Neymar, Suarez, Mata, Cavani, Alba: Olympics Football Brings the X Factor
Maybe it's the contrived qualifying format? Or the contrived makeup of the squads—with their three designated "overage" players? Or maybe it's the notion that a gold medal should perch at the pinnacle of a sport, not be draped over the foothills.
Whatever the reason, up until now football at the Olympics has never really gotten me excited.
It doesn't help that it's forever doomed to follow in the wake of a European Championships. Euro 2012 was clearly the main footballing course of the summer, with its meaty serving of world-famous players and a generous helping of one of the game's great teams, Spain.
Most would agree it was a tournament that delivered, and in so doing further undermined the fare on the menu for summer's dessert—a light, fluffy dish they call men's football at the Olympics.
But like a souffle to follow a steak, maybe something light and fluffy is exactly what football fans need after the draining intensity of the Euros. Maybe the forthcoming Olympics tournament will cleanse our pallets and reinvigorate our purest enthusiasm for football itself.
Judging by the names we've seen confirmed to play, we're at the very least guaranteed a glimpse of some of the most talked-about prospects on the planet. Some of the those we see at the Olympics will very likely be stars of the next World Cup.
Brazil are hosts in 2014, and their squad for the London 2012 is bristling with players who will be out to state their case. Marcelo of Real Madrid, Thiago Silva of AC Milan and Porto's prolific striker Hulk make up their overage contingent, and will find themselves dropped into a sparkling pool of youthful talent.
Santos starlet Neymar is arguably the most-hyped young player in football. His teammate Ganso and Sao Paulo's Lucas Moura are on wanted lists throughout Europe. Leandro Damiao is a powerhouse striker who leads the line for Brazil's senior team. Alexandre Pato has played over 100 games for Milan. Rafael has won two Premier League titles at Manchester United.
Brazil are unsurprisingly tournament favorites and look on paper a squad capable of bringing a smile to our faces, too. But they're not the only team with a raft of world-class players at their disposal.
Spain will play to the blueprint of their all-conquering senior setup and have named Euro 2012 winners Jordi Alba and Juan Mata in their initial squad of 22. Alba scored a memorable goal in the final and was arguably one of the players of the tournament in Poland and Ukraine. Chelsea star Mata was also a key member of Vicente Del Bosque's squad.
The Spanish will also have Athletic Bilboa trio Iker Muniain, Ander Herrera and Javi Martinez at their disposal in midfield. Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea is likely to be between the sticks.
Team Great Britain are not without their stars and will surely benefit from vocal partisan support. The evergreen Ryan Giggs will captain Stuart Pearce's team, with Liverpool's Craig Bellamy and Micah Richards of Manchester City making up the overage quota.
Pearce's youngsters to watch include Chelsea pair Daniel Sturridge and Ryan Bertrand, Manchester United's Tom Cleverley, Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey and young goalkeeper Jack Butland of Birmingham City. All involved with Team GB will feel they have a chance to create history this summer and further their reputations with it.
Uruguay will one of the teams hoping to stop them. Liverpool's Luis Suarez and Napoli's Edison Cavani are both overage picks for the South Americans and represent a world-class strike partnership.
And what of Gabon—who won the inaugural Under-23 African Nations last December and will be looking to spring a surprise or two at the Olympics? Among their number—and one to watch —will be St Etienne striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
There are others too, but those mentioned here should at least be enough to get anticipation levels on the rise. And having written this rather negative article back in May, I'm beginning to come around to the idea that football at the Olympics might not be such a bad idea after all.
Who will take gold?
When we compare it to the competitions we're used to—the likes of the major European leagues, the Champions League, Euro 2012, World Cups et al.— Olympics football comes in a distant second.
But why compare? Why not instead enjoy the tournament for what it stands for and enjoy watching a selection of the best young players in the world express themselves and make a case for their future?
Here's hoping all 16 teams play with a freedom we don't often see in football these days, and adhere to the Olympic ideals along the way. If that happens, we might just find this summer's tournament exceeds all expectations and becomes one of London 2012's defining events.
Let's stop calling it inferior, and start thinking of Olympics football as just something a little different. Sometimes a change really is as good as a rest.
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