Olyroos skipper Thomas Deng has pledged to be in mint condition for July’s Tokyo Games and June’s FIFA World Cup hub, as he battles to shrug off a lingering bout of osteitis pubis.
The former-Melbourne Victory stopper was struck down with the pelvic injury at the back end of an impressive debut J1 League season for Uwara Red Diamonds.
On Monday he stepped back onto the training track - four months after last kicking a ball.
But a return for either club or country could still, in the worst-case scenario, be up to eight weeks away. Alternatively, it might be as little as a month.
Hailed by many as a Socceroos centre-back in waiting, Deng, 24, has missed the opening six games of the new J1 season - a crucial year for him as he looks to nail down a contract extension.
With the Olympics looming in Deng’s backyard, he told The World Game: “The injury is beginning to settle now and I’ve just had my first session. It’s been a very frustrating time.
“I don’t think I’m too far away, maybe another month or two.
“I was looking to be back and doing well this year ... that’s the hardest part, watching games and not being able to contribute.
“But I’ll definitely be ready for the Olympics - my body will be in good shape by then.
“I just need to get back playing regularly for my club first. I’ve still got time on my side but I need to return as quickly as possible.”
Deng said the Olympic vibe remains mooted in Japan, with locals wary - in the era of Covid - of congregating again en masse.
“Foreigners won’t be allowed to come to the Games, which is a bit of a bummer, but what can you do?” he explained.
“There isn’t too much excitement here just yet ... a lot of people are a bit scared about the pandemic and there’s a bit of hesitancy to go to Tokyo, where there are already over 30 million people living.”
Deng wore the armband as Australia qualified for the deferred showpiece via a third-place finish at the AFC U-23 Championship in Thailand 14 months ago.
“I’ve been part of the journey, along with a lot of other boys like (goalkeeper) Tom Glover, (defender) Alex Gersbach, (attacker) Reno Piscopo and quite a few others,” he added.
“It’s been something special to get as far as we have, and we all want to be there come July (as part of an 18-man squad).”
With his contract winding down, Deng - who is settled in Japan with the two-time Asian champions - said: “It’s a really important time for me to see what happens for next year.
“I’ve not spoken to the club yet - I think they’re just going to wait and see how my body goes.
“These injuries are part of the game. You just pick yourself up and go again.”
Having debuted for the Socceroos back in 2018, Deng certainly isn’t ruling out putting his hand up for an expanded Australia squad for the hub in Kuwait (from May 31-June 15).
“I’ll be doing all I can to be fit for those games against Kuwait, Nepal, Taiwan and Jordan,” he vowed.
“I think Graham Arnold is going to bring in a bit of a different squad, add a few of the Olympic boys and mix it up a bit, maybe a few players that haven’t had the opportunity to play for the Socceroos yet.”
With a new coach, Spaniard Ricardo Rodríguez, and a much-changed squad including a number of J2 signings, Deng is contemplating a transitional season for the Reds, who are sitting 13th with five points from six games.
“It’s a younger team compared to last year and a lot of the boys don’t have J1 experience,” he said.
“It’s going to be a bit of a hard season and with the new coach it might take a little bit of time for his philosophy to bed in. But I think we’ll be alright.
“I just want to get back in and help the team. The coach hasn’t even seen me play (in the flesh) yet, only on TV.”