Stars of the future ready to shine
SINGAPORE: Stars of the future are itching to set the stage alight with their dazzling skills when the AFC U-17 Championship kicks off on Sunday here at the Bishan and Jalan Besar Stadiums.
The tournament has been an important stepping stone for youngsters since its launch in 1984 by the AFC with the view of providing another tier of competitive international football for the continent’s most talented teenaged footballers.
In action on the opening day are FIFA U-17 World Cup 2007 hosts Korea Republic, who take on Singapore, while Japan clash with Nepal to complete the action in Group A. In Group former runners-up Iran take on Yemen even as Iraq cross swords with the only Central Asian team in the competition, Tajikistan.
Groups C (DPR Korea, Myanmar and Saudi Arabia) and D (defending champions China, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Syria) roll into action on Monday.
After the suspension of Laos from all AFC youth competitions, three teams will be jostling for the top two spots in Group C with last edition’s runners-up DPR Korea favourites to punch their quarterfinal ticket alongside Saudi Arabia, who won the title in 1985 and 1988.
Singapore, coached by Kadir Yahya, make their debut in hosting a major international tournament but, with the likes of Japan and Korea Republic in their group, will need to be flawless to progress beyond the group stage by finishing in the top-two.
Korea Republic are former two-time champions (1986 and 2002) while Japan claimed the title in 1994.
Korea Republic head coach Park Kyung Hoon said a good showing in Singapore was vital to building his team’s confidence before the FIFA U-17 World Cup next year for which they have automatic entry as hosts.
“I think we are in with a chance,” said Park. “With the FIFA U-17 World Cup just a year away, we hope to build up a team which can challenge for major honours."
Park not surprisingly marked out neighbours DPR Korea, who narrowly lost to China 1-0 in the Final two years back, as the team to look out for when asked about the title-winning potential of others in the fray.
“DPR Korea is a fast, hard running, and very determined team, they will throw up a surprise. Besides DPR Korea, I am sure China will be going all out to defend their crown, and teams like Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Japan also can't be underestimated.”
Iran coach Mohamed Ahmadzade has already drilled into his team that offence is the best form of defence. “We will be completely aggressive,” said Ahmadzade. “We scored 10 goal in two qualifying matches (against Turkmenistan) and were winners against many U-19 or senior teams in friendlies in the run-up.”
“Protecting the goal might be a mission for some teams here but we are not among them,” declared Ahmadzade.
Iran clash with archrivals Iraq in what will be ‘the’ match of the group on September 7, with the latter team no doubt eager to make up for its 3-0 defeat in the quarterfinals two years back in Japan.
“Iran is a very good team and I know Yemen’s style of playing as I have worked there,” said Iraqi coach Kadoom Khalaf. “But Tajikistan present a problem as we simply don’t know about them.”
No team has won the Asian U-17 title twice in a row and this is something which is likely to weigh on China’s mind when they open their campaign against Syria on Monday.
However, Zheng Xiong’s squad has prepared methodically for their title-defence. “We want to defend the trophy and I believe that we can finish first in the group ahead of Bangladesh, Syria and Vietnam,” said Xiong. “We are 100% ready for them.”
“With many matches under the belt, I believe that we are more experienced compared to last year.”
Xiong underlined his team’s ambitions of qualifying for the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2007. “To finish in the top four and qualify for the FIFA U-17 World Cup is very important to us. We are eager to compete against the world’s best teams in Korea Republic,” added Xiong, in a clear warning to rivals.
A prime target for all teams would be a semifinal finish as the top four sides in the Asian championship have spots reserved in the world competition, which Saudi Arabia won in 1989.
If the hosts themselves reach the semifinals then the match for third place will be replaced with a play-off featuring the two best losers from the quarter-final stage.
The grand finale will be played on September 17 at the Jalan Besar Stadium.