Asian hopefuls commence journey
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The long road for Asian nations seeking a berth at the 2012 Men’s Olympic Football Tournament will commence this week. A total of 35 nations will battle for just three automatic berths to London 2012, with the 22 nations involved in first-round action potentially facing four rounds of competition played over 13 gruelling months. An additional ticket will be on offer to the fourth-best Asian qualifier who will play-off against an African representative.

Australia, Korea Republic, Japan won their way to the Beijing Olympics, and the nation’s Under-23 teams will again be seeking to maintain the recent east Asian dominance on the continent, having filled the top-three positions at the AFC Asian Cup last month. Host nation China were the other Asian representative to feature at the last Olympiad.

Opening intrigue
A number of the region’s best-credentialed nations will compete in the opening round of qualifying, with the seeding based on results for Beijing 2008. Iran are undoubtedly the biggest name to participate in the opening round with the imposing Azadi Stadium to host central Asian nation Kyrgyzstan. The Iranians found themselves in a tough third-round group last time around, which included Australia and Saudi Arabia, but despite the elongated task which lies ahead, a first Olympic appearance since 1976 is far from out of the question.

Another nation with historical Olympic Games pedigree is India who competed in four successive tournaments between 1948-1960. India commences their campaign against Myanmar, with the team under the tutelage of well-travelled Serbian tactician Milan Zivadinovic. Much interest will focus on India’s fortunes following the nation’s recent appearance at the Asian Cup, and with the U-23 national team competing in the I-League.

Kuwait are another side with the credentials to make an impression having appeared in three Olympiads, most recently at Sydney 2000. The Kuwaitis, whose senior team were crowned Gulf Cup and west Asian champions last year, begin with an opening tie against outsiders Bangladesh.

Arguably the first round match-up holding the most interest is Palestine’s meeting with Thailand. Bryan Robson’s Thai team will host the opening encounter on Wednesday, before an historic return leg on 9 March at the Faisal Al Huseni Stadium, which will be Palestine’s inaugural international qualification match played on home soil. The Palestinians were dealt no favours with the draw which pits them against a Thai side who were only narrowly eliminated by eventual champions Japan at November’s Asian Games.

Big names loom large
Asia’s top-ranked nations will commence their tilt at London 2012 qualification in June, when 13 teams will enter alongside the 11 first-round victors. The 12 second-round winners will then be split into three groups of four with only the winners to claim the qualification prize. Aside from the four Asian participants at Beijing 2008, the likes of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Korea DPR are likely to feature prominently. Much focus too will be on Iraq, whose historic run to the 2004 Olympic semi-finals laid the platform for the war-torn country to reach the unthinkable heights of a continental championship three years later.

Japan have already shown the pedigree necessary to again achieve qualification after winning the Asian Games gold last November, in what was a tournament restricted to U-23 players. Some of the potential firepower within their ranks include the top goalscorer in that tournament, Kensuke Nagai, as well as Borussia Dortmund starlet Shinji Kagawa.

Like Japan, Korea Republic are another nation seemingly blessed with an abundance of young talent, a number of whom showed their wares at Qatar 2011 last month. Celtic’s Ki Sung-Yueng, Wolfsburg’s Koo Ja-Cheol and rising star Yoon Bit-Garam just some of the leading names that will potentially form a daunting Korean line-up.

Of all the qualifying hopefuls Australia have appeared in the most Olympiads in recent years with an unbroken streak dating back to 1988. Newly appointed coach Aurelio Vidmar, a goalscorer for Australia at Atlanta 1996, is expected to field a relatively young line-up when their campaign commences in June, with the U-20 national team impressing in finishing second on the continental stage last year.

Round 1
MD1: 23 February 2011
MD2: 9 March 2011

Round 2
MD1: 19 June 2011
MD2: 23 June 2011

Round 3
MD1: 21 September 2011
MD2: 23 November 2011
MD3: 27 November 2011
MD4: 5 February 2012
MD5: 22 February 2012
MD6: 14 March 2012

MD1-MD3: 25-29 March 2012