- Nick D’Agostino scored the winner as Australia ended their Olympic drought
- “As soon as the full-time whistle blew, a few players broke down in tears”
- Forward netted five goals in qualifying having barely played any club football
No matter what Nick D’Agostino accomplishes in his football career, he already owns a piece of priceless history. D’Agostino’s goal in the qualifying play-off ensured Australia’s drought from the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament – now stretched a further 12 months to 13 years – will draw to a close when they take the field at Tokyo 2020.
Only two previous Australians – Ned Zelic in 1992 and Adrian Leijer in 2008 – can say their goal proved pivotal in lifting the Olyroos into an Olympiad. Now D’Agostino and his team-mates are seeking to follow in the footsteps of some of the most legendary names in sport.
One such king in the Olympic pantheon, Usain Bolt, is D’Agostino’s earliest memory of the world’s foremost multi-sport event. Something of a sprint champion in his own school days, D’Agostino could easily have followed the ’Lightning Bolt’ into track and field but that notion proved something of an anathema to his family, where a Maltese-background meant football was a constant. “I wanted to do track and field, but I don’t think my parents would let me,” D’Agostino tells FIFA.com, partly perhaps, in jest.
Grabbing the spotlight
Despite scoring three goals in the qualifying tournament, including the crucial strike in the play-off against defending U-23 champions Uzbekistan, D’Agostino’s club form run suggested little of what was to follow. Indeed the forward had managed just 14 A-League minutes during the previous eight months at Perth Glory.
Yet somehow he ended as Australia’s top-scorer in a gruelling campaign amid steamy conditions in Bangkok. There was also a double against the hosts in a 2-1 win, and another decisive brace in pre-qualifying against perennial continental challengers Korea Republic.
“That tournament was probably the biggest turning point for me,” said the 23-year-old. “We set out seeking to achieve a goal and Arnie (coach Graham Arnold) instilled belief in me to go out and do what he knows I’m capable of doing. To have a coach that believes in you is great for your mental well-being.”
The recent Tokyo 2020 draw has brought about another challenge for Australia who are set to face European and South American royalty in the shape of Spain and Argentina, as well as London 2012 quarter-finalists Egypt.
“It has been a long process to get where we are now,” D’Agostino said. “Hopefully it will be worth the wait and that we set out what we want to do over there.”
Emotion on edge
D’Agostino said the squad were mindful, but unburdened, by the team’s history, both recent and distant. Australia had competed in six successive tournaments until missing out on London 2012. Emotions, unsurprisingly, were high when the team realised their ambition at Thailand’s iconic Rajamangala.
“As soon as the full-time whistle blew, a few (players) broke down in tears to be honest,” said D’Agostino. “It was a long hard road to get to that point for sure, but we knew it would all be worth it if we put in the performances that we needed.
“When that full-time whistle blew, we knew everything we had worked so hard for had paid off, so it was a big weight off the shoulders. It was an incredible feeling, the feeling of a lifetime, that’s for sure.
“Arnie always instils that belief in his players. He said to us before we departed ‘we are going to qualify’, and we actually aimed to win the tournament. Obviously we didn’t quite get that goal but I think we played very, very well in the cut-throat games, especially in that last game. They (Uzbekistan) have quality players and we defended resiliently and attacked well, and it was fortunate that I was able to break away and put the ball in the back of the net.
“It is going to be a great experience to whichever players make the (Tokyo 2020) squad. You want to play against the best. We want to challenge ourselves. It is great to compare yourself with other players that are your age from around the world … not many people get that kind of opportunity.”