Olympics-Soccer-Japanese lead Asian challenge with eyes on podium

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By Michael Church

(Reuters) - Fifty-three years since winning their first and so far only Olympic medal, Japan's male footballers have their sights set on making history on home soil under Hajime Moriyasu.

Kunishige Kamamoto's brace in 1968 famously earned Japan a bronze with victory over hosts Mexico, but since then there have been near misses and no medals.

Confidence, however, is growing that Moriyasu's team could finally break Japan's medal hoodoo after a series of impressive results since the turn of the year.

A 1-1 draw with Spain on Saturday came after successes against Argentina, Ghana, Jamaica and Honduras and has many dreaming of a podium return for the country's footballers.

"We came in with a focus on winning this game and it's unfortunate that we didn't," said Moriyasu after facing Spain, highlighting his ambition against a team whose core featured in the semi-finals of Euro 2020.

The Japanese are due to kick off their campaign against South Africa on Thursday followed by meetings with Mexico and France as they seek a place in the quarter-finals.

Hopes, though, have been high before only for heartbreak to ensue.

As the Japanese prepared for their co-hosting of the World Cup, Philippe Troussier led a talented squad to Sydney in 2000, missing out on the medal rounds when they were eliminated on penalties in the quarter-finals by the United States.

Twelve years later the country went closer still, reaching the last four but falling short with a loss to eventual gold medallists Mexico before losing to neighbours South Korea in the third place playoff.

That 2-0 victory for the South Koreans was the first medal won by an Asian men's team at the Olympics since Japan's 1968 success, and Kim Hak-bum's team will also be hoping to make an impact in Tokyo.

While Tottenham Hotspur's Son Heung-min was not included as one of three permitted overage players, Kim has one of the most talented young squads in Asia at his disposal.

His team won the Asian Under 23 Championship last year to qualify and they are banking on a strong team ethic to help them make an impact in the group phase against New Zealand, Honduras and Romania.

"We have to sacrifice for each other. Then we can compete against the best of them," overage player Kwon Chang-hoon said.

"We're all chasing the common goal. Most of the guys will only get one chance to play in the Olympics, and I am not here just for my own good. We're all in this together."

Saudi Arabia and Australia will also represent Asia, with the west Asians supplementing their team with World Cup veterans Yasser Al Shahrani, Salem Al Dawsari and Salman Al Faraj as they face off against Brazil, Germany and Ivory Coast.

Graham Arnold's Olyroos take on Spain, Argentina and Egypt in a challenging assignment in the country's first appearance at the Olympics since 2008.

(Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Michael Perry)

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