With our goalkeeper selected, we turn our attention to the competition's outstanding defenders, with 12 possible candidates to fill the three available places in our team's 3-4-3 formation.
Botir Karaev – Uzbekistan
Club: FC Nasaf
Honours: AFC Cup winner (2011)
He may have only appeared in two editions of the AFC Cup – appearing far more regularly in the AFC Champions League – but Botir Karaev made a significant impact at the heart of a Nasaf side which ended seven years of West Asian dominance to become the competition’s first Central Asian champions.
Karaev was the captain when the Uzbekistan club defeated Kuwait SC in the classic 2011 final, and Nasaf only conceded multiple goals on two occasions in the 19 AFC Cup matches where his name was on the team sheet.
Hatem Aqel – Jordan
Clubs: Al Faisaly, That Ras Club
Honours: AFC Cup winner (2005, 2006), AFC Cup runner-up (2007)
An AFC Cup champion at the first time of asking in 2005, and the captain when Al Faisaly became back-to-back winners the following year, Hatem Aqel (pictured above, left) very nearly made history as a three-time winner, only for Shabab Al Ordon to pip his side to the 2007 crown.
A natural leader, and comfortable in the heart of defence or midfield, he went on to captain Jordan at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, and appeared in the knockout stage of the AFC one last time for That Ras Club just before his 36th birthday, in 2014.
Abdulla Al Marzooqi – Bahrain
Clubs: Kuwait SC, Riffa
Honours: AFC Cup winner (2009)
Already an eight-year veteran of the Bahrain national team when he played his first AFC Cup match against Jordan’s Al Wehdat in 2009, Al Marzooqi was a near ever-present when Kuwait SC became the first Kuwaiti champions later that season.
Physically imposing and adaptable, Al Marzooqi reached the knockout stage once more with Riffa in 2013, and ultimately appeared over 100 times for his country.
Aidil Zafuan – Malaysia
Clubs: Negeri Sembilan, Johor Darul Ta’zim
Honours: AFC Cup winner (2015)
An AFC Cup debutant way back in 2007 with local outfit Negeri Sembilan, Mohamad Aidil Zafuan’s crowning achievement came eight years later when Johor Darul Ta’zim broke through the glass ceiling to become the competition’s first Malaysian winners.
He started the key matches in the victorious 2015 campaign, helping JDT to numerous clean sheets including in the final against Istiklol, and went on to become a trophy magnet for the club, winning no less than seven league titles in Malaysia.
Husain Hakim Al Shammari – Kuwait
Club: Kuwait SC
Honours: AFC Cup winner (2009, 2012, 2013)
The classic one-club man, and one who could also have been included in the midfield category, few AFC Cup players have appeared as regularly, or been as successful in the competition as Kuwait SC stalwart Husain Hakim Al Shammari.
A veteran of Asian club football dating back to the 2005 AFC Champions League, Al Shammari’s first continental goal came on the crucial stage of the 2009 AFC Cup final against Al Karamah, and he remained an important ingredient in the title-winning sides of 2012 and 2013.
Saad Natiq – Iraq
Club: Air Force Club
Honours: AFC Cup winner (2016, 2018)
Starting all but two matches for Air Force on the way to the 2016 title, Saad Natiq excelled as both a central defender and a defensive midfielder and proved almost unbeatable in the air throughout the first of the Iraqi club’s tree successive AFC Cup titles.
He missed out on a winners’ medal in 2017 after joining Al Arabi of Qatar mid-competition but returned in time to deliver two exemplary performances in the later stages of the 2018 tournament, sealing his place in the pantheon of AFC Cup defensive greats.
Akhtam Nazarov – Tajikistan
Club: FC Istiklol
Honours: AFC Cup runner-up (2015, 2017)
A left-back and a regular feature of the highly competitive Istiklol outfits of the late 2010s, Nazarov contributed solidly to the team which reached the 2015 final, but he was indispensable in 2017, starting in every match they played in the tournament.
Istiklol suffered a narrow 1-0 defeat to Air Force Club of Iraq in the final of that edition of tournament, but Nazarov has proven himself to be a highly consistent figure in one of only two clubs to have reached the AFC Cup final twice without winning it.
Hussain Ali Baba – Bahrain
Clubs: Kuwait SC, Muharraq Club
Honours: AFC Cup winner (2012, 2013)
Having played in the AFC Champions League for Kuwait SC before departing in 2007, Hussian Ali Baba returned to the club five years later while they were in the midst of one of the great AFC Cup dynasties.
With the Bahraini international in tow, Kuwait SC won back-to-back titles, keeping 12 clean sheets in the process to become the first club to win the tournament three times, Baba then returned to Bahrain, where he helped Muharraq Club to the 2016 quarter-finals.
Ahmad Al Saleh – Syria
Clubs: Al Jaish, Al Shorta (SYR), Al Arabi (KUW), Al Ahed FC
Honours: AFC Cup winner (2019)
Ahmad Al Saleh’s decade-long AFC Cup odyssey took in stints at four clubs in three different countries before he finally won the ultimate prize with Lebanon’s Al Ahed in 2019, and he played a major part in the success.
In the seven games he started, Al Ahed conceded only one goal. Add to that his goal and Player of the Match performance against Qadsia in the group stage and it’s clear that the Syrian stopper was a worthy champion in the last completed AFC Cup season.
Nour Mansour – Lebanon
Clubs: Safa SC, Al Ahed FC
Honours: AFC Cup winner (2019)
Alongside Al Saleh in the victorious Al Ahed team of 2019 was Nour Mansour, the veteran stopper who, in tandem with Al Saleh and goalkeeper Mehdi Khalil, formed an almost unbeatable defensive unit throughout the tournament.
His AFC Cup career began with Safa way back in 2008 and included four trips to the knockout stage before the breakthrough of 2019, but his role in Al Ahed’s nine clean sheets in that single edition of the competition launched him into tournament folklore.
Samal Saeed – Iraq
Clubs: Arbil, Air Force Club
Honours: AFC Cup winner (2016, 2017)
An AFC Cup debutant with Arbil in 2009, Samal Saeed’s glory years in the competition came in the mid-to-late 2010s with Air Force Club, who won the tournament three times in a row.
A highly regarded central defender, he played every game in the victorious 2017 campaign after starting all but one the year before and could well have won a third successive title had he not joined Al Zawraa in 2018, less than two months before Air Force beat Altyn Asyr in yet another final.
Akram Abdull Gani – Maldives
Clubs: Club Valencia, New Radiant SC, VB Addu, Victory SC, TC Sports Club
Unlike many of the players on this list, Maldivian veteran Akram Abdull Gani hasn’t won the AFC Cup, but his remarkable longevity and versatility means he deserves to be in the conversation as one of the competition’s standout defenders.
He first appeared in the tournament’s second edition as a 17-year-old, and has since featured in 10 separate AFC Cup tournaments for five different clubs, including two spells at New Radiant, who he has represented on 25 occasions in the tournament.