In the past two decades, women’s football has seen a steady but significant increase in its popularity. Since the early 90s, FIFA, the apex governing body of the sport, has also been organising the Women’s World Cup as a quadrennial event. The grandest celebration of the women’s game sees the best female football players taking part from all over the globe, be it Europe, South and North America or Asia, to compete with each other and bring home the trophy for their nation.
While Asia does not have a rich heritage in men’s football, in women’s football several Asian players rank among the best female football players in the world. Japan, arguably the fiercest football force in Asia, won a FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2011. A number of Asian footballers have also played for major European clubs and left an indomitable mark, be it in the hearts of their fans or on the game as a whole.
So, keeping in mind the rich legacy of women’s football in Asia, and with the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 in progress, we attempt to turn the pages of history and look at the best Asian female football players the world has ever seen.
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Who are the best Asian female football players of all time?
When we think of goalkeepers, the image that comes to mind is usually of a towering figure standing between the posts. At six feet tall, Chinese football player Zhu Yu perfectly fits that description. Even though she hasn’t played in the FIFA Women’s World Cup prior to the 2023 edition, Yu has been a rock for the Chinese women’s national football side for the past few years. Her heroics in the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup helped China lift the title for a record-extending ninth time. Yu herself won the title of the Best Goalkeeper of the tournament for her impressive performance. The 25-year-old Chinese goalkeeper is arguably one of the finest Asian female shot-stoppers in the history of the game.
At 32 years of age, Saki Kumagai is one of the finest Asian female midfielders to have ever played the sport. In a career ranging over 15 years, the Japanese defensive midfielder has won almost every major trophy there is to win. Kumagai was part of the Japanese team that lifted the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2011. She also won the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in 2018, as well as a gold medal at the 2010 Asian Games and a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics with the national side. Playing for French football club Olympique Lyonnais’ women’s team, Kumagai has won the Division 1 Feminine seven times and the UEFA Women’s Champions League five times. Now entrusted with the national team’s captaincy, Japanese football fans will be hoping for Saki Kumagai to lead them to a second FIFA Women’s World Cup title in 2023.
South Korea’s Ji So-yun is arguably one of the finest midfielders of her age. The 32-year-old has played over 140 matches for the Korean national women’s football team and has found the back of the net on 67 occasions. So-yun is also a legend of the English side Chelsea’s women’s team. In a stint of eight years with the club, she has been instrumental in helping Chelsea lift the FA Women’s Super League trophy six times, and the Women’s FA Cup four times. So-yun was named the PFA Women’s Players’ Player of the Year for the 2014-15 season and is widely considered to be the best foreign female football player to have played for the club. After finishing second to China in the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, Ji So-yun will be hoping to put up a spirited display at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 and guide the Korean team to victory.
A versatile attacking player who can play both as a midfielder and as a forward according to her team’s needs, Wang Shuang is one of the most prolific Asian female football players in history. The 28-year-old Chinese player has made over 120 international appearances and has scored 43 goals for her country so far. Shuang played a pivotal role in China’s 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup campaign, scoring five goals in the tournament and helping her team lift the title for a record ninth time. She was named the AFC Women’s Footballer of the Year in 2018 and is undeniably one of the core members of the Chinese national women’s football team in the present era.
Another legendary female football player from Japan, Mana Iwabuchi has been with the Japanese national women’s team for 13 years. She was a part of the Japanese team that won the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2011, the silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics, the gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games and the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup.
At the age of 30, the forward from Japan also boasts of her success in Germany’s domestic women’s football circuit. She has won the Frauen-Bundesliga three times― once with Hoffenheim (2012-13) and twice with Bayern Munich (2014-15, 2015-16)― in a span of five years. Mana Iwabuchi is affectionately nicknamed ‘Manadona’ in Japan, after the legendary yesteryear footballer Diego Maradona.
The greatest legend in the history of Vietnamese football, Huynh Nhu is one of the finest female football players Asia has ever produced. In a career spanning over 12 years, Nhu has stepped out for the Vietnamese women’s national football team 104 times and has scored goals on 67 occasions, the most by any Vietnamese female football player. She has also won the Vietnamese Women’s Golden Ball on five different occasions― 2016, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022.
In August 2022, 31-year-old Huynh Nhu became the first Vietnamese female football player to play professional football in Europe when she signed with the Portuguese outfit Lank FC Vilaverdense.
Leading by example! 💪
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Yet another versatile player who can adapt to both offensive and defensive play with the same finesse, Chinese female football player Wang Shanshan has represented the national women’s football team in nearly hundred and fifty matches. In 146 appearances, Shanshan has netted the ball past the goalkeeper 55 times. The highlight of her career was when she scored nine goals against Tajikistan in a single match after coming off the bench in the 56th minute. Aged 33 years, Wang Shanshan will be looking to win the elusive FIFA Women’s World Cup title in 2023 after conquering Asia in 2022.
The former captain of the Chinese women’s national football team, Sun Wen is perhaps the greatest legend in the nation’s footballing history. She has represented China in 163 international matches and scored 106 goals. The Chinese forward won both the Golden Boot (leading goal scorer) and the Golden Ball (best player of the tournament) awards by virtue of her incredible performance in the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup. In 2000, she was named the FIFA Female Player of the Century alongside American football player Michelle Akers. Having retired in 2006, Sun Wen is widely regarded as one of the greatest players in the history of women’s football.
Considered to be one of the finest Asian female midfielders of all time, Aya Miyama captained Japan for four years (2012-2016), during which time she led the national side to a silver medal win at the 2012 London Olympics and an AFC Women’s Asian Cup title in 2014. Under her leadership, Japan also reached the final of the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2015, though it failed to replicate the glory of the 2011 squad that Miyama was part of. She was named the AFC Women’s Player of the Year thrice― in 2011, 2012 and 2015. Miyama also made it to the FIFA Women’s World Cup All-Star Team in 2011. Having represented Japan in 162 matches over 13 years, Aya Miyama bid farewell to football in 2016 as one of the best Asian female football players to have ever played the game.
Widely regarded as the best Asian female football player of all time and one of the greatest female players in the history of the sport, Homare Sawa brought about a revolution in Asian football. She was the captain of the Japanese national team that won the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2011, becoming the first team from Asia to do so (as of 2023, Japan remains the only Asian country to have won the FIFA Women’s World Cup).
Sawa was also a part of the Japanese squads that won the gold medal at the 2010 Asian Games, the silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics and the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in 2014. She has played 205 matches for Japan, the most by a female football player in the nation’s history, and also holds the record for most goals scored by a Japanese female football player with 83 strikes to her name. Homare Sawa was named the AFC Women’s Player of the Year twice (in 2004 and 2008) and the FIFA World Player of the Year once in 2011. In 2014, Sawa was inducted into the Asian Football Hall of Fame. The former Japanese midfielder’s legacy (she retired in 2015) remains unmatched to this day.
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(Main Image Credits: Courtesy Instagram/@Mana Iwabuchi and Instagram/@Wang Shuang)
(Featured Image Credits: Courtesy Instagram/@Wang Shuang)
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Answer: Former Japanese international football player Homare Sawa is widely regarded as the best Asian female football player of all time.
Answer: In 1991, Japan, China and Chinese Taipei became the first Asian nations to participate in the FIFA Women's World Cup.