Iran’s European Star, South Korea’s dearest Son and the Japanese Messi: Asian Cup Stars (Part 3)

Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Heung Min Son, Takefusa Kubo (From Left) for their national teams [Image: Wikipedia, FIFA, AFC]
The final part of the series, where we discuss more of the stars likely to shine at the current Asian Cup.

Part 1: The Monster, the Red Samurai and the Scottish Aussie – Asian Cup Stars to Watch

Part 2: Iran’s Stalwarts, Japan’s First Scouser and the Argentina Slayer – Asian Cup Stars to Watch
Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Iran)
We spoke about Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi, but when we talk of Iran, we can’t miss Alireza Jahanbakhsh. The 30-year-old attacking midfielder and winger now plays club football for the Dutch giants, Feyenoord. An experienced member of the Iranian side, Jahanbakhsh has represented Team Melli in all FIFA World Cups since 2014 and Asian Cups since 2015.
Jahanbakhsh began his youth career with Rasht and Persian Qazvin before joining Damash Tehran’s youth academy in 2008. He started his professional journey with Damash Tehran, affiliated with Damash Gilan in the 2nd Division. At 17, he returned to Gilan, making his debut for Damash Gilan in the Iran Pro League in 2011. Jahanbakhsh scored his first goal in a 1–0 win against Fajr on January 15, 2012, and tallied 10 goals in 42 league appearances for Damash.
After successful stints with two Dutch sides, NEC Nijmegen and AZ Alkmaar, Jahanbakhsh shifted to England with Brighton and Hove Albion for a record fee of ¢17m, which made him the costliest Iranian player ever.
During the 2017–18 Eredivisie season with AZ, Jahanbakhsh achieved a milestone by scoring 21 league goals, becoming the first Asian player to claim the top-scorer title in a prominent European league. Feyenoord revealed on July 17, 2021 that Jahanbakhsh had signed a three-year deal with a potential fourth year. His debut came on July 29 in the UEFA Europa Conference League against FC Drita. He started the match was later substituted, helping to secure a 3–2 home victory, with Feyenoord advancing 3–2 on aggregate.

Alireza Jahanbakhsh in Feyenoord colours (Image: Feyenoord)

On October 5, 2013, Jahanbakhsh received his first call-up to Team Melli for a 2015 Asian Cup qualifier against Thailand, under manager Carlos Queiroz. He made his debut as a substitute in the 82nd minute and scored his first international goal in his second game on November 15, in a 3–0 win against Thailand. In June 2014, he was selected for Iran’s 2014 FIFA World Cup squad, playing in all three matches. He was also part of Iran’s 2015 AFC Asian Cup squad.
Jahanbakhsh contributed to Iran’s success by scoring the second goal in a June 2016 World Cup qualifier against Qatar. In May 2018, he was included in Iran’s squad for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, participating in all three group matches against Morocco, Spain, and Portugal.
Jahanbakhsh is expected to be a key player in Iran’s attack, alongside Taremi and Azmoun.
Son Heung-min (South Korea)
Perhaps the most renowned name in this edition is the South Korea and Tottenham Hotspur star, Heung-min Son. Born in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, Son relocated to Germany at 16 and started his football journey with Hamburger SV, debuting in the Bundesliga in 2010. His career then led him to Bayer Leverkusen and eventually Tottenham, where he became the most expensive Asian player at £22 million. Son set records as the top Asian goalscorer in the Premier League and Champions League while surpassing Cha Bum-kun’s European goal record for Korean players. In the 2021–22 season, he won the Premier League Golden Boot with 23 goals, becoming the first Asian to do so. Son, a key figure for South Korea since 2010, has represented his country in multiple FIFA World Cups and Asian Games, achieving notable success. In April 2023, he became the first Asian player to score 100 Premier League goals, and also holds the club record for assists while ranking as Tottenham’s sixth-highest goalscorer. On an individual level, Son has won several awards, including the FIFA Puskas Award in 2020. He was won Asia’s Best Male Footballer award on eight occasions in nine years. He is certainly the centre of attraction not only for his side but a serious asset for the tournament as a whole.

Heung Min Son for Tottenham Hotspur (Image: HM Son Instagram)

Apart from the before-mentioned players, there are several other players who are regulars at top European clubs and expected to make a mark.
The 22-year-old Takefusa Kubo, the “Japanese Messi”, is a prospect who is expected to trouble a lot of defenders. Kubo has been a part of Barcelona youth system before joining FC Tokyo. He signed a five-year deal with Real Madrid in 2019, and, after a few loan spells, signed with Real Sociedad in 2022 on a permanent deal. His playing style, dribbling ability and agile movements have garnered much media attention in the recent past.

Takefusa Kubo for Real Sociedad (Image: AFC)

Kaoru Mitoma, the Japanese midfielder who plays for Brighton in the English Premier League, has earned attention among Premier League enthusiasts. Unfortunately, the 26-year-old is set to sit out Japan’s initial games due to an ankle injury sustained during a recent match against Crystal Palace. However, Japan’s head coach anticipates his swift return for subsequent matches.

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