Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Medal or honour
The Olympics may just be entering the psyche of football fans in the UK, but in Asia the five rings have been a big deal for years and, for some nations, the thought of gold around necks at the Olympics looms larger in dreams than the Asian Cup.
United Arab Emirates, South Korea and Japan are all getting very excited about the next few weeks.
United Arab Emirates
Trailing Uzbekistan in qualification by three points with two games to go, UAE ended up winning the group by six points. This may sound like the sort of black magic that saw Faisal Khalil - former UAE international and brother of Olympic team striker Ahmed Khalil - imprisoned after allegations he employed a sorcerer to guarantee his spot in his club team in 2008; however, while rules were broken, the manner was more mundane.
A 2-0 home defeat to Iraq became a 3-0 win thanks to the fact the visitors fielded an ineligible player. In the final game, Uzbekistan, as the team are wont to do, folded and UAE were suddenly looking forward to London.
Preparation has gone well and a 5-0 thrashing of Hungary in Austria earlier this month had their Group A opponents a little nervous until it turned out that the losers were not, as first thought, the Hungarian national team but a Under-17 National Minority team that consisted of young Romani.
Nevertheless, the nation is getting excited and a solitary appearance at Italia '90 is being remembered. Abdulrahman Mohammed, a midfielder who was part of that UAE side from 22 years ago, said: "Nobody was angry that we lost - everybody was simply proud of what we had achieved. When we went out [in Italy], I looked around and I thought to myself: 'Now, I am a footballer'."
Then, as now, UAE are grouped with the host nation and it remains to be seen if any of this generation will feel something similar when catching sight of a Team GB shirt. Probably not, as UAE are no longer total strangers to the big stage. They impressed at the Under-20 World Cup in 2009, reaching the quarter-finals, with Dubai and Abu Dhabi producing some talented youngsters these days.
Most eyes at home will be on the elder statesman of the team, the 29-year-old Ismail Matar, long regarded as one of the stars of West Asian football. He impressed so much at the 2003 World Youth Championships that he was named player of the tournament. Previous gold medalist Diego Maradona is a Matar fan and now people outside Asia have the chance to see a genuine talent.
There were rumours of a European move for Matar but it never materialised due to several reasons - niggly knee knocks, his club, Al Wahda, wanting him to stay and doubts as to whether he wanted to leave his comfort zone. He has spent his entire career in the Emirates.
A lack of overseas experience has been a weakness for the country but there are signs it is changing. Defender Hamdan Al Kamali was snapped up by Lyon last season. He has told his team-mates that the next few weeks present a perfect opportunity to place themselves squarely in the shop window.
There is none bigger than Wembley against the host nation. First though is a tricky opener against Uruguay. The team has targeted a draw. It would be a very good start.
South Korea are regular participants at the Olympics and tend to just miss out on a place in the last eight, with 2004 a happy exception.
There is guarded optimism in the camp. While the Taeguk Warriors are in a solid-looking group with Mexico, Switzerland and Gabon, they are led by the charismatic captain of the 2002 World Cup semi-finalists, Hong Myong-Bo, and are a tight-knit and experienced group - fast, fit and aggressive. They are also motivated not least by the fact that a medal means exemption from military service.
Delaying his tour of duty for ten years cost Park Chu-Young a good deal of goodwill back home to add to a miserable time at Arsenal. After apologising, the striker is back in the national team fold and desperate to show what he can do in England.
With Park looking sharp, there could be goals within the team. Behind the Arsenal man is Kim Bo-Kyoung, one of the leading scorers in the J.League - and close to a €3 million move to Cardiff City - and Koo Ja-Cheol, the Bundesliga-based top scorer of the 2011 Asian Cup. With Celtic's Ki Sung-Yeung classy in warm-up games, Korea are confident that they can edge out of an open group.
It all depends on whether the defence can hold firm - an injury to highly-rated centre-back and captain Hong Jeong-Ho is a big blow.
No team wants to make international headlines before a ball has been kicked but when you have the women's team, who have genuine medal hopes, sat in economy class on an airplane while the men are in business class it is going to happen. Whatever the excuses, it was not a good start.
And neither is an opener against Spain, a team that is in first-class where it really matters. Any kind of result for Japan would set the team up nicely for eminently winnable matches with Honduras and Morocco and a probable quarter-final with Brazil.
Memories of three defeats in Beijing four years ago are driving the team on, according to captain Maya Yoshida. "We're carrying the Japanese flag, and we cannot allow ourselves to play as pathetically as we did last time," the Dutch-based defender said. "To go out the way we did four years ago just cannot happen again - no matter what."
The women may be senior world champions but the men are not short of talent. A solid-looking defence contains highly rated full-back Hiroki Sakai, who has just signed for Hannover. He will be heading to the Bundesliga along with midfielder Hiroshi Kiyotake, a serious prospect. The new Nurnberg man is yet to start his German career and Takashi Usami has a similar feeling despite heading to Bayern Munich a year ago. Just turned 20, Usami is preparing for a season with Hoffenheim and has energy to burn.
Coach Takashi Sekizuka didn't plump for big names so there is no Kagawa, Honda, Hasebe, Nagatomo or Uchida, leaving a squad that is talented but also a little inexperienced in midfield and attack.
Japan can struggle to kill games off when they are on top. That likely won't be an issue against Spain but chances must be taken against the others.