Saudi Arabia U23 v Thailand U23: Zico targets Olympic qualification

Kiatisuk "Zico" Senamuang has warned Thailand's AFC Under-23 Championship rivals not to underestimate his players as the nation attempt to qualify for the Olympic Games for the first time since 1968.

The Thais have twice played at the Olympics – in Melbourne in 1956 and in Mexico City 12 years later – and Kiatisuk and his team will face off against Japan, North Korea and Saudi Arabia in the Qatari capital in an attempt to end a 48-year wait.

The top three finishers at the AFC U23 Championship will qualify for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro later in the year and first up for Thailand in Group B will be a meeting with Saudi Arabia on Wednesday.

The top two teams advance to the tournament’s quarterfinals and Kiatisuk was in bullish mood ahead of the meeting with the Gulf giants.

“Thailand are participating in this competition with great motivation and we will try to do our best and play good games,” said the former national team striker.

“Our players would like to go to Rio so we will try our best and we will definitely do our best in every game we know we have some tough games.

“Thailand might be the underdog in this group but for this generation our team consists of six or seven national team players.

“So I can guarantee you we will play with confidence and we will try to grab all of the opportunities available to us so we can bring a surprise to this tournament.”

The task facing Thailand throughout the group stages will be significant. While Saudi Arabia have struggled at continental level in recent years, the Gulf nation remains one of the strongest in Asia while North Korea have an impressive recent record at youth and senior level in continental competition.

Japan, meanwhile, are seen as the favourites in the group after reaching the semi-finals in London in 2012 and are aiming to continue a run of successive qualifications for the Olympic Games that stretches back to the Atlanta Games in 1996.

Kiatisuk, though, refuses to be overawed by the strength of the Japanese and believes the increasing numbers of Japanese players in the Thai Premier League will have helped to prepare his team for the task at hand.

“Our players are well aware of how to play against Japan, especially those who play in the Thai Premier League because we have a few Japanese players in our league,” he said.

“We have been following Japan not only at this level but also in World Cup qualifying in Singapore when they drew against Singapore.

“But we don’t want to look too much further in the future. We want to focus on Saudi, which is our upcoming game and then we will see how to handle Japan afterwards.”