With a little under four months to go before the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005, Asia's four representatives Korea Republic, China, Japan and Syria are making final preparations before journeying to youth football's biggest party.
Three of those teams, Korea, China and Japan, participated in the Qatar eight-nation U-21 International Tournament from 14-26 January. And once again it was Korea Republic, the team that clinched the Asian Youth Championship back in September, who lifted the trophy after beating neighbours Japan 3-0 in the final. China, runners-up in the continental competition, bowed out with heads low following three straight defeats in the group stage.
A new star
Spearheaded by Park Chu-Young, Asia's Young Player of the Year, Korea Republic confirmed they have a crop of players rich enough to threaten the traditional world powers at this level. Six goals from Park, including a brace that helped down China 2-0 in the final, steered the young Taeguk Warriors to another regional title at the Asian U-19 Championship.
Coached by Park Sung-Hwa, Korea Republic also defeated China 2-0 in their opening match, before overcoming Ukraine 3-2 and losing 1-0 to Norway. Two goals from Park helped them defeat Algeria 2-1 after extra time in the semis before they drubbed Japan in the final.
Teenager Park Chu-Yong, top of the tournament's scoring chart with nine goals, was named the Most Valuable Player.
"I have watched him closely for many years, and now it seems that his potential is finally blossoming," said Choi Song-Ho, a key member of the national team at the 1986 and 1990 World Cups. "Aside from his deft skills and good stamina, he has a cool head and moves intelligently."
Japan only secured a berth in the Netherlands this June after a penalty shootout win over Qatar in the quarter-finals. In Qatar, they got off to a flier with a 4-0 thrashing of the hosts thanks to a hat-trick from youngster Shingo Hyodo. Then after a 2-1 defeat to Algeria, Japan drew with Belarus for a spot in the semi-finals, where two extra-time goals from Seiryo High School forward Keisuke Honda downed Norway.
"They are a well-organised team. Keisuke Honda is very talented in distributing the ball and excellent at free kicks," said an impressed Korea Republic coach Park Sung-Hwa.
China team to be reshuffled
China are by no means short of young talent, but their inconsistent performances at Doha betrayed a lack of squad depth.
Without Belgium-based Manchester United striker Dong Fangzhuo, full internationals Zhou Haibin, Zhao Xuri, and five others playing in the 2008 Stars Youth Team in Germany, the weakened side were outclassed by Korea Republic in their opener. And after 2-1 defeats to Norway and Ukraine, China packed their bags for home.
With another team, the 08 Stars, travelling through Europe, not too much should be read into those defeats. But having failed to make it to the 2006 FIFA World Cup™, fans in the world's most populous nation will be worried that losing is becoming a bit of a habit.