‘Everything locked up. I was a mannequin out there’: Why Olympic qualification means so much to Deng

Representing Australia at the Olympic Games in Tokyo has been a dream of Thomas Deng’s for a number of years but the young defender is relying on rule change to make that happen.

Deng lead the Australian U-23 squad as they qualified for the Olympics in memorable fashion in Thailand in January.

Being a part of Graham Arnold’s squad in Tokyo was major goal for Deng but the rescheduling of the Olympics to 2021 – due to the COVID-19 crisis - has left that ambition in doubt.Deng will turn 24 in March next year, making him too old to play the men’s football competition at the Olympics, which has a U-23 are limit, with three overage players also eligible.

If the International Olympic Committee leave the rules as they are, it means Deng – along with the likes of Alex Gersbach and Tom Glover won’t be able to take part.

Football Federation is hoping FIFA and the IOC will make the 2021 Olympics an U-24 tournament to allow the players who helped their nations qualify to take part.

“Being able to represent my country at the Olympics would be an honour,” Deng said on the Socceroos podcast.

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“We haven’t qualified for a long time, 12 years since the last time, so to get to this main stage would be a dream come true and can possibly change your career.”

You can understand Deng’s desire to play at the Games, considering what the squad went through just to punch their ticket to Japan.

The squad came through seven intense matches in grueling heat in Thailand, finally getting the job done with a 1-0 win over Uzbekistan in the third-place playoff.

As skipper, Deng played every match at the AFC U-23 Championship, admitting it was the hardest tournament he’s ever experienced.

“The heat and humidity in Bangkok was crazy. Every game, every training took everything out of you,” he admitted.

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“In the group stages we were playing every two or three days, the turnaround was very short and for some players to back up game-to-game was very difficult.

“People don’t really understand when they are watching on TV how difficult it is, in this heat sometimes your mind goes so it’s a real mental game, but the boys held it together.

“I remember the Syria game [in the Quarter Finals], we played 120 minutes and I remember in extra-time I couldn’t move.

“I was playing right-back and my legs locked up, both calves, both hammy’s, quads, everything locked up. I was basically a mannequin on the field.

“I remember Arnie getting Keanu [Baccus] to come and cover me, I was basically standing there doing nothing as we had run out of subs. Being able to get through that gave us more strength and belief to do well.”

If Deng was to be able to march out behind the Australian flag at the opening ceremony in Tokyo, it would cap an incredible personal journey for him.

Deng was born in Nairobi in Kenya, a South Sudanese refugee before his family relocated to Australia looking for a better life.

“It was a big thing at the time. Family members in Kenya came and we were saying goodbye and I wasn’t too sure what was happening,” Deng recalled.

“I was quite young. I didn’t know how Australia was, how the people were going to be.

“When we arrived, we had a few family members here and it made the transition a lot easier. I’m grateful for the opportunities the country has given us and it’s changed my life completely.”


It was growing up in Adelaide where Deng fell in love with football and first crossed paths with Awer Mabil.

The pair became close friends and were soon on the path to professional football, with Mabil debuting in the Hyundai A-League at Adelaide United, while Deng ended up at Victory.

It wasn’t long before the duo were catching the attention of national team staff and they both fulfilled a career milestone in October 2018, debuting for the Socceroos against Kuwait.

Both Deng and Mabil were second-half substitutes, with the latter scoring a goal in the 4-0 win.

“It’s the craziest thing. That day or the day before I was telling Awer he would score if he came on,” Deng recalled.

“Being able to make my debut on the same day was a dream come true.

“Me and Awer we have known each other for over 10 years. We grew up in the same area in Andrews Farm in Adelaide, we went to the same school, we used to go to the park everyday together.

“We’ve got a really good bond and on that day it was really special and is something we’re going to remember for the rest of our lives and tell our kids.”


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