Asian qualifying for the 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile ended on Saturday in Thailand with Korea DPR recapturing the continental laurels after edging Korea Republic 2-1 in the final. It marked the Young Chollima's second success in the AFC U-16 Championship, having won their maiden title in the 2010 edition. The achievements, as a result, saw them join the other five two-time winners - Japan, China PR, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Korea Republic - among the tournament's most successful countries.
For those following the Asian competition throughout, it came as somewhat a surprise that Korea DPR scraped past a series of hopeful teams en route to the crown. Indeed, coach Yon Kwang-mu's charges suffered a 3-2 loss to defending champions Uzbekistan during the group phase as they reached the quarter-final stage as section runners-up. But as recent history has shown, their trademark fighting spirit stood them in good stead throughout the knockout stage.
Yon's brave team ran out penalty shoot-out winners against a powerful Iran after the two sides finished goalless. The result booked their qualification for Chile 2015 alongside Australia, Syria and Korea Republic. Another tremendous shoot-out victory against Australia set up a final meeting with Korea Republic.
The Young Taeguk Warriors were the undisputed favourites going into the tournament’s ultimate game, considering their rampaging form which had seen them rout Syria 7-1 in the semi-final. And coach Choi Jincheul's side finished the first half a goal up but just when everything seemed to be going to plan, Korea DPR hit back after the restart. Han Kwang-Song drew level on 50 minutes, before Choe Song-Yyok capitalised on a defensive error to score the match and tournament winning-goal.
"We have united as one as we have tried to show our team spirit in all our matches," a jubilant Yon said. "We have been preparing for this championship for a long time and we have now succeeded."
Having seen the team's progress, the former Korea DPR international voiced his confidence about the future. "Their skill and technique and their determination has developed and in the future we will consolidate what they have learned. We will prepare well and show Asia's development at the World Cup."
*Fresh gems unearthed
*The Asian competition has long been a setting for the youth talents to emerge with the likes of Hidetoshi Nakata and Shinji Ono leaving their first marks on the continental stage. And Thailand 2014 was no exception with a series of prodigies announcing their arrival on the international scene.
Despite the final disappointment, Korea Republic fans can still pride themselves on their talented crop embodied in striking-ace Lee Seungwoo. The Barcelona teenager emerged the tournament's biggest revelation, scooping both the tournament golden boot and Most Valued awards after his five goals and classy technique.
He netted in each half as they saw off Japan 2-0 in the quarter-finals to seal passage to Chile 2015 and despite being closely marked against Syria, he managed to score a goal and provided four assists in a ruthless demolition. "I am happy to have met such a brilliant player as Lee," coach Choi remarked. "I really like the way he plays."
Also impressing were Australia's Cameron Joice and Han Kwangsong of Korea DPR, both of whom were on target four times. Joice has proved his predatory talents with the Joeys through his powerful acceleration and shooting ability. Han has, too, established his place as the talisman for Chollima with his clinical finishing. Elsewhere, Syrian forward Abd Al Rahman Barakat scored three times as they progressed to Chile 2015 at the expense of Uzbekistan with a 5-2 win while his team-mate Anas Al Aji did a fairly good job in bossing the midfield netting three goals.
Malaysia came within a whisker of booking their first-ever FIFA U-17 World Cup qualification after being edged 2-1 by Australia in the quarter-finals. But even the qualifying disappointment did little to take the gloss off their striking-prodigy Muhammad Najmuddin Samat. Having shone in last year's qualifying to the AFC U-16 Championship with five goals, the dynamic forward went on to excel at Thailand 2014 by scoring both goals as they dispatched Qatar 2-0 to reach the knockout phase.
Last but not least, minnows Nepal also boast their own star as they came close to springing a surprise. Bimal Magar, who entered the youth competition on the back of several international appearances with the national senior side, scored the match-winner against Kuwait as they reaped a spirited triumph. Having scored four times in last year's qualifying as they finished top of a group also featuring Iraq, Bahrain and Turkmenistan, the 16-year-old is heralded as a promising star for Nepal.