London 2012: 8 Youngsters to Keep Your Eye On in Olympic Football
Not that I’m the greatest fan of '80s soul music, but it was Whitney Houston who once sang that "the children are our future," and it was in those children that we should place our faith and trust.
Nearly three decades later in the world of modern football these lyrics still ring true, although money is a third, more material addition to what we invest in the world’s youth.
The Euro 2012 tournament earlier this summer showed us how international competition can broadcast the talents of a player, and the Olympics, perhaps the most global stage of them all, is a level above even that.
While viewers will certainly have their gaze firmly fixed on swimming, track and field as well as numerous other events, Olympic football is sure to get a massive amount of coverage in the next three weeks.
The under-23 formatted tournament is a chance for the starlets of tomorrow to showcase their skill and, as such, earn that move to the greener pastures they have dreamed of ever since they were kids (which, for some players, wasn't all that long ago).
Before we begin this countdown, it’s important to note that only one player can feature from each team as we strive to emerge with the most diverse array of prospects as possible in true Olympic nature.
With that understood, let’s continue.
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Following Chelsea’s capture of his international compatriot Oscar (via BBC), we’ve already seen what kind of a helping hand the Olympics can have for a player’s reputation, and Neymar’s is going nowhere but up.
Neymar is arguably the most sought-after prospect in the world of football right now, and at just 20 years of age would appear to have the world at his feet as the next big thing in one of the sport’s most exciting nations.
Brazil are now favourites to bring home the gold medal in the football event, and after scoring in his side’s opening 3-2 win over Egypt, Neymar is in good stead to finish the tournament with the Golden Boot, too.
The Santos striker may or may not be on the move this summer, but regardless of his club situation, onlookers would be smart to tune into Brazil’s fixtures—if only to watch a player fervently dubbed "the next Pele."
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Team GB is vastly made up of English youngsters; that much is no secret.
However, given the shortage of superstar strikers on the British national team, the Olympic under-23 hosts would appear to be facing an even tougher task to find the back of the net, regardless of the influence coming in from Wales.
As a result, the pressure on the shoulders of Daniel Sturridge is huge, and in no small terms, Great Britain will be relying on the Chelsea attacker for goals.
With Bolton forward Marvin Sordell as the only other young striker in the squad, Sturridge will be leading the attacking line. While his efforts proved fruitless against Senegal, there will undoubtedly be more to come from the former Manchester City prodigy.
With Didier Drogba now plying his trade in China and Romelu Lukaku linked with a loan move to Fulham (via Independent), Sturridge could be set to get even more of a first-team shot in the coming season.
However, the 22-year-old will have his eyes firmly fixed on that Olympic podium for now and will be the main attacking threat for Team GB.
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After netting on his London 2012 Olympic debut, football followers have already seen a glimpse of the kind of attacking threat that Uruguay’s Gaston Ramirez poses.
The 21-year-old curled home a delightful free-kick to put his country back in the game against United Arab Emirates after Uruguay conceded the first goal.
Ramirez was a key component in Bologna’s 2011-12 season, as the Serie A outfit managed to finish ninth in the Italian top flight.
The attacking midfielder made 28 starts for Bologna, netting on eight occasions and making five assists in the process.
Uruguay’s attack is potentially the most devastating at the London Olympics, with figures such as Ramirez, Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez and Abel Hernandez amongst their ranks.
With that in mind, Cavani and Suarez don’t strictly count as "youngsters" these days, and if any player on the squad were to get the nod as the future of the nation’s offence, it would almost certainly be Ramirez.
Giovani dos Santos
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Having made an abysmal two Premier League starts in his last four seasons with the club, Giovani dos Santos is one of the likely candidates to be leaving Tottenham Hotspur this summer.
Granted, that low tally is also down to numerous loan spells away from White Hart Lane, but the youngster certainly seems destined to end his torment in the English top flight.
However, little first-team football or not, the former Barcelona prospect is still one of Mexico’s main attacking threats at London 2012 and is entertaining to boot.
For Spurs to have invested in the 23-year-old back in 2008, there must have been a spark that attracted the North Londoners to Dos Santos in the first place.
The winger will undoubtedly be using the Olympic stage as an opportunity to show that he still has what it takes to make it at an elite level.
With 59 senior national caps to his name already, Giovani dos Santos is no stranger to matters with the Mexican side, and he could light up the competition for them this summer.
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One of the youngsters on everybody’s lips right now, if Spain are to have any success at London 2012, it’s likely to go hand-in-hand with a successful tournament from Javi Martinez.
The Athletic Bilbao anchor played a significant role in his club’s journey to the Europa League final last season, and he also featured as a part of the Spanish team that won the Euro 2012 title this summer.
According to Tom Webber of Goal.com, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Manchester United have arisen as three potential suitors for Martinez’s signature this summer—you don’t gain that kind of attention without the talent to warrant it.
The defensive midfielder is already making waves on the senior international stage, and despite being only 23 years old, is one of the most experienced players in Spain’s Olympic football squad.
Truly tailored to his nation’s Tiki-Taka style of play, Martinez is the conduit in the centre of Spain’s midfield that will keep things ticking this summer.
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In a team of giants, even Abdoulaye Ba stands out as a tall figure for Senegal, and he might be smart to double up as a basketball player in the future.
The 6'6" centre-back spent the 2011-12 season on loan at Academica away from the parent club, Porto.
That being said, the Portuguese outfit may be smart to keep the defender around in the coming campaign lest they risk losing out on a youngster who appears to hold tremendous potential.
Ba—who holds no relation to Newcastle’s Demba—managed to keep out the likes of Daniel Sturridge, Craig Bellamy and Marvin Sordell for the most part in his nation’s Olympic curtain-raiser against Team GB.
As a result, the hosts were mainly relegated to long-range effort, and the 21-year-old Ba astutely dealt with any threats that came his way.
Although scoring goals may be an issue for Senegal, not conceding them is arguably the higher priority. With Ba in the centre of defence, they have a better chance of making that the case.
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After playing out a goalless stalemate against Mexico in their opening group fixture, South Korea are still in good stead to advance through to the next stage of the London 2012 Olympics.
However, one man who won’t be over the moon with his performance is Ki Sung-Yueng who, in all honesty, was quiet for long periods.
As they say, though, it can only go up from here, and the Celtic playmaker will remain an integral cog in the South Korean machine that is looking for glory on the international stage.
Alan Nixon of The People has reported that QPR are attempting to partner the 23-year-old with compatriot and Hoops summer signing Park Ji-Sung, as the Malaysian-owned club seek to crack the Asian market.
With that in mind, however, Ki’s focus will be on nothing else other than achieving golden glory for his nation this summer; an accolade he will prove to be vital in acquiring.
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Another youngster to have already gotten his name on the scoresheet during the early stages of Olympic competition, Abdelaziz Barrada is lighting the way for Morocco to advance in London.
The 23-year-old lashed home a thunderous volley from 22 yards out that is certainly a contender for goal of the opening group phase and will still be remembered come August 12th.
Barrada’s side may have only been able to settle for a 2-2 draw against Honduras, but the Getafe midfielder was one of the brighter sparks for the African representatives.
European scouts will certainly be in attendance during these Olympic tests, and Barrada’s solid debut is sure to have raised some eyebrows.
All statistics come courtesy of Transfermarkt.com and WhoScored.com.