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.
Neymar and Ganso, two of Brazil's young talents
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.
The Dynamic Uruguay front pairing of Suarez and Cavani
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.
Oscar and Leandro Damiao - Premier League bound?
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.
Fulham's finest, Pajtim Kasami of Switzerland
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.
Mexico's Marco Fabian
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.
Aubameyang will lead Gabon's charge
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.
Could Pajtim Kasami play a more pivotal role in his second season at Fulham?
It seems fashionable to view every football manager’s job as ‘a project’ these days. Andre-Vilas Boas has just embarked on a new one in north London, hoping to mirror the early success of Arsene Wenger, who must be wishing he could turn the clock back to those glory days. Roberto Mancini’s ‘project’ at Manchester City began with what was viewed as a harsh sacking of Mark Hughes but that decision now looks like one of the smartest a football club has ever made as the ever-engaging Italian added some real flair to what initially was a dour, disciplined team that operated on the counter-attack and shut up shop once going in front.
What do make of Jol’s project so far? Of course, just a year in, it’s very difficult to judge. His chief aspirations on arrival were to revamp the playing style and reduce the average age of a squad that contained plenty of experience but was rather plodding and predictable. He’s certainly done both but football fans demand certainty even when the game can only offer intrigue. Jol’s more fluid approach has been described as ‘total football’ but that understates the transition from a rigid English structure, with clearly defined defensive roles for the wide players, central midfielders and even a striker, to a looser 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 that encourages movement and demands that the forward players interchange positions regularly.
Such a system requires a few free spirits who possess pace, stamina and high levels of technical ability as well as being exceptional readers of a game. In his very first press conference, Jol stressed the need for the speed but his initial assessment of the squad will have shown that he had inherited very few rapid individuals. The biggest area in need of an overhaul was a midfield that was at times pedestrian – largely because it lacked players who could burst through from central areas or break away thanks to a trick or a turn of pace.
Just over twelve months on from his appointment and the picture looks somewhat different. The reinvention of Moussa Dembele from a roaming forward to a midfield playmaker was a tactical masterstroke and the nonchalant ease with which he skips past opponents offering a different dimension to Fulham’s approach play. Factor in the emergence of Kerim Frei and Alex Kacaniklic, who are both skillful and no slouches on either wing, and Jol’s closer to constructing the template for a side that can attack in a number of different ways rather than being cautious and hoping to nick a goal on the break, which seemed the sum total of Fulham’s ambition away from home for three or four seasons.
Of course, the big question mark is over who might replace Danny Murphy. But, as I argued when the news broke that Murphy was heading to Blackburn for a medical, it’s a rather moot point as you won’t find a replacement for Fulham’s former captain – and if you did, he would cost big money. Murphy’s experience and successful alteration from an advanced midfield operator to a deeper-lying orchestrator of attacks who successfully shielded the back four was one of the key reasons why Fulham were able to go from staving off almost-certain relegation to a European final in a blink of an eye. But in a less regimented system, the side’s reliance on Murphy would diminsh.
Jol’s reshaped central midfield will certainly include Mahamadou Diarra, who briefly replaced Murphy in the second half of last year. The Malian is more than just a defensive midfielder as his late marauding runs in the box, which heralded a first goal for the club up at Bolton, and his range of passing, illustrated by the cleverly disguised pass that released Clint Dempsey for the fifth goal at home to Wolves, demonstrate. Dembele – should he stay – will be the preferred pick alongside Diarra, but there are other options as well.
One of the most fascinating possibilities is why Pajtim Kasami might fit into the picture. The Swiss midfielder was a surprise capture after a successful single season with Palermo where he flourished under Delio Rossi, making 23 appearances as an eighteen year-old. Kasami had an eye-catching start to his Fulham career, with a couple of early energetic Europa League performances, whipping over a few dangerous crosses and corners with his lovely left foot and having no hesitation about introducing himself to English football with a tough tackle or two. People might have raised eyebrows at his sudden disappearance from the first-team picture after he rattled the bar with a penalty at Stamford Bridge, but this was always a developmental season for Kasami.
He made just 15 starts for Palermo in 2010-11 and Martin Jol offered him eleven in his first year in English football. With a bit more luck – and a less impressive assistant referee than Sian Massey – Kasami might already be off the mark in terms of goals for the club. He starred in the dismantling of Dnipro at the Cottage in August – playing a part in all three of Fulham’s goals – and his development continued in the reserves, where he scored three goals and made three more as the club’s second string finished the season very strongly.
Kasami’s been a prodigious talent from a young age. He was a key part of the Swiss under-17 side that surprised everybody by winning the 2009 FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Nigeria and his high-octane displays for the under-21 side, for whom he found the net three times last season, have earned him a place in Switzerland’s Olympic squad this month. Still only 20, Kasami was encouraged enough by his start to life in London – and Jol’s belief in his ‘great talent’ – to reject an early return to Italy with Juventus last January and fight for a spot in Fulham’s first team.
There’s something endearing about the shaven-headed midfielder and it isn’t his training ground high-jinks with Matthew Briggs. Instead, you feel that it’s worth watching Kasami when he’s on a football pitch. He can cross and shoot from range as well as take a mean set-piece and his technical skills, combined with that tenacious streak, mean he could play either behind the striker – a position for which they’ll be plenty of competition this season – or, eventually, in the heart of a midfield. He’s served his apprenticeship and I think the signs are encouraging: let’s hope this could be his breakthrough year.
Martin Jol’s assertion – made public by a tabloid newspaper – that he might just start again with some of Fulham’s youngsters next season made a few people’s hearts flutter the other week. Club insiders have expressed frustration that their manager’s comments are regularly twisted or engineered to become a bigger story than they would otherwise have been to fit a journalist’s narrative and I’d be highly sceptical that Jol’s intention over the summer is to flog off the likes of Hangeland, Dempsey and Dembele as this report suggests.
There is, however, no denying that Jol has been given clear instructions to rebalance the squad in favour of younger players. It’s no coincidence that we’ve seen a lot of more of Matthew Briggs, Kerim Frei, Marcello Trotta and Alex Kacanaklic this term than in previous seasons. David Stockdale’s long-term contract – prior to being sent out on loan to Ipswich back in the autumn – also demonstrated that Jol sees him as the future number one, although it remains to be seen just when he will leapfrog the evergreen Mark Schwarzer in the pecking order.
Kacanaklic’s tantalising cameo against Norwich on Saturday saw the Swedish winger show promise that belied his tender age. That Jol trusted him enough to field him instead of an out-and-out striker when Pavel Pogrebnyak limped off told you plenty about his talent, but few – even those like me who have admired him from afar for a while following his fine performances in the reserves – though Kacanaklic would deliver a performance as impressive as the one that followed. It got me thinking as to what might emerge if several of the young stars blossomed into first-teamers.
If Kacanaklic’s development is mirrored by Kerim Frei, who has already showed plenty of signs of promise, then Jol might have solved Fulham’s frustrating lack of natural width at a stroke. The Swiss youth international has been far more willing to go outside the full-back in his games for the reserves in recent times and has both the ability and the confidence to run at a defender in a manner more befitting an old-fashioned winger. The pace of Frei and Kacanaklic could see them deployed as either conventional or inverted wingers and offer Jol the opportunity to play the sort of pacey, attacking football that he promised when he first replaced Mark Hughes.
Jol’s more adventurous approach has paid dividends since the turn of the year and there are plenty more talents waiting to be unleashed down at Motspur Park. We’ve seen very little of Pajtim Kasami since Boxing Day – the highly-rated Swiss teenager has largely been holding down the ‘number ten’ roll for the reserves – and awaiting another first team outing. Whether he’s fallen out of favour as a result of the penalty furore following his previous visit to Stamford Bridge is a question we’ll probably never know the answer to, but if he had then surely he’d have been more amenable to that January approach from Juventus? There have been even fewer sightings of Marcel Gecov, who looked like a credible contender to replace Danny Murphy in the few first-team outings he had been afforded.
The defence has been Fulham’s strongest suit since Roy Hodgson plugged the leaks that endangered our Premier League status at the start of his reign. The time will come when replacements will have to be drafted in for the likes of Hughes and Hangeland et al, although Fulham appear well stocked here too. The giant Dan Burn has been in imposing form for the reserves, while Jack Grimmer looks to have adapted well to life in a Fulham shirt – albeit at a more relaxed level that the first team. John Arne Riise has enjoyed a more successful second half of his first season at the club, although we’d be hoping to see a bit more of Briggs next term.
Up front, you’d think Pogrebnyak would remain first choice if he extends his short-term deal past the summer. Even should the Russian sign permanently, Jol would be likely to enter the market for another striker given that the most exciting of our young talents, Muamer Tankovic, is still some way from first-team action. Marcello Trotta, who struggled to get much of a kick for Watford in stark contrast to his stunning goalscoring efforts at Wycombe Wanderers, probably needs another year on loan somewhere. Danny Hoesen has been shortlisted for the young player of the year award after his fine season with Fortuna Sittard in the Dutch second division – and you’d expect both of those two to soon be thriving on the service provided by the likes of Kacaniklic and Frei.
Looks exciting, doesn’t it?