Soccer-Australia in hunt for Tokyo medal despite COVID-19 challenges - coach

MELBOURNE, Nov 11 (Reuters) - The COVID-19 pandemic has played havoc with Australia’s Olympic soccer preparations by stranding players overseas but coach Graham Arnold is confident the nation can still challenge for a medal at Tokyo next year.

Arnold has assembled a 26-man squad of home-based players for a training camp this week ahead of friendly matches against professional clubs Sydney FC on Thursday and Macarthur FC next week.

Yet another 10 or so foreign-based players under consideration for the Games, including Netherlands-based forward Daniel Arzani and Britain-based midfielder Riley McGree, are shut out of the camp due to travel restrictions and border controls.

While Arnold faces a juggling act over the next eight months before Tokyo, he remains confident the “Olyroos” can grab a first Olympic medal in the sport at their first Games appearance since 2008.

“I believe that we can and we will go there and compete really hard for a medal,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

“What’s important for these kids is they need to play football ... They need a lot of match minutes in their legs. They do that at their clubs, then everything is possible.

“You look at other Olympic teams at the moment, they’re not doing anything so we’re getting on the front foot and getting more prepared than other Olympic teams.”

Australia’s under-23 squad have not played competitively since booking their ticket for Tokyo at an Asian qualifying tournament in Thailand. They have only three more international windows to assemble.

As coach of the senior Australia team, Arnold may also have to hand the reins to his Olympic assistants while he guides the Socceroos in qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Australia’s borders remain closed but authorities are looking at opening up travel “bubbles” with New Zealand and Asian countries that have been relatively successful in containing COVID-19, such as Japan and South Korea.

“New Zealand (would be) a great opportunity, to play them twice in the FIFA window because they’re qualified as well,” said Arnold.

The postponed Copa America, which Australia have been invited to, could also offer a chance for players to prepare for Tokyo before the Olympic soccer starts July 22.

“We’ve got three (contingency) plans for everything,” Arnold said.

“If it opens up, if it doesn’t open up, if we to have to play in a bubble ... we’ll be ready.”

Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by ......