Southeast Asia’s two challengers for the Best Footballer in Asia 2019

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

The Best Footballer in Asia 2019 will soon be awarded to the continent’s standout individual over the past 12 months with Southeast Asia boasting two contenders.

And few would argue that Vietnam’s talismanic playmaker Nguyen Quang Hai and Thailand’s history-making left-back Theerathon Bunmathan have not been the region’s most-impressive duo in 2019.

Having rose to prominence in 2018 following his exploits on the international stage – starring at the AFC U-23 Championship, Asian Games and AFF Suzuki Cup – Quang Hai turned it up a notch this year for both club and country.

AFC Asian Cup 2019: Vietnam 1-0 Yemen – Nguyen Quang Hai (39′)

Still only 22, the left-footed maestro was part of the Vietnam side that made waves by reaching the quarter-finals of the AFC Asian Cup back in January, netting a stunner to open the scoring in a 2-0 win over Yemen that sealed progress from the group stage and impressing against some formidable opposition.

Quang Hai then turned his attentions to domestic and continental football as Hanoi FC cruised to the V.League 1 title, and also accomplished an unprecedented feat in the AFC Cup by becoming the first ASEAN Zone outfit to reach the inter-zone playoff final.

Deployed in a more-withdrawn role and effectively playing as a central midfielder, he continued to impact matches as a creative influence and netted a total of ten goals across both competitions, memorably producing a match-winning display in a 3-2 win over Altyn Asyr in the AFC Cup inter-zone semi-finals.

There is no doubt that Quang Hai is now one of the hottest youngsters across the continent, but Southeast Asia’s other contender for the BFA 2019 crown is a more-experienced stalwart who is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

As a rampaging left-back who really rose to prominence at Buriram United before moving to fellow Thai League 1 giants Muangthong United, Theerathon has been one of the standouts in Thai football for almost a decade now but was perhaps less recognisable to a wider Asian audience.

That changed last year when he finally earned a move abroad at the age of 27, as he moved to Japan and initially rubbed shoulders with world-class players like Andres Iniesta and Lukas Podolski at Vissel Kobe.

His excellent one-on-one defending and ability from set-pieces then convinced Yokohama F. Marinos to secure his services for 2019 and he featured regularly as his side were crowned champions of Japan for the first time in 15 years, becoming the first Thai to ever win the J.League in the process.

On the international stage, Theerathon was also a key player for Thailand as they overcame a shock 4-1 loss to India in their tournament opener to reach the Round of 16 at the Asian Cup, where they ultimately fell to China PR.

Despite the outstanding year both have had, it will probably take something special for either Quang Hai or Theerathon to challenge for top honours in BFA 2019, especially when they are coming up against the likes of Son Heung-min, Yuya Osako and Akram Afif.

Nonetheless, the fact that they can be mentioned in the same breath as these European-based stars of Asia for their performances in 2019 highlights how Southeast Asia is slowly but surely closing the gap between them and the continent’s elite.