Kuala Lumpur: With the countdown clock reaching the one-year milestone, elite athletes around the world are gearing up for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, but the footballers of Asia will face pivotal tests long before the Games begin.
Four Asian teams, including host Japan, will compete in the men’s football tournament, while Asako Takakura’s Asian champions will be one of three to take part in the women’s competition, making the battle to represent the Continent one with little margin for error.
Both competitions have already seen dramatic qualifying action in Asia. The Road to Tokyo’s women’s football tournament began in Asia on November 4, 2018, while the first men’s qualifiers got underway on March 22, 2019, with final tournaments to be staged in early 2020 to determine the Continent's representatives.
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The story so far
Two rounds of qualifiers have already been held on the women’s side, with an initial 25 entrants whittled down to eight remaining teams.
Vietnam, who entered the competition in the second round, advanced to the final stage alongside Chinese Taipei and Myanmar, both of whom navigated successive qualification round, with the five highest-ranked Asian teams, excluding Japan, to enter in the final round.
In the men’s tournament, which is played by U-23 national teams, an original 44 entrants were split into 11 groups, with the winners and best four second-placed teams winning a place alongside hosts Thailand at the all-important AFC U-23 Championship next January.
Some of the best action was found in Southeast Asia, where Vietnam produced a stunning 4-0 win over Thailand in front of nearly 40,000 fans in Hanoi, while Malaysia missed out on goal difference despite thrilling a 25,000-strong crowd with a fighting 2-2 against Guus Hiddink’s China PR.
Uzbekistan, the 2016 AFC U23 Championship winners, and 2018 Asian Games gold medallists Korea Republic also progressed to the continental Finals by topping their respective groups in Tashkent and Phnom Penh.
With 16 teams still in contention, the final line-up of Asian men’s sides at the Tokyo Games will be decided at the AFC U23 Championship Thailand 2020, with the action getting underway on January 8.
Only the top three will secure a place in Tokyo, with the two semi-finals winners as well as the winners of the third-place play-off to join Japan in the final draw.
However, should Japan make the semi-finals, the other three last four teams will seal their places in Tokyo 2020.
While the men’s qualifying format closely resembles the one which took Japan, Korea Republic and Iraq to the Rio Olympics in 2016, the final stages of the women’s tournament features an exciting new format, which promises to create must-see matches.
Instead of the six-team final group stage of 2016, the eight remaining teams will form two groups of four in February’s third round of qualifying, with the top two from each group to advance.
From there, the final two Asian qualifiers will be decided by two-legged home and away play-offs in March, giving the Continent’s elite teams the opportunity to play their most significant matches since the FIFA Women’s World Cup in front of their home fans.
With Korea Republic and Australia among the women’s national teams to have broken attendance records since the last Olympics were held, there is the potential for more history to be made on and off the pitch.
Football at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will begin with women’s matches on July 22 – two days before the Games' officially begin with the opening ceremony – with the men’s competition to begin on July 23.
The 12-team women’s tournament will conclude on August 7, with the men’s tournament to conclude the following day. In addition to Tokyo, matches will also be held in Sendai, Yokohama, Kashima, Saitama and Sapporo.
Asia has claimed four football medals in previous Olympic Games’, with China PR (1996) and Japan (2012) winning silver in the women’s tournament, while Japan (1968) and Korea Republic (2012) have won bronze medals in the men’s competition.
Photos: AFP, AFC
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