against Western Sydney Wanderers.

Caio then moved to UAE giants Al Ain whom he led to the final in 2016, scoring in both the quarter-finals and semi-finals. After three years in the Garden City, he returned to AFC Champions League football in 2020 having joined Sharjah after a spell in Portugal with Benfica. All in all, the Brazilian made 54 AFC Champions League appearances, contributing 11 goals and 13 assists.

Andres Iniesta

A FIFA World Cup winner in 2010 and two-time European champion with the Spanish national team as well as a pivotal force in helping Barcelona win countless La Liga, UEFA Champions League, Copa del Rey and FIFA Club World Cup titles between 2005 and 2018, Andres Iniesta was undoubtedly one of the most decorated footballers to bring his game to the AFC Champions League following his move to Japan’s Vissel Kobe. 

The midfield maestro made his AFC Champions League debut during the COVID-interrupted 2020 edition and put on a show in Vissel’s 3-1 defeat of Guangzhou Evergrande in Doha – teeing up Kyogo Furuhashi for the side’s opener before bagging a goal for himself late on to seal the win. Iniesta was again on target in a 2-0 win against Shanghai SIPG in the last 16 before converting in a shootout win against Suwon in the quarters. 

However, it was not to be for the Spain legend as Vissel, with Iniesta missing out due to an injury, suffered an extra-time defeat to eventual champions Ulsan Hyundai in the semis. 

Romarinho

Continuing the theme of journeymen Brazilians, Romarinho is a name that will long be remembered by fans of Asian football, having arrived via Qatar’s El Jaish in 2014 following a couple of eye-catching seasons at Corinthians in which he won the 2012 FIFA Club World Cup title.

In a decade which also saw him represent UAE’s Al Jazira and Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad, Romarinho made 36 AFC Champions League appearances, scoring 20 goals. His continental career includes reaching the semi-finals in 2016 and the quarter-finals in 2019 and 2023-24, while his best performance came in the round of 16 in 2015 when he scored three and assisted two goals across the two legs against Lekhwiya (now Al Duhail).

Oscar

Over the years, Oscar has produced a string of impressive displays and stunning goals for Shanghai Port in the AFC Champions League, endearing himself to the Asian football fans. The Brazilian attacking midfielder moved to China PR after winning two Premier League titles and a UEFA Europa League with Chelsea and formed a force to be reckoned with alongside Ai Kesen, Wu Lei and Hulk during the 2017 campaign. 

Oscar netted against Western Sydney Wanderers and Seoul in the group stage and also assisted Hulk’s goal in a 1-1 draw with Urawa in the semi-final first leg. Another highlight for the Brazilian came in 2019 when he hit a hat-trick against Ulsan to seal their progress to the knockouts. Now 32 years old, the Shanghai captain is set to usher in a new era of continental competitions as the 2023 champions return to Asia next season.

Asamoah Gyan

When Asamoah Gyan swapped Premier League side Sunderland for Al Ain in 2011 as a 26-year-old, the deal came as a surprise to many, but the impact of the Ghanaian forward on the Asian club scene meant he will always be remembered as an AFC Champions League icon.

Over the course of five seasons, Gyan represented three different clubs in the AFC Champions League. At Al Ain, he formed a devastating attacking duo with Omar Abdulrahman, leading the club to the semi-finals in 2014. He then moved east, joining Shanghai SIPG (now Shanghai Port), starring alongside the likes of Ai Kesen and Wu Lei. His last appearance and goal in the competition came in Shabab Al Ahli colours in the round of 16 of the 2017 edition against Al Ahli Saudi FC.

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