There have been a few surprises in this year’s AFC U-17 Championship.  Some of the region’s traditionally strong sides such as China PR, Korea Republic, Iran and Saudi Arabia exited at the quarter-final stage, leaving Korea DPR, Japan, Syria and Tajikistan in the semi-finals.  Their passage to the last four has also guaranteed them a place at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007.

Perhaps the most surprising name among the quartet is Tajikistan.  At 122nd place in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, behind the likes of the Cape Verde Islands and St. Lucia, the nation from Central Asia have a 100 percent record in the competition so far.  Although all of their victories have come by a one-goal margin, they are the only team to have won every match.

In their first game against Iraq, an injury time goal from substitute Abdukayum Karabaev gave them all three points.  A brace from Davrondzhon Tukhtasunov inside the opening 23 minutes set them on their way in their next game with Iran, although they were holding on for the final quarter-hour as Mehdi Daghagheleh pulled one back.  Tajikistan shared seven goals with Yemen in their final group match, with Tukhtasunov again scoring twice. 

Narrow victories crucial
Tajikistan captain Farkhod Vasiev, who had also scored in the match against Yemen, was the hero of the quarter-final, as his 81st minute free-kick booked them a place in Korea.  His 30-yard effort took a severe deflection of the Korean wall, leaving goalkeeper Kim Tae-Hong wrong-footed as the ball sailed into the net.

Coach Pulod Qodirov is understandably a happy man.  “To achieve the dream of qualifying for a World Cup in our first attempt is wonderful,” he said.  “I am very proud of my players and I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Korea DPR’s qualification for Korea 2007 was a little less straightforward.  After finishing second in their three-team group, due to a narrow 2-1 defeat to Saudi Arabia in their opening match, they went on to meet defending champions China in their quarter-finals.  Despite being reduced to ten men for most of the match and conceding the opening goal, the North Koreans battled back superbly.

The 16th minute was one to forget for Kim Mun Chol’s side, as Gao Di opened the scoring and Kang Hyon Su was shown his marching orders for a rash challenge.  Four minutes later, however, Ri Myong Jun’s goal restored parity.

Extra-time followed and with ten minutes remaining, playmaker O Jin Hyok popped up to score the match-winner, ensuring revenge for their defeat at the hands of China in the final of the same tournament two years ago. “I feel very strange,” said coach Kim after the game.  “I have never experienced such happiness in my life. I just asked them to fight as much as they could. With one player down, I must admit that I was hoping that the game would go to penalties.  But they did something that I never expected. They scored the goal in the 110th minute! It was unbelievable!” 

Japan jubilant, Saudis shocked
It took a sudden death penalty shoot-out to separate Japan and Iran at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Monday.  FC Tokyo goalkeeper Ryotaro Hironaga emerged as the hero as he saved Ehsan Hajysafi’s spot kick to give Japan an 8-7 shoot-out victory after the teams were tied 1-1 after extra time.

Japan, winners of Group A, went into the game as slight favourites, but found it tough going against an Iran side who seemed determined on causing an upset.  Yoichiro Kakitani broke the deadlock in the eighth minute, but conceded an equaliser with 17 minutes remaining.  There it stayed until the penalty shoot-out began.

Hiroshi Jofuku, coach of the Japan U-17 team, was a relieved man after the match. “The penalty shootout is a lottery, and I am happy to take the team through and qualify for the World Cup.”

Pre-tournament favourites Saudi Arabia were shocked by West Asian rivals Syria in their last-eight encounter.  Striker Mohammad Jaafr fired Syria into an early lead in the ninth minute, before Fahd Al Dossari levelled a minute after the break. Jaafr scored the winner 16 minutes from time to book Syria’s place in the semi-finals

“We played three tough matches in the group stage while the Saudis played only two. This made us better equipped for our rivals,” said Syria coach Mohammad Al Jomaa.  “We were tired but still performed well. I told the team not to hurry and concentrate hard, as we needed to preserve our strength until the last minute.  After scoring the second goal we were in a strong position, but it was a bit difficult in the end as the Saudis became really aggressive.”

AFC U-17 Championship
Singapore 2006
Quarter-Finals

Japan 1-1 Iran (AET, Japan win 8-7 on pens)
Saudi Arabia 1-2 Syria
China PR 1-2 Korea DPR (AET)
Tajikistan 1-0 Korea Republic

Semi-Finals

Japan-Syria
Tajikistan-Korea DPR

*Korea DPR, Japan, Syria and Tajikistan qualify for the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007