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Kuala Lumpur: It’s now 11 years ago to the day – July 3, 2006 – since one of the most iconic Asian players of all time hung up his boots at the age of just 29.

Having been knocked out of the FIFA World Cup in France following a 4-1 defeat to Brazil less than two weeks earlier, Japan legend Hidetoshi Nakata announced that he had played his final game.

Given the relatively short careers on offer to footballers it’s rare, but not entirely unheard of, to see them give the job up so early, as reveals by profiling five stars who retired at an early age.

Dong Fangzhou, China (retired at 31)

It’s hard to read the Dong Fangzhou story and not feel sorry for the former China international, who is amazingly still only 32 years old. Signed by Manchester United just shy of his 19th birthday in January 2004, Dong’s name was broadcast around the globe and the forward arrived at Old Trafford with an unfair amount of expectation placed on him.

Initial work permit problems saw Dong almost immediately loaned out to Royal Antwerp in Belgium where, in two years with the club, he posted an impressive goalscoring record. Finally granted the right to work in England at the end of 2006, the forward made his Premier League debut in a 0-0 draw with Chelsea in May 2007 after the side had already wrapped up the league title.

But the Old Trafford crowd were only given brief glimpses of a player who Sir Alex Ferguson said had the “speed and physicality” to play for United. A substitute appearance in the 2007-08 UEFA Champions League against Roma was a rare high point, but by August 2008 Dong’s time at the club was up.

Stints in his homeland, Poland and Armenia followed but, by the age of 22, Dong had gone from hero to zero. His last appearance for China came in 2007 and it is unquestionable that the early career hype took its toll, so much so that, after retiring at the age of 31 last year, he underwent facial surgery in a bid to end the abuse he encountered for his perceived failures.

Nashat Akram, Iraq (retired at 30)

Nashat Akram was riding on the crest of a wave circa 2007. The midfielder had helped Iraq achieve the most unlikely of continental titles in winning the AFC Asian Cup, scoring once and being named in the team of the tournament, before signing on the dotted line with Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Manchester City.

Unfortunately for Akram, he was refused a work permit in England and the dream move never materialised. The midfielder, though, had long since been highly regarded in Asia. Prior to helping Iraq finish fourth in the 2004 Olympic Games, he had sealed a move to Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr before the age of 20.

Player of the Year awards with Al Shabab followed before continental giants Al Ain brought Akram to the United Arab Emirates on the back of the 2007 AFC Asian Cup success. After the move to England fell through, the midfielder joined Al Gharafa in Qatar, before finally sealing a switch to Europe with Dutch side FC Twente.

A bit-part role in only the side’s second Eredivisie title, coupled with persistent injury problems, led to Akram’s release a year later. Spells in Qatar and the UAE followed before winning the 2012-13 Iraqi Premier League with his first club Al Shorta proved the final high point. An unsuccessful stint in China preceded a return to Al Shorta before Akram brought the curtain down on his career, at the age of 30, after turning out for Arbil in the 2015 AFC Cup.

Jasem Al Huwaidi, Kuwait (retired at 30/31)

At the age of just 19, Jasem Al Huwaidi represented Kuwait at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. It was his first major tournament in an outstanding international career for the then Al Salmiya forward, who would go on to score more than 60 goals in an 11-year career for his country.

Having missed out on the 1992 AFC Asian Cup, Kuwait returned at the 1996 edition in the UAE. Now well established in the team, Al Huwaidi scored three in the Group Stage and both in a shock 2-0 win over Japan in the last eight, before elimination to the hosts in the semi-finals. The forward was named in the team of the tournament and finished second in the scoring charts.

Back-to-back Gulf Cup of Nations titles in 1996 and 1998 followed as Al Suwaidi finished the latter year with 20 goals for his country to claim the World’s Top Goal Scorer award ahead of Argentina’s Gabriel Batistuta. A move to Saudi Arabia’s Al Shabab came next before he helped Al Hilal win the 1999-2000 Asian Club Championship.

Al Huwaidi scored the winner against Korea Republic in the Group Stage of the 2000 AFC Asian Cup in Lebanon and another in the defeat to Saudi Arabia in the quarter-finals – a stage the Kuwaitis have not reached since. A spell with Al Rayyan in Qatar followed but Al Huwaidi returned to Al Salmiya for one final season before retiring in 2003.

Mohammad Parvin, Islamic Republic of Iran (retired at 27)

Mohammad Parvin (12): A tale of what could have been

In an industry as pressurised as football, Mohammad Parvin probably faced more than most. Not only was the attacking midfielder’s father, Ali Parvin, part of the legendary Islamic Republic of Iran team that qualified for the country’s first FIFA World Cup in 1978, he was also the head coach at Persepolis when Parvin junior made his debut as a 17-year-old in 2005.

Dubbed the future of Iranian football in some quarters, Parvin struggled at Persepolis following his father’s departure, and dropped down a division to join Steel Azin in 2007. He then produced arguably the only season in which he showcased his true talents and was called into the national team squad for the 2008 West Asian Football Federation Championship.

Parvin then returned to the top flight with Saipa but, after only a few months and no goals, he was on the move again, to Slovakian club Dunajska Streda. While his time in Europe was not a complete disaster, the lure of Persepolis proved too much to resist and he returned to Tehran in 2009, but again failed to establish himself as a first-team regular.

A season apiece at Paykan and Gahar Zagros then brought an end to a career that never really took off as Parvin decided enough was enough at the tender age of 27. Perhaps the pressure of following in his father’s footsteps proved too much, maybe he made the wrong moves at the wrong times. Parvin undoubtedly had talent, to what extent we’ll never know.

Hidetoshi Nakata, Japan (retired at 29)

Arguably the most famous player ever to come out of Asia, undoubtedly the continent’s poster boy on the global scene, Hidetoshi Nakata’s introduction to the world – in 1998 in France – coincided with the time the game became truly globalised. Japan had yet to peak, indeed they narrowly lost all three games, but Nakata had done enough to earn himself a move to Italy.

Asian Icons: Hidetoshi Nakata (Japan)

After impressing in a year and a half with Perugia, Nakata was snapped up by Roma in January 2000 and helped the club from the Italian capital win only their second top-flight league title 17 months later. As the face of Asian football, Nakata was not only bringing intense media spotlight on his teams, but also showing aspiring footballers in the east that they too could make it in Europe.

Another big-money move – a world record for an Asian player – came in 2001 when Nakata joined Parma before a year later, on home soil, he inspired his country to the second round of the FIFA World Cup for the first time. Moves to Bologna, Fiorentina and Bolton Wanderers followed but, by this time, it was clear football was not the be all and end all for the Kofu native.

The midfielder’s third FIFA World Cup, in Germany, resulted in three successive defeats and with that, Nakata’s time in football was up. He would later focus more heavily on fashion and other interests away from the game as he distanced himself from his former career, but Nakata will always be regarded as the trailblazer for Asian footballers. 

Photos: Lagardère Sports