Olympic squad heads to Middle East for qualifier

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Olympic squad heads to Middle East for qualifier

Players of the men’s Olympic football team said they are confident they will beat Oman and clinch a spot in the London Games during the Asian qualifier slated for next week.

The team, led by coach Hong Myung-bo, gathered in the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi, yesterday for its first training session before heading to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, last night where they will spend the following week acclimatizing to the region. The team is scheduled to land in Muscat, Oman, on Sunday to prepare for the crucial qualifier at Al Seeb Sports Stadium on Feb. 22.

“This is the most important game,” team captain and defender Hong Jeong-ho said. “We will prepare as if it’s the championship game and put our best efforts forward.”

The Under-23 team can clinch a spot at the Summer Games for Korea’s seventh consecutive appearance with a win against Oman next week, but if it draws or loses to the Gulf nation, the team’s fate will be decided in the final qualification match against Qatar, set for March 14. Korea is currently leading Group A with eight points from two wins and two draws, but is only one point above Oman.

In the Asian qualifiers for the Olympics, only the winner can directly advance to London, while the runners-up go through a round-robin playoff with the other two second-placed teams before playing Senegal, the fourth-placed team from the African qualifiers, to determine the final qualifier to the quadrennial event.

Oman was awarded a 3-0 victory by the Asian Football Confederation two weeks ago when the governing body ruled that Qatar had used an ineligible player in their previous qualifier last November. The ruling moved the Middle East team to within just one point of Korea.

Korea had its chance to increase its lead on Feb. 5 when Oman drew with Qatar 2-2, but instead the young Taegeuk Warriors’ game against Saudi Arabia ended in a 1-1 stalemate.

Oman Football Association CEO and General Secretary Hazaa al-Saadi said to local press on Monday that he believes “history will be made” this month and the team is keen to win the upcoming games.

However, despite feeling the pressure from Oman, Korea’s Olympic footballers said they are ready to play well and book their ticket to London.

“I read the article that Oman wants to make history, but our team will prove that the comment was just words,” winger Baek Sung-dong said. “I think we can easily win if we prepare thoroughly.”

Korea had beaten the country 2-0 in their first qualifier last September, but this time the teams will face off in the Middle East. The Olympic team has yet to win an away game during this qualification campaign.

“They became a little stronger than before and since it’s an away game, we need to avoid conceding an opening goal,” midfielder Yoon Bitgaram said.

By Joo Kyung-don [kjoo@joongang.co.kr]
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