Australia winger Tommy Oar and midfielder Ben Kantarovski are still only 18 but will be among the most experienced players in the AFC U-19 Championship in Zibo, where the Young Socceroos face Yemen on Monday.
The 16-nation event will be held at Zibo Sports Center and Linzi Stadium from October 3-17.
Oar, Kantarovski, striker Kofi Danning and defenders Sam Gallagher and Rhyan Grant represented Australia in last year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup and all are now aiming to qualify for Colombia next year by reaching the last four in Zibo.
Oar, Kantarovski – both only 17 at the time – and Danning started all three of Australia’s games in Egypt, while Gallagher and Grant started against Brazil.
However, Kantarovski and the left-footed Oar – billed as the ‘new Harry Kewell’ and who narrowly missed out on Australia’s FIFA World Cup squad – could both achieve a ‘double double’ in Zibo.
As well as eyeing a second U-20 World Cup, the pair are also set to play in their second AFC U-19 Championship after helping Australia reach the semi-finals in Saudi Arabia in 2008.
Australia have a tough task after being drawn in Group D, the tournament’s Group of Death, where they face high-profile clashes with Iran on Wednesday and Korea Republic on Friday.
“We have great competition in each position on the field and I’m confident that with the players we have, we’ll do well in China,” said Jan Versleijen, head coach of the Young Socceroos since 2008.
“Our preparation has been very good, with more players in their clubs’ starting line-ups. Should we achieve our goal of qualifying for the U-20 World Cup, we’ll face even stronger opponents in Colombia.”
Oar was the 2009-10 A-League’s Best Young Player and made a stunning debut for Australia in March’s 1-0 win over Indonesia in their final AFC Asian Cup qualifier. After signing for Dutch club Utrecht in April, he just missed out on this year’s World Cup after being named in Pim Verbeek’s preliminary 27-man roster.
The left winger is one of five overseas-based players in Versleijen’s squad along with forwards Matthew Fletcher (Sunderland, England) and Kerem Bulut (FK Mlada Boleslav, Czech Republic) and defenders Dylan McGowan (Hearts, Scotland) and Jason Davidson (Pacos de Ferreira, Portugal).
Kantarovski – who trialled with Bayern Munich last year – is likely to captain the side after leading Australia to victory in July’s AFF U-19 Championship in Vietnam, where they recorded wins over Korea Republic, Thailand and the hosts.
Last year the six-foot midfielder helped Newcastle Jets reach the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League.
Adelaide United duo Mathew Leckie and Mark Birighitti are other Young Socceroos with AFC Champions League experience.
Speedster Leckie, currently the joint top scorer in the 2010-11 A-League, netted twice in this year’s group stage to help the Reds reach the last 16, while Birighitti kept goal in the 2008 final against Gamba Osaka.
Korea Republic’s game against Iran on Monday will be crucial for both sides. Korea have been the dominant force in Asian youth football since the inception of the AFC U-19 Championship in 1959, winning three of the first five editions and eight of the last 16 (including shared titles).
By reaching the semi-finals in Saudi Arabia two years ago, Korea qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup for the eighth time in 10 editions.
Iran have selected a host of players from the squad that won the 2008 AFC U-16 Championship in Tashkent including Kaveh Rezaei, top scorer in the event.
Zobahan midfielder Payam Sadeghian is also one to watch after captaining Iran in last year’s FIFA U-17 World Cup in Nigeria, where Ali Doustimehr’s side delighted fans at home by beating the Netherlands on their way to the last 16.
The group stage will be held from October 3-8. The top two teams from each of the four groups will progress to the quarter-finals which will be played on October 11, with the semis three days later and the final on October 17.
The majority of top Asian stars have competed in the AFC U-19 Championship. ‘Graduates’ include Park Ji-sung, Shunsuke Nakamura, Shinji Ono, Hidetoshi Nakata and Nashat Akram, while new Japan icon Keisuke Honda and Korean stars Ki Sung-yueng and Lee Chung-yong competed in recent editions.
AFC U-19 Championship, Zibo, China
Group A – China, Thailand, Syria, Saudi Arabia
Group B – Uzbekistan, Iraq, Bahrain, DPR Korea
Group C – UAE, Vietnam, Jordan, Japan
Group D – Korea Republic, Australia, Yemen, Iran