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Nov 28, 2012

Asia's stars given space to shine

Park Ji-sung is a nice and unassuming kind of fellow but the midfield dynamo was the catalyst for the problems that have beset the Asian Football Confederation's Player of the Year award for much of the past decade.

It all started in 2005. The South Korean was, everyone assumed, the surest of shoo-ins. He had starred in PSV Eindhoven's run to the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League, been rewarded with a move to Manchester United and had been in fine form for his country. Yet he wasn't close to being honoured by his confederation.

He hasn't come close in the subsequent years either despite all the things he has won and done. If you ask him, he says that he does not have a problem with it and, when you consider the medals, trophies and titles he has collected, you tend to believe him. It has become more of a problem for the AFC than Park. Starting in 2005, the award has shed credibility on an annual basis.

It was all due to the introduction of a new rule stipulating that only players present at the ceremony in Kuala Lumpur could win. Given the fact that a flight to the city from Western Europe is at least 12 hours, attending a midweek event in Malaysia in the middle of a busy domestic schedule was always going to be tough for the continent's biggest stars.

It set the scene for the next six years. The likes of Javad Nekounam, Shunsuke Nakamura, Tim Cahill, Keisuke Honda and Park again all had claims to win but, in reality, were never able to do so. While it was understandable that the AFC did not want to have the climax of its annual ceremony become a video feed affair, Asia's highest profile players were continually overlooked as they were busy half a world away. At least once, a member of the final shortlist indicated he would make the journey if it was guaranteed he would return west with the trophy but no such promise was forthcoming.

As fans stewed over the biggest names in the continent being, for all intents and purposes, barred from winning its biggest prize, the policy also meant those who did win had their success tainted. One of the worthiest winners, Sasa Ognenovski led his Seongnam Ilhwa team to a memorable Asian Champions League triumph in 2010 to become the first Australian winner of the award, but yet again much of the talk was about who was not there rather than the man who was (and he was only able to collect the prize due to an injury that meant a missed K-League play-off match).

The prize was not a joke, the increasingly automatic comment on messageboards and Twitter, but it was deeply flawed, and caused anger and frustration among fans. Over time, however, it started to give way to the more worrying reaction of indifference. Even (since suspended) AFC president Mohamed Bin Hammam admitted to this writer in 2010 that the award had serious issues but finding an acceptable solution was the problem.

The AFC hopes that this year is a new beginning. In 2012, there will be two major awards. The same prize exists for Asian players playing in Asia but now there is an accolade for stars active elsewhere. The only gripe about the shortlist that contains Shinji Kagawa, Yuto Nagatomo and Mark Schwarzer is that it is just a little short.

Amazingly, according to the criteria, these nominees must also be present at the awards ceremony too but sources at the AFC say that it is unlikely this will be a hard and fast rule. If it is, it would render the new award pointless as the very problem which led to the creation of the prize in the first place will quickly reappear. It would again make it all about those players with the ability to make it to Kuala Lumpur on a Thursday night in late November. An acceptable alternative would be to present the prize to the winner before kick-off in front of their own fans. The sight of 76,000 Manchester United supporters applauding a beaming Shinji Kawaga would produce images used all over the world.

Maybe, over time, the international award will become the bigger of the two prizes but the hope and expectation is that the Asian prize will remain the showpiece and the AFC will strive to make it so.

Even this new dawn is not free of black clouds. Despite the changes, an unloved system has been kept in place. Players are nominated due to points collected by being named as MVP in games held in certain competitions such as the Asian Champions League, the AFC Cup, Olympic and World Cup qualifiers etc. In the past, this was used to determine the winner, now it produces a shortlist from which one is selected.

Fortunately, Lee Keun-ho should win and deservedly so. The South Korean starred in Ulsan Horang-I's run to the 2012 Asian Champions League title and was named the tournament MVP. His performance in the second leg of Ulsan's quarter-final 4-0 win over Al Hilal in Riyadh was hailed by the Saudi press as one of the best seen by a foreign player in years.

It will also provide a welcome narrative to fit around the award. Lee is set to shave his dyed blond locks on December 10 and start his two-year stint with the South Korean army. The prize would look good in the barracks. Although as Ulsan may be meeting Chelsea at the FIFA Club World Cup three days later, the attacker could get leave to delay by a week or so.

The other two candidates are Ali Karimi and Zheng Zhi. Karimi, deserved winner in 2004, plays for Persepolis and Iran. The Wizard of Tehran is not the force he used to be and the same can be said of Persepolis who have had one of the more forgettable years in their illustrious history. With the national team not exactly cruising through World Cup qualification, Karimi has not done enough. Something similar can be said for Zheng Zhi. The midfielder, while solid enough as Guangzhou won the Chinese championship, has done nothing that fans of former clubs Charlton Athletic or Celtic would have heard about.

Making international news has not been a problem for the award in recent years, unfortunately it has not been for football reasons. Perhaps that will change this week.

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