By Peter Weis@PeterVicey

A look at German football's twelve AFC representatives

Fans of international football tournaments find themselves flush with great action in the first month of the new calendar year. Five years after Qatar captured the Asian continental championship, the AFC Confederations Asian Cup returns for its next round!

One of the globe's most treasured footballing competitions also arrives with the 34th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations!

We'll be tracking the progress of German club footballers in both competitions here on Bulinews. In the first of two preview pieces, we're pleased to take a look at the 12 first and second division players contesting the Asian Cup first.
In honor of the 18th edition of the AFC Asian Continental Championship, Bulinews will be taking a look at the 11 German club players from the first and second footballing divisions representing their countries at the AFC. The final rosters for the tournament - submitted on January 1st - featured seven Bundesliga and five 2. Bundesliga players. Our coverage of the competition this year will follow German footballing actors as the tournament progresses. This introductory piece covers all the players selected, in addition to discussing some of the history linking each nation to the Bundesrepublik.

Three German footballers presently feature on the respective rosters of South Korea and Australia. Iraq and Hong Kong also carry one 2. Bundesliga club player. Four Bundesligists are due to represent Japan, but there is an asterisk next to Borussia Mönchengladbach defender Ko Itakura. The defender has returned to his club team in order to rehab an ankle injury in Germany. Itakura's participation in Japan's first group-stage fixture on January 14th remains uncertain. Our site will keep readers up to date on the 26-year-old's participation in the tournament.

Japan: "Samurai Blue"

Allow a German footballing enthusiast first emphasize that the disappointing result in the most recent World Cup leaves us with absolutely zero animosity towards our "Samurai Blue" brethren. For well over 20 years, Bundesliga lovers have thoroughly enjoyed the fact that our league became a regular breeding ground for Japanese footballing talent. For many years, Kazuo Osaki and Yasuhiko Okudera were the only two Japanese players to have worked in Germany. Both found their way to the Bundesrepublik for long careers spanning the late 1970s and early 1980s.

All of that changed after the Japan co-hosted 2002 World Cup. Shortly after Naohiro Takahara moved to Hamburger SV, the floodgates flew open. It helped that Germany hosted the 2006 World Cup after Japan. The "eternal Makoto Hasebe" wasn't far behind. Shinji Kagawa, Atsuto Uchida, and Hajime Hosogai came in the next wave. Shinji Okazaki, Yoshinori Muto, Hiroshi Kiyotake, Gotuku Sakai, Genki Haraguchi, Takashi Usami, Takashi Inui and Yuya Osako (among many others) followed them. There are too many names to list.

Germans have grown accustomed to rooting for Japan in the AFC as the squad always features Bundesliga players. Former Japan national team captain "eternal Hasebe" is still with us and still logging meaningful minutes at the age of 39 with Eintracht Frankfurt. Current Japanese skipper Wataru Endo still maintains the moniker "legendo" among VfB Stuttgart fans after he saved them from relegation with a dramatic late goal on the final match-day of the 2021/22 campaign. Endo actually came back to visit Stuttgart not long after his move to Liverpool and received a hero's welcome.

This particular German always found the Hajime Moriyasu coaching regime highly. Moriyasu was the first JFA-appointed national team trainer given full license to build his team around younger up-and-coming stars and given free reign to tinker tactically. The  2019 AFC squad made it all the way to the Final with a shifting cadré of strikers. Bundesliga stars Osako, Haraguchi, and Muto all scored in that tournament. Osako and Haraguchi powered the Samurai Blue through with goals against Iran in the semis. It was also future Bundesliga star Ritsu Doan's breakout tournament.

We were hoping to get more Bundesliga stars to root for this time around, but Moriyasu's final cutdown left us with only four actors to root for. Fortuna Düsseldorf's Ao Tanaka and 1. FC Nürnberg's Kanji Okunuki didn't survive the final cutdown. Former Frankfurt star, and absolute "cult" German footballing figure Daichi Kamada is out injured. The national team days of Genki Haraguchi and Maya Yoshida have come to their inevitable end. All things must pass. Time to take a look at our four representatives.
Ko Itakura (Borussia Mönchengladbach)

Initially loaned out to FC Schalke 04 during their 2021/22 promotion campaign, Itakura signed on with top-tier outfit Borussia Mönchengladbach ahead of the 2022/23 season. The player himself seemed enthusiastic about joining German football. The German footballing fan scene - not to mention his head-coach Daniel Farke - welcomed this high caliber player with open arms. Injury limited Itakura to 25 appearances during his freshmen Bundesliga season. Whenever he was off the pitch for Gladbach, his absence could certainly be felt.

Sadly, the injury bug once again stung for Itakura at the beginning of this season; a genuinely sad occurrence as the 27-year-old was off to a beastly start. Itakura netted two goals in Gladbach's first seven league fixtures this season. Combined with two assists in the previous campaign and four goals for Schalke in the promotion campaign, this highly-entertaining mobile center back has now amassed eight scorer points in 62 German football league appearances. Many of us hope against hope that he'll be with us for years to come.

Alas, it looks like Itakura's performances will eventually lead him back to the Isle. The latest transfer rumors - proffered by none other than transfer guru Fabrizio Romano - have several EPL sides looking to ply him away from the foals. A hitherto unknown of exit clause in his current contract (which Romano insists is not good through the winter) will likely see him depart this summer. It's possible that Itakura will be following countryman Endo to Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool.
Hiroki Ito (VfB Stuttgart)

While the "Legendo" may have departed for greener pastures, another Japanese international has managed to capture his fair share of hearts and minds in Swabia. The 24-year-old has successfully handled deployments for Stuttgart at three separate defensive positions: left-back, center-back, and sweeper. Since his German club signed him permanently from Júbilo Iwata in 2021, Ito's estimated market worth has skyrocketed from €400,000 to €22 million. He's another one heavily linked with a move to the Isle via a reported exit clause in his newly-signed contract.

Those of us following Stuttgart's tactics closely frequently reveled in a pastime known as "Wataru Endo watching" in recent years. The former VfB captain always roved around the pitch in a different manner every week. Although Ito isn't quite as unpredictable as a central midfielder such as Endo, figuring out his unique tactical assignment each week can still prove almost as much fun. Our subject here has now netted two Bundesliga goals and registered four assists in 71 league competitions. He's done remarkably well in 12 league and two cup deployments this year.
Ritsu Doan (SC Freiburg)

Ever since Doan announced his presence at the 2019 AFC, this football writer took to calling him the "Big Fish". It was an absolute pleasure to learn that DSC Arminia Bielefeld landed him on loan from PSV ahead of the 2020/21 campaign. It proved an even greater pleasure to watch him play that season. Doan scored five league goals and pocketed three assists that season. His special partnership with countryman Masaya Okugawa during the second half of that campaign also counts as a very special memory. No German football fan was happy to see him return to Holland after that year. 

It came as no surprise to see him perpetually linked with a return to German football over the full course of the subsequent season. Doan finally returned to the Bundesrepublik with a move to SC Freiburg in the summer of 2022. The prolific winger eagerly arrived at one of Germany's most popular clubs. We were just as pleased as he was to have him back. Since joining the Breisgauer, Doan has scored ten goals and pocketed 11 assists for Christian Streich's team in 69 appearances across all competitions.

No, we're not mad about the World Cup goal.

We love him!
Takuma "Jaguar" Asano (VfL Bochum)

Every so often, a footballer attains such a popular status that no one can refer to them without referencing their nickname. This author obstinately refuses to write any piece on Asano without throwing in the "Jaguar" quotes. The moniker dates back to his days on loan with VfB Stuttgart from Arsenal during the 2016/17 promotion campaign. Asano regaled us all with his unique goal-scoring celebration. It remains unclear whether he was initially trying to mimic a jaguar or some other member of the "Big Cat" family. In any event, the name stuck.

The now 29-year-old VfL Bochum professional is in the form of his life. He's scored six goals across all competitions for his German club this season. Five of his 12 top-flight goals have come in the current campaign. As if his scintillating form wasn't enough, he's also eating chocolate coins that German footballing ultras are throwing onto the pitch and using the extra energy to net crucial tallies. That's something of a long story. Suffice to say that Bundesliga lovers appreciate him now more than ever

We love him too!
Additional Notes on Samurai football in Germany:

The notable abscess have already been covered in the introductory paragraphs. Düsseldorf's Tanaka should be headed to the German top flight and back to the Japanese national team soon. There are literally well over a dozen Japanese footballers plying their trade in Germany's second and third divisions. The link between German football and Japanese players shall endure for all eternity. Much like Makoto Hasebe, in point of fact. The "Eternal Samurai" is more than welcome to play in our league until he's 50.

South Korea: "Taegeuk Warriors"

Ahem. Are Germans really ready to see Jürgen Klinsmann back in action in charge of a national footballing program? Not really; especially not when he's in charge of another one of our favorite countries. We offer our preemptive apologies to all our fellow Taeguks out there. Hopefully, he doesn't end up making a hash out of it. Perhaps he can even replicate the success of Uli Stielike from the 2015 AFC. He will certainly have to work hard to do worse than Paulo Bento's tactical conflagration against Qatar in the 2019 quarterfinals.

The story of South Korean football talent migrating to the Bundesrepublik doesn't mirror that of Japanese internationals. For starters, there was already a South Korean legend entrenched in the Bundesrepublik in the 1980s. Bum-Kun Cha contested over 200 Bundesliga matches for Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer 04 Leverkusen and scored nearly 100 league goals. His son, Cha-Du Ri, spent over a decade playing for various Bundesliga sides in the early aughts. There were other less successful ones as well.

The 2002 South Korean joint-hosted World Cup, followed by the 2006 German tournament, didn't lead to a mass migration of South Korean professionals in the same manner as it did with Japan. The wave did eventually come a tad later. Ja-Cheol Koo's move to Wolfsburg in 2011 can be cited as the moment when players from this Asian Tiger country began moving to Germany en-masse. The man who captained the national team in the 2014 World Cup was followed by others such as Ji-Dong Won, Heung-Min Son, Ji-Su Kim, Jeong-Ho Hong, and Joo-Ho Park.

Korean internationals find great favor in German footballing circles. Most seem to adapt well to the league and don't seem to mind the fact that German custom dictates the reversal of their names. Cha-Du Ri somehow found exception to this. There shall be plenty of Germans rooting for this country once again this time, even if Klinsmann's presence leaves us secretly nervous that we might end up embarrassing our South Korean friends. Fingers crossed, Taeguks!
Min-Jae Kim (FC Bayern München)

The man nicknamed "the monster" finally begins to live up to his reputation with the German giants. A string of excellent performances, capped by his inaugural Bundesliga goal on match-day 15 have footballing enthusiasts across the Bundesrepublik rueful that we won't be getting to watch him every weekend for awhile. The 27-year-old got off to something of a sluggish start with his German club. Several notable mistakes led him to declare himself dissatisfied with the first half of his first year in the German top flight.

What we've seen from him lately - the woeful Frankfurt match obviously being excepted - suggests that he's fully arrived in Germany. Kim has consistently received top marks in most all German press sources over the course of the nine match-days. He's been solid in five Champions' League starts as well. Only a few early sputters kept him from earning "team-of-the-season" honors at the halfway mark of the campaign. Assuming he can keep this form up, matters should be different at the end of the season.
Jae-Sung Lee (FSV Mainz 05)

Even if his club team find themselves in a less than desirable position in the table, the Ulsan-native has earned honors in the German press for his work as an attacking midfielder. Lee has actually consistently furnished exciting play no matter how poor Mainz have been. Since joining the Rheinhessen on a free from Holstein Kiel in 2021, the 31-year-old has scored 13 top flight goals over the course of the last three seasons. He's also netted 19 tallies in the 2. Bundesliga and found the back of the net thrice in the domestic cup.

Lee was always an interesting player as he moved to the Bundesrepublik comparatively late in his career. Kiel purchased a then 26-year-old Lee from Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC for only €1.5 million in the summer of 2018. For some reason, he's only valued at €3 million today. The transfermarkt listings have this player seriously undervalued, perhaps due to age bias. The fact that he can apparently turn goal-prophecies into reality should render his worth at least double that.
Woo-Yeong Jeong (VfB Stuttgart)

Jeong is in many ways the antithesis of Lee in that he was recruited as a top prospect by FC Bayern München when he was only 19. His early acclimatization to Germany leaves him fluent in the language. Among the many reasons that he's a fan-favorite include the fact that he really impresses in most every post-match interview. One can barely detect an accent. He's clearly put in a lot of hard work learning German off the pitch. His best work on the pitch came in two seasons spent playing for Freiburg between 2020 and 2022, during which he netted nine of his ten Bundesliga goals.

Jeong's professional path has been a zig-zaggy one. Bayern ended up selling him to Freiburg with a buyback option in the summer of 2019. Freiburg then lent him back to the Bayern reserves for a year. He returned to Breisgau for three full seasons. After his production numbers dropped off last year, Stuttgart purchased him this past offseason. Jeong hasn't had much of a chance to get established under his former FCB II trainer Sebastian Hoeneß in Swabia after a call up to the Asian games interrupted his league campaign. We still await the performance breakthrough from him this time.

Most any German footballing enthusiast will still label the 24-year-old an immensely gifted player whom we enjoy watching. He's contested 116 matches for his German clubs and can thrive in a variety of attacking positions. The fact that he proved the star for the South Korean U24s at the Asian Games this past autumn leaves him perfectly poised to have a great tournament this time around. Somehow he's fell victim to bad luck at his last two club stations. Ritsu Doan displaced him at Freiburg. Enzo Millot stole his slot at Stuttgart whilst he was away on international duty this time.
Additional Notes on Taeguk Football in Germany:

There are slightly fewer "Bundesliga Taeguks" for us to root for in this tourney than in the previous one. Back in 2019, Paulo Bento's side featured four Bundesliga players. Ja-Cheol Koo and Dong-Won Ji (both of Augsburg at the time) were joined by Hee-Chan Hwang (then on loan at Hamburger SV) and VfL Bochum's Chung-Young Lee. Five years ago, Germans also still had a claim to Heung-Min Son. That's right, Spurs fans! He came up in our country!  

Much like Jeong, the Tottenham star speaks beautiful German after heading to the HSV academy at the age of 18. Son spent five seasons playing for Hamburg and Leverkusen before making the move to north London. Germans had to eight long years before exacting revenge on Tottenham for taking away one of our brightest lights! No one has a right to complain about Harry. Period.

Australia: "The Socceroos"

Aussie enthusiasm in the Bundesrepublik was solidified the moment the legendary Timmy Cahill graced us with the "Kaiserslautern KO" during the 2006 World Cup. This Lautern native still gets goosebumps just thinking about it. The AFC tournament before us - the fifth since Australia switched from Oceania to the AFC from Oceania back in the very same year Cahill forever immortalized his place in the German footballing soul - is odd in that we don't have any top-tier Bundesliga players on the roster, or a German coach, to buttress our backing for the very first time.

Graham Arnold's 2007 incarnation featured Michael Beauchamp from 1. FC Nürnberg's famous 2006/07 DFB-Pokal-winning side. The 2011 that team finished as runners-up was led on the sidelines by former Schalke, Bochum, and German national team assistant Holger Osieck. Ange Postecoglu's 2015 continental champions had Mathew Leckie and Robbie Kruse in their young prime years. Leckie and Kruse made it back for Graham Arnold's 2019 team, though both were past their prime at that point. Hertha fans might actually argue that Leckie never had a prime. That's another discussion.

Oh well. Three second division German professionals join Arnold this time. Two of them play for one of Germany's greatest "punk-rock" club and something of cult figures themselves. The author also had the great pleasure of meeting a character he had never heard of before. The still uncapped John Iredale of SV Wehen Wiesbaden has been called up to the Aussie senior side for the very first time. Loads of luck to the former 3.Liga star with the intensely chiseled jaw and hypnotic stare!
Jackson Irvine (FC St. Pauli)

After a long career mostly spent in the Scottish Premiership and EFL Championship, Irvine first arrived in the Bundesrepublik in 2021 at the age of 28. The immediately recognizable ponytailed sprite soon shared the club captaincy with fullback Leart Paqarada. When Paqarada made the magnificent career decision to join 1. FC Köln last year, Irvine emerged as the squad's sole captain. The 59-times-capped Aussie international may be leading a Bundesliga side nat season. Paqarada - given the current state of Köln - might be playing in the third tier in two years' time.

St. Pauli fans absolutely love their Aussie-Scottish captain. The 30-year-old, who now dons the armband for the national team as well, has netted 12 goals in his two-and-a-half years with the Kiezkicker. Genuinely not bad for a deep-six midfielder. He's done especially well in the current campaign, registering seven scorer points (three goals and four assists) in 14 2. Bundesliga deployments. As if that wasn't cool enough, he grew a 1980s German football mustache and died his shoulder-length hair red. Yeah. Suffice to say, he fits right in.
Connor Metcalfe (FC St. Pauli)

Irvine's compatriot joined the Hamburg-based club one year later. He too has been an instrumental part of St. Pauli's successful season. Four scorer points (two goals and two assists) for the 24-year-old from Newcastle. The former Melbourne City midfielder plays a higher up than Irvine; sometimes all the way up on the right attacking wing. Metcalfe is well on pace to eclipse his total of seven scorer points (three goals, four assists) from last season. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that he too grew a mustache that reminds one of Jupp Derwall's 1984 Nationalmannschaft.
John Iredale (SV Wehen Wiesbaden)

We arrive at the player whom this Bundesliga correspondent has never heard of. Apparently, the 24-year-old spent some time at the VfL Wolfsburg youth academy before moving to SC Paderborn 07 in 2021. After not hacking it there, he was loaned and later sold to 3. Liga side SV Wehen Wiesbaden. After making a solid contribution to last season's promotion campaign (six goals and one assist), Iredale has also done a fairly decent job in the second tier. He's netted two tallies and registered one assist in 12 appearance. Cool. Not everyone needs a 1984 mustache to thrive.
Additional Notes on Aussie Football in Germany:

It wouldn't quite be appropriate to write an Aussie section without mentioning German-heritage Aussie keeper Mark Schwarzer; the man with a family from Stuttgart who ended up being the senior men's team's most-capped player. Schwarzer's brief stay in the Bundesrepublik (he failed to gain a starting role with Dynamo Dresden and 1. FC Kaiserslautern) didn't leave him with any animosity for our league. He still maintains a great knowledge about the Bundesliga and pops in to do color commentary for U.S. based Bundesliga broadcasts sometimes.

Schwarzer's 2006 World Cup in Germany mirrored the difficulties of his German club career. One would think that such experiences would really leave him hating us. Nope. Not only is he kind enough to grace us with his presence for calls of Bundesliga matches, he even slips into a weird semi-German accent that isn't detectable on any of his other footballing reporting assignments. A cool guy to be sure. He's described his time in Germany as both "a nightmare" and "an important learning experience". That paradox in itself is quite German.

Iraq: "The Lions of Mesopotamia"

Football fans of all stripes recall Iraq's surprise capture of the Asian continental crown in 2007 fondly. A troubled country's triumph against all the odds and under most unfavorable preparation circumstances constituted one of the best international footballing stories of all time. Unfortunately - under German head-coach Wolfgang Sitka - the defending champs weren't able to make it past the quarterfinals four years later. The 2015 incarnation did make the semis, but the 2019 team couldn't progress beyond the round-of-16.

Sitka was actually the second German trainer to lead the Iraqi national football team. Former East German great Bernd Stage coached the "Lions of Mesopotamia" between 2002 and 2004. The coming tournament furnishes some excitement as - for the very first time - a German club player will serve on Iraq's AFC roster. Essen-native Youssef Wali Faeq Amyn will suit up for Spanish trainer Jesus Casas Garcia's squad. We'll all be keeping tabs on the 20-year-old Viktoria Köln academy graduate.
Youssef Amyn (Eintracht Braunschweig)

Amin once represented Germany at the U19 youth level before switching his allegiance to the country of his Kurdish parents last spring. The winger impressed at the U20 World Cup and has already netted a goal in his two caps at senior level. Few Germans will be familiar with him as he's barely featured for Eintracht Braunschweig this season since making the jump to the German second division from the 3. Liga (via a brief stint with the Feyenoord youths) this yer. He retains the record as the youngest player to ever represent Viktoria, debuting at 17 in 2021.
Additional Notes on the Iraqi rivals:

While we commemorate the first ever German club player on an Iraqi roster in a major tournament, the author wishes to note with some degree of disappointment that Iran's "Team Melli" doesn't feature a Bundesliga representative this time around. Technically speaking, Bayer 04 Leverkusen loan-out Sardar Azmoun counts as one. Azmoun's rather lackluster performance in the German top flight bucked the historical trend of Iranian footballers who thrived in the Bundesrepublik.

Even before Ali Karimi's glory days with Bayern in the early aughts, there were Persian stars lighting up German football. The Bielefeld duo of Karim Bagheri and Ali Daei - both of whom represented Iran in the 1998 World Cup - spring to mind. Mehdi Mahdavikia got his Bundesliga start around that time. This FCK fan still retains fond memories of Ferydoon Zandi. Program legends such as Ehsan Hajsafi, Ashkan Dejagah, Vahid Hashemian, and Ali Daei all played with us.

The author isn't entirely sure why things have dried up recent years. The Iranian diaspora remains entrenched in Germany, but there haven't been prominent Bundesliga names on the Melli roster since 2007. One can perhaps count Gießen-native Daniel Davari after his years of service as the national team's back-up keeper. Dejagah probably counts as well even though his Iranian service came after his Bundesliga days. It still seems odd that more connections haven't surfaced.

Hong Kong: "The Dragons"

One can be forgiven for not knowing that Hong Kong has national footballing program. The team hasn't qualified for a major tournament since the 1968 AFC. Of some interest to German football fans, there's a club representative on Jørn Andersson's tournament roster. A nineteen-year-old striker recently promoted to Michael Köllner's FC Ingolstadt senior team made the cut. Hong-Kong native Michael Chibuikem Udebuluzor also recently scored a brace for his country, though it did come against Bhutan
Michael Udebuluzor (FC Ingolstadt 04)

It doesn't get much more intriguing than a Nigerian born to a former Hong Kong professional who decided to bravely move to Germany in an effort to further his professional career. Researching the youngster proved especially fun. He evidently joined one of the Bundesrepublik's private academies at the age of 14 in 2018, settling in the Bundesrepublik despite not knowing any of the language and having a very hard time adjusting to the culture and climate. One wishes him luck in this next chapter.

Thanks so much for reading! You can catch the release of all Peter's columns (and occasionally catch him goofing off) on whatever the hell they're calling twitter these days @PeterVicey.

Peter is a massive global football fan who has been blogging about international tournaments for twenty plus years. He welcomes your company! Twitter DMs are open for football conversations, corrections, and (if you truly insist) general abuse. 

Full color re-posts of the columns are eventually archived on Peter's website.....which he promises to get around to updating at some point. Football scribes aren't always the greatest at the whole self-promotion thing!

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