Outside of the World Cup, the international football tournament with the greatest global interest has also been the source of the greatest frustration for Asian nations as time and time again the region has failed to make a mark on the Olympic football tournament.
Given the success elsewhere with a World Cup winner (Japan) in the women’s game and a men’s semifinalist at the 2002 World Cup as well as consistently strong performances at various youth levels the continued struggle of the AFC at the quadrennial jamboree is something of a mystery.
Whilst both Japan & China have collected silver medals for the women, the men’s tournament has been nothing short of a wasteland.
Out of a combined 60 appearances, Japan’s bronze medal at Mexico in 1968 & Korea Republic’s medal of the same hue four years ago remain the only time Asia has had a place on the Olympic podium.
Given that Asia is home to more than half of the world’s footballers and that a great many of them are blessed with wonderful technique borne from years of learning the game ‘organically’ on the streets and fields of this vast continent the lack of even the merest success is even the more surprising.
Could this tournament in the spiritual home of football finally mark a turning point for the planet’s most populous confederation?
In the men’s section, Iraq, Japan and Korea Republic are the three AFC representatives in the 16-team event and whilst none of that trio is widely regarded as a medal chance there may just be an outside chance of one of them making it as far as the semifinals.
One of the disappointing aspects of both the Japan and Iraq squads was the absence of a headline-grabbing name as one of the three permitted ‘overage’ players but Korea have gone all out in that regard.
The inclusion of one of the continent’s best players in Tottenham’s Son Heung-min as well as Guangzhou’s outstanding centre back Jang Hyun-soo and Porto forward Suk Hyun-jun automatically improves the nation’s chances of success in an albeit tough group which also continues Olympic champions Mexico, senior champions Germany and Fiji.
In Kim Dong-jun they have one of the continent’s best young keepers, a solid back four in front of him and a decent number six in FC Seoul’s Park Yong-woo but it’s in the more advanced roles where the team’s greatest strengths lay.
Pohang’s Moon Chang-jin and Suwon’s Kwon Chang-hoon are exceptionally talented, tactically versatile, threats and if Ryu Seung-woo lives up to his early career promise they could be a handful for opposing defences in Brazil, supplying the bullets for Suk Hyun-jun and Son Heung-min.
The Koreans also have the considerable incentive of being excused from compulsory national military service should they win a medal and if they play to their potential they’re a decent chance of getting out of the group and that’s probably more than can be said for an underwhelming looking Japanese outfit.
Grouped with Colombia, Nigeria and Sweden, the dour manager Makoto Teguramori opted for a left-back (Gamba Osaka’s Hiroki Fujiharu), a defender in Hiroshima’s Tsukasa Shiotani who plays in a three-back role with his club and Urawa’s injury-prone forward Shinzo Koroki, who it’s understood was initially reluctant to even be called, as his three overage players ignoring a host of more high profile players both domestically and abroad.
Outside of that trio, a third of the squad aren’t even first team regulars at their club, another plays in the second division and there have been ongoing battles to get one of the more lively attacking options, Swiss-based forward Yuya Kubo, released from his club.
Whilst those outside the country will predictably look at Arsenal-bound forward Takuma Asano as the player to watch, the one shining light for the team though is Kashiwa Reysol’s outstanding keeper, Kosuke Nakamura.
A brilliant shot-stopper with excellent distribution and a commanding presence he’s arguably already the best young custodian anywhere in Asia and he’ll need to be at his best to protect a team which is likely to struggle to keep their group opponents at bay whilst also battling to score many at the other end, for what looks like the weakest Olympic squad that Japan has assembled in many years.
Perhaps Asia’s greatest hope, therefore, lies with Iraq who will be looking to replicate their heroics of 2004 when they reached the semifinals in Athens with the core of the team that would go on to lift the Asian Cup three years later.
Whilst this generation is perhaps not as richly talented in key areas it is arguably more balanced throughout.
Nowhere is that evidenced as much as at left-back where Dhurgham Ismail and Ali Adnan, despite his club woes, are amongst the best in the continent at the position, meaning one will likely have to play further forward.
Overage players, Ahmed Ibrahim and captain Saad Abdul-Amir strengthen the centre of defence and midfield respectively whilst there are some genuine wildcards in attack, no more so than the dynamic Ali Husni, a player who finally made the move to Europe after being tracked by a host of clubs for several years whilst Swiss-based forward Sherko Karim has long been touted as a future star.
As was the case when Iraq stunned Portugal in their opening match in 2004 there will be little international expectation as they face Denmark, then the host nation and South Africa but this is a squad laden with talent and belief and don’t be surprised to see them upset many more fancied teams in Brazil as they are set to emerge as the most likely of Asia’s three representatives.
If the men may struggle to win a medal that’s certainly not the case though for the women where expectations are much higher.
Australia impressed mightily in a qualification campaign earlier this year where Japan, silver medalists four years ago, didn’t even manage to stamp one of Asia’s two tickets to the 12-team tournament.
With an astute coach, a solid defence and some of the more dynamic attacking options in world football, the Matildas are heading to Brazil believing they can win the gold medal and that should be viewed as a realistic ambition.
China, too, have proven to be a well-rounded side and have dependable options at either end of the pitch with Li Dongna an impressive presence at the back whilst forwards Wang Shanshan and Wang Shuang have impressed in their outings with the national team although they have a far more difficult looking group than Australia do.
Whilst the bulk of the events in other fields are centred in and around Rio, the football tournament takes an odyssey around the country through Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Manaus, Salvador and Sao Paulo before the finals are housed in Rio’s iconic Maracana Stadium.
All eyes across Asia will be watching, waiting and hoping for a better showing from their five representatives with Iraq and Australia likely to lead the way.