The Wellington Phoenix welcome back midfielder Reno Piscopo to the squad, following his successful run with the Australian Under 23 Men’s national team at the AFC U-23 Championship in Thailand.
The 21-year-old Piscopo was one of 14 players selected to the squad from the Hyundai A-League, and he featured heavily in the line-ups – making an immediate impact with his strong creative and attacking ability, bagging a goal and two assists for his efforts.
Piscopo credited his strong play for the Wellington Phoenix – which saw him nominated as the Hyundai A-League Young Footballer for December - as a reason for his fast start with the Australian national team.
“I left Wellington in good form, great form, and I was there to help the team as much as I could and to bring my form and ability to the team.”
The trip kicked off with Piscopo and the Australian Under 23 Men’s squad travelling to a pre-tournament training camp in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, before heading to Bangkok for their Group A games against Iraq, Thailand, and Bahrain.
The first match, a 1-1 draw against Iraq, saw Australia take the lead just after the hour mark with a thunderous free kick from Piscopo – a long-range dead ball opportunity which he blasted into the top corner. After this match, Piscopo dedicated his goal to everyone affected by the Australian bushfire crisis, saying the situation back home was at the forefront of player’s minds during the match.
“It felt good. Scoring my first goal in this tournament was important for us and the team to give us an extra boost, and to be able to dedicate this game to the families back home, the victims, it was special for me” said Piscopo.
The Australian team picked up a memorable win a few nights later, coming from behind against hometown team Thailand to win 2-1; with Nicholas D’Agostino’s first goal coming off a well-weighted pass from Piscopo to equalise after Thailand opened the scoring in the 23rd minute.
In their third match, a 1-1 draw against Bahrain in the final game of the group stage, Australia would advance to the AFC Championship campaign for the first time since 2013 – and again Piscopo featured strongly in the game, racking up a second assist on Ramy Najjarine’s goal and continuing to showcase his importance to this squad.
Following this match, Piscopo was reflective on the squad’s success to date, saying that him and his teammates are continuing to grow as a unit every time they take the field.
“I’m focusing on myself and our team - if we focus on ourselves and not the other team so much then I think we can do great things.
“We take one game at a time. It’s a new team. We’ve gelled a lot, taking it step by step and that’s all we’ve got to do.”
Australia’s all-or-nothing quarter-final match against Syria, was arguably the tensest match of the competition, with a goalless 90 minutes setting up a half hour of extra time to decide who would progress to the semis. Australia’s Al Hassan Toure was the hero for Australia in extra time, coming off the bench to slide the ball into the back of the net for the win.
But Australian’s dream run through the tournament would end in the semi-finals, as they lose 0-2 to a spirited Korea Republic squad. With an automatic berth at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on the line, Korea Republic surged to the win – whilst sending Australia into an all-or-nothing playoff match against Uzbekistan for third place.
And with everything on the line, the Under 23 team rose to the challenge to seal a 1-0 victory in a tight affair a few night’s later; D'Agostino saving the day with a brilliant solo goal after a scoreless first half. The final whistle confirmed Australia's place at the men's Olympic football tournament for the first time since Beijing 12 years ago – a great result after what had been a long, arduous journey to qualifying for the Olympic Games which began in March last year.
Now back in Wellington with the Phoenix, Piscopo reflects back on his time away and what the Under 23 team has accomplished over the past month.
“I’m super proud of the boys and what we accomplished together, it’s wasn’t easy – we were up against some strong teams from the top nations.
“We were happy to come third place - obviously we want to win and go all the way, but third place was good enough for us to qualify and that was the main thing.”
As arguably Australia's best player in the tournament, Piscopo knows that his performances in Thailand has made it tough for coach Graham Arnold to not pick him for the Copa America squad.
“It’s in the coaches hands now, he decides who’s going to get called up for the Olympics, my goal for now is just to focus on playing for the Wellington Phoenix and keeping on doing what I’m doing, just giving 100% for the team.
“And then, God willing, I’ll get called up for the Olympics - that’s my next goal, to go there.”