Ah, the Olympics. The pinnacle of the sporting world. Now 116 years in the making, the Games return for our viewing pleasure. Situated in London, it promises to be yet another thrilling spectacle.
Football, of course, is certainly not getting left out here. While it doesn’t carry the prestige or national recognition of a World Cup or even a Euro, it is certainly no less important in the eyes of the teams involved.
Involved in this tournament, of course, is what’s been dubbed “Team GB,” a hodgepodge assortment of players from just 2 of the UK’s four member nations, England and Wales.
Roster set-up for this 16-team tournament is certainly much different from a traditional international tournament. Here, 15 of the 18 players on each roster must have been born on or after the 1st of January 1989, with 3 spots allowed for older players.
As such, we will be treated with a unique sight. We get a chance to see many up and coming stars, players whose club fans will surely recognize but names that won’t be known to the rest of us until they show up on a big stage.
Normally that would require a move to a top European club. But what’s bigger than an international tournament? It’s tough to beat the pride of playing for your country in front of perhaps billions of fans watching.
At the end of major tournaments like this, committees and various websites will create a “Team of the Tournament” to single out the players who made the biggest impacts on the competition.
I say, why wait? I’ll give you who I feel will be the best of the best in the Games, in a 4-4-2 formation. I’ll also try to introduce options from nations outside the big guns (Brazil, Spain, perhaps Team GB). Let’s get to it, shall we?
GOALKEEPER: Rafael Cabral (Brazil)
Fans of the United States, who are not participating in the men’s draw, will surely recognize this name from the recent USA-Brazil friendly. He was spectacular in that game, allowing just one goal in a largely dominant win. Currently the #1 at Brazilian giants Santos FC, he has already gone toe-to-toe with the greatness that is Barcelona, so he knows how to perform on the big stage.
Brazil will likely advance at least to the semifinals, so expect to see excellent play from the man who will soon be the preferred man between the sticks for the Seleção senior squad.
Honorable mention: David de Gea (Spain)
LEFT BACK: Jordi Alba (Spain)
Yeah, him again. The La Masia product who was superb in Spain’s Euro 2012 triumph secured his move back to Barcelona, and now returns to the international stage to show us some more or why Barcelona paid €14M for his services.
Being the starting left back for La Roja at age 22 is quite a feat, and he showed his pedigree in being part of Spain’s U-21 World Cup triumph as well. Spain’s youth setup is almost as stacked as the big boys, and expect Alba to be a huge part of a potential gold-medal run.
Honorable mention: Ryan Bertrand (Great Britain)
CENTRE BACKS: Sebastián Coates (Uruguay), Daisuke Suzuki (Japan)
As Uruguay won the 2011 Copa América, fans focused on the big names like Suárez, Forlán, and Lugano. But the brightest gem of the tournament was surely Coates, who went on to secure a move to join Suárez at Liverpool.
Being a veteran of a major tournament like Copa América can do nothing but help such a young player. He may not have received much time for his Merseyside club, but is a sure-fire starter here and should make a big impact.
As for the Samurai Blue option, Suzuki represents another youngster in what is a great generation for Japanese football. With names like Honda, Kagawa, Okazaki, and Nagatomo making huge impacts in Europe, the senior team is certainly rich with budding talent.
Suzuki, 22, is a veteran of the U-23 setup, with 11 caps to his name. While he may not be ready to join his compatriots abroad just yet, a strong showing here could put his name on a few radars across the continent.
Honorable mentions: Álvaro Domínguez (Spain), Diego Reyes (Mexico)
RIGHT BACK: Martín Montoya (Spain)
Another Barcelona full-back makes my list, this time with a guy who has yet to leave the Blaugrana system. Montoya made a splash at the end of last season, deputizing in Pep Guardiola’s defense in the absence of Dani Alves for the Copa del Rey final.
Montoya was a teammate of Alba’s in the U-21 World Cup winning squad, and has a pair of senior caps already. Barça fans anxious to see their future starting right back in action, and fans just wanting to see a great young talent, should keep their eyes on this lad.
Honorable mention: Kim Chang-Soo (South Korea)
DEFENSIVE MIDFIELD: Sandro (Brazil)
Fans of Tottenham Hotspur, such as our own Mohamed Al-Hendy, will recognize this player just as much for his weird hairdos as for his footballing exploits. He was part of Internacional’s Copa Libertadores winning squad in 2010 before securing his move to White Hart Lane.
He featured in the friendly against the United States earlier this year and will be looking to make a case for more playing time under André Villas-Boas in London. In a team as strong as Brazil’s, his name will certainly be passed around quite a bit with a good performance.
Honorable mention: Javi Martínez (Spain)
LEFT/RIGHT MIDFIELD: Ryan Giggs (Great Britain), Nicolás Lodeiro (Uruguay)
Ah, the ageless wonder that is Ryan Giggs. He’ll be the oldest member of just about any starting XI, and certainly qualifies as such here. In captaining Team GB, he’ll make one last splash on the international scene, a role many thought would go to David Beckham.
At the tender age of 38, the Welshman is still one of the better players in England. His composure on the ball and discipline off it make a great example for his compatriot, Welsh captain Aaron Ramsey, to take after. Fortunately for local fans, Giggs’ squad will make their tournament debut at the only home he’s known, Old Trafford.
Lodeiro, on the other hand, brings us back to the players who are eligible for the tournament under normal circumstances. The former Ajax man recently secured a move to Brazilan club Botafogo, where he joins Uruguayan hero Sebastian Abreu.
His speed, movement, and dead-ball abilities will be crucial if the Celeste hope to beat out the host nation for top spot in Group A. And in time, he will likely earn himself a move back to Europe with continued development.
Honorable mentions: Isco (Spain), Takashi Usami (Japan)
ATTACKING MIDFIELD: Gio dos Santos (Mexico)
American fans reading this must be cringing at the sight of the Mexican attacker. As part of the senior team, he made Tim Howard look like a fool in scoring a wonder goal during the Tricolor’s triumph in the Gold Cup final last year.
While he has seen almost no playing time at Tottenham, he could be on the move back to Spain soon, having begun his career at Barcelona. His speed and goalscoring ability will be vital to Mexico’s hopes in this tournament.
Honorable mention: Fabian Frei (Switzerland)
FORWARDS: Iker Muniain (Spain), Neymar (Brazil)
Known to some media members as the “Spanish Messi,” the Bilbao winger may not be of that caliber, but he certainly has potential to be near that level. In his favored wing position, where he likely be situated opposite Juan Mata, he can use his speed to beat defenders or cut inside and score some goals.
Another member of the title-winning U-21 side, the Pamplona-born speedster has attracted plenty of interest from Europe’s giants. But having come so close to glory with his club side, expect this tournament to be another reason why the Basque giants will want to keep him around for a long time.
Neymar, on the other hand, is a name that most football fans have heard, and one that some may be tired of hearing. The Santos starlet has been dubbed by none other than Pelé himself as “better than Messi,” and has been continually linked with a move to join Lionel and company in Catalunya.
In terms of ability, he is easily one of the best players on the planet, and at age 20 has a lot of room to grow. Making a move to a big team this early in his career could stunt his growth significantly. Still, this will be a good opportunity for him to raise his price tag for a future move abroad.
Honorable mentions: Alex Morgan (USWNT – Just because I can), Leandro Damião (Brazil), Daniel Sturridge (Great Britain)
In the end, it will likely come down to Brazil against Spain in the final. Teams such as Uruguay, Great Britain, Mexico, and perhaps a surprising team like Switzerland or Japan, will pull something special out of their hats and make deep runs.
A lot of the attention will be put on the spectacle of the Games, and perhaps the lack of Becks. In the meantime, football fans everywhere can rejoice at seeing the game’s next generation of greats making a name for themselves on sport’s biggest stage.