The path to Olympic qualification for any athlete is an arduous, torturous, life-consuming slog.
- Fifteen players who earned Olympic qualification for the Olyroos in January last year will not be in Tokyo
- Western Sydney’s Tass Mourdoukoutas and Sydney’s Connor O’Toole are among the group who missed out on selection
- The Olyroos face Argentina, Spain and Egypt in the Olympic group stage which started on Thursday
The journey is even more painful for those who battle through the entire process yet still aren’t rewarded with their Olympic dream.
On January 25, 2020, a group of united, passionate and patriotic young Australian footballers went to Thailand for the Asian under-23 championship and qualified for the Olympics for the first time in 12 years.
The moment was sealed with a 1-0 win over Uzbekistan. The euphoric scenes on the final whistle were a crystallisation of several years of hard toil, along with the possibility that they would add the title of Olympian to their resumes.
While understandably they did not want to ponder it in their time of triumph, they knew for many this would not be the case.
The squad would be trimmed, three players outside the under-23 age cut-off would be included, the suspended would return and form would fluctuate.
The 12-month delay due to COVID only added to the likelihood of the latter.
Of the 22 players who were among the squad to secure Olympic qualification, only seven have ended up making the final cut for Tokyo.
Some, like left back Alex Gersbach, have not been released by their overseas clubs for the event — which is permissible through FIFA regulations. But the majority of the rest have missed out due to form and the strength of their replacements.
Heartbreak the result
There are few Olympic sports, if any, where athletes are forced to endure this type of rollercoaster of emotions.
“It’s definitely rare. There aren’t a lot of other sports where you qualify and then don’t get to go. Trying to explain that to my friends and family, I had to say, yeah, we’ve qualified, but I’m not sure I’m going,” Tass Mourdoukoutas said.
“I remember when the final whistle went against Uzbekistan, running and tackling (fellow Olyroos player) Tom Glover and looking at him saying, ‘we’ve qualified, we’re going to the Olympics’. Then to not make the squad, it’s tough to hear in the end.”
While the distress of missing out is apparent, there is a firm understanding of the realities and oddities of Olympic football.
That is coupled with the intense competition for places emanating from an A-League season whereby a central theme was the emergence of youth.
“It’d be sort of weird if you qualified as a sprinter and didn’t end up going. If this squad was last year, it would be completely different,” O’Toole said.
“It’s just football really, there’s no other way to describe it.
“This squad, it’s the first time in a while you look at it and think two other guys could be in this position and vice versa.
“My only surprise was that there weren’t more people from qualifying in Thailand who made the final squad.
Mourdoukoutas conceded he had not had the best of seasons in the A-League competition to earn Olyroos selection.
“Yes, originally it was deserving as I helped the squad qualify but, in the end, you pick the squad on form. I think the squad was rightly selected and sadly I didn’t do enough to get in,” Mourdoukoutas said.
Although the final decision may be understood, the personal setback for those who played such an important role in helping to break the 12-year Olympic drought can still be severe.
Receiving an explanation from the man who made the final call, however, in Mourdoukoutas’s case has helped.
“It was tough to find out that news. I guess luckily enough for me Arnie (Graham Arnold) took the time out of his schedule to give me a call a few days beforehand and let me know,” Mourdoukoutas said.
“He had some really positive things to say and was really thankful for what I brought to the team and that I helped us qualify. That meant a lot.”
O’Toole’s experience was different, however. He was only told of his omission last month during their final training camp in Marbella.
“Gary Van Egmond (assistant coach) told me after the Mexico game,” O’Toole said.
“I was pretty devastated. I’d been a part of the Olyroos set-up for around three years.
“Apart from that initial discussion I haven’t had any sort of feedback yet. I was just told I wasn’t part of the squad and had to hop on a plane back home.
“It would help rationalise it in your own mind, but I get that Arnie (Graham Arnold) probably has bigger things on his plate at the moment.”
There will be no dissipating of the hurt of not getting to live out an Olympic dream that they worked so hard for, but for those who contributed to the return of the Olyroos, the pride of that achievement remains a powerful one.
“The biggest success was qualifying and actually getting us there where we hadn’t been for 12 years,” Mourdoukoutas said.
“If you ask the whole group, they will tell you the same thing: It’s far more difficult to play those games in Asia and get us there than just have a good season and make the squad.”
In addition to the self-satisfaction of knowing they helped get the Olyroos to Tokyo, there will only be support as they watch their nation duel with Argentina, Spain and Egypt in the group stages.
Mourdoukoutas echoed his sentiment.
“It’ll be fine with me, I’ll definitely watch and cheer them on,” Mourdoukoutas said.