North Koreans lead Asia’s U-17 charge

Korea DPR reigned supreme in the 2010 AFC U-16 Championship, capping an impressive campaign with a 2-0 final victory over nine-man hosts Uzbekistan. Having twice reached the final in 2004 and 2006, it was third time lucky for the North Koreans, who celebrated their first continental title at this age level.

Although they had missed out on the U-16 crown in previous years, this was the East Asians’ second Asian youth title in the space of a month, following hot on the heels of their their title-winning campaign in October’s AFC U-19 Championship. Worthy winners, Korea DPR survived their toughest test in the final at Tashkent's Pakhtakor Stadium, with Uzbekistan on the front foot during the game’s early stages.

Every member of our team is proud of adding the dignity of our country with this success.
North Korea coach Ri Song-ho

Cheered on by a raucous crowd, the hosts dominated the opening exchanges, and Muhammadjon Abdullaev came close to giving them an early opener. However, the balance tilted in the visitors' favour on the half-hour mark when Sardo Rakhmanov received his marching order for a poor challenge on Jong Il-Hyok.

Even after being put at a numerical disadvantage, Uzbekistan still began the second half strongly but were caught out when Jo Kwang set Ri Kwang-Il up to break the deadlock with a quarter-of-an-hour to go. A man down and a goal behind, the hosts’ fate was then sealed when the provider turned scorer five minutes from time, with Jo sealing the North Korean triumph.

“Every member of our team is proud of adding the dignity of our country with this success,” said the jubilant winning coach Ri Song-ho. “But we won't rest on today's achievement. Our next goal is a good result at the FIFA U17 World Cup next year, and we will spare no efforts to heighten the development of our football.”

Young stars emerge
Korea DPR’s success was all the more impressive as they were not considered among the favourites, having been drawn in a group that also included defending champions Iran and 2000 winners Oman. Dreams of taking the title seemed even more fanciful after they struggled in their opening match, battling from a goal down to salvage a draw against Syria.

However, Ri’s outfit began to show their potential in the second outing, with two first-half goals from their creative duo of Kang Nam-Gwon and Jong Kwang-Sok securing a spirited 2-0 victory over Iran. Buoyed by this surprise success, they went on to win the section by defeating Oman 2-1 courtesy of a brace from forward Jang Ok-Chol.

The East Asians then stepped up a gear in their crucial quarter-final clash against Jordan, running out 4-0 winners to seal their place in the last four and ensure a place at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011. Forward Jo Kwang grabbed a hat-trick, with midfielder Ju Jong-Chol also on target in a one-sided encounter.

However, their finest moment had yet to come. In what was later dubbed by coach Ri as his team’s "most important game", Korea DPR were in irresistible form as they overcame tournament favourites Japan 2-1 to set up a final meeting with Uzbekistan.

As for the hosts themselves, despite losing the final in such heartbreaking fashion, there was still ample cause for satisfaction, especially with a place at Mexico 2011 already secured courtesy of a 2-1 quarter-final triumph over Syria. Furthermore, the tournament runners-up can reflect with pride on their best-ever result at an Asian showpiece, with their striking prodigy Timur Khakimov racking up five goals and claiming the Most Valuable Player award.

Joining the two finalists at the global showpiece will be Australian and Japan, each of whom won their quarter-final matches to book qualification. The boys from Down Under defeated United Arab Emirates 3-2 after extra time, while the Japanese undid Iraq 3-1.

Despite losing their semi-final to Uzbekistan by two goals to one, Australia’s success was notable nonetheless as they qualified for the FIFA U-17 World Cup for the first time since joining the AFC five years ago. They also proved to be one of the tournament’s strongest attacking outfits, with forward Jesse Makarounas emerging as an impressive goalscorer. Level with Khakimov and Japan’s Takumi Minamino on the five-goal mark, the Australia No9 edged out his rivals for the top scorer award by virtue of a greater number of assists.