Uzbekistan Asia's silver lining amid disappointing U-20 World Cup showing
Phew. June 2015 was starting to look a lot like 2014 and we are not talking about allegations of FIFA corruption. Twelve months ago, four Asian teams departed the World Cup in Brazil with no wins and a combined total of three points to show for their troubles. After 11 games of 12 at the Under-20 World Cup, Asia's four teams had lost all 11.
Only Uzbekistan's 3-0 victory over Fiji in the final game allowed the White Wolves to somehow squeeze into second and a round-of-16 showdown with Austria. Uzbekistan have not saved the continent's blushes but at least prevented 50 percent of Asia's representation being eliminated in the first round.
Even with the late win over a South Pacific nation with a population of less than one million, it was still depressing. The AFC conceded 39 goals in New Zealand and scored just 10, six of which went to Uzbekistan. This is a youth tournament and there are no demands on Asian teams to win -- although plenty would be shouting from the rooftops if they came close to doing so -- and it should be remembered that youth development in much of Asia is a relatively new concept.
There are expectations, however, that the confederation's representatives are at least competitive when meeting global counterparts and can be seen to be moving in the right direction. There's little sign of the former and not enough of the latter.
The tournament has been a happy one in recent times. In the 2013 edition, Iraq and South Korea reached the last eight. Two years before that, two reached the knockout stage; the same in 2011. Perhaps the problem is that South Korea are not there. The young Taeguk Warriors, along with the likes of Iraq and Japan, didn't make it to the last four at the qualifying tournament: the 2014 AFC Under-19 Championship.
That was staged in Myanmar and the hosts had a massive party by making the semifinals. The victorious quarterfinal over United Arab Emirates in front of 30,000 in Yangon was hailed by coach Gerd Zeise as the country's biggest game for century. It took the nation, formerly known as Burma, to a first ever World Cup.
This tournament, then, is very much part of a development process and it started well with an early goal against the United States. It ended in a 2-1 defeat. Despite a couple of injuries, the Asians looked fairly solid at the back and perhaps, with a little more belief, could have come away with a point.
The same could not be said of the second match. It ended in a 6-0 thrashing at the hands of Ukraine, although all six goals came after the break when Myanmar started to tire. There was a similar story in the final loss to New Zealand. Level at 1-1 at the half, but it finished 5-1 in favour of the hosts. The question for the Young White Devils is whether the experience can be a turning point and for the likes of Aung Thu, one of Asia's most promising striking prospects, it could well be.
Much higher expectations were placed on Qatari shoulders. The minor Maroons won the U-19 title in November and went to New Zealand with a squad that had 10 of its 21 players on European books. Some of the players had come through Doha's Aspire Academy and there is hope that they will provide the spine of their senior team for the 2022 World Cup. At the moment, there is still work to be done. It should be said that games against Colombia and Portugal were never going to be easy, and after losing 1-0 to the South Americans, the 4-0 loss to the slick Selecao was disappointing as was the 2-1 defeat at the hands of Senegal.
Against Colombia, the Asian team started slowly and then fell foul of a little slack goalkeeping -- just like the senior side did at the Asian Cup in January -- and then it was an uphill task. The second half was much improved, with the passing and movement much slicker. The goal didn't come but an aggressive performance deserved something. The Iberians were just too good and it left the team with too much to do. There were flashes of encouragement but overall, not enough creativity going forward or enough concentration at the back.
North Korea have been performing well in recent Asian youth tournaments, but there was not a single positive to take from New Zealand. Losing 5-1 in the opening game is not the best of starts, especially as it came against Hungary, then came 4-0 and 3-0 defeats at the respective hands of Nigeria and Brazil. The DPRK were short of everything -- ideas, organisation, and strangely, motivation. The less said and written, the better.
Ahead of the tournament, Uzbekistan were always the likeliest to perform despite the senior side having a record of failing when the pressure is on. That seemed to be the case for the youngsters, too, after an exciting but disappointing 4-3 loss to Honduras in the opening game of what was not a tough group. Perhaps it could be written off as rustiness, individual mistakes and giveaways in midfield made a difference. Germany was a more understandable defeat, but then, on Sunday, the team clicked and got the three goals against Fiji with Bunyodkor striker Zabikhillo Urinboev adding to his growing reputation more than teammate Dostonbek Khamdamov. The Fijian opposition may have been limited but the sense of relief at home and among Asian fans was anything but.
At least it prevented the easy headlines of another Asian whitewash on the world stage. If Uzbekistan can go further then there may even be a few positive stories to emerge. There could yet be a silver lining to the cloud that has settled over the AFC in New Zealand in the past few days. It would be welcome.
John Duerden covers Asian football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.