SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Shorn of its best talent and squeezed into a packed regional calendar, the Asian Games soccer tournament’s struggle for stature amid grander offerings makes an exciting edition in South Korea a necessity.
With the Incheon Games not part of world governing body FIFA’s calendar, top international sides in Asia have little clout when attempting to call up their best under-23 players for the event, which has been part of all 16 previous Asian Games.
Hosts South Korea tried to include talisman Son Heung-min but the 22-year-old’s German club Bayer Leverkusen blocked it, already wary that they will lose the forward for most of January when he takes part in the FIFA-approved Asian Cup.
While the 16-team Asian Cup tournament in Australia is the pinnacle for the continent’s players, the Asian Games soccer events seem to have little relevance even in the host nation.
The awkward 29-team men’s tournament will begin on Sept. 14, five days before the Games’ opening ceremony, and the same day as K-League Classic leaders Jeonbuk Motors host Gyeongnam in a likely pivotal league game.
The domestic league and FC Seoul’s two-legged AFC Champions League semi-final clash against Western Sydney Wanderers will continue to run at the same time as the Games.
The Asian Football Confederation are also holding an under-16 championship in Thailand, with the final scheduled for Sept. 20, while their under-19 championships take place in Myanmar just days after the Incheon final.
Despite the clash of fixtures, the South Koreans have been able to call up international striker Kim Shin-wook from Ulsan Hyundai as one of the three overage “wildcard” players in their squad.
“I may not be the most talented wildcard player ever, but I am ready to make more sacrifices than anyone this year,” the modest 26-year-old was quoted as saying by the Yonhap News agency.
The hosts have been drawn in Group A alongside Saudi Arabia, Laos and Malaysia, who they play in their opening match on Sept. 14 at Incheon Munhak Stadium - one of the six venues being used for the event.
A gold medal would be a record-equalling fourth for the Koreans and first since 1986, when they also hosted the Games.
The title will also give Kim and his team mates an exemption from the two years of mandatory military service that all able-bodied Korean men are required to undertake.
Holders Japan and old political foes North Korea stand in the hosts’ way of success, while 2010 runners-up United Arab Emirates are quietly confident of proving their run in Guangzhou was not an end to their production line of young talent.
“We do not want to put unnecessary pressure on the team. They are professionals and they know what they have to do to fulfil the aspirations for the football fans here,” UAE FA president Yousuf Al Serkal told the Gulf Times.
“The goal, of course, will be to go past the first stage and then take things one match at a time.”
North Korea have been drawn in a three-team group, along with China and Pakistan, meaning progress to the knockout stages should be assured, while the UAE face Jordan and India, whose participation has been called into question after the government threatened to pull funding following poor results.
Iran, a record four times champions, have named only a squad of 20 for the Games with talented Europe-based youngsters Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Sardar Azmoun not featuring in the list so far.
The women’s tournament has also suffered from high-profile absentees, although the hosts have been able to secure the release of playmaker Ji So-yun from English side Chelsea for the knockout stages of the 11-team tournament, which has no age limit.
Ji will miss the straightforward Group A matches against Thailand, India and Maldives, but will be available for the encounters against holders and world champions Japan as well as twice victors North Korea.
The Japanese, who won the Guangzhou final four years ago and then followed up with their World Cup win 12 months later, have been drawn in Group B alongside Taiwan, China and Jordan.
The Japanese continued their dominant run in May when they thumped Jordan 7-0 in group play and then edged China 2-1 in extra time of a close fought semi-final en route to winning the Asian Cup in Vietnam, making them favourites to win the gold.
Editing by Sudipto Ganguly