North Korea and Thailand are seldom considered as football powerhouses in Asia, with their senior national teams currently at No. 16 and No. 21 in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) rankings.
However, the two nations' youth teams are a different matter altogether, as their recent regional successes point to a bright future.
From today to Sunday at the Jalan Besar Stadium, their Under-15 sides will be looking to qualify for the 2016 AFC U-16 Championship.
They are drawn together with Singapore and Cambodia in qualifying Group H.
Only the winners of each of the 11 qualifying groups are guaranteed a spot in the main competition in India in September next year.
The four best second-placed teams will also go through.
North Korea are the defending champions. In the last AFC U-16 Championship in Thailand in 2014, they defeated South Korea 2-1 in the final.
A physically-strong and defensively-solid side, they will be favourites to top the group.
"I heard from the (other) coaches that they have prepared a lot.My team have prepared a lot for these qualifiers too," said their coach Kim Yong Hun.
"We want to qualify for the championship in India in 2016 so I wish good luck to all the other teams."
While North Korea are the defending Asia U-16 champions, Thailand reigned supreme among the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) nations.
Last month, they beat Myanmar 3-0 in the final of the AFF U-16 Youth Championship in Cambodia.
They caught the eye with their free-flowing football, even beating Australia 3-2 in the semi-finals.
They could spring a surprise in these qualifiers by finishing in top spot, and their quest begins today against the Singapore U-15s.
"We are meeting strong teams like North Korea so I really hope my boys will be at their 100 per cent to do their best," said Thai coach Payong Khunnen.
"As for goal difference being a potential decider for the top team, I can't comment until we have played our first game."
For the Cambodia and Singapore coaches, they will be hoping their players can learn from such strong teams and not be daunted.
Said Singapore coach V. Selvaraj: "We should look to compete and not fear them. I'm confident that the boys will learn many positive things."
2016 AFC U-16 CHAMPIONSHIP QUALIFIERS
North Korea v Cambodia
Thailand v Singapore
Cambodia v Thailand
Singapore v North Korea
North Korea v Thailand
Singapore v Cambodia
From www.globaltickets.sg and AXS machines island wide until 4pm on matchday. On-site sales start one day before matchday from 10am to 5pm at the Jalan Besar Stadium (North Gate), subject to availability.
This article was first published on Sept 2, 2015.
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