AFC – DUSHANBE, Tajikistan will play host to some of Central Asia’s best young talent for the second time in less than a month as the region’s future stars converge on Dushanbe for the 2019 CAFA U-19 Championship, starting Friday.
With Central Asia’s U-16 Championship – won in style by the hosts – fresh in the memory, a slightly older generation of players are set to battle for regional bragging rights, as well as prepare for this year’s all-important AFC U-19 Championship 2020 Qualifiers.
The tournament, which runs until next Thursday, will see each team meet once on a round-robin basis, with the team on top of table at the end of the 10-match schedule to be crowned Central Asian champions.
Uzbekistan are the defending champions, having defeated Kyrgyz Republic to win the inaugural staging in 2016.
Despite the absence of some players due to club duties, head coach Otabek Gulyamkhodjaev is satisfied with the depth of his squad.
“Every month we collect guys and conduct training,” he explained at the pre-tournament press conference on Thursday.
“Here in Dushanbe, we were unable to bring a few players who play in the Uzbekistan Super League but, nevertheless, this generation of players is very strong. We have two equal teams, and each player is ready to replace each other.”
Uzbekistan will begin their campaign against an Islamic Republic of Iran side led by former Esteghlal Khuzestan and Foolad boss Sirous Pourmousavi, who is similarly confident of his side’s chances in the tournament.
“We brought our strongest squad,” he declared. “We will try to perform as successfully as possible and take first place in the tournament.”
That clash between regional heavyweights is set to headline Friday’s opening day, with Ahmad Ziyo Azimi’s Afghanistan to face Aziz Kambarov’s Turkmenistan in the tournament’s first match at Dushanbe Central Stadium.
Tajikistan will be the last team to begin their campaign, with the hosts having to wait until Saturday to begin their campaign against Turkmenistan in what local fans hope will be the latest step in a series of success stories in youth football in country.
In addition to the current U-16 crop going undefeated on the way to the regional title earlier this month, Zaynidin Rakhimov – Tajikistan’s coach in the coming tournament – led the nation to the unprecedented achievement of reaching the AFC U-16 Championship Final in Malaysia last October.
Tajikistan’s heroics in that tournament also booked their place in this year’s FIFA U-17 World Cup in Brazil, and Rakhimov said the week ahead will play a key role in preparing for an appearance on the world stage.
“This is a very important championship to see what our team are capable of,” he said.
“The main backbone of our youth team are 17 years old, therefore, in addition to the qualifying tournament for the AFC U-19 Championship in 2020, we are simultaneously preparing for the U-17 World Cup in Brazil.
“Our goal in the CAFA Championship is to achieve a good result, and we are ready for the tournament.”
The CAFA U-19 Championship will conclude on August 15, with the AFC U-19 Championship 2020 Qualifiers to be held throughout the Continent in November.