Analysing Asia’s Olympic football failures

Asia’s failure to field a representative in the last four of either the men’s or women’s football at the Olympics is a worrying sign, but there is reason to believe that better results will follow in Tokyo in 2020…

After playing a key role in helping Iraq secure scoreless draws against both Denmark and Brazil – the latter prompting widespread condemnation in the host nation – central defender Mustafa Nadhim had an important piece of business to attend to on his return home.

Unlike other Olympians who stayed to reflect, support or party, Nadhim travelled back to Baghdad where he took his prized number four jersey and laid it beside the grave of his mother, who had passed away whilst he was in Brazil.

The touching moment where he sat on the rocky earth, spending time next to the site reading passages unfortunately didn’t reflect the once again bitter relationship between elements of the squad and their own federation as a promising generation of talent failed to reach the knockout stage of the tournament.

A 1-1 draw with South Africa, which Nadhim was excused from, was not enough to see the Lions of Mesopotamia progress to the quarter-finals but at the time of writing they were though one of only three nations not to have lost a match at the tournament.

The aftermath though saw the team’s lone superstar, Ali Adnan, currently on the books of Udinese in Serie A, lose the plot in a fairly substantial manner.

Whilst both sides have had their say the upshot was that the defender was unhappy that he hadn’t been booked a ticket to return to Italy and at Guarulhos Airport in Sao Paulo he called an Iraqi TV show, unloaded on both elements of the federation and the Iraqi public (who had been critical of the team) before unilaterally announcing his retirement from all guises of the national team.

Regardless, he was selected in the provisional Iraq squad for the upcoming round of FIFA World Cup qualifiers but whether he is present in Perth when the team faces Australia in less than a fortnight remains to be seen.

Either way, it was the solid rearguard showing that the results were built upon and the defensive core of the Olympic team has also been selected for the forthcoming senior matches.

In total ten of the U23 squad will also turn out for the senior side and it’s that kind of seamless transition (leaving aside questions around age manipulation) which has been a hallmark of Iraq sides down the years but it’s certainly not the case for a disappointing Japan squad.

Musashi Suzuki

The conservative coach Makoto Teguramori made what many consider a crucial selection blunder in the team’s opening match by overlooking Kashiwa Reysol’s outstanding goalkeeper Kosuke Nakamura in favour of Kashima backup Masatoshi Kushibiki (who hasn’t played a single league match all season) and the team promptly lost a wild opening game 5-4 to a dynamic, if somewhat jetlagged Nigerian side who had only arrived in Manaus hours before kick-off reportedly after issues with the size of their aircraft.

With Nakamura restored the team looked better defensively although overage defender Hiroki Fujiharu scored one of the more comical goals you’re likely to see all year as the team drew 2-2 with Colombia once again in the heat and humidity of Manaus.

That left the team’s fate out of their own hands and despite a 1-0 win over Sweden in a final match that they dominated Japan too crashed out at the group stage.

There were some decent individual showings from the team with Arsenal-bound forward Takuma Asano scoring in both of the opening two matches whilst Kawasaki’s tempo-setting midfielder Ryota Oshima was a standout against Sweden but ultimately the tournament hinged on some erroneous decisions from Teguramori.

The choice of the over-age players was questionable, with several reportedly not even wanting to be there, the ongoing issues over Swiss-based forward Yuya Kubo weren’t resolved until well after the team arrived in Brazil (where he ultimately didn’t travel) and players even hurt themselves getting off the bus on their way to training – combine that with some of the defending throughout and overall this was a fairly shambolic Japan showing.

With an intense focus on the next Olympics that they’ll host in 2020 Japan have to get things right and that will start with the appointment of a new coach.

Kawasaki’s outstanding Yahiro Kazama has emerged as one of the early contenders and he’s an excellent choice; a disciple of attacking, pro-active, football if they can convince him to take the job Japan should at least have the technical ingredients for him to put together into a winning team.

The team that went the furthest were Korea Republic who were perhaps unfortunate to have lost to Honduras in the quarter-finals after having performed very well in the group stage where they saw off defending champion Mexico, 1-0, held senior champions Germany to a 3-3 draw after starting the tournament with an 8-0 procession which featured a hat-trick from Ryu Seung-woo, the first at the Olympics since 2004.

South Korea celebrate Olympics

Some impressive displays at both ends of the pitch, not just in the quarters but throughout the tournament, were not enough for a Korean outfit which fell to a sucker-punch against a Honduran team who were second best for most of the match in Belo Horizonte but at least the nation can take heart from some promising showings which suggest that there are a handful of players who can establish themselves in the senior team over the coming years.

Kwon Chang-hoon, Park Yong-woo and the overage star Son Heung-min all impressed in patches but the one real standout was central defender Jung Seung-hyeon who was a mountain throughout, positionally excellent and very strong in the tackle.

On the women’s side both Australia and China progressed from the group stage with an identical record of a win, loss and a draw but both fell in the quarter-finals – but not before pushing their more fancied opponents all the way.

A strong defensive showing from the Steel Roses was not quite enough as Germany grabbed the winner 14 minutes from time in a 1-0 loss in Salvador whilst a gallant Matildas outfit took the host nation all the way to penalties in Belo Horizonte where the spot kicks ended 7-6 but both showed more than enough to suggest they’ll be serious contenders when France hosts the next World Cup in 2019.

Overall, with none of the five teams progressing to the semi-finals (Asia, was with Oceania the only confederation in that boat) the tournament can be viewed as something of a failure particularly as there were several nations good enough to have pushed deeper into the quadrennial championships.

That, after the success of four years ago is a blow but with the next event back on Asian soil the hopes will be higher and surely the preparation even more thorough as the world’s largest continent looks to continue building on some excellent technical foundations and show that they can consistently challenge on the global stage.

Scott McIntyre

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