Photo: North Korea players help Jong Il Gwan (No. 16) celebrate his hat-trick and winning goal [Photo courtesy of World Sports Group]
Australia threw away the final of the Asian Football Confederation Under-19 title this morning [Australia Eastern Summer Time] when they lost 3-2 to North Korea at the Zibo Sports Centre Stadium in China.
In the last minute of the match, goalkeeper Mark Birighitti dropped an easy cross straight to the feet of Jong Il Gwan, who chipped the ball into an empty net to complete his hat-trick and give his side the title.
Australia had trailed to a 10th-minute opener by Il Gwan, who picked the ball up in midfield after an Australian error, and beat three defenders before firing home from close range.
Australia fought back in style, with Matthew Leckie on the right and Tommy Oar on the left causing havoc in the North Korean rearguard with their scintillating runs and dangerous crosses.
The Australians were excellent and much more pleasing on the eye than the senior Socceroos and in the 19th minute they almost equalised when Mustafa Amini had a chance, but his effort flew over the bar.
The excellent Kerem Bulut equalised for Australia in the 25th minute when he headed home Oar’s precise left-wing cross.
Four minutes later, and with Australia displaying outstanding technique and team play, Bulut put them ahead. Oar made an amazing run down the inside-left channel and beat three defenders before having his shot blocked by the North Korea keeper. The ball fell perfectly for Bulut, who stroked it home.
But, instead of pressing home their advantage, Australia relaxed and gave away the initiative.
North Korea coach Yun Jong-su threw caution to the wind and, in a sign of desperation, brought on all three of his substitutes in the space of five minutes, between the 33rd and 38th minute marks.
The bold move paid off, however, as Il Gwan equalised two minutes before the interval. Australia again lost possession in midfield and Daniel Bowles allowed Il Gwan to race past him down the left and score from 11 metres with a shot that went under Dylan McGowan and bounced past Birighitti and into the net.
Australia should have regained the lead in the 68th minute when Oar played the ball wide to the right to set up Amini, but he somehow blazed wide.
In the 75th minute, Bulut should have hit the target from Oar’s left-wing cross, but the striker headed wide.
Two controversial substitutions by Australia coach Jan Versleijen then helped seal Australia’s fate.
In the 78th minute, he took off Terry Antonis and brought on Rhyan Grant, who could not do a thing right for the remainder of the match. A minute after coming on, his first pass conceded possession to North Korea, who mounted a dangerous attack that could have resulted in a goal.
With 9 minutes remaining, Versleijen replaced the hard-working goalscorer Bulut with Sunderland’s Matthew Fletcher and with that went any chance Australia might have had of taking the game into extra-time.
In the final minute came Birighitti’s fatal blunder and one of the two players in the game who had scored twice to set the match alight and were on for a hat-trick did just that. The other, of course, had departed the arena.
Earlier this year, the Matildas had won Australia’s first-ever international trophy by beating North Korea 3-2.
The Australian Under-19 men’s team were unable to repeat the performance against opponents from the same country, but they showed that several of their players who are active in Europe and the A-League may be worth a chance in Holger Osieck’s senior Socceroos.