Iraq made history by clinching their maiden AFC U-16 Championship, beating Iran 4-3 on penalties in the final in India on Sunday. By doing so, Qahtan Chitheer's charges rounded off a memorable campaign during which they remained undefeated en route to the continental title.
In what was a keenly contested final, both sides fashioned out chances although it was the Iraqis who looked more dangerous, with ace-striker Mohammed Dawood coming close on more than one occasion, notably hitting the crossbar on the hour-mark. With the game ending goalless after regular time, a penalty shoot-out was required to decide the winners with no extra time played in accordance with tournament regulations. Dawood again became Iraqi's hero, converting the decisive spot-kick to seal a famous victory.
"We played under huge pressure today," reflected winning coach Chitheer. "But we did not miss our goal-scoring chances (in the shoot-out). Overall we were very good in this match. In the end we won and I want to congratulate my team and all the Iraqi people. Now we will now look to improve even further before heading to the World Cup next year."
*Quintet representing Asia *
All 16 teams at the tournament, which ran from 15 September-2 October, had their sights set on winning through to the FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017. Ultimately it was Iraq, Iran, Japan and Korea DPR who made it to the last four and thus booked qualification for the World Cup. With India qualifying automatically as hosts, the world's largest continent will have five sides appearing at the world finals for the first time.
Champions Iraq began brightly, coming from behind to defeat defending kings Korea Republic 2-1 in the opener. Despite drawing against Malaysia and Oman, they finished as group runners-up to progress to the quarter-finals, where they saw off Uzbekistan 2-0 to book their passage to India 2017. They staged another spirited comeback in the semi-final against Japan, scoring three second-half goals to advance with a 4-2 win.
Iran, too, took the tournament by storm in winning a group which also featured the likes of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and hosts India. Abbas Chamanyan's side were then unstoppable, firing five unanswered goals past a hopeful Vietnam in the quarter-finals before edging Korea DPR on penalties to reach the final.
In a sense, Japan's campaign proved an anti-climax. Hirofumi Yoshitake's outfits shone throughout the group phase, maintaining an unblemished record including routing Vietnam 7-0 and thrashing Australia 6-0 respectively. A solitary-goal victory against UAE sent them through to the last four although they were to be found lacking against the determined Iraqis.
Korea DPR, for their part, showcased their trademark never-say-die spirit en route to their fifth U-17 World Cup appearance. In fact, Yun Jong Su's side finished in second place behind Uzbekistan during the group phase, and then needed a penalty shoot-out victory to see off Oman to return to the global finals.
Hosts India, under German Nicolai Adam, impressed by holding Saudi Arabia to a 3-3 stalemate although they lost to UAE and Iran to receive the wooden spoon in their section. Despite the results, the progress they displayed was encouraging. With a year to go until the U-17 World Cup, they are hopeful of stepping up to another new level in seeking to impress the watching world.
*Burgeoning starlets *
Just as in previous editions, this AFC U-16 Championship saw a series of young talents unearthed. Topping the list is, of course, Iraq's Dawood who bagged both the tournament's Most Valued Player and top-scorer awards. The teenager striker opened his account in the group closing game, scoring the equaliser in a 1-1 draw against Oman. He then found irresistible form by completing a brace against Uzbekistan, before scoring a hat-trick against Japan. “He’s a very good player and he studies opponents very well,” coach Chitheer said of his player. "He is very talented and can play on both the left and right side."
Also catching attention was Iran midfielder Mohammed Ghaderi, who finished as his team's top-scorer with three goals. Deployed as a left winger, the diminutive player excelled throughout, marauding past rivals' defences through his mesmerising runs. He was twice on target during the group stage-against Saudi Arabia and India, before also scoring against Vietnam.
Korea DPR's Kye Tam emerged one of the team's most consistent performers and was lauded by coach Yun as "one of our best players". Despite missing the opener through suspension, the midfielder made an immediate impact by completing a hat-trick as they thumped Thailand 4-1. He also grabbed the equaliser as they drew 1-1 with Iran, although it was their rivals who were to triumph on penalties.
Last but not least, Japan's Takefusa Kubo entered the campaign as one of the players to watch considering his spell with Barcelona. And he duly lived up to expectations by scoring twice against firstly Vietnam, and then Kyrgyzstan. With his sophistication on the ball, vision and a deadly shot, he is undisputedly among Asia's most promising hopefuls looking to impress in the 2017 U-17 World Cup.