Olympic games showcase talent, youth
The Olympics kicks off Wednesday and Thursday respectively, as the men’s and women’s soccer tournaments fan out across the British Isles. The vast majority of the group stage games are outside of London, with matches in Cardiff, Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow and Coventry.
The women are a big deal in the United States and rightfully so. The men’s tournament may be something of an afterthought stateside, a casualty of the USA’s remarkable last-second collapse in qualifying.
But the men's tournament still has a lot to offer. In fact, this is a potential thriller that is just under the radar; four very good teams have a shot to win gold, the hosts are eager to make some noise, and for one nation — Egypt — this tournament could prove cathartic.
The men's Olympics are now a very distant second to the World Cup — a victim of political fighting between FIFA and the IOC — and the teams that will participate are severely truncated. You will not see Wayne Rooney, Kaka or Xavi Hernandez at the Games because nations are not allowed to field full national teams.
Instead, these are what are known as 'age-eligible' youth teams. In the case of the Olympic games, these are U-23 sides (meaning the players must be 23 years of age or younger) but managers may then add three 'overage' players. These limits only apply to the men, as the women’s squads will be full-strength sides.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of talent to offer neutral spectators.
Brazil looks the strongest on paper, with starlet Neymar and Chelsea targets Oscar and Hulk in the squad. Established stars like Alexandre Pato and young guns like Santos’ Ganso all combine to make a rich, talented group. They tore through team Great Britain in a warm-up game that showed just how difficult this group’s passing game is to contain.
Neymar is obviously the shining light, a player so talented he is already breathlessly being compared to Barcelona striker Lionel Messi. Neymar certainly wouldn’t mind repeating Messi’s success in this tournament – the Argentine won gold in Beijing – but understands the enormous amount of pressure these Olympics present. He has been sharply criticized in Brazil for staying in his country instead of playing abroad. This may seem bizarre, but in the soccer-mad nation, his refusal to move is seen as an unwillingness to test himself at the highest level and thus improve the national team.
Mexico boasts a team that is battle-tested. They have been together for well over a year and have also weathered some scandal together. Several players on this team were involved in an incident involving prostitutes at the Copa America in 2011, while others were charged with doping and later cleared after it was found they had eaten tainted meat.
The heart of the squad is long-serving back Carlos Salcido, who will line up in front of the outstanding Cruz Azul keeper Jose de Jesus Corona. Salcido will have to form the link-up with the prolific Chivas creator Marco Fabian and Tottenham’s erratic midfielder Giovani dos Santos.
But this team has an excellent sense of understanding — most of the players have logged at least 20 games together at this level — and they are going to be tough to break down.
Spain are coming off a massive summer, winning an unprecedented treble by seizing the European Championship in Kiev. Juan Mata, Jordi Alba and Javi Martinez are the holdovers from that triumph. The trio are joined at the Games by some truly remarkable young talent; Iker Muniain is considered a breakout star after his season at Athletic Bilbao; David de Gea cemented his status as a true number one at Manchester United; and Cristian Tello is one of Barcelona’s players of the future.
Can this side keep Spain rolling? Why not? After all, their U-19 team just captured the European title.
Uruguay have to be the dark horses. They will throw Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani up top and get help in the center from the dynamic Nicolas Lodeiro. The first two need no introduction; Lodeiro, on the other hand, is a reclamation project at only 23.
Lodeiro was one of the best youth players at the 2009 U-20 World Cup and was a member of the championship Copa America side in 2011. But he also has the distinction of being the first player sent off at the 2010 World Cup and his stint at Ajax was abysmal. Lodeiro is hoping this tournament – and his move to Botafogo next month — will restart his career.
Team GB are a gerrymandered side that will get a home boost – but little else. Youth soccer in Britain is in a sad state and the fact that four home nations were warring over this team until the roster deadline — with the Scots and the Northern Irish not contributing any players — did not help.
Stuart Pearce has some talent to call on — Micah Richards, Craig Bellamy and keeper Jack Butland are quality players. But the squad lacks depth and experience playing as a group. Pearce didn’t help matters by admitting he was prevented from picking five players by his own FA. Dysfunctional is too charitable a term for this outfit.
The other team to keep an eye on is Egypt. Led by the greatest African player never to play in Europe, Mohamed Aboutrika, Egypt are hoping to wipe away a year of soccer misery triggered by the Port Said disaster.
Domestic football remains in a state of suspension with only limited closed-door matches starting and the government has indicated they will not allow the league to restart as planned on August 24. Bob Bradley’s squad was stunned in Cup of Nations qualifying and the seven-time champs will not play in the African tournament in 2013.
Their Olympic team has a chance to get out of a group with New Zealand, Belarus and the mighty Brazil, but after that, nothing is expected. Many in the nation will just be happy to see their team playing again on a big stage.