Some of the top players from Asia and Oceania will be playing their football in LaLiga Santander and in LaLiga SmartBank this season.
LaLiga Santander and LaLiga SmartBank, Spain’s top two divisions, are increasingly competitive and are home to players from all over the world. This includes Asia and Oceania, two continents that are, little by little, having a greater presence in Spanish football. Players such as Takashi Inui, Ki Sung-Yueng, Yoshinori Muto and Shinji Kagawa have wowed Spanish fans in recent years and LaLiga will once again have some of the top Asian players this coming season, as well as another Asian Football Confederation (AFC) player in the form of a returning Australian. Here, we outline who these players are and why they’re worth watching.
Wu Lei: The most experienced Asian player in Spanish football
Chinese striker Wu Lei arrived at RCD Espanyol in 2019 from Shanghai SIPG, having won everything there was to win in his home country. As one of the most prolific scorers of Chinese football, the forward only needed five matches to net his first goal with the Pericos and had three by the end of that first half-season. In the 2019/20 campaign, he bagged four more goals, including a dramatic late equaliser in a Barcelona derby, as the fans at the RCDE Stadium celebrated a 2-2 draw against FC Barcelona.
When RCD Espanyol went down to LaLiga SmartBank, Wu Lei showed his commitment to the club’s project by staying in Catalonia and helping the team earn a bounce-back promotion. At the end of August 2021, he celebrated his 100th match with the club and, at 29 years of age, he brings experience and maturity to a squad looking to consolidate its position in Spain’s top division. Above all, Wu Lei’s opportunism and directness on the pitch are attributes worth getting excited about.
Takefusa Kubo: The Japanese talent who gives RCD Mallorca an edge
After already playing for RCD Mallorca in 2019/20, when he was just 18, Takefusa Kubo has returned to the island club at the age of 20. As he did the last time, the Japanese winger is playing for RCD Mallorca on loan from Real Madrid, but this time he has even more top-flight experience after also spending time at Villarreal CF and Getafe CF last campaign, helping the former get off to a great start in their triumphant Europa League campaign and scoring the goal that secured survival for the latter. The Japan international is at the level where he can start matches for the Bermellones and give them an edge.
After coming through the academy at FC Barcelona, Kubo has the potential to become a world-class star, as he recently proved at the Olympic Games as he led his national team to the semi-finals and fourth place with three goals and an assist in six matches. This season, after just turning 20, he’ll aim to put on a show by demonstrating his quality.
Kang-in Lee: The South Korean wonder kid swapping Valencia for Mallorca
One of the top transfers of the 2021 summer window was RCD Mallorca’s acquisition of Kang-in Lee. After arriving at Valencia CF at 10 years of age and working his way to the senior squad over the following decade, the South Korean midfielder has left Mestalla in search of more opportunities to show LaLiga Santander fans exactly what he can do.
With great tactical awareness, he is the kind of player all coaches would love to have and RCD Mallorca fans are excited to see what kind of partnership he can strike up with Kubo. The Japanese and South Korean players are two of the best young talents in LaLiga Santander and now they’re on the same team.
Gaku Shibasaki: The ‘Japanese Iniesta’ who’ll fight for promotion with CD Leganés
There is also an Asian presence in LaLiga SmartBank, Spain’s second division. One of the standout players at this level is Gaku Shibasaki, who first hit the headlines in Spain by scoring two goals in the 2016 Club World Cup final when he was playing for Kashima Antlers, forcing extra time in that match against Real Madrid, even if Los Blancos ultimately won that title.
The midfielder has been labelled ‘the Japanese Iniesta’ and he even went in the opposite direction of the Spanish legend. Shibasaki has now played for CD Tenerife, Getafe CF, RC Deportivo and CD Leganés in Spain, now staying with Lega for another season as they aim to win promotion back to LaLiga Santander, after coming so close last year. With over 100 matches in Spanish football, he is already experienced at this level.
Shinji Okazaki: A Premier League champion at FC Cartagena
When Leicester City won their shock Premier League title in 2016, Shinji Okazaki was a part of that success. After leaving the English club in 2019, the veteran Japanese forward moved to Spain and joined SD Huesca, spending two years there as they won promotion in 2019/20 and as they then competed at LaLiga Santander level in 2020/21.
Now, the Japanese legend has joined FC Cartagena, returning to LaLiga SmartBank. Aged 35 and with experience of playing in Spain, England and Germany, Okazaki should be a veteran presence in the FC Cartagena dressing room.
Mat Ryan: The only Australian in Spanish football
Mat Ryan has come from the other side of the world to play in LaLiga Santander. The Australian goalkeeper has signed with Real Sociedad, ready for a second stint in Spanish football after forming part of Valencia CF’s squad between 2015 and 2017.
After spending time with Genk, Brighton & Hove Albion and Arsenal, Ryan has returned to Spain and has signed with Real Sociedad to become the new backup to starting goalkeeper Álex Remiro. Having been at two World Cups and two Asian Cups, Ryan is an experienced shot-stopper.
David Alaba and other players of Asian origin
As well as the footballers mentioned above, there are some other players with links to Asia. That includes new Real Madrid player David Alaba, whose mother is from the Philippines, even if he is an international player for Austria. His move to Los Blancos was clearly one of the signings of the summer.
Another interesting story is that of Taichi Hara, a Japanese forward on Deportivo Alavés’ books who has gone out on loan to Sint-Truidense in Belgium. The 22-year-old will hope to return to the Spanish side after gaining experience abroad. Then there’s Wadi Ibrahim Suzuki, an 18-year-old Japanese forward who has recently signed for Valencia CF’s youth teams, with his arrival creating quite a buzz.