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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Fisher

"I believe in our group" - Maloney and the Joeys embracing Asian Cup challenge

Australia's U17 national team, the Joeys, begin their quest for continental glory tonight at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U17 Asian Cup.

Australia starts their campaign against Saudi Arabia before facing China on Monday, then finishes the group stage against Tajikistan on Thursday.

Nestory Irankunda celebrates a goal at the U17 Asian Cup qualifiers in Shepparton last year. (Football Australia)

This tournament serves as the AFC qualifiers for the FIFA U17 World Cup from November 10 to December 2, with the four semi-finalists qualifying.

The Joeys qualified for the tournament with dominant wins over the Northern Mariana Islands, Cambodia, and China in Shepparton last October. Since qualifying, the Joeys participated in the Antalya Youth Cup against Czechia (Czech Republic), Morocco, and Uzbekistan in February. Head coach Brad Maloney used the mini-tournament to warm up for this Asian Cup. The Joeys earned a hard-fought 0-0 draw against Czechia and triumphed over Morocco 2-1. But they went down to Uzbekistan 2-1.

Before Football Australia moved to compete in the AFC in 2006, the Joeys won the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) U17 Championships 10 of 11 times from 1983 to 2005. They have also won the sub-continental ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) U16 Championships twice, first in 2008, then in 2016. Finally, Australia's U17s have competed at the U17 World Cup 13 times. They finished runners-up at the 1999 tournament, are six-time quarter-finalists, and made the round of 16 three times.

Saudi Arabia will be the most formidable challenge for the Joeys in the group stage. The Saudis topped their qualifying group with a +17 goal difference. They have previously won the U17 Asian Cup twice, finished third twice, and made the quarterfinals twice.

Tajikistan may seem a comfortable challenge in Group C. But they are on the rise, having finished as runners-up at the 2018 edition of the tournament, thus qualifying for the 2019 U17 World Cup in Brazil.

China qualified for the tournament by finishing as runners-up in the same qualification group as the Joeys. They had strong wins against Cambodia (9-0) and the Northern Mariana Islands (11-0) and provided a strong challenge in their loss to the Joeys (1-3). They have won two previous editions of this tournament, finished third three times, and made the quarterfinals once. China has also made the U17 World Cup quarterfinals twice out of the six times they qualified.

Front Page Football spoke to Brad Maloney at a pre-tournament press conference yesterday. He noted the challenges the Joeys are facing in Group C.

"This is one of the toughest groups in the tournament. We met China in the qualifiers, and they gave us a very tough match, and I expect them to have improved over the last nine months, as with the other teams as well," he told FPF.

"We know Saudi take these tournaments very seriously and invest heavily in youth football, and I'm aware that Tajikistan were finalists [in] the last edition of this tournament back in 2018.

"We expect a very tough tournament; the group stage is going to be the hardest to get through."

Australia, though, has travelled to Thailand with a squad primarily made up of players at A-League Men clubs, headlined by Adelaide United's exciting 17-year-old sensation Nestory Irankunda.

In May, Perth Glory youngster Corey Sutherland talked up the Joeys' quality in an interview via Football Australia.

"I think we're good enough to go and get to the semis and hopefully try and win it, and then qualify for the World Cup as well,” he said.

Despite understanding his side's challenge, Maloney is backing his squad to do something special in Thailand.

"I believe in our group of players, and I believe if we play to our strengths, we can achieve our targets," he said yesterday.

The Joeys want to continue a fruitful period for Australia's national sides at all levels. Despite defeat to Argentina, the Socceroos seem to be as settled as ever, the Olyroos have made the semi-finals of the Maurice Revello Tournament, and an Australian U18 side was very competitive against top nations such as Portugal and England recently.

Socceroos head coach Graham Arnold, overseeing the entire national program, has previously emphasised the importance of more talent coming through the Australian system. In his pre-match press conference for the Argentina clash, Arnold pointed out his side can only be as strong as Australia's junior national teams.

Maloney praised Arnold - who will link up with the Joeys in Thailand for the tournament - for supporting the Joeys, Young Socceroos, and Olyroos. He also commended Football Australia for extending Arnold for another World Cup cycle.

"I've had a lot of discussions with Graham the last few months, and he's been very supportive of not only this U17s team but also the U20s and 23s, so I think it's a fantastic achievement by Football Australia to retain his services for the next four years, and one thing that Graham has pledged to do is support the junior national teams," Maloney said.

"For me, it's a great boost for our players in particular, and I'd like to think that the core group of this national team will progress to the U20s and then the 23s, and we would like to see a handful of these players, of course, playing for [the] Socceroos in years to come."



Joeys head coach Brad Maloney. (Football Australia)

The U17 World Cup is often dominated by European nations who have heavily invested in their youth development over a long period. They are the most successful at this level, with countries from the continent featuring in the final on nine occasions.

At this tournament, Asian powerhouses Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia will be looking to qualify for the World Cup. They have consistently performed well in AFC tournaments and want to reward their focus on youth development. Outside of Group C, the increased investment into youth development by countries such as Qatar, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and other developing Asian countries means the Joeys face intense competition for a World Cup spot. Despite the current productive period at all levels, Australia must follow suit quickly with more investment or risk being left behind at a national youth level.

Youth teams in Asia are also attracting substantial interest from more fans who are excited about a player's journey from their country's U17s through to the senior squad. This excitement has led to more broadcasters looking to air youth tournaments and increased media coverage, giving football followers an extra reason to follow their nation's junior national teams.

The Joeys commence their 2023 U17 Asian Cup campaign tonight against Saudi Arabia at 8 pm AEST.

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