South Korea, the champion

IN keeping with the strides of their seniors, who made the semi-finals in the World Cup, the South Korean under-20 boys regained the AFC championship. The country last won it in 1998. This is the tenth time that Korea has emerged the winner in the championship, this time hosted by Qatar at the Al Arabi stadium in the capital city of Doha. Interestingly, it beat Japan for the title through a 'golden goal' by Jung Jo-gook. This meant Japan, which is still to win the title, finished runner-up for the fourth time in its five appearances in the tournament.

South Korean coach Park Sung-haw is tossed up after the team won the AFC championship.-AP

A repeat of the '98 final, Korea and Japan put up a rousing contest. It was Japan which made the first eye-catching move around the 20th minute, through a long ball by Sho Naruoka to Yutaro Abe. Abe, who was pulled up for the off side, had a shy at the goal which the Korean goalkeeper stopped. Thereafter, the Japanese goalkeeper Kawashima, adjudged the Best Goalkeeper of the tournament, showed his prowess with superb stops, especially the shots from Jung.

The match went into extra- time. In the seventh minute of the extended session came the golden goal for Korea, when Jung picking the ball from just outside the Japan penalty box, juggled with the ball before slotting it into the top left corner.

The biennial tournament had 12 teams, including India after a qualifying phase. The countries were placed in three groups of four teams each. The top two teams from each group along with two best third placed teams qualified for the quarter-final knock-out. India and UAE qualified as the best third placed teams. The other qualifiers apart from Korea and Japan were Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and China.

For India, which had won the title jointly with Iran way back in 1974, this was the best moment since. However, this time Korea hammered India 7-0 in the last eight, even though the latter managed to hold the famed rival goalless till the interval. Earlier, India had qualified basically through its impressive 6-0 win over Bangladesh. That match saw the likes of Shylo Malsawn Tlunga, Marianhki Suting, Syed Rahim Nabi and Kuman Samson Singh rise to the occasion. Bangladesh lost the services of its key player, Sowkat Khan, quite early in the match, through two yellow card bookings which meant a red card punishment. But thereafter, India lost to Japan 1-2 and to Saudi Arabia 0-4 but the big win in its opening match provided the edge, when it came to deciding on the two best third placed teams.

Among the other teams, Japan certainly had the best record, winning all its three matches. Korea had a modest start, it drew with Thailand in a goalless match. Uzbekistan looked promising as it stormed into the quarter-final alongwith Korea. Saudi Arabia and Syria. China and UAE had equal points and were level on goal-difference but China became the second best team in Syria's group because it had scored more goals (nine) than UAE ( 3). Nonetheless, UAE too qualified like India as the best third placed team.

One of the highlights of the quarter-final phase was Uzbekistan's splendid 4-0 win over Syria. This win evoked a lot of interest on the team. Again it almost made it to the final but Japan prevailed on penalties after the two teams were locked 1-1 at the end of 120 minutes of absorbing football. Saudi after its 4-1 win over China expectedly gave some tough moments to Korea in the semi-final before bowing out.

Both the semi-finals thus were well contested. Japan was indebted to its goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima for its nail-biting finish against the Uzbeks. Saving the first two penalties, Kawashima had made things easy for Japan. All that the cool-headed defender Mitsuru Nagata had to do was slot in the fourth penalty to take the team to the final and he made no mistake. A disappointed Uzbek coach Viktor Borisov lamented that 'the penalty shootout is a lottery' more so after his team had led Japan in the initial stages of the match. Zeytaluayev, the Juventus forward, had put Uzbekistan ahead after 20 minutes. Japan found the equaliser close to the breather, when Shusuke Tsubouchi's curling cross from left flank came handily for Sakata to take control and fire past Nesterov. Even though Uzbekistan appeared to have more possession in the extra-time, the match had to be decided on penalties.

Saudi Arabia on the other hand missed Mesfr Al Khatani, a robust central defender, who was suspended. Jung Jo-gook headed in, in the 15th minute. The Saudis did not buckle down and brought the equaliser 27 minutes later through Eisa Al Mahayani, whose intelligent run saw a strong Korean defence thrown into disarray. Like the earlier semi-final, extra-time seemed imminent when Lee Jong-min found the match winner.

From the Asian Confederation's assessment, the entry of Korea and Japan into the final is not a reflection of change in the Asian football scenario. Much was expected of China while India's progress at the youth level raised hopes in the Asian body. It is AFC's view that special attention needs to be given to the two giants, China and India. What makes India slightly ahead of China is that there is an Indian (Bungo Singh) in the All-Star XI and there is none from China. Even players like Eisa Al Mahyani (Saudi Arabia) who was the tournament's top scorer, Sakata Daisuke (Japan) and Korea's Choi Sung Kuk did not make the All-Star team. Others who are bound to get noted are Meshaal Abdulla Abdulla (Qatar) and Geynrikh Alexander (Uzbekistan).

Over to UAE from here on where the 2003 edition of the FIFA World Youth championship will be held. Asia will be represented by the four semi-finalists - Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan - and also UAE as the host.

Few tournaments, except the under-20 championship, in Asia bring to focus on the up and coming talent. Two years ago in Iran, Emad Mohammed, who scored twice for Iraq in the country's 2-1 victory over Japan for the title, rose to prominence. Thereafter he scored goals against Brazil and Canada in the FIFA World Youth Championships in Argentina. Mohammed became Iraq's top scorer in the 2002 World Cup qualifying rounds.

Two years earlier, in the Thailand championship, players like Junichi Inamoto, Shinji Ono (both Japan) as also Seol Kiohyeon and Song Chong-gug (Korea) blossomed. After the 2002 World Cup, they have became national stars. Who among the best in Doha will join the big league only time will tell. But the Technical Study Group (TSG) drew up the list for the Asian All-star team, based on each player's contribution to his team. The surprise was that there was no Chinese player in the team.

The AFC General Secretary, Peter Velappan, who released the list expressed satisfaction that there were quite a few talent in the continent.

The All-Star team: Goalkeeper: Kawashima Eiji (Japan): defenders: Lim You Hwan (Korea), Nagata Mitsuru (Japan), Osamah Al Harbi (Saudi Arabia); mid-fielders: Ilyas Zeytulayev (Uzbekistan), Thokchom Bungo Singh (India); Bilal Abuhamada (Qatar), Kwon Jip (Korea), Saad Al Abouad (Saudi Arabia); forwards: Firas Al Khatib (Syria), Kim Dong Hun (Korea).