Seoul: As the global stars of tomorrow descend on six cities throughout Korea Republic for the FIFA U-20 World Cup, the-AFC.com takes a look at the five Asian sides taking a shot at glory.
Group A (Guinea, May 20, Jeonju; Argentina, May 23, Jeonju; England, May 26, Suwon)
Korea Republic have been drawn with some of the world’s most famous football nations, but will be hopeful of progressing beyond the Group Stage on home soil.
Under former head coach An Ik-soo, Korea Republic were desperately unlucky to be eliminated in the Group Stage at the 2016 AFC U-19 Championship despite winning two of their three matches, after they finished level on points with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
An has since been replaced by 2010 AFC Champions League-winning boss Shin Tae-yong, who oversaw the Koreans’ quarter-final finish at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.
The side Shin took to Rio finished above Germany as well as reigning champions Mexico, and the 46-year-old’s ability to get results against highly-fancied opponents will be called on again with matches against Argentina and England ahead.
Much of the focus will be on Barcelona pair Paik Seung-ho and Lee Seung-woo, with the latter hoping to replicate his outstanding performances at the 2015 U-17 World Cup, including a standout display in the 1-0 win against Brazil.
Islamic Republic of Iran
Group C (Costa Rica, May 21, Seogwipo; Zambia, May 24, Seogwipo; Portugal, May 27, Incheon)
Appearing in the tournament for only the third time in history, and the first time since 2001, the Islamic Republic of Iran find themselves in an intriguing group featuring African champions Zambia, along with Costa Rica and Portugal.
Should they manage to register a win, or even score, in the tournament, it will end a forty-year drought since beating Cote d’Ivoire 3-0 back in 1977.
This generation of young Iranian talent qualified by virtue of their semi-final appearance at the 2016 AFC U-19 Championship in Bahrain, where Saipa’s Reza Jafari was the star with three goals.
Iran’s progression to the final four was largely the result of a miserly defence which conceded only once in the first four matches of the tournament, but it was the way they exited the competition which lives in the memory, as they lost 6-5 in an epic semi-final against Saudi Arabia.
With the likes of talented defender Abolfazl Razzaghpour and livewire forward set to feature along Jafari, head coach Amirhossein Peiravani’s charges should not be taken lightly by their Group C opponents.
Group D (South Africa, May 21, Suwon; Uruguay, May 24, Suwon; Italy, May 27, Cheonan)
Crowned Asian champions at last year’s AFC U-19 Championship in Bahrain, Atsushi Uchiyama’s talented squad won’t have to travel far from home to take on the world.
Japan were superb in Bahrain, racking up 16 goals without conceding once themselves, and registering commanding knockout stage wins over Tajikistan and Vietnam before seeing off Saudi Arabia on penalties to win the final..
The standout performer in that squad was 18-year-old Ritsu Doan, whose performances saw him crowned tournament MVP as well as 2016 AFC Youth Player of the Year. Doan’s stocks have since risen further thanks to several eye-catching J.League and AFC Champions League performances for Gamba Osaka.
Korea 2017 will be the Samurai Blue’s first showing at the global youth championship for a decade, with the 2007 side featuring Shinji Kagawa and Atsuto Uchida the last Japanese team to qualify for the competition finals.
Group E (New Zealand, May 22, Cheonan; France, May 25, Cheonan; Honduras, May 28, Daejeon)
Vietnam’s 1-0 win over Bahrain at the 2016 AFC U-19 Championship saw them become the first Vietnamese national team to reach an outdoor FIFA World Cup at any age level.
Hoang Anh Tuan’s young charges emerged unbeaten from a tricky group featuring Iraq, United Arab Emirates and DPR Korea, but if it was their victory over the hosts which was the most impressive result, and the one which secured their ticket to the global finals.
Drawn with the European U-19 champions France, Vietnam prepared for the FIFA U-20 World Cup with a European tour which saw them register impressive wins over the youth teams of club sides Fortuna Dusseldorf and Roda JC, with Binh Duong forward Nguyen Tien Linh scoring three goals in those matches.
They also met Argentina’s U-20 side in Hanoi recently, where, however, they suffered a hefty 4-1 defeat.
France are not the only continental youth champions drawn with Vietnam. They will also face Oceania title holders New Zealand and CONCACAF runners-up Honduras.
Group F (Senegal, May 22, Incheon; Ecuador, May 25, Incheon; United States, May 28, Daejeon)
The entertainers of the 2016 AFC U-19 Championship, Saudi Arabia bagged 16 goals in their first five matches, including six in the 11-goal semi-final thriller against Iran, but failed to score when it mattered most, losing the final on penalties after a 0-0 draw against Japan.
Given their insatiable appetite for goals in Bahrain it is unsurprising that Saudi Arabia provided the tournament’s two top scorers, with Abdulrahman Al Yami and Sami Al Najal both contributing four goals to the cause.
But while Saad Al Shehri’s side could boast the most lethal attack of any team in the Asian championship, they also had one of the leakiest defences, conceding 11 goals, the most of any team in the tournament.
Those defensive concerns reared their head again in a pre-tournament friendly against hosts Korea Republic, which the Saudis lost 3-1.
Appearing in the tournament for the first time since reaching the Round of 16 in 2011, the West Asians will face stiff competition in CONCACAF champions the United States, African runners-up Senegal and an Ecuador side that beat Argentina 3-0 in qualifying, finishing above them and fellow South American powerhouse Brazil.