Uncertainty may be gripping the staging of the already once-rescheduled Tokyo Olympics but, should they go ahead, Olyroos Head Coach Graham Arnold has his players believing they’re capable of hitting the podium.
The Olyroos, nominally, are set to return to the Olympic stage for the first time since Beijing 2008 in just over five-months time - the first games of the men’s tournament set to commence on July 22 across Tokyo Stadium, Kashima Stadium, the Sapporo Dome, and Nissan Stadium. A much more familiar sight at the Olympic Games, the Matildas will commence their campaign the day prior.
Under regulations governing men’s football at the Olympics, Arnold can only select 18-players to bring as part of his squad and, further complicating matters for the dual Socceroos/Olyroos boss, three of that number don’t have to comply with the age eligibility requirement of being born on or after 1 January 1997 (age limits having been raised to 24 due to the one-year postponement of the games).
Thus, the explosion in youngsters seeing the field this A-League season and development of talents such as Caleb Watts and Harry Souttar in England and Panos Armenakas in Belgium have given Arnold a headache when it comes to handing out tickets for the ten-hour flight to Japan.
Admitted, it's a good problem for him to have, the 57-year-old previously saying he would have struggled to select a squad that was simply playing enough - let alone well enough - to earn status as an Olympian as little as a year ago.
And for players in contention for selection such as Denis Genreau, who has consistently been amongst the first on the team sheet for Macarthur FC this campaign and scored his maiden A-League goal in the Bulls’ win over Brisbane Roar, the competition for places at the Games of the XXXII Olympiad is serving as extra motivation.
“As soon as we qualified Arnie said ‘look, well-done boys on qualifying but the Olympics is a long time away and anything can happen’,” Genreau told The World Game.
“There are no contracts for these Olympic Games, so at the end of the day knows it’s a clean slate for whoever is performing - it might be someone who has never been a part of a national setup before. They could get a chance.
“It’s been so good to see all these young players playing. It makes the competition even stronger in the team and that’s what we want. It’s something you’re aware of, these young players doing well, and it makes it even more of a motivation to do well and get into the final 18.”
According to Melbourne City keeper Tom Glover, who looms as the favourite to don the gloves for the Olyroos in Tokyo, whoever does find themselves on the ground in Japan will head there imbued with the belief they’re there to do more than make up the numbers - mirroring sentiments expressed numerous times since qualification by Arnold himself.
“We’re not going there just to take part,” Glover declared to The World Game. “We’re going over there, ultimately, to get a medal.
“Our belief as a playing group is very strong. People don’t qualify for the Olympics if they’re not a good team.
“I feel like our team is a special group, we’re not just a team, we’re like a family. All the boys get on like brothers and it only makes us stronger if we’ve got that relationship.
“There’s definitely a belief in the group and coaching staff that we can do something special.
“We want to be the first team to win a medal.
“I believe it and I know the team believes we can do that.”
Unfortunately for Australia’s up-and-coming talent, battling for a place in Arnold’s plans or day-dreaming of going down in the annals of sporting history as an Olympic medalist aren’t the only considerations at play when it comes to the coming Games.
COVID-19 still remains a stubbornly dangerous threat around the globe, and the Japanese Government and International Olympic Committee was forced just last month to strongly deny reports that the Games were set to be cancelled outright.
412 cases of COVID reported in Tokyo on Tuesday, planning on how to safely welcome and care for the more than 15,000 Olympians and Paralympians that are expected to compete at the Games, as well as thousands of officials, support staff, coaches and members of the media, ahead of the opening ceremony on July 23 remain ongoing.
Measures already revealed by organisers involve attendees producing a negative test for the virus within 72 hours of departure for Tokyo, as well as a subsequent negative test on arrival. No mandatory quarantine will be enforced although new arrivals are barred from restaurants, bars, shops, tourist attractions and public transit for 14 days. Housing remains an evolving situation, although it will be markedly less social than Olympic Villages of the tournament's past.
Athletes and their support staff will not attend events in which they aren't participating, while a decision on the presence of fans in the stands has been flagged by Japanese Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto as arriving "in the spring”.
“You see the news and articles that have come out recently,” Genreau said “But the feedback that we’re getting from Football Australia and from the Australian Olympic Committee is that it’s still going ahead and they’re doing everything they can to get it going.
“I think it’s really important to keep everyone’s health first.
“But it’s also something we’ve been looking forward to for so long, it’s something that’s in the back of your mind, so I think it would be a massive, massive disappointment if it was to get cancelled.
“It would hurt a lot, for us, we have to prepare like it’s going ahead, keep putting in good performances at our club, keep in contact with Football Australia and do our best to prepare.”
Western Sydney Wanderers goalkeeper Daniel Margush, who has emerged as a challenger for Glover thanks to his consistent gametime as the number one keeper at Bankwest Stadium, told The World Game he was confident that proceedings would be safe should they proceed.
“I’m sure they’ve got all the correct protocols in place,” Western Sydney Wanderers keeper Daniel Margush said. "Football Australia does a good job making sure they follow things down to a T, so I’ve got full confidence that if it does get the green light then things will be fine.
Glover, both an Olyroos rival and friend of Margush, agreed.
“Personally, I’ve spoken to a couple of Socceroos and Olyroos staff and they kind of touch base with the boys just to let us know what’s going on in the background,” the City keeper told The World Game.
“That’s something that I’m working towards and I’m hoping it would still go ahead because it would be shattering for the boys if we go through the hardest bit.
“I was having this conversation with [Jamie] Maclaren, I think it feels different because we’ve qualified, if we hadn’t done that Thailand tournament [to qualify] and they cancelled it’s kind of an ‘it is what it is’ thing.
“But that we qualified - we spent six weeks there - it would be a real bummer if it didn’t go ahead because those trips aren’t easy and that trip, especially, wasn’t easy.”