The AFC U-19 Championship gets underway in United Arab Emirates on Saturday. Hosted in Ras al-Khaimah and Al Fujairah, the two-week competition comprises 16 teams in all, each of them vying for the continental title and Asia’s four qualification slots for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013.

The history of the competition
First contested in 1959, the AFC U-19 Championship is about to be staged for the 37th time. The tournament has doubled up as the qualifying competition for the FIFA U-20 World Cup since its inception in 1977.

Over the last 20 years the continental youth showpiece has served up its fair share of surprises and spectacular results. Two sides to figure large in its history are 11-time winners Korea Republic, who last took the crown in 2004, and neighbours Korea DPR, the victors in two of the last three editions, 2006 and 2010. Both will be aiming to add to their respective trophy hauls this time around.

The 2012 field features seven other former winners. Five-time champions Iraq last won the competition in 2000, while Iran have to go all the way back to 1976 for the last of their four triumphs. Saudi Arabia are nurturing hopes of regaining a trophy they have not lifted since 1992, some 23 years after Thailand last got their hands on it, and China PR have won it just the once, in 1985, as have Syria, whose solitary success came in 1994. Last but not least, United Arab Emirates were the last nation to break the domination of the two Koreas when they took the title in 2008, a feat they will be aiming to repeat in front of their own fans.

Intriguing match-ups
If the draw for the group phase is anything to go by, this year’s Asian finals promise to be every bit as thrilling as their predecessors. Hosts UAE find themselves in Group A along with Japan, Iran and Kuwait, while the Group B quartet of Korea Republic, Iraq, China PR and Thailand have amassed 19 Asian U-20 titles between them. Group C favourites Korea DPR will line up against Uzbekistan, Jordan and Vietnam, and in Group D 2010 runners-up Australia take on the Arab trio of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

A stepping stone for the brightest prospects
As far as the players themselves are concerned, the AFC U-19 Championship is a springboard to their respective full national teams. That point was perfectly illustrated by the victorious Iraq sides of 1977 and 1978, who went on to secure the country a place at the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™. Just for good measure, Iraq’s championship-winning class of 2000 reached the last four of the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Athens 2004, a performance they capped by winning the AFC Asian Cup in 2007.

The winners of the competition seven times since 1980, Korea Republic have underscored their success at youth level by appearing at every one of the last seven FIFA World Cup finals. The youngsters who took Saudi Arabia to the Asian U-20 title in 1986 and again in 1992, can tell a similar story, having kicked on to help the country qualify for USA 1994 and France 1998. Korea DPR’s young bucks have also bridged the age gap in recent years, with many of their fledglings forming part of the competitive unit that reached South Africa 2010.      

The stat
9 - The number of former winners who will be lining up at the 2012 finals. Between them they have been crowned continental champions 30 times. Will they take that haul to 31 or will there be a new name on the trophy this time?

What they said
“Each team has their own objectives to achieve, and appearing at the World Cup is what every player and coach dreams of. It would be a great honour for us to get there. We have to believe we can do it and make every effort to clinch our place Turkey 2013,” Hakeem Shakir, Iraq coach.

Have your say
Who do you think will win the title and make off with the four tickets to Turkey 2013?