Four more sides will book their ticket to the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015 over the coming fortnight as Asia hosts its continental championship. Myanmar, the ambitious football nation in the continent’s south-east, will welcome Asia’s elite U-19 players for the first time. The tournament is one of the older international underage events in world football, and dates back to 1959 when it was known as the AFC Youth Championship.
The tournament has a habit of producing upset results as evidenced by Japan’s failure to win the title. The tournament has also been an avenue for some alternative Asian nations to qualify for a FIFA tournament, with Jordan, Syria and Uzbekistan among those to do so in recent years.
The 16-team event will be played over 15 days in two venues – the capital Nay Pyi Taw and the largest city Yangon – with the four semi-finalists to earn a ticket to New Zealand 2015. European nations Austria, Germany, Hungary, Portugal, Serbia and Ukraine have already qualified, while Fiji will represent Oceania alongside the host nation.
Host nation Myanmar have put much focus into their football development over recent years, and they will harbour genuine ambitions of making an impression on home soil. So too, they will be boosted by the draw which placed them alongside Iran, Thailand and Yemen. A top-two-finish in the group will leave Myanmar one win shy of an unlikely ticket to the FIFA U-20 World Cup. Remarkably Myanmar are seven-time champions having collected all their wins over a ten-year period commencing in 1961, when the nation was known as Burma.
Group B features Uzbekistan, Australia, United Arab Emirates and Indonesia, with the first three having all had a taste of the FIFA U-20 World Cup over recent editions. Group C appears similarly tough with 2012 winners Korea Republic, Japan, China PR and Vietnam all lining up together. Iraq, Korea DPR, Qatar and Oman are the remaining quartet.
Big guns set their sights
Defending champions Korea Republic will once again be looked upon as one of the favourites despite their tough draw. And the 12-time champions will not be satisfied with merely earning qualification for New Zealand 2015, according to coach Kim Sangho. “It’s more pressure as we are the defending champions and the aim this time around is also straight: win it another time,” he said. “Qualifying for the FIFA U-20 World Cup is important but our clear aim is to be champions.”
For all Japan’s success at senior level, and indeed wide-ranging football development, their record in this age group remains below par. Japan have been six-time finalists but are yet to be crowned champs, and they have failed to appear at a FIFA U-20 World Cup since Canada 2007. Under coach Masakazu Suzuki, the Young Samurai Blue have enjoyed a thorough build-up facing several J.League opponents, as well as participating in the SBS Cup on home soil and the ASEAN Football Federation U-19 Youth Championship last month.
Australia are another nation with strong ambitions in this age group under coach Paul Okon, who led the Young Socceroos to the semi-finals at Portugal 1991. It was one of many impressive performances by the Green and Gold during the 1990s but recent years have proven to be more erratic. Australia are still hunting their maiden Asian crown, after joining the AFC in 2006. "We have had a good preparation leading into the tournament with a number of tours and camps where we have faced quality opposition," said Okon, whose side contains several European-based players. "Our goal is to qualify for the FIFA U-20 World Cup and to achieve this goal we will need to string together four quality performances.”