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Countries That Have Never Had a K League Player

Dozens of countries from around the world and spanning the entire FIFA World Rankings have been featured in the K League over the years. Just this year alone, Jeonbuk Motors brought over the first South African and first Gambian internationals. However, there are many countries that have never had a single player in the K League since its foundation in the 1980's. This article by George Slade focuses on some of the most notable and surprising nations that have never had K League representation.

Criteria

This will not be an exhaustive list, as there are simply too many nations to profile. However, the majority of nations that have never had a K League player are typically ones that export fewer talent abroad, or are normally a lower ranked nation in the FIFA World Rankings. Therefore, this article is a profile of nations that are considered notable, through World Cup qualification, or surprising, such as through geographic proximity. 

One of the easiest ways of defining a footballer's nationality is simply looking at who they have played for internationally. If a player has never played senior international football, then their citizenship will be the next criteria. 

This brings about the tricky situation of dual-citizenship. For this article, if a player has dual citizenship and not played international football then both nations will not feature on the list, as the player has a chance to represent either one if them internationally.  This means that multiple nations will not be included, such as Kenya (Rashid Mahazi, dual citizenship with Australia), New Zealand (Kwabena Appiah, dual citizenship with Australia), and Italy (Diego Giaretta and André Moritz, dual citizenship with Brazil, and Boadu Maxwell Acosty, dual citizenship with Ghana). 

For this article the focus is only on nations that have not had players registered at a club in K League 1 and 2. K3 and K4, and the now-defunct leagues such as the National League, will not be looked at. However, historically these leagues have not had a lot of foreign players anyway. 

If a player has been registered at a K League club but not made an appearance in the league, he is counted (and nation not included here) if he has made a senior cup appearance. This therefore excludes Denmark as their only K League player, goalkeeper Henrik Jørgensen, did not make in league appearance in his sole season at Suwon Bluewings in 1996, but he did play five league Cup matches.

CONMEBOL

Peru

Five time World Cup qualifiers and two time winners of the Copa América, Peru are the only CONMEBOL nation to have not had a player in the top two divisions of South Korean football. This is a bit of a shock considering they were Copa América runners-up in 2019 and have won the same or more Copa América's as Chile, Paraguay, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Peru have also been to more World Cups than Bolivia, Ecuador, or Venezuela. 

They have produced world-renowned talent, such as Bundesliga legends Claudio Pizarro and Jefferson Farfán, and their 2018 FIFA World Cup squad included players based in the English Premier League, Dutch Eredivisie, Brazilian Serie A, and Portuguese Primeira Liga. 

Currently there are several Peruvian players based in Asia. In Saudi Arabia there is Al Hilal's André Carrillo, while Iran has Willyan Mimbela at Tractor Sport Club. Japan has two, with Erick Noriega at J1 League club Simizu S-Pulse, and now Japanese citizen Romero Frank at J2 League club Abirex Niigata. 

CONCACAF

Cuba, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Panama

While all these nations have appeared in the FIFA World Cup, the level of football played in these countries varies, largely due to the popularity of baseball in the region and lack of funds. Cuba's only World Cup appearance was in 1938 and the country's government largely focuses on baseball and boxing, while also blocking most foreign based players from being called to the national team. Coincidentally, this focus on baseball has lead to there being several Cuba players plying their trade in the KBO, South Korea's baseball league. Haiti has the longest football tradition of these nations and were continental champions in 1973, but years of lack of investment have meant the national team has underperformed compared to the potential on the island.

Honduras has made the most World Cup appearances with three, followed by El Salvador with two, while Panama's debut appearance in 2018 was the most recent of all these nations. Honduras and Haiti are the only continental champions, and Honduras have had the best guest performance in the Copa América of the group with a third place finish in 2001. They are also the current highest ranked nations at 62nd in the FIFA World Rankings and have had the highest historical ranking of 20th in September 2001.

Cuba, Honduras, Panama do not have any players registered at top level clubs in Asia. El Salvador have  Port FC (on loan from Bangkok United) forward Nelson Bonilla in the Thai League 1, a country he has been based in since 2018. Haiti have Kervens Belfort at Bangladesh Premier League club Abahani, and Sony Nordé at Malaysia Super League club Melaka United. In the Taiwan Premier League there are also Haitians Judelín Aveska and Louis Emmanuel at Hang Yuan and Benchy Estama at Taiwan Steel. 

UEFA

Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Scotland, Wales

These nations have produced a lot of talent of the years, such as Gareth Bale for Wales and Robbie and Roy Keane for the Republic of Ireland, but in general these nations have had middling success on an international level. The big exception is Greece, who famously won the European Championships in 2004. Also, Israel did win the Asian Cup in 1964 before they became members of UEFA. Israel have never qualified for the Euro's and made one appearance at the World Cup in 1970, though still more recently than Wales's sole World Cup appearance in 1958. Iceland have competed once in each tournament but they were in the most recent editions of both, meaning that we are currently in a golden age of Icelandic talent.

Scotland have been at the most World Cup with eight, though Wales and the Republic of Ireland's quarter-final finishes were the best of these nations. Greece were not only European champions but they have also played in the Euro's the most, with four appearances to their name. 

Each of these nations have a huge number of players abroad, especially in Europe, and they all have players in Asia. Currently there are players from these countries in Australia, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and the UAE. Arguably the Asian based player with most impact is Israel's Eran Zahavi, who plays for Chinese Super League club Guangzhou R&F alongside his compatriot Dia Saba. Former Palermo striker Zahavi has been based at Guangzhou since 2016 and is already the third highest goalscorer in the league's history, and last season broke the record for most goals scored in a CSL season.

CAF

Algeria, Angola, Morocco

Algeria and Morocco are two of the strongest teams in African football, while Angola has one of the richest domestic leagues in Sub-Saharan Africa. Morocco have made the most World Cup appearances of the trio with five (one more than Algeria), while Algeria have been crowned winners of the Africa Cup of Nations on two occasions (one more than Morocco), including the most recent edition in 2019.

Angola's sole World Cup appearance was a group stage finish in 2006, compared to the Algeria's and Morocco's last-16 finishes, and Angola have never made it past the quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations, twice going out at that stage.

Rather unsurprisingly, the majority of Algerian and Moroccan players that  make their way to Asia end up playing in Arabic countries. There are currently 11 Algerians playing in Qatar and 15 in Saudi Arabia. The only Algerian in Asia not in an Arabic nation is forward Okacha Hamzaoui, who plays from Iranian top tier club Tractor.

Morocco meanwhile have 12 players in Qatar, 11 in Saudi Arabia, four in the UAE, four in Bahrain, two in Iraq, and one each in Kuwait and Oman. The only Asian based player not in an Arabic country is defensive midfielder Ahmed Jahouh at Mumbai City, who recently joined after spending the last three seasons at fellow Indian Super League club FC Goa.

India is also the site of one of only two Asia-based Angolans: left-winger Sócrates Pedro at I-league club Churchill Brothers. The other is left-winger Wilson Eduardo, who recently joined UAE giants Al Ain after spending the last five seasons at Portuguese club Sporting Braga.


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OFC

Apart from dual Australian-New Zealand player Kwabena Appiah for Incheon United, no other players from the OFC have had representation in the K League, meaning the whole continent has not featured with the exception of New Zealand. The 'All Whites', and Australia before they moved to the AFC, have dominated continental football and produce the majority of the continent's talent.

The only country other than those two that have won the OFC Nations Cup was Tahiti in 2012, which memorably earned them an appearance at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup. In the OFC Champions League the only times a non-NZ club has won were Hekari United of Papua New Guinea in 2010 and Hienghène Sport of New Caledonia in 2019.

That is not to say that there is a lack of  talented players from the OFC. Fijian captain Roy Krishna was the joint top scorer in the 2019-20 Indian Super League season that saw his ATK side crowned champions. Two time OFC Champions League winner at Auckland City, Papua New Guinea international David Browne, is currently signed to Finnish giants HJK Helsinki. Solomon Islands midfielder Micah Lea'alafa was a regular starter last season at South Africa top tier club Maritzburg United, until he got released in February if this year. While at different stages of their careers, these players have the talent to compete in K League, though possibly at different divisions. 

AFC

Kuwait, Qatar, UAE

West Asia is the most prominent zone of the AFC that has lacked representation in the K League. Of the teams that have qualified for the World Cup, Qatar and the UAE are two of the strongest in the region, while Kuwait has fallen away a bit in recent years. Their golden period was the 1980s, when they won their only AFC Asian Cup in 1980 as hosts in the third of their 10 appearances, and qualified for their only World Cup in 1982.

That 1980 championship was also the first time that both the UAE and Qatar have competed and both nations have since made a total of 10 appearances. Qatar are the current holders as they won it for the first time in 2019, while the UAE's best result was as runners-up in 1996, a feat that Kuwait also achieved in 1976. The UAE once qualified for the World Cup in 1990, going out of the group stage just like Kuwait in 1982. Qatar will be competing will make their World Cup debut in 2022 when they host the tournament. In last year's Copa América they were knocked out of the group stage as guests, picking up a single point against Paraguay. 

Hardly any players from these nations venture abroad, and when they do they typically stay within the West Asia region. The only exception is the UAE's Abdulrahim Ahli, who plays for Latvian club Spartaks Jūrmala. He has no compatriots playing top level football abroad. Qatar are the same, while Kuwait have Fayez Al Enezi at Saudi Pro League club Al Raed, Talal Al Mutairi at Omani club Dhofar, and Jasem Ahmed at Qatari Stars League club Al Arabi. 

ASEAN

Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore

Even though these nations are in the AFC they deserve their own section. This is because of geographical proximity and the fact that this season the K League introduced a ASEAN player quota, which allowed clubs an additional foreign player as long as they were from an ASEAN member nation. This should naturally lead to an influx of players from the region and a reduction of nations in this list, but surprisingly not a single K League club has signed an ASEAN player since the quota was introduced.

Before the quota existed, their have been a handful of Vietnamese, Filipino and Thai players, but not in great numbers, and as can be seen from the number of nations mentioned most ASEAN countries have never had a K League player.

These players have traditionally not been great footballing powerhouses, with the current highest FIFA ranked team being Myanmar at 136th in the world, and Brunei the lowest at 191st in the world. Singapore was the highest ranked nation ever when they were 72nd in the world in August 1993. None of these nations have played in the World Cup and Brunei, Cambodia, and Laos have never played in the AFC Asian Cup.

Indonesia has made the most Asian Cup appearances with four, and none of the teams have made it out of the group stage with the exception of Myanmar. They finished runners-up in their only appearance, a five team tournament in 1968 (though technically that tournament consisted of a single group, but their placing was notable).

Almost all of these nations foreign based players are currently in other ASEAN countries, with the best typically going to Thai League 1 or the Malaysian Super League. Laos does not have any professional players active outside of the ASEAN region, while Brunei only had Leicester City's Faiq Bolkiah, the nephew of the Sultan of Brunei, though he has since been released without a senior appearance.

Cambodia have Ever Meza at Colombian club Llaneros, while Indonesia have a handful of players in Spain, Netherlands, Poland, Qatar, and Serbia. Malaysia have Hadi Fayyadh Abdul Razak at J2 League club Fagiano Okayama, and Luqman Hakim Shamsudin at Belgian club K.V. Kortrijk. The only Myanmar player outside of ASEAN is Pan Labu at New Zealand club Tasman United, and for Singapore it is Ikhsan Fandi at Norwegian team Raufoss.

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