While interest in LaLiga grows across Asia, some of the continent’s most high-profile talents are already making a lasting impression on Spanish football.
The new partnership between LaLiga and M88 will continue promoting Spanish football in Asia for the next four seasons, continuing a recent trend of growth that has seen LaLiga become one of the continent’s most popular sporting competitions.
Part of this success is thanks to the many Asian players who have performed at the highest level in the top two divisions of the Spanish footballing pyramid.
These players have been testing themselves in the best league in the world and have stood out, providing unforgettable moments for their teams. In the 2020/21 season, there are seven Asian players across Spain’s top two tiers. Below we take a detailed look at four of them who have been able to make their mark.
The trendsetter: Takashi Inui (Eibar)
Of the Asian players currently in LaLiga, Takashi Inui was the first to arrive. In 2015, the opportunity to join Eibar came up and the Japan international took it, moving from Eintracht Frankfurt to a small club from northern Spain to fulfil his dream of playing in LaLiga Santander.
He immediately lit up the competition during a three-year spell with Eibar and that earned him a move to Real Betis in 2018. After half a season wearing green and white and another half a season on loan at Alavés, Inui returned to Eibar and is once again one of coach José Luis Mendilibar’s favourite players. He’s also now a mentor for his international teammate Yoshinori Muto, with Eibar becoming the first club to have two Japanese players in the same squad in LaLiga Santander history.
There have been several great Inui moments, such as his performance at the Camp Nou on the final day of the 2016/17 season when he put Eibar 2-0 up against Barcelona. Although the Catalan side came back to win 4-2, that’s a moment that Eibar fans still remember.
The star signing: Wu Lei (Espanyol de Barcelona)
Wu Lei’s transfer to RCD Espanyol de Barcelona in January of 2019 was absolutely huge in his native China. Having scored 102 goals in the Chinese Super League for Shanghai SIPG, he was the second top scorer in that league’s history and his arrival at the Catalan club helped them go on and qualify for Europe at the end of the 2018/19 season. Wu Lei scored in the 2-0 win over Real Sociedad that secured the club’s return to European competition after a 12-year absence.
There have been other memorable Wu Lei moments too, none more thrilling than his 88th minute equaliser in a home derby against Barcelona at the start of 2020. That goal earned Espanyol de Barcelona a 2-2 draw against their biggest rivals.
Wu Lei remains a focal point in his team’s attack. Given his huge profile in his home country, Espanyol de Barcelona have become one of the most followed clubs in China. Thanks to the 29-year-old’s contributions, Espanyol de Barcelona have charged up the table in LaLiga SmartBank and are currently league leaders.
The seasoned pro: Shinji Okazaki (Huesca)
With Shinji Okazaki to turn 35 years of age in 2021, the Japanese striker is a seasoned pro who has already enjoyed success in England and in Germany and with his national team. Before retiring, he wanted to play in Spain and this led him to join Huesca in the summer of 2019.
In his first Spanish season, Okazaki used his experience to help Huesca win LaLiga SmartBank and promotion into Spain’s top tier. With his 12 goals, Okazaki was the team’s top scorer during that promotion season. Now he is in the top division of Spanish football and opened his LaLiga Santander account with a beautiful goal in a 3-3 draw against Granada. Spotting the opposition goalkeeper off his line, the Japanese forward first-time curled the ball over everyone and into the net from distance to announce his arrival in Spain’s top division.
The future: Takefusa Kubo (Getafe)
Takefusa Kubo is regarded as one of the brightest stars of Asian football. After spending time in Barcelona’s La Masia academy as a youngster, the winger returned to his home country of Japan to take his first steps in senior football with FC Tokyo and Yokohama F. Marinos, before signing for Real Madrid in 2019.
After a dazzling pre-season for Zinedine Zidane’s side, several LaLiga Santander teams wanted to sign him on loan and RCD Mallorca won that race. Kubo played with the islanders in 2019/20 and was one of their best players as they battled in the top fight.
This season, the 19-year-old has gone out on loan again. For the first half of 2020/21, he was at Villarreal and made his debut in UEFA competition as he helped the Yellow Submarine progress from the group stages. Now, he’ll spend the second half of the campaign on loan at southern Madrid side Getafe, where he has immediately impressed coach José Bordalás.