It is fitting that the AFC Under-23 Championships semi-finals see two mega clashes between the east and the western sides of Asia. Hosts Qatar will face South Korea while defending champions Iraq take on Japan. Both fixtures are tough to call and that is the way it should be.
In recent years in Asian football, the west has not been the best. Since 2005, there has been just one Asian Champions League winner from the region: Al Sadd of Qatar in 2011. Since the 2006 World Cup, only Iran has made it to the global stage. Since Iraq’s win in 2007, the Asian champions have been Japan and Australia.
Over the next few days, Qatar and Iraq have a chance to send a message to those two traditional powers from Seoul and Tokyo and the rest of the giant continent. A Qatar-Iraq final will not mean that the balance of power has changed but will signal that the east is going to face challenges to maintain its football hegemony and soon.
When you look at the two games, it is hard to think of two teams that want to win more than Qatar and South Korea, though for very different reasons. For Qatar it is simple. The team is on the way to becoming a major power in Asian football and this tournament is a major milestone. It is not just about the 2022 World Cup, though that is obviously a very big deal indeed but about becoming a team like Korea, a seemingly permanent continental powerhouse.
The Maroons have won the Under-19 title back in 2014 but the Under-23s is different. There are full internationals involved in the team. Ten of them are already playing in Europe and all but two came through the Aspire Academy.
None have been more impressive than Abdelkarim Hassan. There were high hopes that the left-back would lead by example this January but he has been one of the stars of the show with spectacular goals and marauding runs a plenty. With over 40 caps for the senior side, the 2013 Qatar Stars League Young Player of the Year has been hugely impressive.
“Qatar is putting in a lot of effort, and it’s investing a lot in youth development,” said the team’s Spanish coach Felix Sanchez. “The players will learn a lot from these competitions, and hopefully Qatar will reach a very good level before the World Cup in 2022.”
For South Korea, it is less about the trophy than about where this tournament could take the team, not to the 2022 tournament, but to the 2016 Olympics. The nation is looking to become the first ever to qualify for an eighth successive Olympics tournament. This is a competition closer to the hearts of the Taeguk Warriors. If these stars can emulate the exploits of their 2012 counterparts and win bronze then they will also win exemption for the mandatory 21-month military service. While it would be nice to lift the trophy, the priority is finishing in the top three.
Korea has impressed for the most part so far. There were wins over Uzbekistan and Yemen, followed by a dead-rubber draw with Iraq. The first-half performance against Jordan in the quarter-final was classy with the stars of the side: midfielder Kwon Chang-hoon, Ryu Seung-woo of Bayer Leverkusen and Red Bull Salzburg’s Hwang Hee-chan looking good. It was a different story in the second as the team grew nervous and were pushed further and further back by the Jordanians. At the end, Korea were hanging on. The prize of the Olympics can be a burden as well as inspiration.
The other semi-final is equally fascinating. Iraq are the defending champions and always bring talented squads to youth championships. The team came back impressively against Uzbekistan after conceding a first minute goal to win 3-2 thanks to a late strike from Humam Tariq. The team spirit with Iraq is often either perfect or pitiful and at the moment it seems to the former. Playing in their own back yard, these Lions of Mesopotamia are full of confidence against Japan.
The East Asians have moved quietly to the last four. The football played under coach Makoto Teguramori has not always been of that crisp and fluid Japanese style that we have all been accustomed to but the team has been slowly moving up through the gears. The opening game was the worst, a 1-0 win over North Korea that was something of a grind. But then came an impressive 4-0 win over Thailand and then a third group win over Saudi Arabia.
Defeating Iran 3-0 in the last eight looked like a comfortable win and while it was to an extent, all the goals came in extra time after the normal ninety finished goalless. Japan have yet to be really troubled in the tournament but that is sure to change against Iraq.
There is plenty changing in Asian football in general.