AFC Championships preview: Who will head to the Olympic Games?
The three-week tournament will be a dream for European scouts who will be on the look out for the best young players the continent has to offer
Asia's brightest talents are heading for Qatar to compete in the AFC U23 Championships with the top three countries securing a spot at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
But the three-week tournament – the final will be held on January 30 – will be a dream for European scouts who will be on the look out for the best young players the continent has to offer. “There is no doubt that Asia has some outstanding young football talent - that has already been obvious at the FIFA Under-20 and FIFA Under-17 tournaments where Asian teams have performed creditably,” said the AFC president Sheikh Salman.
“Now the AFC U23 Championship offers a chance to see stars in the making - the players who will be pushing for places in the FIFA World Cup 2018 and the Asian Cup 2019, as well as this summer’s Olympic Games.”
As with most Asian international competitions, the continent's powerhouses – Japan, South Korea and Australia – are three of the leading contenders for the championship.
Japan were fourth at London 2012 and went out at the quarter-final stage in last year's Asian Games. Even if recent performances have seen a resurgence by West Asian nations, the Samurai Blues remain one of the best sides at developing homegrown talents. The squad boasts several first-team players in the J-League, while Yuya Kubo and Takumi Minamino are in Switzerland and Austria respectively.
Australia qualified for the Olympic Football Tournament five times between 1992 and 2008, but recent friendly results have been disappointing. But the Socceroos have a rich group of talent with players in Denmark, Italy, England and in the country's own A-League. Elsewhere, South Korea – a side with a 100% record in qualifying - secured third-place at the Olympic Games in London and won gold at the Asian Games.
Yet that clutch of stars has long gone. Now, 22-year-old Ryu Seung-Woo is the leading light, playing his football in Germany with Bayer Leverkusen. Quick, skilful and direct, Ryu has spent time out on loan to gain first-team experience and the U23 tournament offers the perfect opportunity to put his name in the window for a move.
With solid performances in the Asian Games and regional events in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia's U23 side has shaped up strongly ahead of the championships. Al-Ahli midfielder Mustafa Al-Bassas (22) has played nine times for the Saudi national team, but has been drafted in to the U23 squad to boost their hopes of a second qualification to the Games in Rio.
If champions Iraq pulled off a spectacular double, it would undoubtedly be one of the countries finest football achievements. The full national side performed credibly at the Asian Cup last year and will be hoping to secure a spot at the Olympic Games.
“Our team is in the strongest group in this tournament,” said bullish Iraq coach Shahad Abdulghani who fancies his side's chances of retaining the U23 title. “If we go to the second round I think we have a chance to be one of the top teams.” Iraq won the U22 Asian Championships at the beginning of 2014, meaning they are in solid shape ahead of the tournament in Qatar where they will meet Uzbekistan and South Korea.
Elsewhere, Qatar, the hosts, are confident of success on their own patch. Expectations are beginning to grow in the oil-rich state with the 2022 World Cup slowly approaching. Felix Sanchez, the side's Spanish coach, has improved the technical quality of his side and made the most of players plying their trade in Europe.
U19 champions last year, Qatar has a good mixture of locally based players with the domestic league demanding a strong core of homegrown talents in squads. Outside of the league, Akram Afif plays his club football in Belgium. In Ahmed Yasser, for example, Sanchez has experience of international football. “Of course, a few of the players might go on to make it to the World Cup team in ’22, but it is six years away,” said the head of Qatar's local organising committee.
But who are the young stars many of Europe's top clubs will be watching out for this summer?
Japan's latest hot property Takuma Asano has made waves in the J-League, while Faisal Mohammad was prolific for Jordan in qualification. Some of Syria's U17 squad from World Cup qualification will be included in the squad, although the country's football infrastructure continues to be ravaged by conflict.
Meanwhile, Uzbek kid Dostonbek Khamdamov will be on the radar of European clubs having been named as Asia's best young player last year. Development is the name of the game for most Asian nations who have seen outstanding rises in performance levels with the help of improved facilities and expertise from Europe.
But forget the pleasantries, with three spots available to reach the Olympic Games, the competition for the U23 championships – only in its second edition – will be greater than ever before at previous