Qatar became Asian U-19 kings for the first time on Thursday by defeating three-time champions Korea DPR 1-0 in the 2014 AFC U-19 Championship final at the Thuwunna Youth Training Centre Stadium in Yongon, Myanmar. Akram Afif came off the bench to score the match and tournament winning-goal on 50 minutes as the west Asians achieved milestone success.
"I’m very happy for this incredible achievement," an excited coach Felix Sanchez said. "Especially for the players, who have shown a great attitude throughout. What we achieved is amazing. The players did everything to win this championship for themselves and for the country of Qatar.
"We played six difficult games and with each game we faced different tough scenarios, but the team showed hard work and came back each time."
As the Spaniard said, the Qataris pulled off a streak of impressive results as they remained undefeated en route to the tournament finale. In the group opener, Sanchez's side had to fight back to salvage a 3-1 win against Korea DPR. After coming from behind again to draw 1-1 against Iraq, they dispatched Oman 2-0 to set up a quarter-final meeting with 1985 winners China PR.
With a place at next year's FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand up for grab, the Qataris, runners-up at Australia 1981, emerged 4-2 winners in an action-filled encounter as they sealed their return to the global showpiece. The next semi-final clash against hosts and tournament surprise packages Myanmar proved tough, with only Serigne Abdou's stoppage-time strike sealing their 3-2 triumph.
Fresh gems unearthed
All the more significant was how the Qataris performed as their young talents dazzled through their deft skills and goals. Striking prodigy Ahmed Al Sadi finished as the tournament top-scorer with five goals, including netting both goals against Oman and the opener against China. The Belgium-based forward raised quite a few eyebrows through his pace, precision and sharp nose for goal.
Akram Afif, meanwhile, made his name as the tournament's super-sub after scoring all his four goals as substitute. And the Qatari fans are aware that they wouldn't have made it thus far without captain Ahmad Moein, who provided drive from midfield and leadership throughout as he earned the tournament's Most Valued Player award.
Also sharing the top place in the scoring-chart were Jo Kwang-myong and Zabikhillo Urinboev. The former completed a treble as Korea DPR routed Uzbekistan 5-0 to progress to the final, while the latter was twice on target in their 2-1 quarter-final defeat of Thailand - a result which saw the Uzbeks book back-to-back qualification for the FIFA U-20 World Cup at the expense of the south-east Asians.
Nyein Chan Aung became the darling of local fans as his three goals helped Myanmar seal their maiden qualification for the FIFA U-20 World Cup. His striking partner Than Paing was, too, hailed as the hero by the home supporters after netting the only goal against United Arab Emirates in the all-important last-eight meeting which secured their ticket to New Zealand 2015. Though, the team also have goalkeeper Myo Min Latt to thank for his excellent displays between the posts.
Elsewhere, Japan's Takumi Minamino and Chinese Wei Shihao set the continental stage ablaze briefly despite their respective teams' failure. Both players entered the Asian campaign as promising stars and Minamino - having made a name for himself in the J-League with Cerezo Osaka - truly lived up the expectations by scoring four times. Portugal-based Wei, meanwhile, scored twice off set-pieces to propel his side to the knockout stage.
Old order overturned
In a sense, the Asian competition saw its traditional order overturned with a series of heavyweights disappointing. Twelve-time and defending champions Korea Republic failed to progress beyond the group phase, with a goalless draw against China coupled with a 3-1 loss to Japan condemning them to early elimination, despite getting off to a promising start with a 6-0 demolition of Vietnam.
Six-time finalists Japan came close only to lose out to Korea DPR on penalties in the quarter-finals, while Iraq (five-time champions) and Iran (four-time champions), suffered early exits after the group stage. So too, perennial challenger Australia, failed to progress as Uzbekistan and UAE went through from their group on goal difference.
Conversely, it was the hosts that sprang surprise after surprise sending shockwaves across Asia. Curiously, Myanmar entered the campaign as the second most successful side, having claimed the crown seven times during 1961-1970. After spending so long in the wilderness, the team, under German Gerd Zeise, rose from the ashes to bravely reach the last four for the first time in four decades.