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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - The beauty of international football tournaments can often be found in the unknown — in an unfancied team making a deep run, or the discovery of a new talent.
On this score, the AFC Asian Cup always delivers, with each passing edition bringing to the fore a new name for legions of fans to admire. And this upcoming Asian Cup, to be held in Qatar over the next month promises to be no exception.
Here are five young stars to watch this month.
Abbas Al-Hassan, 19, Saudi Arabia
The name Abbas Al-Hassan was not on many people’s lips before the start of this Saudi Pro League season, but so impressive has the midfielder been for Al-Fateh that he has forced his way into Roberto Mancini’s squad.
Making his international debut in November’s window, playing both qualifiers against Pakistan and Jordan, the 19-year-old got the nod in the Asian Cup squad ahead of more experienced players like Salman Al-Faraj. This perhaps heralds a new era for the Green Falcons as they have one eye on both the 2027 Asian Cup and 2034 World Cup, which will both be held in Saudi Arabia.
While there is still competition in midfield, Al-Hassan could emerge as one of the first pillars of the new Saudi Arabia moving forward.
Harib Abdalla, 21, UAE
There has not been a lot to get excited about in Emirati football for the past few years, and not since the emergence of Omar Abdulrahman almost a decade ago has the country produced a player to take the continent by storm.
But Shabab Al-Ahli’s Harib Abdalla has all the tools to do just that.
Still only 21 the pacy winger, who loves to attack defenders, announced himself in the international arena with a classy goal in a surprise 1-0 win for the UAE over South Korea at the end of qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
An impressive display against Australia in their playoff loss only enhanced his reputation, and with the Emirates experiencing an upturn in fortunes under Paolo Bento this could be a big month for the 21-year-old.
Arif Aiman, 21, Malaysia
A product of the JDT academy, Arif Aiman has been a consistent performer over several seasons for Malaysia’s best team.
It was his desire that set up a last-gasp win over Ulsan Hyundai in the 2022 AFC Champions League, a result that saw the Malaysian side qualify for the group stage for the first time.
And in 2023 he has taken his game to a new level, registering 24 goals and 16 assists in 39 games across all competitions for JDT, also taking the club’s MVP award as its best player.
With Malaysia back at the Asian Cup for the first time since it hosted the tournament in 2007, expect big things from Aiman.
Abbosbek Fayzullaev, 20, Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan have long threatened to break into the top tier of Asian nations but could never quite take the final step. And in recent years, they have faded somewhat into obscurity, even missing the final round of World Cup qualifying for the first time.
But a new generation of talent looks set to propel the White Wolves back into contention, and there are few more exciting than Abbosbek Fayzullaev.
The 19-year-old was named MVP of the AFC U20 Asian Cup last year, a tournament both hosted and won by Uzbekistan. That form earned him a call-up to the senior team and a move to Russian side CSKA Moscow, where his form is turning heads with two goals and four assists in 13 league games so far this season.
With Uzbekistan’s leading striker and captain Eldor Shomorudov expected to miss the tournament, the time is now for Fayzullaev to announce himself on the international stage.
Marselino Ferdinan, 19, Indonesia
Indonesia is often referred to as the sleeping giant of Asian football, such is the potential that exists within the archipelago, not to mention the passion for the game.
The country of 270 million people has long waited for a genuine star, and in Marselino Ferdinan they have a player with all the potential in the world.
Already on the books of a European club, KMSK Deinze in Belgium, the silky and creative midfielder has shown glimpses of his potential for Indonesia in the regional AFF Cup, being named Best Young Player at the 2022 tournament, as well as for his former club, Persebaya Surabaya, in Indonesia.
Already his country’s youngest-ever goal scorer, the 19-year-old carries a heavy burden as the next big thing from the football mad nation, but he has shown he can carry the load.
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