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The HammyEnd London 2012 Men’s Olympic Football Preview

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

Finally…Rule Britannia

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.

McBride: The model pro

Whilst the red tops have been scurrying around Europe chasing Cristiano Ronaldo and the sports desks have been tracking down the latest transfer rumour, it has gone almost unannounced in these shores that a model professional has revived his international career.

Fulham fans will need no reintroduction to Brian McBride – the veteran American centre-forward, who led the line with distinction for the four years before deciding to return to his roots for one last hurrah in Major League Soccer. The wider footballing community, though, may need to be educated as to why football fans on both starts of the Atlantic hold him in such high regard.

The story begins in Arlington Heights, a typical Chicago suburb, where McBride was born. He was a talented sportsman as a youngster and made his mark in high school soccer, leading Buffalo Grove High School to the Illinois State Championship in only his junior year. In four prolific years at high school, he scored 80 goals, with 33 coming as a senior. McBride’s achievements did not go unnoticed – he was named as an All American by Parade Magazine. Typically, he didn’t forget his routes either. When he signed his first contract as a professional with Nike, a clause was inserted to ensure that the boys’ varsity soccer team receive new uniforms every two years.

He starred at St. Louis University, graduating in 1993, and setting all sorts of records along the way. He started 89 matches, breaking the records for goals scored (72), assists (40) and total points (184). McBride was named the Most Valuable Player of the Great MidWest Conference for three successive years and made the All-Conference first team.

His club career began with a brief stint at the Milwaukee Ramage. In 18 appearances, McBride found the net a remarkable 17 times and had a hand in 18 more assists. He also struck up quite a relationship with Tony Sanneh, whom he later partnership in the MLS and for the American national side. The pair linked up to stunning effect for a crucial goal in the USA’s remarkable win over Portugal in their opening game of the 2002 World Cup. “We joked about it in the locker room, it is a play we have done a thousand times,” McBride afterwards. “I took a step in at the far post and lost my marker. He delivered a beautiful cross and I knocked it home.”

McBride’s first professional opportunity came in Germany with Wolfsburg, then a Second Division team, who had a history of nurturing aspiring American talent. But McBride found first-team chances difficult and scoring goals even harder. He did, however, write his name into Wolfsburg folklore by scoring a goal as Wolfsburg shocked the mighty Bayern Munich in the quarter finals of the German Cup.

When released by Wolfsburg, McBride returned to America just in time for the launch of Major League Soccer and he was the league’s first draft pick. He moved to Chicago Fire, where he would spend eight happy years, eventually sharing the club record for goals scored, on 62 with Jeff Cunningham in his 161 league matches. It came as no surprise that he was named in the MLS All-Time Best XI in 1995.

McBride’s big break came when he had an opportunity to experience English football by going on loan to Preston North End in 2000. Under the stewardship of promising manager David Moyes, McBride made an impression as a hardworking striker who was strong in the air, an important characteristic in the physical English leagues. The physicality was brought home to McBride when he suffered a blood clot, which had to be surgically removed from his arm, after a collision during his first appearance for Preston.

Preston’s attempts to sign McBride on a permanent basis floundered over the valuation of the player. The MLS, who hold the registrations of ever player who is contracted to their franchises, valued McBride at more than twice the $1.8m Preston offered and so he returned to the MLS, having scored a single goal in nine league appearances for Preston.

Moyes brought McBride back to Britain when his Everton side were sliding towards the relegation trap door in 2002-03. His impact was even more sizeable this time as he scored four goals in eight Premier League games, including a debut strike against Tottenham at White Hart Lane. Everton survived but McBride was once again on his way back to America, after the MLS rejected Everton’s attempts to extend his loan spell.

Moyes would have been kicking himself when Fulham secured McBride’s signature in 2004 for around £500,000 – considerably less than Preston had offered some four years earlier. The deal suited both parties, with Fulham searching for a cut-price replacement for star striker Louis Saha (who had left for Manchester United in an acrimonious transfer) and the MLS seeking to cash-in on McBride’s undoubted ability. Fulham fans were sceptical about their new signing but he quickly won them over with a debut goal against Spurs, scoring five goals in 18 appearances as the Whites recorded their highest-ever league finish of ninth.

McBride quickly established himself as a regular in the Fulham side – sometimes playing as a deep-lying lone striker. His work rate and committment were never question and he became something of a cult hero, weighing in with crucial goals over the next couple of seasons. He scored a vital spectacular overhead kick in a relegation battle against Portsmouth towards the end of the 2004-05 season and finished with ten league goals the following season.

He was named the club’s player of the year after his twelve goals helped them escape the drop and signed a new contract to extend his stay at club until June 2008. New Fulham manager Lawrie Sanchez named him as his captain in the summer of 2008, but he spent much of that season on the sidelines after suffering a dislocated kneecap when he scored the opening goal against Middlesbrough in August. He did well to return from such a serious injury and played a crucial part in Fulham’s successful battle against relegation, returning to the first-team fold as a substitute in their come from behind win against Aston Villa.

His predatory instinct in front of goal made McBride’s return just as important as that of the much-vaunted midfielder Jimmy Bullard. McBride’s goals in the run-in were crucial. His first, against his old club Everton, secured a vital victory in March that kept Fulham in touch with those above them. A close range strike against Reading set Fulham on their way to their first away victory in two years and a downward header against Birmingham on his final outing at Craven Cottage meant Fulham had to beat Portsmouth, the FA Cup finalists, at Fratton Park to stay up. Their victory sparked joyous scenes and the serending of the club captain by the travelling fans at the final whistle.

McBride decided to return to America in the summer (he has recently signed for the Chicago Fire), but the story doesn’t end there. After a light-hearted conversation with his former international colleague Jonathan Spector at the end of a match between Fulham and West Ham, McBride raised the prospect of returning to the national scene at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He had retired from international football as a decorated veteran, with a record of 30 goals in 95 appearances, which spannned three World Cups and remains the only American to have scored in two seperate World Cup competitions. He was selected as one of three over-23 players for the US Olympic squad and played for nearly 70 minutes of America’s 1-0 win over Japan on Thursday.

A couple more things you should know about McBride. He is a devout Roman Catholic, something displayed in his trademark goal celebration, but he is also the  inagural spokesperson for the Central Ohio Diabetes Association. He donated $100 to the association for every goal and assist he tallied for the American national side. His courage, humility and professionalism are an example to anyone who’s struggled with any form of disability or disease. More than that, he’s a model professional. Thanks for the memories, Brian.

UPDATE 1: A nice video tribute to SuperMac, profiling his lesser-known early years.

Update 2: A second tribute to McBride, produced just after his international retirement in 2006

Update 3: Fulham’s official video tribute to the great man.