Asian youngsters book passage

Saturday's AFC U-16 Championship final in Tashkent provided Iranian fans with another reason to celebrate, as their team overcame a resilient Korea Republic 2-1 to clinch their maiden continental title, only three days after the senior side dispatched Korea DPR by the same scoreline in Asia's final round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.

The Iranians have thereby qualified for their first-ever FIFA U-17 World Cup, and they will be joined at Nigeria 2009 by Korea Republic, Japan and United Arab Emirates, who each claimed places at the global showpiece by reaching the tournament's final four.

"We promised we would qualify for the World Cup and win the final, and we made it happen," said Iran coach Ali Doustimehr, not concealing his satisfaction. "But my work has only just begun."

Rezaei steers Iran home
Doustimehr owed a great deal to his prolific striker Kaveh Rezaei, as the tournament top scorer netted six times in steering Iran to the title. After opening his account in Iran's first match against Bahrain, he secured his team a crucial 2-1 win against Uzbekistan in their next encounter with a clinical finish.

Although he didn't find the net in their 4-1 win over Singapore, Rezaei was unstoppable in the all-important quarter-final clash against Syria, netting twice in Iran's 2-0 win to book them not only progression to the last four but also a much-desired place at the FIFA U-17 World Cup.

A last-minute strike in Iran's 3-0 semi-final victory against UAE gave him his fifth, and the tournament revelation was on target again in the final, scoring the winner to round off Iran's history-making campaign.

Having made a name for himself in Asia, Rezaei has understandably set his sights on making an impact on the world stage. "When I came to this tournament, I set out to be top goalscorer and I have achieved this aim," he said. "But I'll need to work hard from now on to score more at the World Cup."

Emerging talents
While Rezaei stole the limelight, a host of other emerging talents produced noteworthy performances. Korea Repubic's Son Heung-Min, Japan's Takumi Miyayoshi and UAE's Fahad Salim scored four goals apiece to finish joint second on the scoring charts.

Korea Republic's Lee Jong-Ho picked up the tournament's Most Valuable Player award, displaying great creativity in his distribution throughout their campaign. Aside from providing the ammunition for his team-mates, the mercurial midfielder proved he knows where the goal is as well, claiming a hat-trick in their 9-0 thrashing of Indonesia.

While the top four went home happy, excited at the thought of a trip to Africa for the big event next year, a few big guns came away disappointed. Australia, one of the only two teams who had kept an unblemished record in the group stage, suffered a narrow 3-2 quarter-final defeat at the hands of UAE, a result which cost them a place at the FIFA U17 World Cup.

Australia coach Martyn Crook admitted that they were simply punished for their profligacy in front of goal in the opening half. "We failed to convert any of the numerous chances we created in the first half," he lamented. "But I must say, our opponents showed great fighting spirit to win."