The AFC Under-23 Championship was an exciting tournament with many highlights. Sixteen teams set out for glory in Qatar with South Korea defeating Japan in the final. Those two, along with third-placed team Iraq, will also be going to the 2016 Olympics.
Whatever happens in Rio, a number of players from Asia look to have a very bright future if their displays of the last few weeks are anything to go by.
Here, Sport 360 chooses six of the best.
SHOYA NAKAJIMA (Japan)
Small in build, but big in influence throughout the tournament, FC Tokyo star Nakajima was a joy to watch as he pulled the strings in Japan’s midfield. The 21-year-old has quick feet but his brain moves even faster. He sees passes before the recipient of the pass even knows himself.
Nakajima started a little slowly in the tournament but was soon smoothly moving through the gears. As well as creating for others, he is not averse to getting on the scoresheet himself – as two vital goals in extra-time to help the eventual champions to a 3-0 win over Iran proved. The team never looked back from that point.
HWANG HEE-CHAN (South Korea)
The forward upset fans back in Korea with the way he left Pohang Steelers for Red Bull Salzburg in Austria but his performances over the past few weeks have paved the way to forgiveness. He missed the final as his club had demanded his return once Olympic qualification was in the bag, though he already had a light ankle injury.
In the first four games however, he was mightily impressive – causing all kinds of problems, especially on the left side where his dribbling skills and composure in helped Korea to spread their impressive number of goals all through the team. Has the crucial confidence, whatever stage he is on, and is capable of playing centrally to bang them in or going a little wider to enjoy running at defenders.
ABDELKARIM HASSAN (Qatar)
He has played more than 40 times for the senior national team and who knows how many more caps he can collect over the next decade or even more? If there is any consolation to the team that just missed out on a place at the Olympics it is that there are better times ahead.
Hassan’s runs from left-back were a joy to behold and his goals were pretty special too. The captain of the Qatar Under-23 team is surely going to take the senior armband before too long. The scouts have been watching the 22 year-old and should he choose to leave Al Sadd there will be plenty of options.
HUMAM TARIQ (Iraq)
Already one of the most experienced players at the tournament, the senior Iraqi international deserves credit for his performances – especially as his father died just before the first ball was kicked. The skilful midfielder responded by being everywhere on the pitch, trying to drive his country on to Rio.
That’s exactly what Tariq did, grabbing the winning goal late in the game against Uzbekistan to set the team on the path to third place and a spot at the Olympics. It was an immense set of performances from this Iraqi star.
KWON CHANG-HOON (South Korea)
The Suwon Bluewings midfielder has it all. Kwon has been scoring goals from midfield and managed an impressive tally of five in Qatar, despite going into the tournament with a knee injury. Arriving late in the box, Kwon has a nose for goal and has a striker’s composure with the goal at his mercy. Also very dangerous from the edge of the box, Kwon makes chances for others too.
He has appeared in the senior South Korea team but when all the stars are available is still unlikely to be a starter. That situation may soon change, however, as in a team with a plethora of talented midfielders he has a bright future. Before the tournament started, there were reports of PSV Eindhoven and a couple of Bundesliga clubs gathering to watch Kwon with a view to a transfer; now there are going to be a few more clubs getting ready to put hands into pockets.
WATARU ENDO (Japan)
The new Endo on the block. While Yasuhito has made a century-and-a-half of appearances for his country, the next big Endo is going to be Shonan Bellmare star Waturu. As composed as they come in midfield, he is comfortable sitting deep in front of the defence or getting further forward – where his excellent passing range can cause real damage.
Coaches like Endo because he is Mr Consistent and at the very least you will get a six or seven every game – and often a good deal more. Strong in the tackle, smooth with the pass, Endo may not make the headlines like some of his team-mates but was integral to Japan’s championship success. Expect to see more of this player in the senior side as the 2018 World Cup draws nearer.