The old biblical story of David and Goliath looks set to be a theme at the 2014 AFC U-16 Championship when the continent qualifiers for the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Chile commences on Saturday. Sixteen sides divided into four groups battle against each other across two weeks with the top four progressing to the global showpiece.
Unlike the past editions, during which the traditional powerhouses invariably had the final say, the Asian youth competition features a series of potential dark horses this time around. Malaysia and Nepal, both of whom sent shockwaves during the pre-qualification, have fixed their sights firmly on maiden progression, while Syria have proved that they are more than capable of springing a surprise or two.
Young Tigers target breakthrough
Malaysia emerged the biggest surprise packages during last September's pre-qualifiers as they booked a place in the continental finals as group winners. In the process, coach S. Balachandran’s Young Tigers came up with an opening draw and three emphatic victories, including a 2-0 shock win against Korea Republic. They understandably enter the competition finals seeking their first-ever global appearance, but the draw is far from kind for the south-east Asians, who are pitted against two-time champions Oman, ambitious hosts Thailand and familiar foes Korea Republic in what appears to be one of the trickiest groups.
Despite the daunting tasks facing them, Balachandran’s charges arrive in Bangkok brimming with confidence. Aside from their eye-catching qualifying displays, the Young Tigers can take heart from their recent success in the 2014 FAM-Frenz Asia Champions Trophy final. Spearheading the team is top-scorer Muhammad Najmuddin Samat, who was on target five times in the qualifying including opening the scoring against the Koreans.
“I am very happy with the fighting spirit and mental strength of my players,” Balachandran exclaimed after the recent 3-3 second-leg draw against PVF Vietnam in the aforementioned regional final which sealed their aggregate win. “I believe the players are ready for the AFC Under-16 championships after his morale boosting victory.”
In similar fashion to Malaysia, Nepal took their qualifying group by storm as they progressed at the expense of the likes of Iraq and Bahrain. Coach Bal Gopal Maharajan's outfits opened brightly with a 2-0 shock defeat of Bahrain. After drawing against Iraq 2-2, the Nepalese booked qualification with a 4-0 drubbing of Turkmenistan.
Awaiting the Junior Gorkhalis in the opener are defending champions Uzbekistan, while Kuwait and 2010 winners Korea DPR are stumbling blocks to overcome if they are to advance. Still Nepal are not daunted and they can look to not only their fine pre-tournament preparation, but also the goal-scoring form and leadership of captain Bimal Magar - a promising star who already boasts several international caps with the senior national team.
It may be a different story in Group B, where three traditionally strong teams plus Hong Kong vie for the section's top two places. Both Japan and China are among the most successful sides at the age level having twice won the title each. Having finished third in the 2010 edition, Australia made light work of the preliminary qualifying as they booked progression with ease, and Tony Vidmar's Joeys are aiming not only to earn a coveted place at Chile 2015 but also to win their maiden Asian title.
Elsewhere, Group D should be the hardest featuring three former champions as well as 2007 FIFA U-17 World Cup participants Syria. Two-time winners Saudi Arabia take on Syria in the opener and the young Green Falcons will count on the finishing skills of Ibrahim Abu Shae. Meanwhile, Iran and Qatar meet in a meeting of former champions. Shouldering the goal-scoring tasks for Iran is Nima Mokhtari who was the team's top-scorer with three goals in the preliminary qualifiers.