As Mohammed Abdulla’s whistle sounded around the Rajamangala stadium in Bangkok, Australia’s players slumped to their knees – exhausted, relieved, delighted.
They’d done it the hard way. Their semi-final loss to Korea meant another 100 grueling minutes – a sixth game in 17 days – amid the sapping heat and humidity of South-East Asia.
Defender Dylan Ryan’s face was awash with tears – the 19-year-old learning his trade in the Netherlands had played every minute of the campaign. His teammates may have done it tough – qualifying for Tokyo 2020 via the third-place playoff and a narrow 1-0 win over Uzbekistan – but the reality is in Asia these days there are no easy tickets to the Olympics.
Australia had failed at the last two times of asking – in 2016 an 86th minute own-goal was just one adverse factor leading to a group stage exit; in 2012 Aurelio Vidmar’s chargers failed to win a single game or even score a goal over a six-game qualifying series against UAE, Iraq and Saturday’s opponents, Uzbekistan.
In Thailand, across the tournament the football was not always pretty. Arnold reverted to the narrow 4-2-2-2 formation employed in the quarter-final against Syria – it was a system designed to advantage Australia’s vastly-experienced fullbacks Alex Gersbach and skipper Thomas Deng, with Australia’s more creative players, Reno Piscopo and Ramy Najjarine, invited to float into space between the defensive lines and thread killer balls.
The reality didn’t quite match the theory – at times against Uzbekistan, as against Syria in the quarter final, it was tight, tense, with clean-cut chances at a premium. With limited training sessions at a coach’s disposal in the national team environment, and players lacking regular minutes at club level, cohesion was always a challenge.
Nick D’Agostino’s goal – as fine an individual effort as you’ll see – proved the difference in a game of fine margins. Uzbek substitute Oybek Bozorov’s straight red card – six minutes after coming on – afforded Australia breathing room. They gasped in air that was heavy on the lungs.
With qualification secured, the tournament is officially a success. For coach Graham Arnold it’s a fourth Olympics – once as player, once as assistant to Frank Farina, and now twice as head coach. The decision by the Socceroos boss to pull rank and take charge of the Olyroos was vindicated. With an invitational appearance at this year’s Copa América around the corner the senior coach was keen to cast his eye over Australia’s generation next.
The toughest decisions lie ahead, with Arnold allowed to add three overage players to a reduced 18-man squad in Tokyo. For as many as half of these 23 players who shed kilos of sweat across the past weeks that phone call in July could be devastating.
To a man, the Olyroos effort couldn’t be faulted. But one significant criticism that emerges from this tournament is the manner in which Australia were systematically dismantled during their 2-0 loss to South Korea.
Asia’s premier team at this age group, Korea have never missed Olympics qualification – and Kim Hak-bum’s men were imperious against the Olyroos. Fit; technical – this has become expected from Korean sides. But the decision making on the ball, the acute awareness of their roles within the team structure - this really stood Korea apart.
Composed, without being entirely dominant throughout the group stage, against Korea Australia were rendered pedestrian. Passes flew astray, play became panicked.
If they looked like a much older team – in footballing terms they were. Of Korea’s starting XI, ten had already played 2,000+ minutes in the top leagues of Korea or Japan. For Australia, seven of the starting XI hadn’t. Seven of the Korean XI had competed against the continent’s best in the Asian Champion’s League, for Australia only Keanu Baccus had seen minutes; or more accurately – one minute.
Ominously for Australia, of the South Korean side that made the final of the under-20 World Cup last year in Poland, only three players were included in this squad. Lee Kang-in – the winner of the Golden Ball for player of the tournament – missed out here due to a quad injury. At just 18, he’s already a regular starter in La Liga with Valencia.
For Socceroos coach Arnold – who as Sydney FC boss famously boasted that he deliberately didn’t sign Olyroos players so he wouldn’t lose them to international duty, the lack of senior minutes experienced by his players must have been exasperating. In comparison with Korea, tactically the Olyroos looked naïve; in game awareness, one-dimensional.
And while Australian football administrators might be tempted to slap each other on the back and close the file on this tournament, that performance, and the gulf between the two nations, should act like a clarion call. With leagues across Asia rapidly improving in playing standard, nations like Thailand or Vietnam will quickly follow Korea’s example – with their nation’s brightest young talents playing week-in, week-out, against men, in senior domestic leagues.
In three seasons in the A-League Tass Mourdoukoutas has played less than a thousand minutes. In that time, five of Korea’s XI amassed five-times as many senior match minutes. Goal-hero D’Agostino has had five seasons in the A-League, averaging 330 minutes match-time per campaign. Korea’s first goalscorer and standout performer Kim Dae-won played 3,385 senior minutes last year.
If Australia is to keep par with a rising continent it needs to provide the best developmental environments for its young players. Otherwise continuous Olympic qualification will go from a fair chance, back to an aberration.