New faces heading for Egypt
© AFP

With the AFC U-19 Championship in Saudi Arabia now concluded, Asia has its new princes, and the confederation's four entrants at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009 are known.

Of the four, only one will be taking part in their second successive FIFA U-20 World Cup. Canada 2007 veterans Korea DPR, Japan and Jordan all failed to reach the semi-final stage in Saudi Arabia, leaving Korea Republic as the only Asian nation that took part at Canada 2007 to make it this time. Egypt 2009 will, in fact, be the South Koreans' fourth tournament in succession.

Instead, UAE, Uzbekistan and Australia will be making their way to Africa for the finals next year after fighting their way through to the semi-finals of the championship. The crowning glory, of course, was not a semi-final place but victory in the tournament, and that honour fell to the UAE side, who saw off Uzbekistan 2-1 in the final.

Pleasing achievement
Australia's achievement in reaching Egypt 2009 through the Asian confederation for the first time was particularly pleasing to their fans. In Saudi Arabia, under a new coach in Dutchman Jan Versleijen, the Young Socceroos finished top of a tight first-round group featuring Uzbekistan, Thailand and Jordan. They then squeezed through their quarter-final against Korea DPR in extra time, Queensland Roar's Mitch Nicholls scoring the crucial goal, his second of the game, in the 113th minute.

"It's fantastic," said Versleijen after securing qualification. "The strength of this side is their unity, and this team likes to win and wants to win." That team unity, however, was not enough to bring the Aussie youngsters victory against UAE in the semi-final. Versleijen has coached for some time in the Gulf country and it was expected that his ‘inside knowledge' would give his charges the edge, but it was not to be!

UAE's progress through the tournament under their coach Mahdi Ali, who took over only days before the first match, was very impressive. After winning all three of their group games, they faced a daunting opponent in hosts Saudi Arabia in the quarter-final, but hung on for a win after taking the lead just after the hour.

"The players put in a huge effort in the game, especially in the last few minutes when Saudi Arabia applied big pressure on our players," said a proud Ali. "I want to congratulate the players for their commanding win. Saudi Arabia are a good team, and they played well tonight. Our players executed our tactics perfectly."

A resounding 3-0 success over Australian in the semi-finals followed, and a brace from tournament top scorer Ahmed Khalil took them past Uzbekistan in the final. It was a historic triumph for the young Emirates side, the first Asian youth title for their nation. "I'm really proud of the effort of the players, as they produced impressive results by winning all their matches in the competition. This is a great achievement for UAE," concluded the coach.

Stand-in hero
The UAE's opponents in the final, Uzbekistan, were only moderately favoured going into the event. But this has been a vintage year for Uzbek football, with their national team cruising through their third round FIFA World Cup™ qualifying group, and glamour club Bunyodkor reaching the AFC Champions League semi-finals. After a solid if unspectacular first round, the Uzbeks were held 0-0 by China in a tense quarter-final, and things looked grim for the Central Asians when their keeper, Doniyorjon Usmonov, was sent off shortly before the close, with all three Uzbek substitutes already used. Yet full-back Murod Khalmukhamedov took his place for the resultant shoot-out, and ended up making the save that saw the Uzbeks through to Egypt.

Korea Republic's youngsters had a dramatic tournament, with late goals figuring prominently in many of their games. After seeing off Syria with an injury-time winner in their opening game, they looked to be headed for a win over UAE until two goals in added time saw them slump to a Bayern Munich-style defeat. A win over Iraq secured a place in the quarter-finals, where they faced neighbours Japan; this time, they coasted to a 3-0 victory, although again there was a goal in additional time!

"[That] was our best performance of the tournament so far," said relieved coach Cho Dong-Hyun after the game. "Our team didn't play well in the group stage, but today the players had a great game and they won with a big result. We didn't produce our true level in the previous matches, but today we showed everything that we have."