Regardless of the outcome of the bronze medal playoff between Japan and Korea this has been a breakthrough Olympic football tournament for Asia.
In the women’s section, Japan backed up its historic triumph in last year’s World Cup with a string of impressive performances as it set up a rematch of that epic final with United States.
It dominated the gold medal match, creating a string of chances, being denied a clear-cut penalty and hitting the post on numerous occasions. Japan played ‘modern’ football throughout: possession, fluidity of movement, touch and creativity.
The Nadeshiko are now clearly the benchmark in the women’s game.
The Olympics though, across all sports, throw up some serious anomalies.
Why, for example, do both losing semifinalists in the boxing receive bronze medals but not in the case of football?
Why aren’t 18 medals counted on the official tally?
Why do Sepp Blatter and Worawi Makudi get to present the medals?!
Why is the men’s tournament an underage one yet the women can compete with their full senior side?
Why also is the women’s tournament restricted to 12 nations rather than the 16 on the men’s side?
Someone needs to ask these questions and try and get a logical answer but given that the World Cup should take priority, I’m firmly in favour of the format used in the men’s section although I’d like to see the competition expanded to take in more nations.
An Under-23 event seems a logical step between the two age-group World Cups and the senior one. It also offers a fantastic bridge between those young talents already exposed to senior football and generation-next.
Looking back through the history of the tournament there is an incredible roll-call of talent who have shone on the Olympic stage from the great Japanese striker Kunishige Kamamoto in 1968 through to Romario two decades later. More modern players include Xavi, Hernan Crespo, Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi.
From an Asian perspective this will be the first time a male side has won a medal since Japan in 1968 but all three nations have exceeded expectations.
UAE, which denied Australia a place in the tournament, led against Uruguay, pulled level against Great Britain in front of a packed Wembley Stadium and then picked up its first ever point in the Olympics with a 1-1 draw with Senegal in the final group match. It also had one of the outstanding players in the tournament in Omar Abdulrahman.
Korea knocked off the heavily favoured British side before falling to Brazil in the semis while Japan put in perhaps the most impressive performance in sweeping away Spain in its opening group match.
I’ve selected my AFC team of the tournament with thoughts on who has stood out and is ready to push and become key components of their full respective national teams.
These are just some of the players that could set Asian football alight over the coming decade:
Shuichi Gonda - Japan: An easy choice given the injuries to the Korean goalkeepers and the shambolic defending from UAE. Gonda was a solid presence at the back for Japan, quick to come off his line, a good communicator and a very good distributor whether with feet or hands. It will be interesting to see if he can push Eiji Kawashima for the senior position.
Kim Young-Gwon - Korea Republic: The former FC Tokyo and Omiya man was the most assured of the Korean central defenders in a side that conceded only two goals in reaching the last four. He was occasionally caught out of position and had a torrid time against Leandro Damiao in the semi-final loss.
Maya Yoshida - Japan: The most impressive defender across the three AFC nations. Led the line brilliantly, organising a defensive unit that frequently changed due to injuries and rotation. Very good in one-on-one situations and excellent distribution as well. The only blot on the copybook was his role in Mexico’s first goal in the semifinals.
Yun Suk-yoon - Korea Republic This was a hardly a standout tournament for any of the left-sided defenders with Yun ust ahead of Japan’s Yuhei Tokunaga. Blessed with natural speed and looks comfortable on the ball but his positioning and ability to track back were exposed on several occasions.
Kim Chang-soo - Korea Republic Injured early in the quarter-final win over Great Britain, Kim was one of two key players missing for Korea in the subsequent loss to Brazil but was a solid presence in all three group matches, particularly in an impressive display against Mexico.
KI Sung-yueng - Korea Republic: Along with Omar Abdulrahman was the standout performer from the three AFC nations. Dictated the tempo for a Korean side that dominated possession in all three group matches. An excellent presence at the fulcrum of the 4-2-3-1 in breaking up play and his set pieces were also very good. He has been linked with a move to Arsenal from his current home at Celtic - a long way from his schoolboy days in Brisbane!
Koo Ja-Cheol - Korea Republic: Although deployed in a more advanced role here space had to be found for the second half of the so-called ‘Koo-Ki monster’ partnership which is set to form the bedrock for the senior national side for many years. Looked dangerous when cutting in from wide on the left and when played centrally was a key component of a midfield unit that is very comfortable in possession.
Kensuke Nagai - Japan: Often interchanging with Yuki Otsu in the central striking role, Nagai’s pace caused no end of problems for both Spain and Morocco in the first two group games before his early goal set up the quarter-final win over Egypt. There are still question marks over his finishing as demonstrated against the Spanish but should that improve he may make an impact on the senior side.
Hiroshi Kiyotake - Japan: Although Kiyotake didn’t turn in a single ‘standout’ performance he was consistent throughout. Often the focus due to his sublime technical skill and attacking threat, the newly signed Nurnberg man was a key cog in the ‘defensive front four’ that pressed relentlessly in the game-changing victory over Spain. His work in winning the ball, and feeding Nagai for Japan’s opener against Egypt was also exceptional.
Omar Abdulrahman - UAE: The orchestrator in chief for the UAE and arguably the best Asian player at the tournament. Provided the assists for both of Ismail Matar’s goals and was at the heart of everything good the Middle Eastern nation did. Abdul Rahman was described by England’s Micah Richards as a star of the future and is on trial at Manchester City.
Ismail Matar - UAE: Long considered one of his nation’s finest ever players, the 29 year-old looked rejuvenated here. Has lost a considerable amount of weight and appeared fitter and faster than he has for many years. Scored two of the UAE’s three goals with the strike against Senegal showing the touch of a natural finisher.
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