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Tokyo Olympics – Preview: Australia's Olyroos out to shock the world


Tokyo: After a 13-year absence Australia are back on the men’s Olympics football stage, now they’re out to become the Tokyo Games’ greatest surprise package.

Having battled travel restrictions, squad upheaval and a dearth of chances to get on to the same pitch, the Olyroos find themselves in arguably the toughest group in the competition, but Graham Arnold’s men have no shortage of belief.

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Overview

With senior national team boss Graham Arnold at the helm, the team known as the Olyroos beat Uzbekistan 1-0 to finish third at the AFC U23 Championship Thailand 2020, ending a qualification drought dating back to Beijing 2008.

A former national team striker and Olympian himself before becoming Socceroos’ boss for the second time in 2018, Arnold is a firm believer in the value of Olympic football, and his goal of exposing a new generation of Australian players to elite global competition was achieved when Nick D’Agostino’s superb winning goal flew into the Rajamangala Stadium net in January 2020.

Players and staff alike celebrated a significant achievement that night, but they were blissfully unaware that their preparations for Tokyo, the date of the event itself and much of the world would change considerably in the coming weeks and months.

#AFCU23 - 3rd Place Play-off: Australia 1-0 Uzbekistan

For the Olyroos, the biggest impact of the pandemic has been on their ability to play matches together.

Border closures and a hastily reorganised global football calendar meant the team were sidelined until a pair of friendlies against A-League clubs in November and they didn’t face any international opposition until just last month.

Even those hitouts, staged at a training camp in Spain, were played with a makeshift team missing several senior international or domestic-based players, as well as Arnold, who was tied up with the senior team’s Asian Qualifiers group.

That disruption may be part of the reason why only eight of the squad members who qualified in Thailand have been included in the travelling party in Japan, among them the goal scoring hero D’Agostino, goalkeeper Tom Glover and breakout Melbourne City midfielder Connor Metcalfe.

Joining them are senior international reinforcements Riley McGree and Harry Souttar as well as 30-year-old striker Mitchell Duke; the only overage player called-up by Arnold.

Continuity has been nearly impossible to find but according to the head coach, genuine confidence remains.

Despite all the difficulties encountered on the longer-than-expected road to Tokyo, Arnold insists his team are primed and ready to make an impact, even against heavyweight group opponents like Argentina and Spain.

“My expectations are that we are going to shock the world,” he said.

History

While a failure to reach the last two editions of the Games means the current generation of players won't be able to draw on many Olympic football memories of their own, Australia does have a long and proud history in the competition.

Quarter-finalists on home soil in Melbourne 1956 and again in Seoul 32 years later, the nation’s best ever result came at Barcelona 1992 in the first edition tournament open solely to Under-23 national teams.

A team including names like Ned Zelic, Mark Bosnich and Paul Okon beat Denmark and Sweden before finishing fourth, with a 1-0 defeat to Ghana at the Camp Nou denying the Olyroos what would have been their first ever medal.

Group stage eliminations followed in Atlanta and Sydney, before a team featuring Tim Cahill and John Aloisi as overage players made the last eight in Athens in 2004, with another group stage exit in 2008 – also under Arnold – the last time an Australian men’s team qualified.

Key players

Daniel Arzani

The dazzling, breakout star of Australia’s run-in to the 2018 FIFA World Cup as 19-year-old, big things were expected of Arzani when he was sold to Manchester City, then loaned to Celtic in the wake of the global Finals, but serious injuries have derailed his rise to stardom, making the Tokyo Olympics a potentially crucial chapter for a player of undoubted natural ability.

Harry Souttar

An unlikely goal-machine with six in five Asian Qualifiers' matches for the senior national team, the 198-centimetre central defender is better summarised by his excellent 2020-21 campaign for Stoke City, where he made 43 appearances in all competitions and earned Player of the Month honours in October.

Connor Metcalfe

A player who has perhaps benefitted from Tokyo 2020’s one-year delay, the Melbourne City youngster had just 14 A-League appearances under his belt when Australia qualified, but has arrived in Japan as one of the top midfielders in the Australian domestic game, and a full international having made his senior debut against Chinese Taipei last month.

Group challengers

On paper, Group C is one of the most daunting in a competition which offers no easy matches.

The Olyroos will end their Olympic drought against two-time gold medallists Argentina in Sapporo on July 22, marking the third successive time they have been drawn alongside the South American giants at the Games.

It doesn’t get any easier from there.

They’ll meet a Spain side featuring UEFA Euro 2020 starters Pedri, Dani Olmo, Unai Simon and Mikel Oyarzabal three days later, before rounding out their group stage campaign against an Egypt side which, thankfully for Australia, does not include Mohamed Salah as an overage player.

To most neutral viewers, just advancing from a group of that difficulty would count as achieving Arnold’s stated expectation of shocking the world, but anyone who knows the Australian boss will be aware that no limits will have been set on what his team can achieve.

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