- Korea Republic, Saudi Arabia and Australia secure tickets to Tokyo 2020
- Taeguk Warriors won AFC U-23 Championship marked by tight matches
- Men’s Olympic Football Tournament to take place between 23 July and 8 August
A highly competitive 16-team AFC U-23 Championship concluded with Korea Republic, Saudi Arabia and Australia earning the right to join hosts Japan at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Tokyo 2020.
Forty-four nations entered the race last March in the preliminary stage, with Korea Republic ultimately triumphing to earn their maiden AFC U-23 Championship crown in Thailand. This was only fourth iteration of the event and just the second to decide Olympic Games qualification. Asia’s participants were previously determined in recent decades via a traditional FIFA World Cup™ style qualifying campaign.
The tournament was marked by an enhanced level of competition, with only two of eight knockout-stage matches determined by more than one goal. More surprisingly, it was a similar scenario during the group stage, with only one of 24 matches featuring a winning margin of greater than two goals.
That trend remained until the final day with Korea Republic needing extra time to see off a resolute Saudi Arabia in the tournament decider. A day earlier, Australia secured the third ticket to Japan with a 1-0 win over Uzbekistan.
Perhaps the biggest shock of the tournament was Japan’s failure to reach the knockout stage, albeit with several key personnel absent. Though involvement at Tokyo 2020 was already assured as host nation, the ten-time Olympic participants surprisingly finished bottom of their group below Saudi Arabia, Syria and Qatar.
Meanwhile there was heartbreak for Uzbekistan who, much like their senior compatriots in recent World Cup campaigns, fell narrowly short of winning passage to the world stage. With maiden Olympic qualification twice up for grabs, the 2018 U-23 champions suffered tight 1-0 defeats against Saudi Arabia and Australia.
Korea Republic boast the best record of any AFC nation in the modern era, having featured in every Olympic Games dating back to their participation as hosts in 1988. Their campaign at Thailand 2020 was near flawless with six straight wins, conceding goals in just two matches. Taeguk Warriors midfielder Won Dujae was named player of the tournament.
Saudi Arabia’s campaign was one of strong discipline and work ethic, with Saad Al Shehri’s charges conceding just twice to boast the best defence in the tournament. Saudi Arabia set the tone by opening with an impressive 2-1 win over Japan en route to eventually ending a 24-year absence from the Olympic stage.
Though missing several senior squad members Australia qualified for the first time since 2008, with Graham Arnold at the helm on both occasions. Nicholas D’Agostino grabbed the headlines with a superb solo winner against Uzbekistan as the Olyroos shored up qualification in the early hours of Australia Day.
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Duo chase best result
Japan and Korea Republic lead the continent’s best-ever performance at the global showpiece after finishing third and fourth in the men’s competition at London 2012. The pair will now have an opportunity to improve on that feat in somewhat more familiar surroundings.
Tight goalscoring competition
Five players top-scored at the U-23 Championship with three goals apiece: Zaid Al-Ameri (United Arab Emirates); Nicholas D’Agostino (Australia); Islom Kobilov (Uzbekistan); Mohammed Nassif (Iraq) and Jaroensak Wonggorn (Thailand).
Australia and Korea Republic will have the opportunity to join Japan boasting two football teams at Tokyo 2020. Both nations will feature in the AFC Women’s Olympic Football Tournament qualifiers next month. The top two teams from each group will face off in March chasing two berths to Tokyo.