Young Asian footballers are having a busy time of it recently. Less than a fortnight after four Asian teams booked their place at the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup finals, the race for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009 begins in earnest on Friday in Saudi Arabia.
East Asian teams have long been dominant in this continental tournament, known as the AFC U-19 Championship, with teams from the Far East never failing to reach the final of the bi-annual event since 1990, and claiming six of the ten titles over the past two decades.
Among the favourites are the two Koreas. Korea DPR, who beat Japan after penalty shoot-out to reign at U-17 level two years ago, enter the competition determined to defend their continental crown. They do not have an easy group this time around, however, with China expected to pose the biggest threat while both Lebanon and Tajikistan are aiming to take one of the group's two spots which lead them to the quarter-finals.
Cautious approach from Korea Republic
Their neighbours, Korea Republic, another strongly favored team to win the tournament, have also been handed hard assignments with Iraq, Syria and United Arab Emirates in their group. However, Korea Republic have proved the most successful side, having collected the Asian laurels a record 11 times but despite their proud history, coach Cho Dong-Hyun has set a realistic goal for the young Taeguk Warriors.
"Our initial task is to progress to the quarter-finals so that we can secure a chance to win the match and qualify for the World Cup," he spoke cautiously.
His Japanese counterpart Tatsuya Makiuchi has different opinions, though. Japan have reached the final six times but they have been on the losing end on each occasion. They are not given a kind draw this time, pitted against hosts Saudi Arabia, Iran and Yemen. Despite the daunting task, Makiuchi has vowed to push aside their tag as the tournament's nearly-men. "I've chosen the best available 23 players and we'd like to win our first Asian title," he said.
High goals for young Socceroos
Australia coach Jan Versleijen has an ambitious goal of qualifying for the global event as an Asian side for the first time. The young Socceroos failed to progress beyond the quarter-final stage in their Asian debut two years ago, but they can count on their Dutch coach and five overseas-based stars to meet their target this time.
Their progress was best shown in the recent Asean Football Federation (AFF) Under-19 Championship, where they overcame hosts Thailand and Korea Republic to lift the trophy. "Our recent win in Thailand gave us a good build-up to the tournament," Versleijen said. "The team are in the best shape possible."
Elsewhere, for 2008 Olympic hosts China, the competition provides them with the last chance to salvage any global joy, after going empty-handed at nearly all levels so far this year. "Korea DPR are unquestionably our top rivals and teams like Tajikistan can't be underestimated," China coach Liu Chunming remarked. "But we have no option but do our best to secure a place in Egypt."
Group A: Iran, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen
Group B: Iraq, Korea Republic, Syria, United Arab Emirates
Group C: China, Korea DPR, Lebanon, Tajikistan
Group D: Australia, Jordan, Thailand, Uzbekistan