By Michael Church
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Head coach Graham Arnold believes Australia's qualification for Tokyo 2020 can lead to a resurgence in the country's football fortunes after his unfancied side overcame the odds to end a 12-year Olympic absence.
A 1-0 win over Uzbekistan on Saturday, courtesy of a 47th minute goal from Nick D'Agostino, earned Australia a third place finish at the Asian Under-23 Championship and one of three spots available at the Games in Japan later this year.
"It's a massive thing," said Arnold of Australia's first Olympic qualification since 2008.
"You can tell how much Australia thought we were going to qualify because there's not one journalist here.
"So for us to achieve this third place in the Under-23 Asian Cup and also to qualify for Tokyo means now that for these boys, it's only just a start. But they have to work hard to get in that squad. But the organisation now has to find money for preparation and prepare these kids properly.
"Maybe in the past it's been 10 days' preparation, we don't qualify and they shut the whole programme down. Now this programme will continue for these kids and we're going to get great footballers from that. It's a huge thing for Australian football. Huge."
Australia had appeared at every Olympic tournament from Seoul in 1988 until Beijing in 2008. Australian greats such as Tim Cahill and Mark Viduka took their earliest forays into the international game on the Olympic stage.
With qualification assured, Arnold - who played at the 1988 Games and was head coach in 2008 - is hopeful the Australians will see a positive long-term impact on the senior national team.
"I do know that when you have a great pathway and great preparation for the Olympics then it creates six or seven top Socceroo players and for the senior national team that's very important," he said.
Arnold also called on his country's football authorities to do more to improve opportunities for young players.
"I've been saying since being in the job for 18 months that we need a reserve grade league as quick as possible," he said.
"This age group gets hurt more than anyone. We have the NYL (National Youth League) that has eight games a season. These kids are too old for that, but then they're not deemed good enough to be part of the A-League.
"I'm not saying they should play in the A-League, but give them somewhere to play in a professional environment with professional resources and then you'll get great footballers."
(Editing by Christian Radnedge)