Olympic Soccer 2012: 10 Reasons to Watch
No, David Beckham's not one of them, sadly. But this is your chance to see one of the teams that could win the 2014 World Cup and the future stars of the current World and European Champions.
Brazil have already made it clear that their Olympic team will form the basis of their World Cup squad.
Many people will be watching to see if Spain can make it a three-timer in world football by adding Olympic Gold to the other two major trophies they hold.
And while Team GB looks like it lacks sparkle thanks to Stuart Pearce's short-sightedness, Uruguay and Mexico are not just there to make up the numbers.
For some people the Olympic football is a mere sideshow, coming a poor fourth to the two major trophies and the top European leagues.
They might also forget that there is a women's tournament going on here (though that is not likely in the US, where their women are arguably the best footballing nation ever).
So to save you from synchronised swimming, dressage and archery, what is there to look out for in the Olympic football?
Can the Brazilian Midfield Tee Up the 2014 World Cup?
After Brazil's failure in the 2010 World Cup, Mario Menezes became manager and began to ring the changes.
They bore immediate fruit with a convincing win over the USA and delightful performances from their new young stars. Debutant Neymar and Alexandre Pato scored the goals. Paolo Henrique Ganso also debuted.
It says much of the depth of Brazil's attacking talent that in their friendly against Team GB last Friday, neither Lucas, Ganso nor Pato could get in the starting lineup.
Although they have Hulk and Leandro up front as a powerful combination, it must surely be the potential for further growth by Neymar, Oscar, Lucas and Ganso that will scare 2014 opposition.
If you add together the prospective fees for Ganso, Neymar, Lucas and Oscar, you can easily get to £120 million, which just about sums up how talented these young players are. Their combined ages are just 81!
Meanwhile, with all the attention on talented midfielders, Thiago Silva quietly moved to PSG for £33 million, which is some fee for a defender. (Quietly that is, unless you're an AC Milan fan.)
Brazil strolled through their match against Team GB without breaking sweat, which says more about how poor the Brits are than how good the Brazilians are.
Nevertheless, these players already have 171 full Brazil caps between them. They played with a fluidity that was hardly disturbed by substitutions.
It is hardly surprising therefore that they are favourites for the gold medal.
Can Spain Do It Again?
Before you get carried away thinking that Spain must surely be favourites for Gold, let me remind you that only three members of the Euro 2012 squad are in the Olympic team: Alba, Javi Martinez and Mata.
That's a big difference from Brazil, whose 2014 squad has been coming together since 2010.
So then you will say that the Spanish style of football, tiki-taka (or as some would have it, ticky tacky), will overcome all.
The world seems to have gone bonkers over the Barcelona way, which has become the Spanish way, of playing football. Do we really want an attack with no No. 9s?
At times in Euro 2012, Spain were mindlessly boring. OK, they finally wore down Italy thanks to Prandelli changing his tactics and getting it wrong.
Chelsea beat Barcelona (and that was pretty dire unless you were a Chelsea fan or a British neutral). Mourinho seems to have found the way at both Inter Milan and Real Madrid.
It may not be pretty, but it's a bit like Wigan beating Manchester United or QPR beating Arsenal. Eventually somebody finds a way. And when they do, what happens next?
What some pundits seem to overlook is that most of the Barcelona players have grown up playing together. It is no wonder they have an almost uncanny understanding between each other. And guess what? Barca players make up the core of the Spanish national team.
But not the Olympic squad. And what does that say about the future of Barcelona?
For me I'd rather watch Brazil right now, or maybe even Uruguay. We shall see.
There are as many Athletic Bilbao players in the squad as Barcelona (and one of those, Jordi Alba has just arrived). That says a lot. Bilbao may have knocked out Manchester United in the Europa League, but they looked ordinary in the Final.
How Early Will Team GB Exit?
This photo is unlikely to be a collectors' item in 10 years time.
In stark contrast to the Brazil team, GB does not look like world-beaters, whether now, in 2014 or ever.
To win a tournament like this, you need a decent team and/or massive support. Sadly, because of Pearce's gaffe in leaving out David Beckham, not only will the stadiums be half empty, but so will the armchairs when GB are playing.
OK so there are some talented players in there. Ryan Giggs is one of the greatest footballers of all time, but he's 40 next year. How on earth is he going to play two friendlies and then up to six games in a few weeks? As Friday showed, he isn't. How often is a football captain substituted?
What really struck me was how very ordinary Craig Bellamy was. He did nothing. He is also showing his age at 33.
Now I know Becks is 37, but he gets the fans going. He and Ryan could have run the GB midfield between them. To score, they are going to need either a lot of luck or a free kick specialist and that is what "Goldenballs" does best; and free kicks and corners. Big miss, Stuey!
Looking elsewhere, Micah Richards is a proper footballer who for some unknown reason struggles to get into the Manchester City side. Ironically, he may provide much of GB's goal threat at corners and set-pieces, as he did when almost scoring on Friday.
So those are the over-age players. Among the rest, there are some promising young players, but who are we comparing them with?
Maybe Tom Cleverly didn't look out of place against the Brazilians, but most of the rest were outclassed. And Pearce must have been doing his head in as they still didn't seem to get the notion that you should try and hang on to the ball for as long as possible.
Roy Hodgson almost got England doing that in the Euros...until things became desperate. While GB didn't look desperate on Friday they didn't look capable of winning anything either.
If Sturridge is our best striker and Marvin Sordell second best, GB haven't a prayer, so watch out for shocks, maybe not even making the last eight despite being hosts.
Can Suarez Lead Uruguay to Victory?
If Uruguay are serious enough to play Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani then you have to take them seriously. After all, the full national team is ranked No. 2 by FIFA.
Furthermore, eight of their current national squad are in the Olympic team.
If Team GB are going to struggle to get out of Group A, then Uruguay must be favourites. That means they will meet the runners-up from the Mexico, South Korea, Gabon and Switzerland Group in the last eight, meaning they are surefire for the last four.
Uruguay have the pedigree; they won the gold medal at the Paris Olympics in 1924 and in 1928 and went on to win the World Cup in 1930.
If they can keep it tight at the back, they have Rios's experience in midfield and that fearsome striking combination of Cavani and Suarez.
One thing is for certain, GB won't hold a candle to them. However, that means they are likely to meet Brazil in the semifinals.
So best place? Bronze Medal, in a likely playoff against Mexico.
Can Mexico Continue Their Progress
Sadly, Chicharito isn't here, despite being barely 24. Sir Alex made sure of that.
Instead, he's trying to recover his form and fitness after an exhausting injury-hit year, on Manchester United's preseason tour.
After his sensational emergence in the last few years, that seems to be a major blow to Mexico's chances.
Nevertheless, there are several members of the full national squad: Corona; Salcido; Jimenez; and Dos Santos; not to mention Peralta, who has 13 full caps; Contes; Fabian; Aquino; Mier; and Araujo.
More to the point, this Mexican Olympic squad has been together for some time. They won all five matches in qualifying, scoring 16 and conceding three.
Maybe they won't win, but will surely emerge from their Group as winners, before meeting probably GB in the last eight before losing to Spain in the semis.
However, if they get a momentum going, based on the togetherness achieved so far, they could pull off a shock and get all the way to the final.
Brazil/Uruguay vs Spain/Mexico. You choose.
Goals Goals Goals
There are several top class goalscorers at the Olympics, including the ones already mentioned. Surely Hulk and his pals will get a bucket-load against Egypt, Belarus and New Zealand, for starters?
Cavani and Suarez may be held to a tight match by Stuart Pearce's organisation but make hay against Senegal and UAE?
Or will they?
Take UAE for example. They won the silver medal in the 2010 Asian Games and were champions and runners-up respectively in the 2010 and 2011 Gulf Cup of Nations U23.
Well yes, actually, and even more so against Senegal. Enthusiasm isn't enough. Tactical naivety, organisation and defence are the factors that usually sort the wheat from the chaff.
Whichever Group you look at, there seem to be one or even two teams that could score a hatfull against their lesser opponents.
So we can expect plenty of goals in the Group stages.
With a relatively easy ride through (assuming the referees are stringent on dirty play), the principals in the tournament will not even have tough matches in the quarters (except of course Team GB).
The other exception, ironically, could be Brazil, who are likely to meet Japan in the last eight. The Japanese U23 team has won 13 out of 20 matches in the last 18 months, scoring at two goals a game. Five of their squad plays in the Bundesliga.
By the time we get to the semis, we should of course have not only the four best teams, but also the best goalscorers. And they're all going to be Latin.
So, depending on the coaches' tactics, we could be looking at a feast of football, clashing styles, stacks of flair and lots of goals.
Other Talents to Look out for
Kensuke Nagai has come a long way in a short time. If you simply check his stats, you might miss that he was still at University until 2010. Since graduating to the J League and the U23 team he has been scoring for fun, with nine in just 13 appearances for the latter.
Marwan Mohsen is like gold dust for Egypt. Despite a club record of only nine goals in 33 games, he has scored no less than 20 in 32 games for Egypt's U23 side.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang may play for a team that has no chance in the Olympics in Gabon, but he has a pretty impressive record for club and country. Originally a French U21, he has eight in 25 for his chosen country. Better still, he has scored 18 in 50 for St Etienne.
The trouble is that while Mohsen could lift Egypt into second place in Group C behind Brazil, other players from "lesser nations" could struggle to shine due to lack of strength in depth.
That shouldn't be a problem for: Ki Sung-Yueng, the natural successor to Ji Sung Park for Korea; Javier Aquino for Mexico; or Gaston Ramirez for Uruguay.
I shall be watching two potentially world class keepers: David De Gea of course, but also Jack Butland. Apparently there was one match recently where 52 scouts were watching him! He made a cracking save against Brazil and could push Joe Hart in future.
Then of course there's Iker Muniain, Javi Martinez and half a dozen other Spanish stars of tomorrow.
As it is the U23s, however, don't rule out new stars emerging who are not yet on the radar, as was the case for Javier Hernandez before Sir Alex signed him.
Another reason to watch a few matches.
Which Nations Could Be Tomorrow's Rising Stars?
With only 16 teams in the Olympic tournament, there will be relatively few who don't have an established pedigree for their national side.
Among those that don't, the two most likely to catch the eye (if we discount Egypt) are both in GB's Group.
Senegal have had some useful results recently, although they lost comfortably to South Korea on Friday. They even beat Spain in a friendly a week ago and Nigeria last November, as well as useful results against other Olympic participants.
As the UAE League develops, so will the national team. Their two stalwarts in this competition will be Hamdan Al-Kamali, who has had rave reviews at Lyon, and Ahmed Khalil.
So all in all, more reasons to watch the Team GB Group matches. It'll keep your interest if the host nation stumbles.
Some of the UK's Great Football Stadiums
There are some great stadiums in the UK.
Unusually, although this is the London Olympics, the BOA appears to have permission to spread the football right across the mainland—even as far as Scotland.
While none of the matches will be played at the Olympic Stadium itself, there are some massive venues which, if full, will generate some noise around the occasion.
Apart from Wembley (above), there's the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, where England's matches and Cup Finals were played while Wembley was being redeveloped. With a closing roof, it has a maximum capacity of 74,500.
The stadium where I sit more than 20 times a season is of course Old Trafford, with an even bigger capacity at 75,811.
Once, a very long time ago, I went to see a Football League XI play the Scottish Football League at Hampden. The ground was mainly standing at the time. The terraces looked like they were built on railway sleepers, with an infill of ring-pulls! I shared the experience with 124,999 companions.
Nowadays, Hampden is still mightily impressive as the home of Scottish football. Its capacity was reduced to 81,000 in 1977 for safety reasons and since renovation now houses only 52,063.
Dwarfing that, of course is the home of the Geordie faithful, known to its devotees as St James' Park. When it's full and the "Toon" are at home, it houses 52,409 throaty voices and an owner who likes to sit among the faithful in his Newcastle shirt. He would rather we call it the Sports Direct Arena.
Making up the list is the City of Coventry Stadium, an interesting choice with Sunderland and Aston Villa as more traditional arenas for major footballing events.
Who Will Win the Women's Tournament?
OK so for those who think this is a "lads mag", here is Alex Morgan, the US Olympic football striker.
Her looks aren't the only reason we featured her. The US are comfortable favourites to win the gold medal, with Brazil second favourites.
Women's football (soccer) was introduced into the Olympics in 1996, since when 21 nations have taken part. USA (three golds and one silver) is by far the most successful team, followed by Brazil and Germany.
If I said the standard of football is surprisingly good, it might sound patronising. However, some of these teams could hold their own in second tier national leagues and it would be interesting to see USA play a MLS team.
Their biggest challenge has been the collapse of their own league back home (WPS), which has left players lacking game time.
USA was stunned by defeat to Japan in the World Cup last year and, with the lack of match practice can also look for competition from Brazil, who they barely beat last year.
The shock absence is Germany, who have three times been bronze medallists. GB have a chance, with home support, as do Sweden and France.
The semi-finalists are likely to be US, Brazil, Japan and GB, with the US once again needing to beat Brazil and Japan to get gold.
Women's football has come a long way even in four years. It's booming in Germany and has more adherents than the men's equivalent in the US. In the UK it's still seen as something of a novelty, but Hope Powell is a competent coach who could make her way in men's soccer.
And if you're bored during the matches, you could always Google Hope Solo...