It is said that certain endings may give rise to new beginnings, and this is what we take into account as the top national teams battled for the coveted AFC U-16 Asian Championships in India. The intention was not only to perform at the Asian stage but also to be one of the four teams to earn the automatic qualification to the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in India next year.
For the second time (first being 2010) since the tournament had begun in 1985, there were four nations from the Western region that qualified to the knockout rounds. They were Iran, Oman, United Arab Emirates and Iraq. This time around, there was no clogging, no seizing defeat from the jaws of success, no failure under the influence of manipulating ages – something of sorts that had been observed in the Middle Eastern teams across previously.
For many teams across the region that did not make the cut, there was still hope. Hope, in the sense that the future looked bright.
The Emirati U16 squad bid farewell to the tournament after a hard fought loss by a solitary goal against the Japanese in the Quarter Finals. The dream of representing the nation in India next year evaporated with the loss however, it was not an end but the beginning of a generation, who fought well across the group levels with minor details that effected their game. If nurtured well from hereon, there is nothing but hope for the upcoming generation.
Most importantly, critics barely featured any of the teams from the region to go the distance, with the exception of Iran (the eventual finalists).
However, what a story it has been for Iraq. The nation across its various groups, have been making some noise, as of late, at the AFC and to a certain point, at the global level. To see Iraq go into the final full of confidence after defeating clear favourites and Asian powerhouse Japan in the semi-finals, was satisfying at all levels, considering the unfortunate circumstances within the country.
Striker Mohammed Dawood (#7) has emerged as one of the players to watch out for after stating his intention in the past few games. Dawood was clearly the standout player as he terrorised the Japanese defence whilst netting a hat trick, which included two penalties as Iraq came back from 2-1 down to win 4-2 booking a spot in the Final against neighbor Iran. Going into the final, Dawood had six goals in his last three games – a feat in itself.
On Sunday, the forward was the key player that stood out once again. Dawood was inches away from giving Iraq the lead on two separate occasions as Iraq dominated majority of the 90 minutes. And to end on a high, Dawood scored the winning penalty helping Iraq claim its first ever AFC U-16 Championship.
And despite the loss, it was a bittersweet moment for Iran, as they will leave India knowing that they will return next year. Moreover, it has been a positive week for Iranian football as on Saturday, Iran’s Futsal team had their best ever finish in the FIFA Futsal World Cup ending up third, defeating powerhouses like Brazil and Portugal on the way.
As we glance into the future from hereon, the ball is in the court of the respective regional Football Associations in order to prepare an action plan to ensure the permanence of this team as a group. To maintain stability as some of these names may emerge again in the future. The FA’s must continue to work towards achieving distant targets and if one journey has ended, another is going to begin; with endings come new beginnings.