THINGS ARE LOOKING UP for the Iranian U-17 team after a few rough years.
Reputed for being one of the most consistent sides from Asia in the junior level, Iran U-17 have made it into the FIFA U-17 World Cup and the final stages of the AFC U-16 Championship multiple times. Over the last two decades, theirs has been a story of ascention, which seemed to have taken a hit over the last 4-5 years, but is now back on the right track to claim its rightful place in the world stage.
From the Indian perspective, Iran U-17 have an enviable record. They first became one of the best in the continent back in 2000, reaching the final of the Asian U-16 Championship. In 2008, they finally won the title. But in 2010 they had a first round exit, followed by two editions of the Asian championship where they could not get past the semis, which for them is a poor run of form. But in the latest AFC U-16 Championship held in India last year, they broke into the grand finale again, and lost to Iraq in penalties.
Although Iraq are the best in Asia right now in the U-17 level, that result from the final tells you that Iran are not far behind. And when India took on Iran in the group stage, the difference in quality was apparent. The Indian colt did put up a fight but ended up losing 3-0.
With such a record in the continental stage, the FIFA U-17 World Cup has always been regarded as the next frontier by the Iranian football think tank. Their best result in the global competition came in 2009 and 2013 when they reached the Round of 16. Placed in the same group as Germany and Costa Rica, matching this feat will be a challenge this time around.
There are quite a few bright prospects playing in the Iran U-17 team, though. One way the Iran team is different from most other Asian teams is that most of its players are already contracted with top division domestic clubs. And certain players like midfielder-captain Mohammad Sharifi (Esteghlal Khuzestan and Saipa FC) as well as striker Younes Deifi (Esteghlal Khuzestan) have already made their mark in senior level football.
One more way the Iranian coaches will be happy with the team is how it fared in the AFC U-16 Championship against some really good teams. Placed in a relatively tough group (with the exception of India), Iran bea Saudi Arabia 3-2 and drew with United Arab Emirates. They beat Vietnam by a landslide to reach the semi-finals, where they beat North Korea in penalties before losing to Iraq in the final, again in penalties. This team has not been beaten by any Asian opponent except in penalties. Their last defeat came against Georgia U-17 in an international friendly early in 2016. It was a 1-0 loss away from home.
The team also boasts one of the best attacks in Asia at this level, with no less than 5 active non-tiebreaker scorers in the AFC U-16 Championship. Unlike Iraq U-17 who were carried through the knockouts by one striker's prowess, this squad plays more of a team game, and may even end up going further than any Asian team in the FIFA U-17 World Cup. But to ensure a chance of reaching the knockouts they must make sure to defeat Guinea and then go for all-out attack against Costa Rica. Because Germany aren't going to be easy to get a point from.
Iran U-17 will need to pull off a small scale miracle to get past the group stage in the upcoming FIFA Under-17 World Cup. But as far as Asian teams are concerned, they perhaps stand one of the best chances to actually make it.
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