Saturday was an historic day for football in Uzbekistan. Their youth team’s victory over Japan in the final of the AFC U-16 Championship Iran 2012 marked the nation’s first victory in an Asian competition at any age level.
The success brings with it an added bonus. Coach Nuraliyev Dilshod and his young charges had already been assured of a place at the FIFA U-17 World Cup United Arab Emirates 2013, their second appearance at the tournament after reaching the quarter-finals at Mexico 2011.
As the dust settles in Iran, FIFA.com takes a look back at a goal-packed competition full of twists and turns.
The sweet taste of victory
The Uzbekistan Football Federation joined the FIFA family in 1994 and the country’s senior team made its mark almost immediately by winning the Asian Games in that very year. Since then, titles have been harder to come by and the U-16’s win in Tehran’s PAS Stadium is Uzbekistan’s most notable success in years.
Victory was all the sweeter to the West Asians because they fought so hard to get there. A win over India, a draw with China then a loss to Syria saw them place second in Group D and their quarter-final match was expected to be a walkover for opponents Korea Republic. Not for the last time in the tournament, Uzbekistan had to resort to spot-kicks to settle matters, winning the game 5-3 on penalties.
With a place at UAE 2013 safely secured, Uzbekistan charged on, beating hosts Iran 3-2 in the semis before stunning fellow-finalists Japan in yet another penalty shoot-out. An in-form Japan were widely seen as favourites in the final, but Uzbekistan clawed back an early deficit to reach the final whistle at 1-1 before taking the shoot-out 3-1.
For their head coach, though, this trophy is just the beginning: “We won’t relax after this victory,” said Dilshod. “We must work very hard to ensure we get something out of the FIFA U-17 World Cup next year.”
But he had words of praise for his side’s performance in Iran: “Some might say we reserved our best performances for the knock-out stages but we played at that level all tournament. The players were a bit shamefaced at the chances that went begging in the group matches but as the tournament wore on they got more precise and powerful.”
The agony of second-best
Runners-up Japan have long been considered one of Asia’s best sides at U-16 level, having won two AFC Asian Cups in the age-group, and it is only fitting that they have secured a place at United Arab Emirates 2013.
Like Uzbekistan, the young Samurais waited until the knock-out stages to produce their best. A second place finish in Group C behind Korea Republic earned them a quarter final against Syria, a game they won 2-1 before going on to crush Iraq 5-1 in the semi-final.
When midfielder Mizutani Takuma scored in only the sixth minute of the final against Uzbekistan it looked like another goalfest was on the cards, but their opponents fought back gamely, levelling the score soon after the resumption and taking the game to penalties. With three Japanese players squandering their spot-kicks their dream of lifting the trophy was over.
Iraq’s delight and Korea’s tears
After winning the tournament four years ago, hopes were high that Iran could repeat the feat with a home crowd behind them, but their campaign was brought to an abrupt halt by semi-final defeat against the eventual champions, Uzbekistan.
Iraq were never billed as serious challengers, so pulled off one of the tournament’s major surprises by topping their group with wins over Oman and Thailand and a creditable draw against Asian powerhouse Australia, before securing a berth at their first-ever FIFA U-17 World Cup finals with a 3-1 win over Kuwait in the quarter-finals.
Korea Republic provided a shock of their own courtesy of their dramatic reversal of fortunes midway through the competition. The only side to finish the group stages with a full complement of points after defeating DPR Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia, the Koreans were out-and-out favourites to secure the title. But in their quarter-final encounter with Uzbekistan, they only managed to level the scores in the fourth minute of extra time before losing on penalties.
The standout stars of this year’s competition were Korea Republic’s Hwang Hee Chan, who topped the scorers list with five goals despite his side’s premature exit and Japan’s Player of the Tournament Sugimoto Taro, with three goals and an assist in the final to his name. Also impressive were the Iranian trio of Reza Karmollachaab, Seyedmajid Hosseini and Amirmohammed Mazloum, while Oman’s Hatem Al Rushadi and Yemeni Mohammed Al Dahi both scored three goals apiece.
97 – The total number of goals scored over the 31 matches of the AFC U-16 Championship Iran 2012 at an average of 3.13 goals per match. Iran and Japan claimed the highest share of these strikes with 14 each, six more than champions Uzbekistan.
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Which side out of Uzbekistan, Japan, Iran and Iraq will do best at United Arab Emirates 2013?