Kuala Lumpur: With the qualifying stage for the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship in China set to kick-off on July 15, the-AFC.com highlights 10 of the hottest prospects who could feature as 39 of the continent’s teams compete for 15 places at the biennial competition, which was won by Japan in 2016.
Wei Shihao, China
China have already qualified for the 2018 tournament as hosts, but in order to ensure the side give a good account of themselves at the finals, will also play in the qualifying process. Key among those with the opportunity to shine is Shanghai SIPG winger Wei Shihao.
With teammates like Oscar, Elkeson, Wu Lei and Hulk, it’s fair to say that 22-year-old Wei has plenty of fine role-models in training, but it’s also true that the Anhui-native was already used to being mentioned in the same breath as big names from a much younger age.
Four years ago, Wei was listed among eight teenagers to watch alongside the likes of Kurt Zouma (Chelsea), Kelechi Iheanacho (Manchester City) and Luke Shaw (Manchester United) and he seemed to support that view during the 2014 AFC U-19 Championship with a brace of goals as China stunned Japan.
Wei hasn’t quite risen to the heights of the aforementioned trio yet, but he has begun to make his presence felt in Shanghai SIPG’s first 11 and the AFC U-23 Championship could be his moment to truly make a mark.
Mehran Derakhshanmehr, Islamic Republic of Iran
Despite being just 18 years of age, Mehran Derakhshanmehr already boasts valuable experience at the top level, having played all six games for his club Zobahan in the group stage of the 2017 AFC Champions League.
Derakhshanmehr has been a part of Iran’s youth set-up for almost three years, and was a member of the side that reached the last eight of the 2014 AFC U-16 Championship in Thailand.
The left-sided player is comfortable in both defence and midfield and, having only made his debut for Zobahan in 2016, has already established himself as a first-team regular.
With the senior team having already secured their place at the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018, Derakhshanmehr will be one of a number of Iran players looking to shine in the coming months and catch coach Carlos Queiroz’s eyes.
Bashar Resan, Iraq
Another player who has a wealth of experience is 20-year-old Bashar Resan, who was handed his senior debut for the Iraq national team in 2014 and was part of the squad for the recent FIFA World Cup qualifier against Japan.
The Air Force Club midfielder was in the Iraq squad that won the 2013 AFC U-22 Championship, before representing his country at the AFC U-19 Championship in Myanmar a year later.
Last year, Resan was also in the squad that secured third place at the AFC U-23 Championship in Bahrain and a ticket to the Olympic Games later in 2016.
Resan also enjoyed success with Air Force Club last year, netting a number of crucial goals, including the winner in the semi-final against Al Ahed, as his team lifted the AFC Cup after a 1-0 victory over JSW Bengaluru in the final.
Evan Dimas, Indonesia
Already a regular in the national team, Evan Dimas is the bright young hope of Indonesian football, having experienced a four-month loan spell with Spanish side Espanyol B last year.
The midfielder first represented his country at continental tournament level at the 2014 AFC U-19 Championship in Myanmar, but the captain saw his team exit at the first hurdle.
Dimas was handed his full international debut against Laos at the AFF Championship later that year, scoring in a 5-1 victory in Hanoi in what remains his only goal for The Garuda.
His spell at Espanyol was hit by injury and he signed for Bhayangkara FC in his homeland, where Dimas is now part of a young generation of players looking to boost Indonesia’s profile following the completion of a FIFA-imposed ban.
Zabikhillo Urinboev, Uzbekistan
Another who appeared at the 2014 U-19 Championship, Zabikhillo Urinboev enjoyed rather more success in Myanmar than Wei, Resan and Dimas as the young Uzbek top scored for his nation as they reached the semi-finals and in doing so, earned a place at the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Urinboev’s form in front of goal continued at the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand as he netted twice to help Uzbekistan reach the quarter-finals before their 1-0 defeat to Senegal.
The striker was recognised for his efforts by being shortlisted for the 2015 AFC Youth Player of the Year, although he lost out to Bunyodkor teammate Dostonbek Khamdamov.
Riley McGree, Australia
Riley McGree, 18, enjoyed a breakout season as one of Adelaide United’s scholarship players and played five of the A-League side’s six AFC Champions League ties earlier in the year, scoring in the impressive 3-1 away win at Korea Republic’s Jeju United.
The South Australia native made his debut for Adelaide just a year ago, but by March 2017, the teenage midfielder was earning his first call-up to the national team squad for the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Iraq and the UAE.
McGree was recognised for his fine form this season with a place in the Professional Footballers A-League Team of the Season and is considered one of Australia’s most exciting prospects.
The Olyroos have struggled in youth competitions in recent years, but the likes of McGree could be about to lead the green and gold to a brighter future.
Lalianzuala Changte, India
Having trained at Liverpool’s youth academy at Kirkby, forward Lalianzuala Changte (pictured above on No 11’s shoulders) made his mark in the record books when, at age 18, he became the second youngest Indian to score in an international match on December 27, 2015 against Nepal in the SAFF Championship.
The teen sensation from Mizoram has already made four appearances for the senior side and has drawn comparison with the great Baichung Bhutia. Top scorer in his debut season in the U-19 I-League, Changte did, though, suffer a setback with the national side when they failed to qualify for the 2016 AFC U-19 Championship in Bahrain.
However, with football on the rise in India – headlined by the upcoming FIFA U-17 World Cup the nation will host – a new star to lead the beautiful game’s revolution is needed: Lalianzuala Changte could be that man.
Koji Miyoshi, Japan
Koji Miyoshi was part of Japan’s victorious 2016 AFC U-19 Championship side that overcame Saudi Arabia on penalties last October, and 2017 has continued in a similarly successful vein for both club and country.
The 20-year-old appeared in three of Japan’s four 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup fixtures, helping the side to a last 16 finish, and has been part of the Kawasaki Frontale side that has reached the quarter-finals of the 2017 AFC Champions League.
Miyoshi, who also featured at the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup, was particularly impressive in Kawasaki’s win away at former Asian champions Suwon Samsung Bluewings in the AFC Champions League Group Stage, in a game that Miyoshi won more duels (11) than anyone on the pitch as Kawasaki triumphed 1-0 and ultimately progressed.
Sami Al Naji, Saudi Arabia
Named Top Scorer at the 2016 AFC U-19 Championship, Al Nassr midfielder Sami Al Naji has enjoyed a whirlwind eight months since he helped fire Saudi Arabia to the runners-up spot in Bahrain.
At the age of 19, he made his senior national team debut for the Green Falcons against Cambodia at the beginning of the year in a 7-2 win.
And in May, Al Naji captained the Saudi Arabia U-20 side to a Round of 16 finish.
Now 20 years old, the starlet will look to kick on at the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship qualifiers with the matches against Iraq, Bahrain, and Afghanistan all hosted in his native Riyadh.
Lee Sang-min, Korea Republic
Captain for his nation at the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup that was hosted in Korea Republic, defender Lee Sang-min knows all about performing under pressure. Not least because he saved his teammate’s life on the pitch earlier this year.
Fellow Korea U-20 player Jeon Tae-wook was knocked unconscious on March 27 during a match against Zambia and Lee Sang-min’s quick actions, dislodging Jeong’s tongue from his airway and giving him artificial respiration before the medical staff’s arrival, helped avoid a potential tragedy.
Lee was also captain for Korea at the 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup and its clear this capable young man is set for even greater things.
Photos: Lagardère Sports