As the road to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017 gets ever shorter, an assessment of the path trodden, and what lies ahead, seems in order. 2016 has decided half of the faces that will be meeting us on the Asian peninsula – with a few new ones in store – while the new year will look to add more in no time at all.
The first 12 tickets were handed out to those who will be making the trip from Europe, Oceania and Asia in May, joining the hosts in the hat for the U-20 World Cup draw on 15 March. But how did they get to this stage, and when will they know their fellow competitors? FIFA.com takes a look at the story of qualifying from the year gone by, with what’s yet to come in 2017.
*Fresh faces and big names
*There have been undoubtedly two standout stories from the year’s race to reach the finals, featuring nations who are found towards the bottom end of the footballing alphabet, and often similarly placed in the game’s sporting narrative too. But the latter has certainly changed this year as Vanuatu and Vietnam booked their place in a first FIFA tournament and first 11-a-side FIFA competition respectively.
The Pacific islanders will make their debut appearance as part of the first FIFA tournament to feature two Oceanian qualifiers – with neither being the host nation. Vanuatu, inviting the confederation’s U-20 sides to compete on home soil, secured their spot in the most dramatic of fashions thanks to Frederick Massing earning a stunning 94th-minute winner in front of a jubilant home support. New Zealand – who earned a convincing 5-0 win in the final – join them in their fourth-successive visit to the tournament.
Just over 13,000km away, in Bahrain, more history was made. Having just made their FIFA tournament debut – featuring in the FIFA Futsal World Cup Colombia 2016 – Vietnam wasted no time at all in booking their second dose of action on the global stage. A 1-0 win over the hosts, courtesy of Tran Thanh’s instinctively-flicked finish to reach the AFC U-19 Championship semi-finals.
Alongside the hosts, Asia will be represented by some big names – though some will be making long-awaited returns to the U-20 festivities. Iran, Asia’s highest ranked side, return for their first appearance since 2001, while Japan mark ten years since they last appeared, and Saudi Arabia have been absent from the last two editions. The latter pair met in the continental final, with the Samurai Blue finally winning the title at the seventh time of asking.
Europe’s representatives are lacking in any sort of surprise packages, with five heavyweight names occupying their complement of sides. Turkey 2013 champions France head the quintet, having triumphed in Germany to take the UEFA U-19 Championship title. Italy follow, despite falling convincingly to Les Bleus in the final, losing 4-0.
Semi-finalists Portugal and England join them, with the fifth and final side being Germany – who clinched the final European ticket dramatically so. Against perennial rivals Netherlands, a stoppage-time Suat Serdar leveller took their Korea Republic 2017 play-off to extra time after a Dutch comeback, before ending 3-3 thanks to another exchange of goals. Penalties then, true to historical form, went the way of the 1981 U-20 World Cup winners.
*More tickets to be won
*We don’t have to wait long to see the rest of the spots get filled, with the remaining 12 places being snapped up by the end of the ninth week of 2017, with the qualifiers coming thick and fast once the South American action kicks off in Ecuador on 18 January. That will bring us the first four names of the year, coming from the continent that has brought more U-20 World Cup winners, 11, than the rest of the world put together.
A week after South America’s champion is crowned, CONCACAF get in on the act 18 February, before Africa’s qualifying kicks off the following weekend, with both also set to send out a quartet of sides to fly the flag for them.
One thing is for sure, everything is set to quickly take shape on the road to Korea Republic once 2017 begins!