Olympics focus

Lords of the rings

February 7, 2012
By John Duerden

Football at the Olympics has long been ignored in the United Kingdom but that won't be the case this summer. Nine countries are already there: Great Britain will finally enter a team and will be joined by favourites Spain as well as Switzerland, Belarus, Brazil, Uruguay, Gabon, Morocco and Egypt. Seven spots are still up for grabs. CONCACAF and Oceania have yet to get going but Asia is currently in the middle of a fierce campaign. The Olympics mean a lot on the world's biggest continent.

Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero
GettyImagesArgentina secured Olympic gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2008

Not as much as the world's biggest football tournament, but a lot nonetheless. The Olympics have long been a big deal - for some bigger than their continental championship. South Korea, for example, grants exemption from military service for footballers who collect a medal - any medal - yet winning the Asian Cup comes with no such automatic bonus.

There is always a chance. While just 16 teams get there, making it harder to qualify for than the World Cup, it gives a better shot at glory once you are there, especially for Africans and Asians. In 2008, just six of the 16 were European or South American, compared to 18 of the 32 in South Africa last summer. Big boys who usually block the way to the latter stages at World Cups such as Italy, Argentina, Germany, Netherlands or France are not around.

Africa especially has enjoyed itself under the five rings. In 1992, the first time that teams were officially Under-23, Ghana made the last four. Nigeria famously won the gold medal four years later while, at the first games of the new millennium in Sydney, Cameroon took the middle spot in the podium. Asia has had its moments, too. Qatar, Iraq, Australia and South Korea have all made the quarter-finals or better since 1992.

That was the last time Japan missed out, while the last Australia-free games was four years earlier in Seoul and, speaking of South Korea, they are aiming for a seventh successive appearance. Yet with four games of the qualifying group stage gone and two to come, of the AFC big three only the Koreans, and then only just, top their group - which is where they need to be to get an automatic spot in London.

The Olyroos are seriously struggling at the bottom of Group B. The team has yet to score in 360 minutes of football and - to make matters worse - the defence, which had been the one bright spot with three clean sheets from the first three games, finally conceded away to leaders Uzbekistan to lose 2-0. With two games left, the win moved the Central Asians five points ahead of the visitors and within sight of a first-ever appearance at the Olympics.

Playing in Tashkent is never easy, even when temperatures are not well-below freezing and the pitch is free of snow. Still, conditions were hardly as unexpected as some have suggested - Uzbekistan is always chilly in early February. Besides, the weather may have been less of a shock had the visitors not warmed up for the match in Dubai. If complaints about conditions are wide of the mark, those about refereeing decisions are not. Standards of officiating can be lower than Tashkent temperatures in early February and there didn't seem to be much wrong with either disallowed goal from Aurelio Vidmar's men.

All is not lost though. UAE surprisingly defeated Iraq, leaving Australia just two points behind second. That path could still lead to London. The three AFC group runners-up play off in Vietnam at the end of March. From the exotic south-east Asian city, the action will then move to the West Midlands and a final play-off against Senegal in Coventry on April 23.

Japan don't want to go to Coventry but, after losing to Syria on Sunday, it is a possibility. Playing in the hosts' temporary football home of Jordan, a spectacular last-minute strike from Ahmad Al Salih cost Japan top spot in Group C and their perfect record.

This younger version of the Samurai Blue are still level on nine points with Syria and are still favourites to head to London, but it is now going to go to the wire. The Japanese media, sure that it wouldn't, lamented the lack of width, urgency and leadership in the team as well as the uncertain goalkeeping of Shuichi Gonda.

Syria celebrate their dramatic winner over Japan in Jordan
GettyImagesSyria celebrate their dramatic winner over Japan in Jordan

Head coach Takashi Sekizuka talked of missed chances and next challenges. "It's obviously hugely disappointing," Sekizuka said. "I thought both teams did very little in the first half and that the game would come down to the second half - and it did. We need to regroup mentally and just get ready for our next match. We have to keep fighting."

South Korea were looking good in Group A just three days ago and three points clear at the top, but then something happened. Qatar, in second, were found guilty of fielding an ineligible player in a November qualifier against Oman that ended 1-1. FIFA changed the result to a 3-0 win for the Omanis, who moved into second, a point behind the leaders. Exasperated eyebrows were raised in East Asia at such amateurism, still far too common in Asian football.

After matchday four, the point still remains the difference. Oman were held to a 2-2 draw by a Qatar team - fully eligible, Korea hope - while the Taeguk Warriors salvaged a point at bottom team Saudi Arabia thanks to a last-minute Kim Bo-Kyoung strike. Korean coach Hong Myong-Bo had expected to end qualification with a nice home game at home to Qatar, needing a draw at worst to progress. It could become a little trickier as next comes a match in Oman that Korea now can't afford to lose.

At the same time as the Vietnam play-offs are underway, CONCACAF is also getting busy. Two nations from North and Central America will head to England. Eight teams are split into two groups of four, the top two head to the semis and the finalists head to England. This is not just the United States and Mexico show. Honduras made Beijing in 2008, while Costa Rica went to Athens in 2004. It goes without saying that in Oceania, however, it is all about New Zealand: after two weeks of football in Auckland next month, the Kiwis are almost certain to make their qualification official.

What is for sure is that all the teams left in Asia will do their utmost to get to London. The Olympics may not have anywhere near the same pull as the World Cup but for some nations it is still a very big deal and, for the first time in modern football history, it will be in the UK, too.