In Asia, there is no such thing as an easy route through qualifying, particularly at youth level. The continent's big guns may remain relatively dominant on the senior scene, but the AFC Youth Championship has seen plenty of dark horses causing upsets over the past 33 editions. To name but a couple, little-known Myanmar claimed an incredible three successive titles between 1968 and 1970, while more recently, Syria came from nowhere to win the tournament as recently as 1994.
This year, the addition of AFC new boys Australia has added
extra competitive spice to an already intriguing mix. The Aussies
certainly announced their arrival on Asian youth football scene in
emphatic style earlier this year, beating hosts Sri Lanka and
Turkmenistan to advance at the top of their preliminary section in
February. Indeed, for all that they may be the new kid on the block
in Asian football, Australia will consider anything less than a
place in the last four as failure.
Korea Republic's treble target
Reigning champions Korea Republic enter this AFC Youth Championship seeking a record 12th title and also their third consecutive triumph at this level. The Taeguk Warriors will open the defence of their continental title against Group A opponents Jordan on 29 October at the Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata, and two days later will take on Kyrgyzstan before meeting hosts India on 2 November in their final group match.
Coach Cho Dong-Hyun has announced a formidable squad that features 11 K-league stars, including two veterans from last year's FIFA World Youth Championship: Suwon Bluewings striker Shin Young-Rok and Soongsil University playmaker Park Jong-Jin. So confident is Cho of topping the section, in fact, that he has already spoken publicly about a potential quarter-final meeting with either Australia or China, and beyond to his ultimate goal of a third successive crown.
"Our goal is to win the Asian title for the third consecutive time," he said, "and in the meantime I will also take this chance to find out if the team are ready to play on the FIFA U-20 World Cup stage next year in Canada."
Aussie assignment for China
While the Korea Republic coach is brimming with confidence, his Chinese counterpart Jia Xuquan is in slightly less bullish mood going into his team's opening encounter against Australia in Group B on 30 October.
The former national striking legend had a difficult time recently as he took caretaker charge of another Chinese youth side, the U-23 team, losing two friendly matches to Japan by identical 2-0 scorelines. Encouragingly, however, his U-19 team pulled off four straightforward warms-up victories in the meantime, providing the team with a timely pre-tournament boost.
With China's U-17s missing out on the FIFA U-17 World Cup next year in Korea Republic after failing to qualify last month, all eyes from within the world's most populous country will be focussing on how the U-19s fare in India.
China finished runners-up in the previous installment, but this time around they have been left with a mountain to climb even in the group stage. Australia certainly represent a worrying and largely unknown entity for the Chinese in the opening match, and even if they scrape through, Jia's side's second match against UAE is sure to be equally tough ahead of their concluding group fixture against Thailand. With just two teams advancing to the last eight from each group, expect the competition to be fierce.
China's coach, however, believes that his side have laid the groundwork for a successful campaign and is hopeful that this will be borne out when the competition kicks off. "The team have prepared well for the championship," he said, "and they will have no problems adapting to the heat and humidity in India because they took a 10-day training camp in the similar weather in Qingyuan."
Tough task for Japan
Japan, who represented Asia at the last FIFA World Youth Cup in 2005, are also expected to have a hard time of it in a group that has pitted them against Iran, Tajikistan and Korea DPR. Coach Yasushi Yoshida has nevertheless made it clear that he is confident of his side achieving their primary objective: booking a ticket to Canada 2007.
Should they make it to the last eight, Japan - labelled the tournament's 'perennial bridesmaids' having lost five times in the final - will be expected to face either Iraq or Saudi Arabia, who start as favourites in Group D.
Yoshida, whose side begin their campaign against Korea DPR on 29 October, also revealed that he views the AFC Youth Championship as a key element in the country's longer-term goals. He said: "I expect every player to improve himself through tough matches in this competition. This way, they will become better players for the Olympics and the World Cup."
AFC Youth Championship 2006 groups:
Group A: Korea Republic, India, Kyrgyzstan, Jordan
Group B: China PR, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Australia
Group C: Japan, Iran, Tajikistan, Korea DPR
Group D: Iraq, Malaysia, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia