Asian players take Bundesliga by storm

MAINSTAY Makoto Hasebe plays for Eintracht Frankfurt
MAINSTAY Makoto Hasebe plays for Eintracht Frankfurt

The Bundesliga has a rich tradition of top-class African stars gracing the playing fields and enthralling football fans with their artistry and goals.

Tony Yeboah won the top scorer award twice, while Sammy Kuffour won six Bundesliga titles, four German Cups, the Champions League and the Fifa Club World Cup with Bayern Munich.

Other African players who made a name for themselves include Jay-Jay Okocha, Abedi Pele, Obafemi Martins, Sunday Oliseh and Hany Ramzy.

A number of South Africans have also played in the Bundesliga. Striker Glenn Jordens was the first, in 1981, and retired Siyabonga Nkosi was the last. Nkosi was on the books of Arminia Bielefeld – the same club that local legends Delron Buckley, Rowen Fernández and Sibusiso Zuma also played for.

But there has been a growing trend of fewer African players featuring in the Bundesliga. Those who make a name for themselves, like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, soon move elsewhere.

That, of course, does not mean that the Bundesliga does not have its fair share of foreigners – far from it.

A notable occurrence over the past few seasons has been the appearance of Asian players – from South Korea and Japan in particular – who have found their way to Germany and signed on for Bundesliga clubs.

One of the surprise teams in the Bundesliga this season has been Eintracht Frankfurt, a club whose fans have spent more time worrying about relegation than they did looking towards the top of the table.

But that changed when Niko Kovac was hired as coach in March 2016, when the club was battling against relegation. He managed to avoid the drop, took them to the cup final and a mid-table place the following season, and then beat Bayern Munich last year to win the German Cup.

YOUNG BLOOD Jeong Woo-yeong is playing for Bayern Munich. Picture: Getty Images

It gave them an entry into the Europa League – a run that ended only on Thursday with a penalty shoot-out against Chelsea in the semifinal.

The star of the side is 21-year-old striker Luka Jovic. Currently in his second season with Frankfurt, he is being linked with a move to Real Madrid or the Premier League.

For many, though, the unrecognised star of the team is 35-year-old Makoto Hasebe, who is having the season of his life.

Hasebe is considered an inspiration in Japan. He published a book in 2011 called Kokoro o totonoeru (The order of the soul). In it, he describes how to succeed in life, partly by not letting your head hang low if things go wrong. About 1.5 million copies have been sold.

German coach Otto Rehhagel, who won the Euros with Greece in 2004 and was known to sign players well into their thirties, famously said: “There are no old players; there are only good or bad players.”

Hasebe is a perfect example. In December, he won the Asian Football Confederation award for the best Asian player abroad and was declared by influential German football magazine Kicker as the best centre-half in the Bundesliga.

“I am in the form of my life,” he told the magazine.

Eintracht Frankfurt’s coach, Adi Hütter, who took over from Kovac, was also quoted in Kicker as saying: “Makoto is like fine wine: The older he gets, the better he becomes. That is why he deserves the accolades.”

Hasebe, who played more than 100 international matches for Japan and captained the side before retiring after last year’s World Cup, is just one of many Asians currently playing in Germany’s top flight.

Some players – like South Korea’s captain Koo Ja-cheol, who plays for Augsburg, or Werder Bremen’s Yuya Osako – are seasoned professionals.

Others, like Jeong Woo-yeong (19), are looking for their first experience in European football. The young striker is contracted to Bayern Munich and is being touted as a future star.

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