South Korea will become the sixth Asian nation to host the prestigious FIFA Under 20s World Cup, when the tournament gets underway this weekend.
While all eyes are on the hosts and their chances of progression, there are four other Asian nations vying for success in the biennial showpiece of youth football.
In the 20 prior editions of the tournament, 18 different AFC nations have qualified for the finals, but only four (excluding Australia in their OFC days) have ever reached the semi-finals. Two of those – the hosts plus Japan – will be aiming to match that feat over the coming month.
Joining the two North Asian powerhouses are Iran, Saudi Arabia and the rapidly improving Vietnam. Fox Sports Asia takes a look at the chances of each at the international showpiece.
— FIFA.com (@FIFAcom) May 18, 2017
QUALIFIED AS: Hosts
BEST PERFORMANCE: Fourth Place (1983)
COACH: SHIN Tae-yong (Former national midfielder who won the ACL in 2010 as boss of Seongnam)
STAR PLAYER: LEE Seung-woo (Barcelona reared prodigy who is hailed as one of the most exciting young prospects on the continent. The attacking midfielder or forward is a regular in the Spanish giant’s youth setup where he wears the number 10 and was a key contributor in the team’s run to the semifinals of this year’s UEFA Youth League)
ONE TO WATCH: LEE Jin-hyeon (The very definition of a late bolter for the squad as he hadn’t been involved in the national setup until a final warm-up tournament last month where he was one of the stars in wins over fellow U20 finalists Honduras and Zambia. A creative midfielder with a delightful left foot and impressive close control, he was plucked by Shin Tae-yong out of a local university side and could now be set to start on the right of a midfield 4-3-3)
Kick off this Saturday… pic.twitter.com/BRjD2fpM7y
— FIFA.com (@FIFAcom) May 18, 2017
OVERVIEW: The hosts have played a seemingly endless string of warm-up tournaments and although they came with mixed squads and mixed results, the most recent games against fellow finalists produced strong results and performances. There is quality across the squad but in Jeonnam midfielder Han Chan-hee and Barcelona prodigy Lee, it’s in midfield and the forward lines where the hosts look to have their greatest class. They should be good enough to get out of the group and from there, a ‘soft’ matchup looks possible in the second round.
QUALIFIED AS: AFC U-19 champion
BEST PERFORMANCE: Runners-up (1999)
COACH: Atsushi UCHIYAMA (Vastly experienced former national midfielder who spent almost a decade and a half at various coaching roles with J.League side Jubilo before being a staff coach with the JFA at varying age groups since 2013)
STAR PLAYER: Koki OGAWA (Whilst wingers Ritsu Doan and Koji Miyoshi have shone this year, including in the ACL, one player who has really stood out domestically has been the young Jubilo forward Ogawa. Japan have no shortage of talented creative midfielders but what they’ve always struggled with is producing pure finishers. They have a very exciting prospect in the 19-year-old Jubilo frontman who is a powerful striker with good movement. He’s sharp both on the ground and in the air and he’ll be the team’s main goal threat in Korea.)
ONE TO WATCH: Yuta NAKAYAMA (Japan have struggled to produce central defenders in recent years, as well as strikers. Nakayama is part of an outrageously youthful back-line at J.League side Kashiwa where he is a
regular for the second successive season. He has already won plaudits for his sound reading of the play, one-on- one tackling and distribution)
OVERVIEW: As Asian champions, Japan should enter this tournament with high expectations and this crop of players is one of the best in recent times – arguably stretching back to the ‘Golden Generation’ that reached the final in 1999. Barcelona prodigy Takefusa Kubo, 15, is the second youngest player at the tournament and if given a chance he could have an impact. But this is a balanced side, many of whom have several years of professional football under their belts. They should expect, at a minimum, to progress from the group.
PREDICTION: Round of 16.
QUALIFIED AS: AFC U-19 Runners-up
BEST PERFORMANCE: Round of 16 (2011)
COACH: Saad AL SHEHRI (As a player he participated in this tournament back in 1999 before injury curtailed a promising career. He made his way into youth coaching where he’s regarded as an erudite, patient, manager)
STAR PLAYER: Sami AL NAJI (The team’s captain has already established himself in the first team squad at Saudi powerhouse Al Nassr. For the youth national team he’s a key presence in the up-tempo, fast pressing style of play that the side likes to employ, whether in a deeper midfielder station or in a more attack-minded role as he tended to play at the AFC U-19 championships. He top scored there with four goals)
— USL (@USL) March 15, 2017
ONE TO WATCH: Abdulrahman AL-YAMI (In the best tradition of Saudi frontman, the 19-year-old Al Hilal forward is an aggressive, dynamic, presence who loves to harry and pressure opposing defences and then pounce where he’s able to use his energetic style and eye for goal. He’s likely to be the main outlet in the goalscoring department for the young Green Falcons in Korea)
OVERVIEW: Speaking after they lost to Japan in the AFC U-19 championships last year, the coach Al Shehri, said he was pleased that his team could show the ‘modern’ version of Saudi football. When it works, it works well – a team that loves to harry and close down opposition space, forcing turnovers where they can, then launch rapid counters with their pace and power in the two advanced lines. They may not be favoured by many but they have both a physically skilled side as well as some dangerous players going forward. If they can maintain their shape and discipline at the back, they’re capable of reaching the second round.
PREDICTION: Round of 16
QUALIFIED AS: AFC Under-19 Semifinalists
BEST PERFORMANCE: Group Stage (1977, 2001)
COACH: Amir Hossein PEYROVANI (The former striker has spent much of his coaching career as an assistant at various club sides and this looms as a huge test of his managerial qualities)
One week until U20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017!
Asia will be represented by,
— Iran Sports News (@IranSportsNews) May 13, 2017
STAR PLAYER: Omid NOORAFKAN (Only a last minute change of heart from his club side, Esteghlal, allowed the supremely gifted central midfielder to join the national team in Korea as they were desperate to hold onto their young star for next week’s ACL Round of 16 tie against Al Ain. A lanky yet agile deep lying playmaker, he sits at the base of the midfield and has the ability to dictate play with his outstanding left foot and wide range of passing. He will be the key cog for this Iranian side in Korea)
ONE TO WATCH: Reza SHEKARI (Hailed as one of the brightest young Iranian talents after he burst onto the scene 18 months ago in his homeland with Zob Ahan, a messy dispute with Russian Premier League side FC Rostov has seen the 18-year-old suffer from a lack of game time. Even so, the attacking midfielder or second striker has the class and poise on the ball to be a star for this under prepared Iranian side)
OVERVIEW: Remarkably for a nation that has had such success at senior level, this is just the third time that they’ve even qualified for the finals of the U-20 World Cup. In their past two appearances, they won just the lone match and much as the senior team has long been plagued by poor preparation so too have Team Melli Javanan. It’s been hampered with domestic clubs squabbling over releasing players for warm-up matches. Indeed, they began their final training camp with less than a dozen players in attendance – all signs that point to an early exit despite a moderate looking group and some talented individuals.
PREDICTION: Group Stage
QUALIFIED AS: AFC U-19 Semifinalists
BEST PERFORMANCE: No previous appearances
COACH: Hoang Anh Tuan
STAR PLAYER: Ho Minh Di (The pint-sized playmaker is likely to be one of the smallest players at the tournament but what he lacks in size he more than makes up for in skill. A dynamic attacking presence on the books of leading local club Hanoi, the 19-year- old is likely to be the creative hub in a 4-2-3-1. He has both the vision and passing to ensure Vietnam remain competitive)
ONE TO WATCH: Ha Duc Chinh (Previously known by the less than friendly nickname ‘Wooden Leg’ the 19-year-old has come on leaps and bounds over the past couple of years. He’s now both the leading threat in front of goal for the national youth team and a regular at his club side Da Nang. He’ll need to fire here if Vietnam are to progress from the group)
#Football Friendly Match
HT: U20 Vietnam 1-1 U20 Vanuatu pic.twitter.com/RkEE1CHdzg
— Vietnam Olympic Team (@VIE_Team) May 14, 2017
OVERVIEW: The growth in Vietnamese football has flown under the radar even in Southeast Asia let alone on a broader regional or international level. But the fruits of some extensive youth development work is being born in this outstanding crop of players that have already created history by reaching the finals of an (outdoor) FIFA tournament for the first time. The buildup has been extensive, including a training camp in Germany. Although recent results have been mixed and injuries have struck at exactly the wrong time, this is arguably one of the finest groups of players ever presented by a Southeast Asian nation. Drawn with a nation they have strong ties to in France, as well as Honduras and New Zealand, a third-placed finish may see them through to the second round. Despite outside expectations, this supremely talented group have the quality to reach that target.
PREDICTION: Round of 16.