North Korea has been formally suspended from the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics by the IOC as punishment for refusing to send a team to the Tokyo Games citing the COVID-19 pandemic.
In ever patriotic fashion, football fans will be huddled around televisions and devices this week, as the Olyroos and Matildas begin their Olympic campaigns.
The road to Tokyo has been uncertain, rocky and challenging. The men finally return to the Olympics after a 13-year absence.
The women are seeking another appearance in the knock-out phase; hoping to advance beyond the quarter-finals for the first time.
Graham Arnold has laid out what he sees as possible in the men’s squad by stating a clear expectation for them to “shock the world” and Tony Gustavsson no doubt has a talented array of players at his disposal, with Matildas fans hoping for something stunning from one of the nation’s most adored teams.
So what are realistic expectations for both squads just a day away from the Matildas launching the Australian football assault in Tokyo.
With the majority of Matildas now playing their club football abroad in some of the strongest leagues in the world, it stands to reason that individually, they will have improved technically.
That was desperately required considering the vast improvement being made by other nations around the globe.
Many accurately saw the Matildas slowly slipping off the pace in recent times, as other countries continued to develop at an ever-increasing rate.
The W-League was not providing the hardened match play equivalent to that of developing overseas leagues and the new clubs our players have settled into abroad will no doubt improve the fortunes of the national team when they reconvene in tournaments such as this.
However, has there been enough improvement over the last 18 months to suggest that Australia could contend for a medal in Tokyo? Recent results and performances suggest otherwise.
Most recently beaten 1-0 by Japan in a lack lustre performance, the women’s team was also soundly thrashed in April by Germany and Netherlands and despite a late and gallant fightback against Denmark in June, appeared well off the pace against top European competition.
In reality, there has been little to suggest a comfortable navigation through Group G, where they face USA, Sweden and New Zealand. In fact, the opening fixture against the Kiwis on June 21 could make or break their chances.
Without a full three points to open the tournament, the road to knock-out play looks decidedly inclined, despite a recent 0-0 draw with the Swedes in Kalmar.
In essence, the Matildas will be competitive and are a certain chance to advance beyond the group stage. However, should they indeed do so, the might of the British, Dutch and Brazilian women lurk somewhere in their future and that does look a bridge too far for Gustavsson’s squad at this stage.
Graham Arnold has certainly laid his cards on the table with the rather ambitious statement he made, particularly considering match play has been almost non-existent for his squad.
To make the task as difficult as can be, the football Gods have seen fit to once again slot two-time Olympic champions Argentina in the Olyroo’s Group C, along with the might of Spain and thankfully, a Mohamed Salah-less Egypt.
The squad is undoubtedly talented and the scope for development over the next 3-5 years so promising.
Yet can Arnold’s young team really expect to match it with the always classy Argentinians and a Spanish side littered with players who recently travelled to Euro 2020 as members of the senior national team, let alone meet the difficult challenge of finding what looks a vital three points against Egypt?
Logic says no.
As the lone over-age player in the squad, Mitchell Duke will lead the line up front, ably supported by Nick D’Agostino, Reno Piscopo and Daniel Arzani.
There is talent galore in the midfield with Denis Genreau, Riley McGree and Keanu Baccus are set to impress and Harry Souttar, Ruon Tongyik and Thomas Deng could form the basis of an impressive unit at the back.
However, with minimal play as a collective prior to departing for Tokyo, the chances of Arnold’s group gelling and finding points in two of their three matches does appear highly unlikely.
For the men, it was a great achievement to qualify for these games and something of which as a nation, Australia was immensely proud.
Conversely, there was a level of expectation around the Matildas being in Tokyo and more consideration of whether the team had a realistic chance of competing for what would be an historic Olympic medal.
Sadly, the men have drawn poorly and anything less than three points against Egypt will likely see them sent home in disappointed.
The Matildas might be perceived as far greater prospects for success by much of the Australian public, yet those of us following the game a little more closely realise that straight losses to USA and Sweden in their final two games could also see them sent packing.
Like you, I’ll be cheering them on, hoping for a little luck and feeling Australian football deserves some after a history of tricky draws and misfortune. Both teams through to the knock out phase would be something of a miracle, one through would be a commendable achievement.
Should neither team manage to advance, Australian football would once again be forced to regroup and “go again” with the lure of two World Cups on the horizon.