The preliminary competition for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ has not only produced unforgettable moments for those countries involved, but has provided a stage for young hopefuls to make their mark.
This is not a new phenomenon, with a 20-year-old Hidetoshi Nakata famously playing an important role as Japan secured their place at France 1998, and a 22-year-old Yasser Al-Qahtani performing a crucial function as Saudi Arabia reached Germany 2006.
Asian Zone qualifying for South Africa 2010 is no exception. Perhaps it is more than coincidence that the countries which have unearthed new gems have all found themselves looking good for a ticket to the next world finals.
Among the teams within this category are Group 2 leaders Korea Republic, who have found a couple of youngsters to follow in the footsteps of Manchester United star Park Ji-Sung, with Ki Sung-Yueng and Lee Chung-Yong pulling the strings in midfield. Ki, in particular, has been inspirational throughout the final round, featuring in all of Taeguk Warriors' four matches since the 20-year-old scored a vital equaliser against Korea DPR in September.
For their part, the North Koreans are hoping to end the 44-year wait for their second appearance at the FIFA World Cup, thanks to the eye-catching performances of Hong Yong-Jo and Jong Tae-Se. The former has scored no fewer than four goals for the Chollima, while the latter opened his account with an important strike against Iran in October. At the other end of the field, 22-year-old goalkeeper Ri Myong-Guk has been in outstanding form, having maintained a cleansheet for 625 minutes in the previous stage of qualifying. Ri also played a crucial role in defeating Saudi Arabia for the first time earlier this month, denying Al-Qahtani's point-blank shot midway through the second half.
The class of 2003
Group 1 leaders Australia also boast their own hopefuls in the shape of Richard Garcia and Mile Jedinak. Although the duo has only made one appearance apiece so far in the Socceroos' qualifying campaign, they are regulars members of an experienced and settled squad, and will provide more options in midfield for Pim Verbeek as he attempts to lead the Aussies into their second consecutive FIFA World Cup. Hull City's Garcia came off the bench last week against Japan, while all-action midfielder Jedinak was a likely starter in that match had Vince Grella not recovered from a calf strain.
In fact, Jedinak is just one of several Asian youngsters who starred in the 2003 FIFA U-20 World Cup before going on to make their way into the senior side. Ismail Matar of the host nation for that tournament, United Arab Emirates, is well entrenched as the number 10 for the Gulf nation, while both midfielder Abdoh Autef and defender Ahmed Ateef have become indispensible members of Saudi Arabia's line-up. Korea Republic's Park Chu-Young registered his third goal of the competition against the Saudis in November, and Alexander Geynrikh of Uzbekistan is regarded as the heir to Maksim Shatskikh.
One of Iran's consistent performers has been Masoud Shojaei, who provides ammunition to Team Melli's attacks from the right flank. Having been a member of the squad in Germany 2006, the Osasuna star will be hoping to make his second appearance at world football's showpiece event next year along with attack-minded right-back Hosein Kaebi.
Last but not least, Bahrain's midfielder Mahmood Abdulrahman came into prominence with his last-gasp winner against Uzbekistan earlier this month. The 24-year-old has appeared in ten qualifying games for the Bahrainis since he opened his account against Malaysia in the first round, and emerged a hero as his spectacular left-foot free-kick deep into injury time silenced the Tashkent crowd and lifted Milan Macala's men to third place in Group 1.
FIFA World Cup Ticketing
The FIFA World Cup is an incomparable event. If you plan on attending South Africa 2010, be sure to sign up, for free, to the FIFA.com Club before ticket sales begin on 20 February. It's just another reason to join The Club, which also includes Fantasy Football and Predictor games, complete with fantastic prizes.