2012 Olympic Soccer: London Olympics a Historic One for Asian Soccer

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2012 Olympic Soccer: London Olympics a Historic One for Asian Soccer
Michael Steele/Getty Images

In the 25 Olympics in which there has been a soccer competition, an Asian nation has only once medaled, when Japan won the bronze in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Only one other time did an Asian nation even reach the bronze medal game, when India finished fourth in the 1956 Olympics.

No matter how the final four games of the men's soccer tournament of the London Olympics turn out, an Asian nation will return to the medal stand for the first time in 44 years. It will either be Japan, who faces Mexico in their semifinal game, or South Korea, who will face Brazil.

If either team wins their game, they will play for the gold medal, with a guaranteed silver should they lose the final. If both teams lose, the two will face each other for the bronze medal.

Asia's soccer renaissance has been led by the South Korean and Japanese national teams, with China slowly on its way to developing a solid international presence. South Korea has been the most successful national team in Asia, qualifying for eight World Cups and the last seven Olympics.

FIFA recognized Asia's emerging success in soccer by awarding Japan and South Korea the 2002 World Cup, and South Korea responded by finishing fourth, the best in the nation's history. 

Japan has qualified for the four most recent World Cups, twice reaching the Round of 16, and is playing in its ninth Olympics.

The poohbahs of Japanese soccer have worked hard to promote interest in the sport over the past couple of decades, and with Japan becoming a regular presence at the top international tournaments, the nation is showing more support of the Japanese team than ever before. 

China is still a few steps behind South Korea and Japan, only playing in one World Cup and two Olympics, though the sport is wildly popular in the country.

China has a long running rivalry with South Korea, and the Chinese team had failed to win in 27 consecutive matches against the Koreans before finally defeating them in 2010. Like in many sports, China is a sleeping giant, and figures to be a major presence in the sport in the coming decades.

One of the greatest hurdles that Asian players face is that many of them do not get regular exposure to world-class international competition. The great majority of players on each team play in the professional leagues of their home countries, with only a few U-23 Japanese players playing in Germany and Netherlands.

South Korea has been more successful in placing their players on the top European teams, including Arsenal and Sunderland, but the majority of their players do not get to grow against the world's best. 

Because of the age restrictions in Olympic soccer, it is one of the best tournaments for viewing the future stars of a nation's soccer team. Japan and South Korea's success comes only four years after both teams, along with China, failed to advance out of group play at the 2008 Olympics.

Part of this is due to the poor play of a few expected favorites, namely Spain, but it is far more indicative of the fact that Asian soccer is on the rise. Just as Uruguay ended Europe's exclusive reign over Olympic medals in soccer in the 1920's, the duo of Japan and South Korea are announcing that a new continent will be competitive in international soccer.

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