Asia's top junior teams begin their quest for a spot at the FIFA U-17 World Championship Peru 2005 on Saturday when they come together in Japan for their continental qualifying competition (4-18 September). Three teams, the two finalists and the winner of the third-place match, will emerge as AFC representatives for the world finals due to be held in Peru in September next year.
There is little doubt which of the four groups looks to be the toughest. In Group A hosts Japan have drawn China, the team their senior side defeated recently in the Asian Cup final, as well as always dangerous Korea DPR and Thailand, who are fresh from resounding victories against Malaysia, Laos and Vietnam in a four-team Southeast Asian tournament.
Japan coach Keiichiro Nuno will be hoping home territory - matches are scheduled to be played at Fujieda, Kusanagi and Nihondaira in Shizuoka Prefecture and J. Village and Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture, will give the freshest crop of talented Japanese players the advantage they need to qualify, something their predecessors were unable to do for Finland 2003.
In Group B, Korea Republic, whose U-17 side did make it to Finland but failed to reach the knockout stages, should have enough power to beat off the challenges of Vietnam and Laos. Oman, who are traditionally good at this age group and made it to Trinidad & Tobago 2001, could pose a more serious threat.
On paper, Group C looks to be the easiest with Iran the clear-cut favourite. Middle East neighbours Kuwait should also have enough to see them through to the next stage, while India will have learnt much from a recent tour of England. Malaysia failed to make an impression in the ASEAN mini-tournament and look likely to struggle.
Despite the incredible success of the U-23 team in reaching the semi-finals of the Olympic Football Tournament in Greece, Iraq's juniors will find it hard to repeat similar success in Japan. While the country's rich footballing talent is unquestionable, their preparation and selection resources in the war-torn land must inevitably leave its mark. Nevertheless the young Iraqis have got this far and will be fully motivated to make their own headlines.
In Uzbekistan, they face a formidable opponent. Coach Islom Akhmedov's team features eight players from the Uzbekistan premier league and 12 from the farm club of top Uzbek side Pakhtakor. Qatar, previous Asian champions, will be no pushovers, while Bangladesh must be considered the group's underdogs.
The top two teams from each group advance to the quarter-finals.