Nestory Irankunda overlooked for Olympic Games qualifier

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The door remains ajar for Nestory Irankunda to represent Australia at this year’s Olympics despite the “emotional” A-League teenage sensation missing selection for the Paris Games qualifiers for “welfare” reasons.

Socceroos pair Marco Tilio and Garang Kuol – who were both in Australia’s 2022 World Cup squad – will spearhead the Olyroos’ bid for 2024 Olympics qualification at the AFC under-23 Asian Cup.

A top-three finish at the April 15-May 3 tournament in Qatar will secure the Olyroos a berth at the Paris Games, while placing fourth will earn them a spot in the AFC-CAF (Africa) playoff match against Guinea for the final Olympics qualification place.

Bayern Munich-bound Irankunda, who scored a hat-trick for Adelaide United last week, is the most notable omission from the Olyroos’ 23-man squad.

Olyroos coach Tony Vidmar said he could have been “selfish” by picking Irankunda, but his priority was the 18-year-old winger’s wellbeing.

“With Nestor, we have to be really mindful,” Vidmar said.

“He’s just such an emotional player, and what’s happened to him this season, I think he’s on a rollercoaster 24/7.

“That’s just the way he is. That’s the way it’s gone, and we have to look at the bigger picture.

“We want Nestor to be a 10-year-plus Socceroo. He’s going to be the future of the national teams, that’s for sure.

“We just have to be mindful of what we do with him in the national team space. At the moment, we don’t want to damage him.

“The welfare of the player is No.1. He’s just turned 18, and it’s a big ask for him to come in, (with) all these expectations from people outside.

“He’s been through so much this year. I’d hate to be in his shoes. He’s just been prodded at. Everyone’s poking at him, everyone wants a piece of him.

“I understand playing for the national team is a huge thing, I’ve spoken to him about that.

“He just wants to play football for his club and then get ready for that next part of his journey.”

It’s a journey that could yet result in Irankunda being selected for the Olympics should Australia qualify.

“He’s always been in that (Olympics) consideration. He’s always been on our list of players,” Vidmar said.

“He’s one where after the qualifiers, and when we do qualify for the Olympics, it’ll be again having that discussion, having a chat with him.

“He likes that, he likes that contact, and he’s been fairly open and honest with me with a lot of things.”

Apart from Irankunda, a host of eligible players – including Socceroos duo Alessandro Circati (Parma, Italy) Patrick Yazbek (Viking FK, Norway), Nicholas Bilokapic (Peterborough United, England), Calem Nieuwenhof (Hearts, Scotland), Cameron Peupion (Brighton, England), Nectarios Triantis (Hibs, Scotland) – also missed under-23 Asian Cup selection due to their overseas club teams not being obligated to release them, as the tournament does not take place in a FIFA international window.

“I’ve been open and honest with my disappointment that the Asian Cup falls outside of a FIFA window, but we knew access to players would be a challenge and it’s something we’ve planned for in recent months,” Vidmar said.

“I just feel for those who’ve not been given the opportunity to join us, as representing your country at any level is something you never forget, and they would have benefited greatly from the experience.”

Tilio, who has returned to Melbourne City on loan from Celtic, is one of 15 A-League players selected for under-23 Asian Cup duty.

Kuol, whose older brother Alou is also in the squad, is on loan to Dutch outfit FC Volendam from English Premier League club Newcastle United.

“Everything we’ve done over the last 12 months has been focused on preparing for the Asian Cup,” Vidmar said.

“We set clear goals and expectations around what we want to achieve in Doha, and I’ve been really impressed by the way the group has taken ownership of that.

“There’s a strong desire and belief within this group that I believe will serve us well throughout the challenging moments that an international tournament of this calibre will present.”

“Our ability to prepare for this, build depth across the squad and foster important connections between our final squad gives me every confidence in this group and what they can achieve in Doha.”

Olyroos: Patrick Beach (Melbourne City), Lachlan Brook (Western Sydney Wanderers), Cameron Cook (Perth Glory), Jordan Courtney-Perkins (Sydney FC), Louis D’Arrigo (Lechia Gdansk), Jacob Farrell (Central Coast Mariners), Jake Girdwood-Reich (Sydney FC), Steven Hall (Brighton), Jake Hollman (Macarthur FC), Jacob Italiano (Borussia Monchengladbach II), Alou Kuol (Central Coast Mariners), Garang Kuol (FC Volendam), Nicolas Milanovic (Western Sydney Wanderers), Mark Natta (Newcastle Jets), Alexandar Popovic (Gwangju FC), Adrian Segecic (FC Dordrecht), Callum Talbot (Melbourne City), Ryan Teague (Melbourne Victory), Marco Tilio (Melbourne City), Mohamed Toure (Paris FC), Jordi Valadon (Melbourne Victory), Nishan Velupillay (Melbourne Victory), Rhys Youlley (KVC Westerlo).

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