The last Men's Olympic Football Tournament at London 2012 was memorable for Korea Republic, who defied all odds to finish in third place as they clinched their maiden medal at the global showpiece. Now four years on, with that milestone achievement still fresh in mind, Shin Taeyong's side are expected to emulate the feat at Rio 2016.
The draw, however, provided few favours for the Asians. Once again they are pitted against Mexico, the tournament's defending champions against whom they played out a goalless draw in the group stage four years ago. Added to that, Germany are always a hard nut to crack for any opponents, while Fiji are no pushovers given their impressive qualifying performances. Despite the hard assignment, midfielder Kwon Changhoon believes that the current squad are more than capable of living up to expectations.
"I know it is a very difficult goal to revive the glory of four years ago," the 21-year-old Suwon Bluewings player told FIFA.com. "But we will aim for a medal in Rio and for that we’ll prepare as one team. I think we must prepare well and need to maintain our good condition heading to the Olympic Games.”
Kwon's confidence is not ill-founded considering their impressive campaign at the 2016 AFC U-23 Championship, during which they finished runners-up and thus earned the right to represent Asia at Rio 2016. The diminutive predator hit five goals to finish as the team's top-scorer, performances that truly established him among the promising stars of not only his country, but also the continent.
After being substituted during their opening victory against Uzbekistan, Kwon started in the second outing against Yemen and proved to be unstoppable, completing a hat-trick in the first half to set his side on the path to a 5-0 blowout. His fourth came in the semi-final clash against hosts Qatar as they prevailed 3-1, before opening the scoring against Japan in the final.
"I scored five goals but it is just a number," continued the modest youngster, playing down his individual brilliance during the campaign. "My goals should be attributed to the help of my team-mates, as well as the trust of the coach. During the tournament we fought as one team and all our goals are a testament to our teamwork."
Korea Republic remained undefeated in the qualifying competition until their good run was abruptly ended by Japan in the final. Curiously, Kwon singled out their only defeat of the campaign as the most memorable match. "We put in good performances, almost perfect," he reflected, citing the fact that they were two goals up in the first half only to inexplicably throw away the two-goal advantage and lose 3-2. "But we lost in the closing moments. It was a bitter defeat, but I think it will be a good experience for me and the team to learn and improve from."
"We had our confidence bolstered after the qualifying campaign. Self-belief is one of the most important things in football. We proved ourselves through this tournament. Personally, I learned that there is still much to learn in order to play better football."
*Park Jisung admirer *Like every young aspirant, Kwon has had his own role model since starting playing football as a third-grade elementary-school kid. The man from whom he has drawn inspiration down the years is none other than Park Jisung, the former Korea Republic and Manchester United star who is widely considered the best midfielder the country has produced.
"Personally I like Lionel Messi, but I admire Park Jisung when it comes to the term of idol,” Kwon said. “I think he is the world's best footballer. My lifetime dream is to become a footballer like him.”
It remains to be seen whether the burgeoning star will continue his smooth development and one day reach Park’s lofty status. For the time being, Kwon's displays are certainly eye-catching as he continues to score regularly for both club and country.
Aside from his performances during Olympic qualifying, he scored three times for the senior side in Asia's second qualifying round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. At club level, he scored 11 times in all competitions for Suwon last season, a significant tally for an emerging player.
It seems a bright future is assured, but for now Kwon is simply fixing his sights on achieving breakthrough success at Rio 2016 this August. "I’m glad that we got a chance to challenge a big stage like Olympic Games,” he said. “I believe it will be a good opportunity (for me) to become a better player.”