Ulsan Hyundai winger Lee Keun-Ho was crowned Asian footballer of the year on Thursday as officials bent their strict rules on attendance by giving an award to Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa in absentia.
Lee, 27, was rewarded for his heroics in Ulsan’s unbeaten run to the AFC Champions League title, when he faced down his fellow nominees, Iranian veteran Ali Karimi and China’s Zheng Zhi, to claim the top individual honour in Asian football.
“I’m kind of speechless. I’m extremely happy… In my life this is the biggest prize ever,” said Lee, after receiving his award at a lavish ceremony in downtown Kuala Lumpur.
The South Korean international scored the late winner against Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol in the Champions League’s round of 16, and was on target for three consecutive games before the 3-0 final win against Al Ahli, when he was man of the match.
“Without support from my colleagues from Ulsan Hyundai I wouldn’t be on this stage,” Lee told the crowd. “I thank my coach and my parents.”
Ulsan were also named team of the year after clocking up a tournament record nine straight wins on the way to their first Champions League title.
“After winning the AFC Champions League this is the icing on the cake and we are very proud to be the best Asian club,” said club president Kim Dong-dae.
Aya Miyama was named women’s player of the year for the second time running after helping world champions Japan claim Olympic silver in London.
“This is a team performance, so not only me. I think I got this award as a representative of Japan’s women’s national team,” she said.
There was a murmur of controversy when Kagawa won the new category of Asian international player of the year, for Asians based outside the region, despite not attending the ceremony. A Japanese official collected it on his behalf.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) usually insists only players at the ceremony can receive awards, and the rules for Kagawa’s category state: “Nominated player must be present at the Awards Ceremony.”
But an AFC official said the body gave special dispensation to Kagawa, Manchester United’s first Japanese player, because he is injured.
“The executive committee decided that a representative of Shinji could collect the award because he’s in Europe and he’s injured,” the official told AFP.
Brazilian playmaker Rogerinho, who plays for AFC Cup-winners Kuwait SC, won the new foreign player of the year category, given to non-Asian footballers in the region.