John Duerden looks ahead to the Asian Player of the Year award ceremony and the controversial selection process involved to determine the winner
The annual Asian Player of the Year award ceremony held every November should be one of the highlights of the continental football calendar. While even close followers of football in the East would struggle to name the past five recipients, all know the controversial criteria that determine who can, or rather who cannot, win.
The indignation starts as the first shortlist of 25 is announced in the summer, but really gets going when the number is reduced to six in the week before the presentation in Kuala Lumpur. This is because in 2005, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) instigated a new rule which stated that only those players who attend the ceremony in the Malaysian capital can win the award.
It came as a shock back then as Park Ji-sung was expected to be a shoo-in. That year he starred for PSV Eindhoven in their run to the semi-final of the Champions League, performed well in helping South Korea qualify for the 2006 World Cup and followed that with a summer move to Manchester United. Instead, Saudi Arabian defender Hamad Al-Montashari collected the trophy.
Park hasn't won since and under the current system is never likely to. Kuala Lumpur's location 12 hours from and eight hours ahead of Manchester wouldn't be quite as big a problem if the event took place during a gap in the football calendar. But the preferred time always seems to be a busy Wednesday in a busy November.
It became farcical in 2011. Four of the six on the final list were unavailable. Shinji Kagawa was in action for Borussia Dortmund at Arsenal, Keisuke Honda's CSKA Moscow were at home to Lille and Koo Ja-cheol at Wolfsburg was between weekend games. He, like many others, had returned just the week before from Asia and international duty. Even Asian-based Yeom Ki-hun was unavailable as he had to play in a South Korean league play-off match. That left just two, Hadi Aghily of Iran and Uzbekistan's 2008 winner Server Djeparov.
They were understandably more upbeat. "It took an eight-hour flight to come here but I think we should show more respect to AFC and to the fans," said Aghily upon arrival in Malaysia. Djeparov, who went on to win the prize, agreed: "The award is conducted only once a year. It is not only important for players but for the entire AFC. We need to sacrifice. It goes without saying that only two people turning up for the continent's biggest prize is a little embarrassing."
The 2010 winner, Sasa Ognenovski, an Australian who plays his club football in South Korea, admitted that it devalues the honour to some extent. Like Yeom in 2011, the big defender was involved in the K-League play-offs a year ago and only a minor thigh injury made it possible for him to make it to Malaysia – otherwise the prize would have passed down the line.
The way in which the shortlists are complied is also unpopular. Players collect points for winning man of the match awards in certain competitions, such as the Asian Champions League, the second-tier AFC Cup, the Asian Cup and the World Cup. Domestic performances are not considered (which has led to players who don't get a game in the league earning points and making the list for a rare runout in continental competitions) and neither is the UEFA Champions League. Shinji Kagawa could score a hat-trick against Barcelona in the final but it would mean nothing.
All are starting to agree that enough is enough. Even suspended president Mohamed Bin Hammam, under whose tenure the award was introduced, admits in private that in 2005 it may have been better to take the award to Old Trafford to hand it to Park before kick-off in front of 76,000 fans, global television and a good number of international journalists.
AFC officials have hinted at a rethink in time for next year. At the very least, a change in timing to December or January could free up more Europe-based players, if not those based in England. Failing that, a separate award could be given for those playing overseas. Whatever happens, something needs to give because a night that should celebrate all that is best about Asian football has become a thing of ridicule.
From WSC 300 February 2012