The FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013 is due to get underway in less than a year and with Europe’s six qualification places already filled, attention now turns to the other continents.
The AFC and CAF qualifying tournaments both boast sizeable Arab contingents, whose teams have been preparing hard for their chance at a finals berth. Indeed, many of the teams involved are currently participating in the Arab U-20 Championship in Jordan.
Casting an eye over the field, FIFA.com asks which of the countries competing in Jordan look best equipped to reach Turkey and runs the rule over teams with prior experience at the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
The western Asian side are certainly in with a shout, having shown what they were capable of six years ago when they booked a place at Canada 2007 on their debut appearance at the AFC U-19 Championship the year before.
This time around their ambitions are plain to see. Despite claiming a berth at the finals of the AFC U-19 Championship as the best third-placed side at the group stages, team coach Jamal Abu Abed is already looking beyond Asia.
“Ever since we qualified for the AFC tournament we’ve had one objective in mind,” stated the former captain of the Jordan national team: “We want to go to Turkey. If we don’t have a great incentive to do well, we’ll never try hard enough in Asia. We’ve got excellent players, but they just need a little more time together to allow their talents and technique to develop. The Arab U-20 Championship is an important step, even though we’ve come to it under-prepared and haven’t lived up to our potential.”
Abu Abed nonetheless concluded on an optimistic note, saying: “Never mind. There’s plenty of time [before the regional qualifiers in November] and we want to work hard to ensure we make an impact at continental level and grab one of those tickets to Turkey!”
The Kingdom’s youth side has an impressive pedigree, with five previous appearances at a FIFA U-20 World Cup, most recently at Colombia 2011. Given the national team’s recent poor form, however, the country’s football fans will be willing their youth side to come up trumps and get to Turkey.
Their new coach Bernas Sergio has also made it clear that Saudi Arabia are aiming high. “When I signed the contract our objectives were clear,” explained the Spaniard. “I was brought in to develop the abilities of an already talented squad then win the AFC U-19 Championship and qualify for Turkey 2013. That’s all we’ve been thinking about. I want this team to play modern football, to keep possession and deny it to our opponents.”
We’ve got excellent players, but they just need a little more time together to allow their talents and technique to develop.
According to Sergio, so far everything is going to plan: “The strategy’s working out on the pitch and I believe we have a good chance of achieving our goals and bringing joy to the people of Saudi Arabia.”
For their part, Algeria will be hoping for some of Saudi Arabia’s good fortune. The north African side has not appeared at the finals of a FIFA U-20 World Cup since Japan 1979, when their progress was halted at the quarter-final stage by a Maradona-inspired Argentina. The same year was also the last time Algeria won an African continental title of any kind.
Unsurprisingly, the hosts of next year’s African U-20 Championship are desperate to make a mark at the tournament and head coach Jean-Marc Nobilo is no less passionate than his charges.
“When the Algerian football authorities gave me the job it was on the condition I took the side to Turkey 2013,” said the Frenchman, “so that’s the target. We’ve got outstanding players and enough time to get them fit and tactically prepared to compete at the African U-20 Championship. Seven months, then the battle begins!”
One of the first Arab states to appear at a FIFA U-20 World Cup, Syria have qualified for the tournament on three previous occasions, their most recent appearance coming at Netherlands 2005, when they advanced to the second round before being knocked out by Brazil.
The team is coached by former international Hossam Al Sayed, who represented his country at the finals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Portugal 1991. But despite the side topping their group in the qualifiers for the Asian tournament, he remains level-headed.
“Our group in the finals of the AFC U-19 Championship is not just strong,” said Al Sayed, “it’s rock solid. But our goal is to get through to the next round then take it step by step. It’s wonderful to say you’ve played at a World Cup and we’ll be able to do that if we prepare well enough.”
With competition set to be fierce for places in Turkey, there is no guarantee that an Arab side will outlast their Asian and African counterparts to qualify. Nevertheless, recent history shows that Arab football at U-20 level is a force to be reckoned with, most notably when Egypt claimed third-place at Argentina 2001. Fans across the region will be hoping that their representatives can scale similar or even greater heights once again in 2013.