Sunday witnessed another remarkable triumph for Korea DPR as
they emerged victorious against Japan in the final of the AFC Youth
Few had expected Jo Tong-Sop's team to return home with the trophy, particularly after a 2-0 defeat at the hands of the Japanese in their opening match, but their renowned resolve shone through once again at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, India as they clinched a 5-3 win on penalties after 120 minutes had finished with the sides locked at 1-1.
It was all a far cry from the rocky road that Korea DPR endured in qualifying for the tournament, one which only saw their place secured thanks to the withdrawal of prospective play-off opponents Myanmar, this after a 1-0 defeat to - yes, you guessed it - Japan.
However, just two months on from the equally unexpected success of the country's U-20 women in the FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship Russia 2006, Jo's side responded to adversity to once again defy both the odds and everyone's expectations. That opening match defeat certainly triggered an immediate and emphatic response from the North Koreans, who proceeded to pull off a stunning 5-0 win against Iran before sealing their place in the knockout stage with a single-goal victory over Tajikistan.
The resilient Eastern Asian continued in a similar vein in the quarter-finals by conquering Iraq 2-0, a result that confirmed their place alongside Korea Republic, Japan and Jordan at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada next year. Jordan were then disposed of in the semi-final 1-0 to set up an enthralling final rematch with Japan.
The favourites' two prior victories might have been seen to hand them a psychological pre-match advantage, but within three minutes any Japanese sense of superiority disappeared as Korea DPR stormed into a deserved early lead through Ri Chol-Myong. Japan, though, were not about the crumble and steadily set about proving their quality, with Yosuke Kashiwagi's equalising goal on 34th minute no more than they had deserved for a spirited fightback.
However, the remainder of regulation time and 30 minutes of extra time passed without another goal, leaving these two evenly-matched sides to be separated by a penalty shoot-out. There, Korea DPR's goalkeeper Ju Kwang-Min proved the hero by blocking the opening kick from Tsukasa Umesaki and paving the way for his outfield team-mates to complete the job with a series of successful strikes.
For their coach, it was the Korea DPR's harmonious teamwork and determination for victory that had carried them through. "We lost to Japan in the opener but I told my players to play with a single mind and work as a team." He also warned the football world that winning the continental title was just an initial stride for the team: "We will show the watching world we are capable of doing the same in next year's FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada."
His Japanese counteroart, Yasushi Yoshida, lamented his side's defeat as Japan failed to change their image as the tournament's 'perennial bridesmaid' at the sixth attempt. "We were unlucky in our sixth final," he said. "But our opponents played well and I accept this result."
New stars emerge
With the likes of Shunsuke Nakamura, Mehdi Mahdavikia and 2005 AFC Youth Player of the Year Park Chu-Young among those to have caught the eye at previous AFC Youth Championships, it was no surprise that many eyes scanned the 2006 edition for the emergence of yet more young stand-outs.
Outstanding throughout, Korea DPR's inspirational captain Kim Kum-Il was awarded the tournament's Most Valuable Player honour. Bossing the team's attacking play from the midfield, Kim scored a brace against Iran, was on target again against Iraq and again proved the man for the big occasion against Jordan in the semi-final as he scored the only goal to send his team through.
Meanwhile, despite missing out on a 12th continental title, Korea Republic proved the tournament's most potent attacking force thanks largely to their striking duo of Shin Young-Rok and Shim Young-Sung, who between them scored half of the team's 18 goals. These two colleagues were, in fact, deadlocked in the battle for the coveted Golden Boot trophy with four goals each until the third-placed play-off, but Shim then moved into his own by netting in the 2-0 win over Jordan that sealed bronze for Korea Republic.
Jordan claim Chinese scalp
There was also cause for celebration in Jordan, who came second only to Korea DPR in the surprise package stakes by stunning China in the all-important quarter-final and booking a place at the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
After sweeping past Qatar and Bahrain in the preliminary round last November, their AFC Youth Championship campaign got off to the worst possible start with a 3-0 defeat to Korea Republic. The outsiders then only just scraped past hosts India 3-2 before securing their place in the last eight with a hard-fought 0-0 draw with Kyrgyzstan.
Few gave them a chance against the last edition's runners-up, China, who had stormed into the knockout stage with three straight wins, but Danish coach Jan Poulsen's counter-attacking game-plan worked a treat and a first-ever place at the FIFA U-20 World Cup was duly secured with a 2-1 win.