Welcome to the greatest show on earth. With the London 2012 Olympics almost underway, the eyes of the sporting world are converging on our great city. Thousands of athletes and spectators from around the globe are here to compete in, and watch, 36 different sports over the fortnight of the games.
For two weeks, one of these disciplines, football, is relieved from its position as global sport-in-chief, sidelined in favour of sports like swimming, athletics and cycling, basking in their quadrennial spot in the limelight. For us football fans though, this is a fortnight not to be missed, with some of the world’s greatest footballers now on our shores.
Mens Olympic football has a rich history, from Germany losing the only football match Hitler ever attended in 1936, to the Nigerian Dream Team at Atlanta 1996, to Carlos Tevez’ eight goal golden boot at Athens in 2004. 16 teams, across four groups, will compete for the chance to call themselves Olympic Gold Medallists over the next fortnight or so.
The set up, for those of you who don’t know, involves Olympic football squads being made up of 15 players aged 23 or under, with 3 over-age players allowed to fill out the squad of 18.
South American and African teams have thrived at recent Olympics, winning the last four tournaments. Since professionals were first allowed to take part in 1972, European teams have had to contend with the European Championships being in the same summer every four years. As such, the competition has somewhat evaded European clutches of late, with Spain’s home triumph in Barcelona in 1992 the last time European’s took home gold.
This year is slightly different though. A unified Great Britain team is competing for the first time in 52 years since Rome in 1960, Spain are seeking the opportunity for a full house in trophy cabinet after winning the Euro Under-21 Championships, World Cup and European Championships, while Switzerland did not qualify for Poland and Ukraine so have sent several key first team players along with their youngsters.
The South Americans though remain the pre-race favourites. Brazil, under coach Mano Menezes, are seeking to win the only major title that has eluded the country where football skill is considered a birthright. While Oscar Tabarez’ Uruguay come into the tournament having gone all the way to the World Cup semi-finals in South Africa two years ago with a largely similar squad.
With the BBC broadcasting live streams of every event in the UK, it will never have been easier to keep tracks on an event previously condemned to follow synchronised swimming and modern pentathlon at the end of the late night highlights shows.
So who then, are the players to watch?
The Ones You Already Know About
Neymar – Brazil
If there is a brighter prospect in world football that the 20 year old Santos forward, they have yet to step forward. The next global football sensastion, Neymar scored the 2011 world goal of the season according to FIFA. Quick, tricky and a stunning eye for goal, his ability is worth the entrance fee alone. He’s not without his flaws though, as some rampant playacting in the friendly against Great Britain last week showed.
Thiago Silva – Brazil
Defender Thiago Silva has been described as possibly the best centre back in the world in recent times. Having just completed a move to mega-rich Paris St-Germain earlier this month, the former AC Milan player will be anchoring Brazil’s hopes of a gold medal, and is arguably the most important cog in their well-oiled machine.
Edinson Cavani – Uruguay
Along with Liverpool forward Luis Suarez, Napoli talisman Cavani will be leading the Uruguayan front line in London. His all round striking potency, and ability to score from either flank or up front makes him one of the best attackers in the world game at the moment. Having him at London 2012 is a privilege for spectators and shows how seriously Uruguay are taking the competition.
South Americans You’ll Know Soon Enough
Gaston Ramirez – Uruguay
Ramirez is a classy attacking midfielder who is making quite a name for himself at Bologna in Serie A. He’s been linked with a host of top European clubs this summer, but could see London 2012 as a time to really make a name for himself.
Abel Hernandez – Uruguay
Another Uruguayan, Hernandez will potentially play alongside Suarez and Cavani in an attacking three for the South Americans. Young at 19, he is already viewed by some as Diego Forlan’s heir. Has 16 Serie A goals to his name at Palermo.
Oscar – Brazil
One of any number of currently unfamiliar Brazilians who will likely end up as household names come the end of the Olympics, attacking midfielder Oscar is reportedly joining Chelsea for around £20m from Internacional ones the tournament finishes. A high tempo, dynamic attacking midfielder who plays on the left of a diamond midfield domestically, Oscar can play anywhere across the midfield. If he is joining Chelsea, that’s a shame, because he really is very good. Internacional team mate, striker Leandro Damiao, is also a target for the Premier League with Spurs long linked.
Ganso – Brazil
Ganso is something of a mystery. Best friends with Santos clubmate Neymar, he’s never quite lived up to the hype following a succession of injuries. A regular for club and country in his teens, the elegant playmaker will now settle for a place on Brazil’s bench. His sit back and let the ball do the work style makes him a football purist’s delight and he’s been linked with moves both domestically in Brazil and across Europe, with Arsenal the latest side to be linked.
Lucas Moura – Brazil
The final Brazilian on this list, Sao Paolo utility attacker Lucas Moura has the ability to be the breakout star of the games. At 19 he’s already commanding transfer talk of a £26m plus move to Manchester United, with Sir Alex Ferguson just one of a list of suitors Helen of Troy would have been proud of. He’s fast, tricky with ability to run at defenders and an eye for goal. Brazil have this gold medal locked up don’t they?
Europe Fights Back
Iker Munain – Spain
World and European champions Spain are sending a strong squad to London. The Euopean Under-21 champions have a very good crop of youngsters without needing to tap into the hugely successful senior squad. Leading the charge are a trio of Athletic Bilbao players who last season set the Europa League alight. Along with Javi Martinez and Ander Herrera, the leading light is 19-year-old star-in-waiting Iker Munain. Linked with a £30m move to England back in April, winger / striker Munain, has the ability dazzle to world on a regular basis for years to come.
Cesar Azpilicueta – Spain
For a defender to make this list, they must be doing something right. Well, as Fulham fans know, finding a decent right back can be quite troublesome. Spain on the other hand, have a cracker. 22-year-old Marseille defender Cesar Azpilicueta is potentially the best young right back in Europe and has been linked with a £10m move to Chelsea post games. Euro 2012 winner Jordi Alba will patrol the other flank, with Chelsea maestro Juan Mata completing the trio of over-aged players with earlier mentioned Javi Martinez.
Bressan – Belarus
While Belarus are unlikely to challenge for a medal this summer they could well surprise a few people. Naturalised Brazilian striker Bressan is someone who could well put himself in the shop window this summer, with a move away from BATE Borisov potentially on the cards.
Pajtim Kasami – Switzerland
An Olympic preview would not be complete without mentioning Fulham’s own Pajtim Kasami. Versatile and dynamic, 19-year-old Kasami can pick a pass whilst having an eye for the spectacular. A star in the making, 2012 could be a breakout year for Pajtim with regular appearances for the Fulham first team seemingly also just around the corner. #TeamKasami
Best of the Rest
Zakaria Labyad – Morocco
North Africa is well represented with Egypt and Morocco at the games, with midfielder Zakaria Labyad the pick of their young players. Fast and versatile, Labyad rejected the chance to play for Holland, the land of his birth, to play for the Atlas Lions. He’s recently moved from PSV Eindhoven to Sporting Lisbon in Portugal. Veteran Mohammad Aboutrika and young Marwan Mohsen are the pick of the Egyptians, with the experienced Al-Ahly player captaining the side.
Andy Najar – Honduras
DC United youngster Andy Najar is one of the few Hondurans to play outside the country. MLS rookie of the year in 2011, Najar is a quality attacker who could well follow in the footsteps of the likes of Clint Dempsey in making a successful career in Europe sooner rather than later.
Marco Fabian – Mexico
With a strong domestic league Mexico travel to London as a somewhat unknown quantity to us here in Europe. Denied leading striker Javier Hernandez by the cruel hand of Sir Alex at United, Mexico will have to rely on mostly home talent along with Spurs’ reservist Giovanni Dos Santos. Chivas attacker Marco Fabian comes into London 2012 with an astounding record of 13 goals in 12 games for the Mexico Under-23 side.
Takashi Usami – Japan
Midfielder Usami has already garnered considerable experience in his young career. Technically a Gamba Osaka player in the relatively high quality J-League, Usami is on loan at German side Hoffenheim for next season and spent last year at giants Bayern Munich. Despite missing the likes of newly acquired Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa and CSKA Moscow’s Keisuke Honda, Japan could still be dangerous at London 2012, but they are not expected to medal.
Pierre Aubameyang – Gabon
Scoring 16 goals and with 7 assists in Ligue 1 last season, St Etienne striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang also found time to lead Gabon at the African Cup of Nations, scoring 3 goals in the process. A genuinely exciting player to watch, he’s something of an African Neymar in both appearance and exuberant style. Gabon and Senegal, the two Sub-Saharan Africa representatives are both decidedly dangerous teams, with Aubameyang without doubt the player to watch.
Team GB are not favourites for this tournament, and neither should they be. Hastily assembled by Stuart Pearce sans a certain former England captain, the squad is made up of entirely English and Welsh players despite Scots and Northern Irish being available. There are some young stars worth keeping an eye out for in what, despite its debatable pitfalls, is a very talented squad. Wales skipper Aaron Ramsey and Swansea midfielder Joe Allen will be worth a watch alongside Ryan Giggs in midfield, while 19-year-old Jack Butland is regarded as a future England number one in goal.