Olympic football first started in the 1900 Paris games, with women joining in almost a century later at Atlanta 1996. 20 years on from that, the Rio 2016 games will see 16 countries in the men’s tournament and 12 in the women’s, across seven stadiums.
A QUICK HISTORY LESSON
Past Olympic Games have featured the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Luis Suárez, David De Gea, Fabio Cannavaro, and Neymar. Despite those star-studded names – and it regularly being the best-attended competition in the Games, with more than 2 million watching the Men’s 2012 competition – football has never been established as a marquee event.
When football was introduced to the Games in the early 20th century, it was amateurs-only, as per Olympic tradition; then the new format of the World Cup became the way forward. In 1992, the men’s tournament changed its format to become age-restricted to Under-23 players. One Olympic cycle later in Atlanta 1996, it was changed to allow three older players per team.
Whatever your opinion on the event, there’s certainly nobody that would reasonably claim that it’s a big priority for top footballers. For example, Lionel Messi won gold in 2008 for Argentina, yet during his recent announcement to retire from international football, he stated he’d never won anything significant for his nation, having collected runners-up medals in various international competitions. Even the US, a country with a proud Olympic history, appear to show a similar attitude; after all, Jürgen Klinsmann wasn’t relieved of his duties as men’s national team coach despite successive failures to qualify for the tournament.
Partly because of this attitude, traditionalists argue that the Olympics should only showcase sports for whom the Games is their ultimate; but this format does give a good chance for exciting young football players to show their talents.
In any case, the Men’s side of this year’s competition culminates at the famous Maracanã stadium on 20th August, so…
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT FROM THIS SUMMER?
Mexico are the men’s reigning champions, having beaten Brazil last time to ensure their Olympic hoodoo continued, though the host nation are the favourites to win this time around. Neymar leads Brazil in trying to avenge that defeat, though Mexico will once again provide a strong challenge, whilst Argentina and Germany should also be strong.
BOYS FROM BRAZIL LEAD THE PACK
Brazil are a major footballing nation that are prioritising winning the Olympics more than most. This was shown recently as Brazil went some way to sacrificing their Copa America chances in pursuit of a Gold medal. They had good reason to do so; victory in the Games will allow Brazil to join France in having the honour of being a country that has won the full set of international competitions: World Cup, Confederations Cup, Olympic gold, and U-17 and U-20 World Cups.
So, how exactly did Brazil sacrifice their Copa America chances? They left out superstar Neymar. A man once harshly described a few years back by Joey Barton on Twitter as “Brilliant on the old YouTube. Cat p*** in reality”, the striker is key to Brazilian hopes. The Barcelona star scored 31 goals last season in club football, and, despite being just 24, is already nearing his half-century of goals for the national side.
Neymar will be one of Brazil’s three over-age players, as the nation seeks some kind of home-soil redemption from the horrific 7-1 loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semi-finals. Further motivation comes from the fact that Brazil have secured a medal in four of the last eight tournaments, but are still yet to seal a Gold one. Brazil’s desire to win the Olympics has always been clear; well-known names such as Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Lucas Moura, Leandro Damião, Oscar, Neymar, Hulk, Danilo and Alexandre Pato were all part of the team in 2012.
Brazilian football accepts nothing less than first – national coach Dunga was sacked after the recent Copa America – and so, the home nation are the hot favourites to win the competition.
WHO ARE CHALLENGING BRAZIL THEN?
Mexico, Argentina, and Germany should be the strongest three; though of all the major tournaments, the Games are one of the most difficult to predict. This is because Olympic tournaments, naturally given the U-23 format, involve squads that change constantly.
Germany have no shortage of good young players, but despite the last three World Cup winners coming from Europe, the continent has won just one of the last nine Olympic medals, and that was only a bronze (Italy, 2004).
What’s more is that Olympic competitions see plenty of nations that aren’t historically strong in the World Cup prosper – particularly from Africa and Asia – as the combination of the Copa America and European Championships, as well as those money-making pre-season club friendlies this year, mean that few ‘big’ teams can call on true superstars to fill those over-age player slots.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Son Heung-min – South Korea:
Son is the talisman of the South Korean attack, driving the national side to a runners-up place in the 2015 Asian Cup. They got Olympic Bronze in 2012, and are relying on Son for something similar this time. The winger/forward is 24, so he is one of three over-age players, and has 16 goals for the national side. Premier League followers may well also know him; he joined Tottenham Hotspur last summer from Bayer Leverkusen for £22 million, and scored eight times for them last season.
Julian Brandt – Germany:
An attacker often at his most effective down the left flank, Brandt has already made his debut for the national side, and the 20 year-old is showing real promise at Bayer Leverkusen. Brandt scored 10 goals and assisted three last season, as Leverkusen finished in an impressive 3rd place.
There are four groups each with four teams in them, these being:
A: Brazil, South Africa, Iraq, Denmark.
B: Sweden, Colombia, Nigeria, Japan.
C: Germany, Mexico, Fiji, South Korea.
D: Portugal, Argentina, Honduras, Algeria.
WHICH ONE IS THE GROUP OF DEATH?
Without doubt, that would be Group C. Mexico are the reigning champions, and are sending a similarly strong squad to last time, and Germany are packed with outstanding young talent. Meanwhile, South Korea took bronze in London, drawing 0-0 with Mexico in the group stages, beating a Great Britain side including the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Daniel Sturridge, and Ryan Giggs on penalties, and lost only to an excellent Brazil side.
The schedule is intense. The squads have to play three group matches within a week, across the 4th, 7th, and 10th August. The games come thick and fast, with the quarter-finals on 13th August, and the semi-finals on the 17th, with the Bronze and Gold medal games on the same day, the 20th. Six games in 15 games is a hectic schedule to manage.
The football gets underway on Thursday 4th August, and though it’s not the biggest tournament in football, there is still sure to be plenty of worldwide interest, and deservedly so.
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