Summer Olympics 2012: 7 Sleeper Teams That Will Challenge Favorites in London
The Men's Olympic Soccer tournament is the World Cup in miniature. There are 16 teams instead of 32, it lasts two weeks instead of four and the rosters are primarily comprised of players from the U-23 national teams.
This tournament will not lack for quality soccer, however. Strong teams from around the world will be competing at the Olympics in London. And soccer superpowers Brazil and Spain are favored to take home the gold.
But here are seven sleeper teams that will challenge the favorites for the gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.
If the Men's Olympic Soccer tournament has a "Cinderella" story, it will be written by Belarus.
Traditionally a soccer lightweight, Belarus qualified for the first Summer Olympics in its 21-year history by finishing third at the 2011 UEFA U-21 Championships, despite winning only two of their five games and finishing with a goal differential of minus-three.
Belarus only qualified for that tournament by shocking continental power Italy in a two-legged playoff.
And Belarus' remarkable story may continue due to their placement into Group C.
After gold medal favorite Brazil surely qualifies, the competition for second place will be wide open.
If the soccer shoe fits, Andrei Voronkov and Belarus may dance into the medal round.
Morocco has been close to scoring a major international soccer victory in the last few months, and they may finally do so at the London Olympics.
The Moroccans finished second at the 2011 CAF U-23 Championships, which qualified them for the Olympic Games.
They led Gabon in the Final, but blew the lead and lost 2-1.
Then Morocco participated in the Toulon Tournament earlier this year as an Olympic tuneup. They lost close games to host nation France and fellow Olympic-qualifier Mexico.
If they advance into the medal round, Morocco could give Spain and other favorites all they can handle.
5. Great Britain
A host of any major soccer tournament should be considered dangerous. And at the London Olympic Games, Great Britain is no different.
The Brits participated in the 2011 UEFA Championships, giving valuable experience to young stars like Ryan Bertrand.
That team was coached by Stuart Pearce, who will lead the Olympic squad as well.
Grizzled veteran Ryan Giggs will captain the team and add depth and experience, but the exclusion of all British players that participated in EURO 2012 will definitely hurt them in the medal round. They should make it that far after advancing out of Group A, which includes Uruguay, Senegal and the United Arab Emirates.
This lightly regarded but talented team could make even their apathetic countrymen take Olympic soccer seriously.
Honduras is one of two CONCACAF teams that qualified for the Summer Olympics.
"Los Catrachos" can still give the region a strong showing, despite the absence of the United States.
Honduras qualified for the Olympics by reaching the finals of the 2012 CONCACAF U-23 Championship. In the final, they lost 2-1 in extra time to Mexico, the other Olympic qualifier from CONCACAF.
Three of the four MLS players participating in the Olympics play for Honduras: Jerry Bengston, Roger Espinoza and Andy Najar.
These three players and their Honduran teammates looked good in pre-Olympic tuneups by defeating Egypt, Gabon and the United Arab Emirates, all of whom qualified for the Olympics as well.
The Honduran squad is now ready to compete for supremacy over Group D and could give Spain a stiff challenge.
Honduras is also ready to rewrite a painful legacy by competing for a medal.
Switzerland has been making waves on the youth level, and now they will come crashing down on the Olympic Games.
In 2009, Switzerland won the FIFA U-17 World Cup.
In 2011, Switzerland finished second at the UEFA U-21 Championships.
In 2012, Switzerland can win a medal at the Summer Olympics in London.
The Swiss should vie for first place in Group B with Mexico, and defense will be Switzerland's greatest asset. The Swiss allowed no goals whatsoever at the 2011 UEFA U-21 Championships before yielding two to Spain in the final, and that stout defense will only be strengthened by the addition of Diego Benaglio, starting goalkeeper for the senior national team.
The Swiss plan to celebrate in London. The only question is with which medal wrapped around their necks.
Mexico has a strong youth program that has excelled at major tournaments in recent years.
"El Tri" won the 2011 FIFA U-17 World Cup and finished third in the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
This year, they won the 2012 CONCACAF U-23 Championship and the pre-Olympic Toulon Tournament.
These stellar youth teams have given rise to such stars as Giovani dos Santos (pictured) and Marco Fabian. The electrifying Dos Santos played in the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, and will be back to lead his countrymen in London.
And Fabian led both the CONCACAF U-23 Championship and the Toulon Tournament in scoring.
Missing these players will hurt Mexico's chance to win a medal, but the remaining players will relish the chance to show their mettle.
The Uruguayan national team is in the midst of its "golden generation" and is currently ranked third in the FIFA World Rankings.
"La Celeste" placed fourth at the 2010 FIFA World Cup and won the 2011 CONMEBOL Copa America.
But the Uruguayan Olympic team can be golden as well.
Uruguay was one of only two South American teams to qualify for the Olympics, by reaching the final of the 2012 South American U-20 Championship. But once there, they were humbled by Brazil, as the "Selecao" trounced them 6-0.
Led by World Cup veterans Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani (both pictured), Uruguay may get revenge on their northern neighbors at the London Games.
The winner would play for the gold medal.
The loser would hear about it for the next four years.