Asia's long road to the next Men's Olympic Football Tournament began last Thursday as 43 sides, split into ten groups, battled to earn one of the 16 places in next January's 2016 AFC U-23 Championship, which also serves as the qualifier for Rio 2016.
The eight-day qualifying competition saw 13 teams, namely nine group winners and four best runners-up, progress to join hosts Qatar in the continental finals. The only undecided group, featuring Jordan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Turkmenistan, has been postponed for security reasons. Join FIFA.com as we review the action across Asia.
Iraq 2-2 Oman
In a campaign where all group top seeds sealed top qualifying spots, Group B proved among the hardest fought. Indeed, favourites Iraq left it late with only a 2-2 draw against hosts Oman in their last match to seal their progression as section winners. The Athens 2004 semi-finalists opened brightly with three straight wins against Lebanon (4-1), Maldives (7-1) and Bahrain (2-0), results that left them on the verge of progression ahead of the decisive final game.
The Omanis, meanwhile, bounced back from their opening 1-1 stalemate against Bahrain to record two resounding victories against Lebanon (4-0) and Maldives (5-0) to maintain pressure on the Iraqis. Had the Omanis secured a result with a 3-0 scoreline or better, they would have gone through at Iraq’s expense. With so much at stake, however, it was the Iraqis that proved to be the better side, jumping out to a 2-0 lead on 47 minutes, which left the rivals' two late goals a mere consolation.
Saudi Arabia 0-0 Afghanistan
Saudi Arabia started their group play with a 1-0 victory against Palestine. However, the heavily favoured side were made to sweat against Afghanistan in a goalless draw, which suddenly put their campaign in jeopardy. Despite the setback, the Saudis fought back to rout Nepal 6-0 as they still harboured hopes entering the decider against hosts Iran.
The home side, for their part, had so far maintained their unblemished record and needed just a point to claim the section. Knowing that nothing but a victory was able to see them through, however, the Saudis showed much-improved form against the Iranians with goals from Al Ittihad winger Abdulfattah Asiri and Abdulrahman Al-Ghamdi securing them a much-needed 2-1 win.
The other attractions
All three Asian representatives at London 2012 made light work of their competition in qualifying for the AFC U-23 Championship. Korea Republic, bronze medalists at the last Olympics, maintained a clean slate as they won their group with ease. The same can be said of UAE, who fired eight unanswered goals from three games as they clinched the top place as hosts.
Japan, meanwhile, only managed a 2-0 win against Vietnam despite trouncing Macau 7-0 in the opener. Their biggest test came in the last game against hosts Malaysia, with Yuya Kubo scoring the only goal.
Australia finished as the qualifying competition's most prolific goal-scorers, striking 15 times while conceding just once as they progressed in style. Jamie Maclaren completed hit a hat-trick as they thrashed Hong Kong 6-0 in the opener. After defeating hosts Chinese Taipei 4-0, the Perth Glory Youth forward added a brace as they rounded out their group play with a 5-1 demolition of Myanmar.
Elsewhere, there was no surprise in Group J, where China PR progressed with three clear victories against hosts Laos, Singapore and Mongolia. In Group G, both Korea DPR and hosts Thailand were level with 7 points each, but it was the former that finished as winners courtesy of their superior goal tally. The Thais, though, joined Iran, Vietnam and Yemen in qualifying as best runners-up.
While Syria came from political turmoil to set the stage alight with three emphatic victories, the West Asians were indebted to striking-prodigy Omar Khribin, who scored three braces en route to finishing as tournament’s top-scorer.
3 - Of the ten host nations, only a trio of teams booked their passage to the AFC U-23 Championship.
What they said
"We have passed the preliminary tests and reached the finals, although the opponents were not strong. The success will provide us with a morale-booster ahead of next year's AFC U-23 Championship," China PR U-23 coach Fu Bo
2016 AFC U-23 Championship qualification:
23–31 March 2015
*teams qualified for the tournament finals
Group A: Iraq*, Oman, Bahrain, Lebanon, Maldives
Group B: Jordan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan (postponed)
Group C: Saudi Arabia*, Iran*, Palestine, Afghanistan, Nepal
Group D: United Arab Emirates*, Yemen*, Tajikistan, Sri Lanka
Group E: Syria*, Uzbekistan, India, Bangladesh
Group F: Australia*, Myanmar, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong
Group G: Korea DPR*, Thailand*, Cambodia, Philippines
Group H: Korea Republic*, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Brunei
Group I: Japan*, Vietnam*, Malaysia, Macau
Group J: China*, Laos, Singapore, Mongolia