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The 2018 AFC U-23 Championship qualifiers kicks off in under a fortnight, and Asia’s young elite will be taking centre stage, hoping to help their nations to glory.

With 40 teams, from West Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, ASEAN and East Asia, there are some superbly talented young players set to strut their stuff, many of whom have already been capped at senior international level or are key players at club level.

We look back at five of the continent’s current stars who appeared in the previous two editions of qualifying for the AFC U-23 Championship (formerly known as the AFC U-22 Championship) and excelled.

Sardar Azmoun, Islamic Republic of Iran

Now a bonafide star and first-choice striker of Iran’s senior national time, Azmoun was part of an U-23 Iran side that was joint-top scorers in qualifying for the 2016 AFC U-23 Championship.

The young Team Melli netted 15 times in qualifying for Qatar 2016 and the then 20-year-old Azmoun – who had already shown his potential at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia - was in fine form, netting four times.

Azmoun was not among the players at the 2016 finals – by then Team Melli’s starting centre-forward – but he played a key role in helping his U-23 team-mates secure their place.

Yuya Kubo, Japan

Like Azmoun, Yuya Kubo is now a fixture in the senior side for his nation, having started in Japan’s last four FIFA 2018 World Cup qualifiers, and is flying high at KAA Gent after a hugely successful first season in Belgium.

Back in July 2012, though, Kubo was still just 19 years of age and at the first club where he began his career, Kyoto Sanga.

The forward was part of a Japan side that qualified for the AFC U-22 Championship in Oman in dominating fashion as they averaged four goals scored per game in a 100% record.

Kubo netted three times – a hat-trick against Indonesia – and a year later would make his first European move to Swiss club BSC Young Boys.

Omar Khribin, Syria

Syria forward Omar Khribin recently made headlines in West Asia when he signed permanently for Saudi Arabia giants Al Hilal, after a hugely successful loan spell which saw the club reach the quarter-finals of the 2017 AFC Champions League.

Still only 23 years old, the hugely prolific Damascus-native made an impact in not just one but two editions of AFC U-23 Championship qualifying.

Khribin netted three times in qualifying for the inaugural edition before top scoring in qualifying for the 2016 tournament.


While Khribin made no impact in front of goal at the finals in Muscat, he scored three times at Qatar 2016.

Jamie Maclaren, Australia

After appearing in the 2017 AFC Champions League for Brisbane Roar and twice being named A-League Young Player of the Year, Jamie Maclaren recently signed for German side SV Darmstad 98.

The forward made his full international debut in 2016 and played at the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup, having earlier impressed with the U-23 side.

Maclaren bagged a hat-trick as Australia beat Hong Kong 6-0 in 2016 AFC U-23 Championship qualifying and two more in a 5-1 win over Myanmar to make him the second-highest scorer in qualifying.

He added another in a 2-0 victory over Vietnam in Qatar, but the Socceroos narrowly missed out on a place in the last eight.

Hwang Ui-jo, Korea Republic

Hwang Ui-jo scored four times in the qualification round for the 2013 AFC U-22 Championship as braces against Chinese Taipei and the Philippines helped the Koreans advance to Oman

Hwang then netted the decisive goal as Korea Republic defeated Syria in the quarter-finals in Seeb, before the Taeguk Warriors finished fourth in the tournament proper.

A scoring debut for the full national team against Jamaica followed in late 2015 and Hwang has since been regularly called up to the first-team squad.

Having impressed at Seongnam FC over the past four years, Hwang recently made the move to Japanese giants Gamba Osaka, where he will aim to continue his career progression. 

Photos: Lagardère Sports