SINGAPORE: Of all the sports that will hold court under the Tokyo Olympics, football sticks out like a sore thumb.
This isn’t just because of rules restricting men’s football to players Under-23 (U-23) since 1992, so as not to overshadow the World Cup which FIFA, the international football governing body, has every intention of maintaining as the top global competition for the sport.
Clubs, with their eye on other trophies and having just completed a resounding UEFA Euro 2020, are also not compelled to release their best players.
This combined with the U-23 rule makes the dynamics less predictable compared to the more established football leagues.
But for those same reasons, wild cards and new football talent may emerge in the Olympics. In fact, these summer games also present Asia’s male and female football players with their best chance ever of winning gold.
Japan’s women won the 2011 World Cup and it will come as little surprise if the team, finalists at the London games in 2012, took centre-spot on the podium on home soil.
It is the men that could really make a difference however. No Asian team has won gold in that event. In Mexico City in 1968, Japan surprised the world by claiming bronze while South Korea did the same in 2012.
Those two nations are the best hopes this time around. Saudi Arabia and Australia will also represent Asia but are in tough groups with football royalty Spain, Brazil and Germany so their chances do not look as strong as the two Asian powers.
KOREA AND JAPAN’S BIGGER CHANCES
South Korea won Asia’s Under-23 Championship in 2020 to qualify for the Olympics which, owing to being delayed by a year due to the global pandemic, is a U-24 this time around.
Korea has a team with many players who reached the final of the 2019 U-20 World Cup, including Valencia midfielder Lee Kang-in, who won the Golden Ball, the prize given to the best player in the tournament.
Each coach is also allowed to select three players who can be of any age – European-based Hwang Ui-jo and Kwon Chang-hoon are experienced senior internationals.
The team also has more motivation than most. Winning a medal at the Olympics grants exemption from the country’s 20-month military service, which all able-bodied males are expected to start by the time they reach 28. For football players, most of whom reach their career peak around that time, being freed from that responsibility can have a huge effect on their future career.
Japan is also raring to go. With home advantage, a talented squad full with players active from most of Europe’s top leagues and the best young players in the J League, the Blues are expected to go far and are one of the favourites in the competition according to British bookmakers.
Compared to before, there is more European and big-game experience with the likes of Takefusa Kubo of Real Madrid, PSV Eindhoven’s Ritsu Doan and Takehiro Tomiyasu of Bologna, recently linked to English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur.
Korea has fewer European-based players but there is international experience not only from the U-20 World Cup finalists but also from talents such as Lee Dong-gyeong and Won Du-jae who starred in Ulsan Hyundai which won the Asian Champions League last December.
Winning gold on home soil too would be a first Asian male triumph at a genuinely international sporting event and would be cause for celebration at home.
THE GOLDEN QUESTION
Football in the big leagues has been largely a European affair but the playing field is more even at the Olympics.
The last time a European team won gold was way back in 1992 when Spain triumphed on the home soil of Barcelona. In contrast, the World Cup has gone to Europe on five of the last six occasions.
The European championships are also seen as a much bigger prize than the Olympics. Ask football fans in Europe to identify the last gold medallist and you may be waiting some time for the right answer.
For fans, players and media, the European Championships, the most recent tournament finished on Jul 11, is a much bigger deal.
Great Britain, made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, rarely even enter a team for qualification. While Spain is sending a strong team, France, Romania and Germany have not selected their best young stars. Kylian Mbappe, perhaps the biggest talent in the world at the moment, is eligible to play for France but the 22-year-old will stay in Paris.
Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman spoke for many when he said last week: "It's just a personal opinion but, for me, the Olympic Games are athletics and other sports – but not football.”
READ: Commentary: Euro 2020 – a football tournament where the big players come from China and the US
NOT JUST EUROPE
The situation is a little different outside Europe however. Football at the Olympics have been won by Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Nigeria and Cameroon since 1992 with these teams from continents viewing gold differently than their European counterparts – as a trophy that can inspire not only an entire nation of supporters but also future generations of budding footballers.
Over 60,000 saw Brazil defeat Germany in the final of the Rio Olympics in 2016 with Neymar scoring the winning penalty kick. The defending champions who won silver and bronze in the two games prior to 2016, have sent a talented team to Tokyo. It is captained by former Barcelona legend Dani Alves with Everton star striker Richarlison in attack, who has played over 30 games for the senior team, alongside Gabriel Martinelli of Arsenal.
Nigeria was the first African nation to win gold in 1996. Many current players and Nigerians see it as a historic triumph as well as encouragement for a new generation of players.
“It inspired me a lot because, when you talk about Nigerian football, people always remember that team,” former Manchester United striker Odion Ighalo told ESPN in 2020. “They made us proud and happy to be Nigerians with what they achieved, and I hope this generation can also try to achieve that."
RARE CHANCE TO BENCHMARK
Asian teams that qualify do take the games seriously as a rare opportunity to compete with European, African and South American opposition on the global stage and benchmark themselves to global standards.
While South Korea made the final of the U-20 World Cup two years ago, no Asian men’s team has won a genuine global competition. Learning how to win an international tournament is not only a huge part of football development but also a symbol of progression and motivation to keep improving.
So it does not matter much if the Europeans have bigger football fish to fry and an Olympic medal is not top priority, the Olympics football matches matter in Asia.
The sight of an Asian men’s team beating international opposition to win gold will be a step forward for Asian football, a big story in the continent and inspiration for young football players.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of three books including Lions & Tigers - The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).