South Korea's Kim Min-jae joined Bayern Munich in July after a successful season with Napoli, where he helped the club win its first Italian title since 1990. A standout defender in a league that has historically been seen as being home to the best defenders in the world, Kim is helping to change perceptions about Asian centerbacks.
On September 7, there was a significant personal achievement to go with the team prize as the 26-year-old was nominated for the men's Ballon d'Or, the award organized by the magazine France Football and given to the world player of the year. Also on the 30-man list are elite forward players such as Erling Haaland, Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi. It's an esteemed company to be part of.
"It's a great honor for me," Kim told DW. "There are some big names in there and it's a privilege to be one of the names there. There are not many defenders nominated so, as a defender, it is great to be recognized."
Breaking barriers and stereotypes
Kim is the first Asian centerback to be nominated. Since Japan's Yasuhiko Okudera joined Cologne in 1977 and Korea's Cha Bum-kun won the UEFA Cup with Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen in the 1980s, Asian players have become more common sights in European football.
The exploits of Son Heung-min have helped. He became a star at Hamburg and then Leverkusen before joining Tottenham Hotspur in 2015 and becoming one of the most popular players in the English Premier League, where he was joint top scorer in 2022.
Son is an exciting attacking player who scores and creates goals and helped change the perception of Asian players after several fast fullbacks and technical midfielders came to Europe. Kaoru Mitoma, Brighton & Hove Albion's Japanese winger, has also emerged as one of the stars of the Premier League.
However, Asia has never been known for producing centerbacks, especially those with the power, strength and speed of Kim, who is nicknamed "Monster" back in South Korea.
"European teams were concerned about the physical size and strength of centerbacks in East Asia," Ramu Sasikumar, a former Singapore international defender currently based in Madrid, told DW. "With Kim, he is not only big and strong but can play. He will start doing now what Son did for attacking players. People are going to look to Asia for centerbacks. He is breaking barriers. It is a big achievement for him, and he should be proud of what he is doing, not just for himself but for Asian football."
Kim is a pioneer, and more could follow. "There have been some good players from Korea coming to Europe, such as Son, Cha Bum-keun and Park Ji-sung," he said. "There has, however, been a lack of Asian defenders in the past who have come to Europe. I think I have proved myself, and I hope that I have opened the door for more Asian defenders to come to Europe."
That's what Sasikumar expects to happen, with Kim not only inspiring fellow Asian defenders to look to Europe but showing European clubs that there's a market in the Far East.
"The message that now comes from youth coaches at the big European clubs is that good players can come from anywhere, and the success of people like Kim helps reinforce that message," said Sasikumar, whose two sons play for Atletico Madrid's youth team.
One of the most sought-after players in the game
When it became clear that Kim could leave Napoli after a season in which the team dominated Italy's top tier and also reached the last eight of the UEFA Champions League, several clubs were interested, such as Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal in the English Premier League. He quickly became one of the most sought-after players in the game.
"Kim does at least 20 incredible things per game," his former coach at Napoli, Luciano Spalletti, said in March. "For me, he truly is the best centerback in the world. When he starts to run, he can get into the opposition penalty area in five seconds flat."
Kim, who won two league titles in Korea with Jeonbuk Motors before heading to southern Italy via Beijing Guoan and then Fenerbahce of Istanbul, decided to sign for Bayern Munich. South Korean head coach and former Bayern manager Jürgen Klinsmann was delighted.
"I don't worry about Min-jae at all at Bayern Munich because he's in a good place," said Klinsmann, who also played for Bayern during his football career. "That's one of the best teams in the world. He's one of the best defenders in the world. He'll do well at Bayern Munich. It's exciting. I think it's something to be very, very proud of."
Next step: Champions League win?
Despite such accolades, it's highly unlikely that Kim will win the Ballon d'Or. The last defender to do so was Fabio Cannavaro in 2006. Just being on the list is enough, but he wants to keep growing as a player to become the best he can be.
"I learned a lot in Italy under Spaletti," Kim said. "He is tactically intelligent, and he always wanted us to be more aggressive going forward, even as a defender."
Now in Bavaria, he has a chance to become the first Asian defender to win the UEFA Champions League, the biggest prize in club football.
"As defenders at Bayern Munich, we have a job to support our fantastic attacking players, and we are a team that likes to attack, but the most important thing is not to be sleeping when there is a defensive transition," Kim said. "These are issues that I am still learning in Europe and developing as a player, and I want to be as good as I can be."
It looks as if there's more to come, which can only be good for the reputation of Asian defenders.
Edited by: Matt Pearson
Correction, September 15, 2023: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Ramu Sasikumar. DW apologizes for the error.