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London 2012: Previewing the Olympic Football Tournament

Daniel ManichelloContributor IIIOctober 8, 2016

London 2012: Previewing the Olympic Football Tournament

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    Even before they light the Olympic torch outside of London's Olympic Stadium on Friday night, even before the colorful opening ceremonies and parade of athletes, the games will have started. The men's tournament for the Olympic medals in football begins on Thursday with eight first-round matches involving all 16 teams.

    Among the participants are the hosts, the Great Britain team; Brazil, seeking its first gold medal; and the reigning world and European champions, Spain.

    Let's take a look at each of the 16 teams set to commence play at six historic stadiums across the United Kingdom on Thursday.

     

    Group A

    Great Britain

    Senegal

    United Arab Emirates

    Uruguay

     

    Group B

    Mexico

    South Korea

    Gabon

    Switzerland

     

    Group C

    Brazil

    Egypt

    Belarus

    New Zealand

     

    Group D

    Spain

    Japan

    Honduras

    Morocco

Great Britain

2 of 17

    How they got here

    As hosts, the "home team" qualified automatically.

     

    Olympic pedigree

    Ninth appearance.

    Great Britain didn't field a team for Olympic qualification from 1974 to 2012.

     

    Best result

    Gold medal (1908, 1912)

     

    You've probably heard of him

    David Beckham...but he won't be on the field for Team Great Britain after manager Stuart Pearce passed on selecting Becks as one of his three senior player exceptions. I would have to imagine that Beckham will get to catch some of the Olympic action, having been a prominent face in London's candidacy campaign.

    Ryan Giggs, Craig Bellamy, Daniel Sturridge, Micah Richards and Aaron Ramsey are amongst the recognizable Premier League faces that will feature on the Brits' roster.

     

    Outlook

    The home team shouldn't have any difficulty in advancing from this group. Whether or not they get first place likely depends on the result against Uruguay. The quarterfinals is where the team will face tougher opposition, perhaps Brazil.

    It's probably not a medal-caliber team, but they may get good at the right time, provided they don't come across the dreaded shootout scenario.

Senegal

3 of 17

    How they got here

    Senegal lost in the African qualifying tournament semifinals to Gabon and then in the playoff to Egypt, missing out on automatic qualification to London 2012. However, the Lions of Teranga triumphed 2-0 over Oman in a playoff game played in Coventry to claim the final spot in the 16-team field. 

     

    Olympic pedigree

    First appearance. 

     

    You've probably heard of him

    Mohamed Diame. The French-born 25-year-old has already played for clubs in France and Spain and was recently transferred from Wigan Athletic to newly promoted West Ham United this summer.  The defensive midfielder even attracted the interest of Real Madrid and Barcelona while playing with Rayo Vallecano during the 2008-09 season. 

     

    Outlook

    Expectations are that Senegal will fight the United Arab Emirates for third spot here. Of course, no one expected the small West African nation to make much of an impact upon their World Cup debut back in 2002. I think everyone remembers what happened then.

United Arab Emirates

4 of 17

    How they got here

    The UAE topped their final Asian qualifying group, which also included Uzbekistan, Australia and Iraq. Under the guidance of veteran coach Mahdi Ali, the Gulf nation went undefeated in their 10 qualification games (seven wins, three draws).  

     

    Olympic pedigree

    First appearance.

     

    You've probably heard of him

    Ahmed Khalil. Or at least you've heard of him if you follow Asian football.  

    Khalil plays for Al-Ahli, the Dubai-based club and winners of the domestic league five times. He was the top goal-scorer during the UAE's championship run at the U-17 Gulf Cup of Nations in 2006, player of the tournament at the AFC U-19 championship in 2008, also won by the Emiratis, twice named the most promising Arab player and once honored as the Asian Young Footballer of the Year (in 2008).

    Needless to say, the 21-year-old forward has an impressive resume so far.

     

    Outlook

    Slim odds but shouldn't be overlooked by anyone. This team has been together through the youth ranks and is tournament-tested.

Uruguay

5 of 17

    How they got here

    As finalists at the U-20 South American championship in 2011, Uruguay qualified automatically to return to the Olympic Games for the first time since 1928.

     

    Olympic pedigree

    Third appearance.

     

    Best result

    Gold medal (1924, 1928)

    Before the advent of the World Cup, the Olympic tournament was sanctioned by FIFA as the world championship of international football. Uruguay won two consecutive gold medals before winning their first of two World Cup titles in 1930, which is why the nation of 3.5 million wedged between giants Brazil and Argentina proudly displays four golden stars on its national jersey.

     

    You've probably heard of him

    Luis Suarez—for good reasons and bad. The fiery striker racked up the goals for Ajax before a €26.5 million transfer to Liverpool last winter. He was also a key figure in Uruguay's entertaining 2010 World Cup squad, which reached the semifinals.

    Suarez is no stranger to controversy. At the World Cup, he intentionally handled a ball in the quarterfinal matchup against Ghana to save a sure goal. Then he celebrated from the sideline after being ejected as Asamoah Gyan blew his penalty over the crossbar.

    He bit a PSV player on the shoulder in an Eredivisie game back in 2010. This year, he was suspended eight games for racially abusing Manchester United's Patrice Evra. Perhaps not an exemplary embodiment of the Olympic ideals, but certainly a talented player and captivating figure.

     

    Outlook

    Uruguay is loaded with talent. Suarez's partner in the strike force will be Napoli's Edinson Cavani. Gaston Ramirez and Diego Rodriguez will anchor the midfield with half-Scot Sebastian Coates in the center of the defense. Los Charruas, the reigning South American champions, are serious gold-medal contenders in London.

Mexico

6 of 17

    How they got here

    El Tri held up their end of the bargain as the best team in the region, getting to and winning their semifinal matchup in the CONCACAF U-23 championship held in the United States earlier this year. 

     

    Olympic pedigree

    10th appearance.

     

    Best result

    Fourth place (1968)

     

    You've probably heard of him

    Giovani dos Santos. Still 23 years of age, dos Santos has perhaps not lived up to the promise of his talents. He's had trouble finding consistent playing time in the Premier League with the club that currently owns him, Tottenham Hotspur.

    Loaned out to Ipswich Town, Galatasaray and most recently Racing de Santander, Gio has yet to produce the flair he often finds while sporting the national colors.

    Part of the U-17 World Cup-winning squad in 2005, dos Santos has been a regular contributor and 14-time goal scorer with the senior side since 2007. His World Cup and Gold Cup experience should prove resourceful to a young and rising team.

     

    Outlook

    This is Mexico's best chance to claim an Olympic medal since they hosted the Games in 1968. The core of this team claimed another U-17 World Cup title and third place at the U-20 World Cup, both in 2011.

South Korea

7 of 17

    How they got here

    Three wins and three draws were good enough to top their Asian qualifying group, which also included Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.   

     

    Olympic pedigree

    Ninth appearance.

     

    Best result

    Quarterfinals (1948, 2004) 

     

    You've probably heard of him

    Park Chu-Young. He plays his professional football now in North London with Arsenal after transferring last summer from French outfit AS Monaco.

    Having only made brief substitute cameos with Arsenal thus far, you may remember him more vividly from the 2010 World Cup, where his free-kick goal against Nigeria in Korea's final group game proved vital to their advancement. In the second-round match against Uruguay, Park had a potentially game-tying free kick come off the post in the 2-1 loss.

     

    Outlook

    Depending on how they fare against Gabon and Switzerland, the likely contenders for the second spot. The Taeguk Warriors only scored eight goals in the final qualifying round. The lack of firepower up front could be a hindrance to advancement.

Gabon

8 of 17

    How they got here

    Winners of the African U-23 Championship held last December in Morocco, Gabon defeated the hosts 2-1 in the final to claim the country's first international trophy. They defeated heavily favored Ivory Coast in their final group game to advance to the knockout stages and then took down fellow Olympic qualifiers Senegal to reach the final.   

     

    Olympic pedigree

    First appearance.

     

    You've probably heard of him

    Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Why? Because he's scored 18 times in 50 appearances with French Ligue 1 team Saint-Étienne, including a hat trick earlier this year against Lorient, and because he led his senior national team to the quarterfinals of the African Cup of Nations, co-hosted by Gabon earlier this year, with three goals.  

     

    Outlook

    Underestimating an unheralded African side at the Olympics is a perilous proposition for any opponent. Cameroon and Nigeria have previously claimed gold medals at this tournament, and African sides have relished the opportunity to surprise at the Olympics.

    Gabon might not make it past the group stage, but they will be a formidable challenge to all three of their group opponents.

Switzerland

9 of 17

    How they got here

    The Swiss made the final of Europe's U-21 Championship last year in Denmark, earning an automatic berth in London.

     

    Olympic pedigree

    Third appearance.

    The Alpine nation returns to the fold after an 84-year absence.

     

    Best result

    Silver medal (1924) 

     

    You've probably heard of him

    Diego Benaglio. Plays keeper for Wolfsburg in the German Bundesliga and has been the first-choice keeper for the Swiss national team since the 2008 European Championship.

     

    Outlook

    The Swiss may be poised to make a splash at this tournament. They won the U-17 World Cup in 2009 with four of the players who are on this Olympic squad in 2012. Switzerland has quietly developed a strong youth program in Europe and nurtured some of the players who now in play top leagues across the continent.

    Battling Mexico for the group's top spot will be the primary goal of this team, but it also shouldn't be a shock to see them reach the semifinals.

Brazil

10 of 17

    How they got here

    Blitzed the field at the 2011 South American U-20 Championships, including a 6-0 victory over Uruguay in the final.

     

    Olympic pedigree

    12th appearance.  

    As often as it's repeated, it's still difficult to comprehend how Brazil has not claimed a gold medal at the Olympics in this sport—a confounding national dilemma for the five-time World Cup and eight-time Copa America winners. At the junior level, the U-20 teams have claimed another five world titles and 11 South American crowns.

     

    Best result

    Silver medal (1984, 1988)

     

    You've probably heard of him

    Neymar. He's the undisputed superstar of this tournament, as Lionel Messi was for Argentina four years ago in Beijing. The Santos starlet is often put into the same "best active player" conversation as Messi and has drawn equally lofty comparisons to some of Brazil's all-time greats.

    Absent from Brazil's 2010 World Cup squad and disappointed by the early exit from the last Copa America, Neymar will lead a new, talent-rich class of Brazilians on a gold-medal chase this summer and into a home World Cup in two years' time.

     

    Outlook

    No country comes close to the talent level of this Brazilian squad. No nation knows the pressure A Seleção faces. And no team has focused as much on obtaining gold in this tournament.

    This squad list is replete with full internationals and legitimate stars such as Alexandre Pato, Leandro Damiao, Ganso, Lucas, Hulk and Thiago Silva. Rafael, the first-choice junior keeper, was just ruled out of the Olympics with an elbow injury, a blow to the team but not their chances.

    Anything short of the gold-medal game and Projeto Londres would be considered a failure.

Egypt

11 of 17

    How they got here

    The Baby Pharaohs (got to love that nickname) got to the semifinals of the African U-23 championships last December. A loss to Morocco dropped them into a playoff with Senegal, which they won 2-0, claiming third place and the final automatic spot from the region for the Olympics.

     

    Olympic pedigree

    11th appearance.

    Egypt qualified for but pulled out of the 1956 and 1980 Games for political reasons.

     

    Best result

    Fourth place (1928, 1964) 

     

    You've probably heard of him

    Marwan Mohsen. How about 20 goals in 32 appearances with Egypt's U-23 side? Mohsen already has three goals in six games with the senior national team. He plays striker for Petrojet in the Egyptian Premier League but is a likely candidate for a summer transfer to one of the big European leagues.

     

    Outlook

    Second place in the group is up for grabs. Egypt will be tipped as the likely candidate to fill the spot against the unknown quantities of Belarus and New Zealand.

    This team has done nothing but practice and play together since the Egyptian Premier League season was cancelled in the wake of the Port Said tragedy back in February.

Belarus

12 of 17

    How they got here

    Reached the semifinals of Europe's U-21 championships and then defeated the Czech Republic in a playoff to gain automatic qualification into the Olympics.

     

    Olympic pedigree

    First appearance as an independent nation.

     

    Best result

    (As part of the Soviet Union)

    Gold medal (1956, 1988)

     

    You've probably heard of him

    Sergei Kornilenko. One of the over-23 players selected to the squad, Kornilenko has a distinguished record with the senior national team. He's the fourth-leading scorer for Belarus, and his professional career, mostly played in the Russian Premier League, included a brief loan spell in 2011 at Blackpool. OK, be honest, you hadn't heard about him either.

     

    Outlook

    Not likely to make much of a splash this time around, but the game is growing in Belarus by leaps and bounds. Belarus also represents the first former Soviet state to qualify as an independent nation since the breakup in 1991. Not even Russia has been back to the Olympic football tournament since then.

New Zealand

13 of 17

    How they got here

    The Kiwis cruised to the final of the Oceania qualifying tournament, winning a group match against Tonga 10-0 en route. The 1-0 victory over Fiji in the final this past March sealed their passage to London.

     

    Olympic pedigree

    Second appearance.

    New Zealand also qualified in 2008. Australia had claimed the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) spot every year since 1988 before moving to the Asian Football Confederation.

     

    You've probably heard of him

    Chris Wood—especially if you're a fan of a English club whose name starts with the letter "B." Wood, aged 20, moved from his homeland to West Bromwich Albion in 2009 but was subsequently loaned out after 21 games with the first team to Barnsley and Brighton & Hove Albion in 2010-11 and Birmingham City and Bristol City in 2011-12.

    The youngest member of the All Whites' 2010 World Cup squad, he came on as a second-half substitute in all three of their group games.

     

    Outlook

    New Zealand will be more organized and tougher to break down than most presume. At the 2011 U-20 World Cup, the Kiwis earned 1-1 draws with Cameroon and Uruguay before losing to the eventual finalist, Portugal, in their final group game. They promise to be stubborn and could make an outright claim for the second spot in the group. 

Spain

14 of 17

    Japan

    15 of 17

      Honduras

      16 of 17

        How they got here

        Honduras lost twice to Mexico in the region's qualifying tournament (the CONCACAF U-23 championships) but still qualified for the Olympics on the virtue of reaching the final.

         

        Olympic pedigree

        Third appearance.

        Los Catrachos have never seen the knockout stages in their previous trips to the Games in 2000 and 2008.

         

        You've heard of him

        Maynor Figueroa. Maynor has played left-back more or less as Wigan Athletic's regular starter since 2008.

        He famously revealed in a 2009 television interview that he was missing two toes on his left foot due to a childhood accident. Nike has designed a cleat specifically for him that mimics a full set of toes.

        On the last day of the 2010-11 season Figueroas set up the late winner against Stoke City, saving the club from relegation.

         

        Outlook

        Much like Japan and Morocco, the Hondurans are a hard-working side who count on a full team effort, rather than individual quality, to wear down opponents.

        An American will be playing at the Olympic football tournament after all—Roger Espinoza. A naturalized citizen since 2008, the Sporting Kansas City striker will be counted on to tap into the scoring vein if the Central Americans are to advance.

      Morocco

      17 of 17

        How they got here

        Morocco reached the final of the African U-23 championships. Unfortunately for the hosts, they couldn't overcome Gabon in the final. The consolation prize was automatic qualification for the London Games.

         

        Olympic pedigree

        Seventh appearance.

         

        Best result

        Quarterfinals (1972) 

         

        You've probably heard of him

        Zakaria Labyad. A regular starter this past year for PSV in the Dutch Eredivisie, the winger recently completed a transfer to Portuguese outfit Sporting.

        The Dutch-born 19-year-old played for the Netherlands at the U-17 level before switching his allegiances, thus far earning 10 call-ups (scoring four goals) with the U-23 team and one with the senior Moroccan side.

        A gifted technical player with blistering pace, Labyad modeled his game after Barcelona and Holland's Ibrahim Afellay, his mentor and friend.

         

        Outlook

        Morocco makes just as much of a compelling case for the second spot in this group as Japan and Honduras. In fact, the only wins Morocco has recorded at Olympic games have been against Asian opposition, which certainly bodes well for the critical game against Japan.

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