The 10 players to watch at the AFC Asian Cup 2023 in Qatar

From South Korean and Japanese stars to local heroes, these are the players expected to light up the tournament.

Son Heung-min celebrates for South Korea
South Korea will hope to see plenty of Son Heung-min's trademark celebration during the AFC Asian Cup 2023 [File: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters]

The AFC Asian Cup 2023 kicks off in Qatar when the hosts and defending champions face Lebanon at the Lusail Stadium in Group A on January 12.

Players from the top flights of the best leagues in the world have put their club commitments on hold to compete for arguably the strongest Asian Cup yet.

Here’s a look at our top 10 players to watch out for during the tournament:

1. Son Heung-min: South Korea

Arguably the biggest star set to light up the tournament in Qatar. Will Son be able to lead South Korea to a third title though? The 31-year-old leads Tottenham Hotspur, of the top sides vying for the English Premier League title. Son has scored 12 goals in 20 Premier League games this season so the Spurs loss is South Korea’s gain. The former Hamburg and Bayer Leverkusen forward, who has won an Asian Player of the Year award on a record three occasions, has scored 41 goals in 116 games for his country.

2. Kim Min-jae: South Korea

Last year, Kim was named the Asian International Player of the Year for players based outside Asia after he helped Napoli to their first Serie A title since 1990. The 27-year-old, regarded one of the best central defenders in the world and aptly nicknamed “The Beast” moved from Napoli to Bayern Munich last summer. Kim has appeared 56 times for the national team for whom he made his debut in 2017.

Kim Min-jae and Victor Osimhen playing for Napoli
Kim Min-Jae and Victor Osimhen helped Napoli end a 33-year wait for the Serie A title last season [File: Jennifer Lorenzini]

3. Salem Al-Dawsari: Saudi Arabia

Al-Dawsari holds the distinction of scoring arguably the most famous goal in Saudi Arabia’s history, an edge-of-the-box screamer that sealed his team’s historic win over Argentina at the Qatar World Cup 2022. Consequently, Al-Dawsari was named the Asian Footballer of the Year for 2022, for players at clubs within Asia. The 32-year-old winger is regarded as a key player for both Al Hilal in the Saudi Pro League and for Saudi Arabia. He has scored 21 goals in 74 games for his country and has helped his club to the top spot in the league, where they are seven points clear of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr. But for a brief loan at Villareal in 2018, Al-Dawsari has been a one-club player.

4. Takefusa Kubo: Japan

Kubo has lit up La Liga this season with nine goal contributions in 18 league games for Real Sociedad. The 22-year-old had only just turned 18 four days prior to his Japan debut in 2019 and has made 29 appearances for his country already, scoring three goals. Kubo was signed by Barcelona at 10 years of age but transferred back to Japan with Tokyo FC’s under-18 side four years later. Real Madrid brought the forward back to Spain a month after his international debut but, after a series of loans, it was Sociedad who eventually signed Kubo in 2022 and gave him a consistent run in the first team. In his time with Tokyo FC, Kubo became both the youngest player and then the youngest scorer in a J-League match when only 15.

5. Mehdi Taremi: Iran

Taremi was runner-up to Min-jae as the 2022 Asian International Player of the Year. The 31-year-old striker has scored 43 goals in 76 international appearances. The pinnacle of his club career came when he signed for Porto in 2020 from fellow Portuguese top-flight club Rio Ave. Taremi ascended through Iranian football before joining Al Gharafa SC in the Qatar Stars League where he spent two seasons before his 2019 move to Portugal.

6. Kaoru Mitoma: Japan

The number one reason to watch Mitoma is the injury he sustained to his ankle on December 21 while playing for Brighton in the Premier League. The winger’s inclusion in the Japan squad is a risk as a result, especially given the omission of one of the country’s other star names, Daichi Kamada of Lazio. Mitoma has been a stand-out player for Brighton since his arrival from Kawasaki Frontale in 2021 and the immediate loan spell he had at Union SG where he scored 7 goals in 27 appearances. Of all the world-class names and influences in the Japan side, Mitoma’s ankle may well have the biggest say on the nation’s success at the tournament.

7. Akram Afif: Qatar

Afif scored the decisive third goal, from the penalty spot, as Qatar beat Japan in the final of the 2019 Asian Cup and will carry the hopes of his nation’s title defence. The 27-year-old, who plays for Al Sadd in the Qatar Stars League and is one of the biggest local stars, has scored 23 goals in 93 international appearances. Four years in La Liga at Villareal, before his return to Al Sadd, will have shaped the forward’s career immeasurably and marks the regard with which the player is held. Afif was on target in Qatar’s final warm-up match ahead of the tournament but it wasn’t enough to stop the team slipping to a 2-1 defeat by Jordan.

Akram Afif scoring in the final
Qatar’s Akram Afif scores their third goal from the penalty spot in the 3-1 win against Japan in the 2019 final [File: Suhaib Salem/Reuters]

8. Waturo Endo: Japan

Endo has already established himself as a key player in the midfield of a Liverpool side quickly banishing memories of a shock fifth-placed finish in the Premier League last season. The 30-year-old was perhaps something of a surprise signing from Stuttgart, given his age, last summer but have fully validated the decision of Jurgen Klopp to bring him in to anchor the midfielder with his team sitting three points clear at the top of the table upon his departure for the Asian Cup. The former Urawa Reds star has made 55 appearances for Japan, scoring two goals, and will be required to form the core of the national team’s set-up.

9. Lee Kang-in: South Korea

If South Korea are to claim a third Asian Cup crown to sit second behind record winners, Japan, then Lee will have to play a significant role in attack along with Son. Lee joined Paris St Germain from Real Mallorca last summer but has long been established as a rising star, having won the Asian Young Footballer of the Year award in 2019. The 22-year-old, who has scored four goals in 20 matches for the national team, was first picked up by Valencia at the age of 10 to join their youth ranks.

10. Firas Al-Buraikan: Saudi Arabia

Al-Buraikan is the leading scorer of Saudi Arabian nationality in the Saudi Pro League this season. The 23-year-old has netted 11 times in 17 games and is the league’s fourth-highest scorer this season. The striker’s ability led Al Ahli to splash the cash on his transfer from Al-Fateh last September. The former Al Nassr player has also scored six goals in 36 appearances for the national team, which he has represented through the ranks.

Source: Al Jazeera