If past Olympic records are anything to go by, then it came as little surprise that Japan, Korea Republic and Iraq underlined their pedigree at this level throughout the AFC U-23 Championship which concluded on the weekend in Qatar. The trio filled the top-three positions to earn the right to represent Asia in the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016.
The powerhouse threesome are among Asia's most successful teams on the global stage. Japan and Korea Republic can each boast bronze-medal wins, while Iraq reached the last four at Athens 2004. They all entered the qualifying campaign as favourites, but each had to overcome a series of challenges to book qualification for Rio 2006. In the process, Japan conquered all as they won the tournament's second edition and Korea Republic edged hosts Qatar 3-1 in the semi-final clash to also book qualification. Defending champions Iraq, meanwhile, prevailed 2-1 against the Qataris after extra time in the third-place play-off as they sealed the remaining spot. Join FIFA.com as we review the tournament.
Korea Republic 2-3 Japan
With all three qualifying spots decided, the final may have been seen as less important. Yet the tournament’s ultimate match proved to be one of its most entertaining, as the two sides dazzled with sublime techniques and top-notch goals in what was a classic encounter. The game attracted extra attention and interest considering that Korea Republic and Japan met each other at London 2012 where the former ran out 2-0 winners. The re-meeting seemed set to be heading the same way, with Shin Taeyong's young Taeguk Warriors two goals up after the restart courtesy of Kwon Changhoon's early opener and Jin Seongwook's 47th-minute strike. Just as the Koreans looked on course to emulate their previous feat, however, Japan fought back in unexpected fashion. Their comeback was kick-started by coach Makoto Teguramori's decision to substitute Takuma Asano on the hour-mark. The dynamic forward pulled one back within just six minutes to put the game on a knife's edge. Shinya Yajima then equalised before Asano grabbed his second, and the match and tournament winning-goal nine minutes from time.
It was not, however, the first and only time that Japan showcased their trademark resilience. They were held goalless in the entire ninety minutes during the quarter-final encounter with Iran. But Teguramori's outfits came to life during extra time netting three goals in quick succession as they emerged 3-0 victors. In fact, the Japanese have seemingly developed a habit of springing to life just when it mattered most. They edged Iraq in the semi-finals 2-1 in a similar fashion with a stoppage-time strike.
Relentless Korea Republic
The semi-final win proved to be Korea Republic’s highlight as they edged the impressive hosts for a hard-fought victory. In fact, they, like Japan, needed late strikes to settle the contest. The most difficult period came in the closing stages when the Qataris levelled with Ahmed Alaa cancelling out Ryu Seungwoo's opener. With so much at stake, Lee Seulchan surged down the right before crossing perfectly for Kwon Changhoon to tap in to silence the home supporters. Moon Changjin sealed the victory with a stoppage-time strike.
Iraq the comeback kings
Despite conceding the Asian title to Japan, Iraq made up for the loss by securing a place at Rio 2016. While the holders remained undefeated to make it to the last four, all the more impressive was the fact that they had to come from behind throughout nearly the entire campaign. Save for an opening 2-0 defeat of Yemen, they fought back to get past Uzbekistan and draw against Korea Republic during the group stage, before going from a goal down to dispatch United Arab Emirates 3-1. They further established their place as the tournament comeback kings by undoing Qatar 2-1 in the same fashion.
Shoya Nakajima emerged the tournament’s Most Valued Player for his excellent displays. The Japan No10 provided the drive from midfield and scored as his side prevailed with an unblemished record. Despite his side's failure to qualify for Rio 2016, Ahmed Alaa impressed through his mesmerising runs and spectacular goals for Qatar. The Al-Rayyan forward finished as the tournament top-scorer with six goals, as he has established his undisputed place among Asia's promising stars.
10 – Rio 2016 marks Japan's tenth time reaching the Men's Olympic Football Tournament. And they are also arguably the most successful Asian team at global level, making to the last four twice, including winning bronze at Mexico 1968.
What they said
"In order to participate at the Olympic Games, we need to improve every aspect of our team. Throughout this tournament I have been living with the players and I could feel they were willing to improve, and I’m aware that they have the ability to improve. This is why we were able to make it through," Japan coach Makoto Teguramori