by Gus Elvin
As the 2012 Summer Olympics approach we at the Sports Headquarters are starting to preview the different sports and events of the 30th Olympiad which will be held in London between July 27th and August 12th. Although you know me as the college basketball writer at TSHQ, I am also an avid soccer/football fan who follows all the major domestic leagues, as well as the international game. With that being said, for this tournament I will be your “soccer” guy and will preview, update and deliver all the news and storylines behind the 2012 Olympic Football Tournament. In the Olympics they have the event listed as “Football”, as it is an international competition, so for that reason I will refer to this sport as “Football”, not by the American title of Soccer. Now that we have that out of the way, it’s time to look at the tournament setup and some of the rules and regulations for the event. The men’s Olympic football tournament is made up of 16 teams, which are split up into 4 groups of 4 nations. The setup is identical to the World Cup and Continental Championships (EURO, Copa America, African Cup of Nations, etc.), as the nations will all play 3 group games with the top 2 teams in each group advancing to the quarterfinals. The major rule difference concerns the makeup of the teams, as unlike the Women’s Tournament, the Men’s Tournament is an under 23 competition, with each team fielding a final roster of 18 players. The catch is that each nation is allowed to designate 3 overage players (over 23 yrs old) for their roster, so the final rosters will consist of 18 players, with no more than 3 being born before January 1st, 1989. So now that you know the tournament setup and the age restrictions and exceptions for the rosters, it is time to preview the 2012 Summer Olympic Football Tournament starting with Group A.
Great Britain-The hosts are taking this tournament seriously as Great Britain even appealed to the football associations of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland to play under a unified nation of Great Britain. This meant that Scottish, Welch and Northern Irish players were all eligible to play for Great Britain at this summer’s games. Head coach Stuart Pearce(pictured right) used this ruling to his advantage while selecting his 3 overage players, as Pearce selected Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs and Liverpool veteran Craig Bellamy, both of Wales. Great Britain’s 3rd designated player is Manchester City defender Micah Richards, a bit of a surprise selection but a steady defender who has 13 caps for England. Great Britain has a wealth of experience between their 3 designated players but outside of that, the England roster is filled with youth and inexperience. Other names that headline the roster include Daniel Sturridge of Chelsea, Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal, Scott Sinclair of Swansea City and Tom Cleverley of Manchester United. England was expected to have one of the most talented and most experienced teams at this tournament but due to their involvement at Euro 2012 and a couple of key injuries, England or should I say “Great Britain”, has assembled a shell of the team many thought they would. While England has a lot of young talent, their Olympic roster lacks a lot of the bite that many projected, as players like Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and Phil Jones were all left off the squad because they participated in last month’s European Championships. England’s Football Association said all players who played in Euro 2012 would be ineligible for the Olympic squad, a ruling that hurts England’s roster both in terms of talent and experience. The other factor that has depleted England’s talent pool for this event has been injuries, as Gareth Bale (back) and Jack Wilshere (recovering from stress fracture to his ankle) were both unavailable for Stuart Pearce’s squad. Enough talking about who will not be in London later this month, as it’s time to focus on who will be suiting up for Great Britain in this tournament. The key name and captain of the Great Britain squad is Ryan Giggs. Giggs, who is 38 but still playing at an extremely high level, has never really played in a major international tournament, despite over 600 appearances for football giant Manchester United. Giggs will not only serve as GB’s emotional and vocal leader but also will anchor a midfield that will also contain young Arsenal playmaker Aaron Ramsey, Manchester United property Tom Cleverley and Swansea City star Scott Sinclair. This figures to be the strength of Great Britain’s side as Giggs is old reliable, Cleverley and Ramsey are future EPL stars and Sinclair is coming off back to back outstanding seasons with Swansea City, including a 2010-11 season in which he scored 27 times to help Swansea to promotion to the Premier League. Sinclair and Cleverley are 2 players I think could breakout for Great Britain, as both were regular starters last season in the Premier League at a young age and should be standouts at this level of competition. Up front England also is in good hands, as hardworking EPL veteran Craig Bellamy, is joined by Chelsea forward Daniel Sturridge and Bolton prospect Marvin Sordell. Bellamy is the leader both in terms of experience and goal scoring , but Sturridge is a player Great Britain will lean on, as the young Chelsea forward has shown flashes at the club level but has struggled with consistency. In the backs Great Britain will be led by veteran Micah Richards but don’t forget about Chelsea youngster Ryan Bertrand who made 14 appearances for the Lions this past year, or Craig Dawson of West Brom who has scored 4 goals in 7 appearances for England’s U-21 side. Also in the fold will be Swansea back Neil Taylor, who made 36 appearances this past year in the EPL, as well as Tottenham defenders Danny Rose and Steven Caulker (last season on loan with Swansea City). Between the pipes, England figures to start Jack Butland of Birmingham, who spent the last 2 seasons on loan with Cheltenham Town of League 2. Butland just 19, is the favorite to start for Great Britain, as he has emerged of late as the starting goalkeeper for England’s U-21 side. That being said, don’t rule out backup Jason Steele, who is coming off a strong 2011-12 season at Middleborough, in which he was named youth player of the year. Despite all the players who were ineligible or injured, Great Britain still has one of the strongest rosters in this field, as with veterans like Giggs, Richards and Bellamy and youngsters with the talent of Cleverley, Sturridge and Sinclair, Great Britain is a team that could make a run at a gold medal. Great Britian’s roster is not what it could have been, but the “Three Lions” will still be good enough to get out of the group, as they should compete with Uruguay for top of the group status. Great Britain will get through but it will be interesting to see if they are able to progress any farther in the tournament, something that has plagued the English senior national team of late. Playing at home should be a big advantage for this Great Britain squad, as the entire nation will be behind them, and should push them into the quarterfinals and maybe beyond.
Senegal- “The Lions of Terranga” are set to make their 1st ever appearance in football at the Olympic Games this summer, after qualifying in a playoff against Asian finalist Oman. The playoff which decided the final berth in this summer’s tournament was played back on April 23rd, with Senegal outlasting Oman 2-0, to clinch their nation’s 1st ever Olympic appearance in football. Senegal originally finished 4th in the CAF U-23 Championships but had the opportunity to qualify in the inter-confederation playoff against Asian side, Oman. This summer’s 18 man roster for Senegal features players who play in some of the top leagues of Europe, as players in the side represent the EPL(England), La Liga(Spain), Ligue One(France), and the Primeira Liga(Portugal). Senegal’s 2 brightest stars though have been left out of the 18 man squad, as Newcastle’s scoring duo of Demba Ba and Pappiss Cisse were both not released by their club manager Allen Pardew. The pair would have been a huge boost to Senegal’s chances of advancing out of the group stage, as Cisse and Ba combined for 29 goals in 48 appearances last season at Newcastle. Senegal like most of the teams at this tournament will be led by their designated overage players, as West Ham signing Mohamed Diame, Copenhagen marksmen Dame N’Doye(pictured above) and defender Papa Gueye of Ukranian side Mentalist Kharkiv will be the key names for the Lions of Terranga. Diame will be the key player in the midfield for Senegal as the former Wigan man, will be asked to control possession in the midfield and be Senegal’s top offensive playmaker. Another midfielder to keep an eye on is Idrissa Gana Gueye, who has established himself as a solid player at French side Lille over the past 2 seasons. Senegal’s best strength may still be their attack though, as Copenhagen Striker Dame N’Doye, Everton youngster Magaye Gueye and Osasuna hitman Ibrahima Balde, should be a dangerous trio in London. N’Doye is a guy to watch, as he is just a pure finisher, who has scored at least 24 goals in each of the past 3 seasons. N’Doye is as pure a goal scorer as we have in this competition, as the veteran always scores in the biggest moments, including a pair of pair of tallies in Copenhagen’s 2010-11 Champions League campaign. Magaye Gueye is another dangerous player, as the French born forward has a ton of pace and has decided to change his national allegiance to Senegal, the land of both his parents. Gueye who has all the ability in the world, has yet to truly get his career going in England but is another player capable of breaking out at this tournament. In the defense, Senegal like I said will be led by Papa Gueye, a 28 year old back who plays his club football in Ukraine. Surrounding Gueye will be a plethora of young but talented players who have ties to teams in France, Norway, Belgium and Portugal. Porto property Abdoulaye Ba is another guy to keep an eye on, as there is talk he could move back to Champions League side Porto from his loan spell at Academia. Cheikhou Kouyaté of Anderlecht is another hot commodity entering this tournament, as he is a player who has constantly been linked to a move to some of the top clubs of the English Premier League. In the goals, Senegal will likely go with Ousmane Mane, who plays domestically in Senegal, and played the majority of the qualifiers and the playoff match against Oman. Senegal on paper has the 3rd best team in this group but with a few dangerous attackers and a speedy and talented defense, Senegal will look to try an overtake England or Uruguay for 2nd spot in Group A. Senegal is the sleeper in this group, as they have some real talent up front but will have the odds stacked against them going up against Great Britain and a Uruguay team that features Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez. Senegal will need to pull off a shocker here to advance over either Great Britain or Uruguay, but remember Senegal is no stranger to shockers, as these “Lions” advanced all the way the final 8 at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan.
United Arab Emirates- Maybe the biggest mystery of the tournament, the Asian nation has yet to release their final 18 man roster for London, but have released their choices for their 3 designated overage players. To start, UAE is making their 1st ever Olympic appearance in football and only their 2nd major international tournament (1990 World Cup), but don’t let that inexperience fool you. The United Arab Emirates have been on the upswing over the last decade in terms of youth soccer, as their U-20 and U-17 teams have made noise at recent international youth tournaments, such as the 2009 U-20 World Cup and the 2010 Asian Games. UAE is not a football juggernaut by any stretch of the imagination, but they are improving and suddenly they are starting to develop very promising young players such as current stars Ahmed Ali (22 yrs old) and Ahmed Khalil (21 yrs old). While these names may sound foreign to you, these 2 guys can really play, specifically Khalil who was voted the 2008 Asian Young Footballer of the Year and is considered by many to be the best Emirati footballer of all time. Khalil is the player to watch for UAE, as the young dynamo has scored 14 times in 14 appearances for the U-23 side, including a couple of crackers that sent UAE past Uzbekistan and into the London Olympics in their final Olympic qualifier. If Ahmed Khalil is not the best Emirati footballer ever, that honor must be bestowed upon national legend Ismail Matar. Matar who is now 29, has been selected as 1 of UAE’s 3 overage players and is most famous for winning the Golden Ball at the 2003 Youth World Championships. This was even more significant, due to the fact that Matar was given this award as the best player of the entire tournament, even though his team only reached the quarterfinals. To give you a sense of Matar’s ability, Matar won this award over future stars like Barcelona wizard Andres Iniesta, Argentina’s Javier Mascherano and Brazilian Nilmar. Matar is the closest thing UAE has to a pure goal scorer, as the 29 year old forward has scored 70 times in 146 appearances at the club level in the United Arab Emirates’ top league, in addition to 25 goals for the Emirati senior national team. The “Whites” will hope Matar is able to channel some of the form he displayed back in 2003, as the Emiratis need help scoring goals, something they have struggled with of late. The 3rd key player for UAE is Hamdan Al-Kamali, who is the only UAE player who plays his club football abroad, playing for French giant Lyon. Al-Kamali is a 23 year old centre back who will be tasked with shutting down some dangerous threats in Group A such as Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez, Dame N’Doye and Daniel Sturridge. The odds are certainly stacked against the United Arab Emirates in Group A, but with a lot of talent from that U-20 World Cup squad on the roster and past and present stars like Ismael Matar and Ahmed Khalil, UAE might have a surprise or 2 up their sleeve. The United Arab Emirates’ football teams have been constantly improving over the last 10 years and with a chance to showcase some of their talent on the national stage, UAE will be looking to shock the world. UAE is coached by Mahdi Ali who has a wealth of experience coaching this squad, as many of these players played for Ali at the U-20 World Cup or through the qualifiers at the U-23 level. The United Arab Emirates will likely not advance past the group stage but this squad is a very close knit group who will be looking to build on recent success’ at other youth levels. UAE will battle with Senegal for 3rd place in Group A, and will need rising star Ahmed Khalil and veteran Ismail Matar to shine brightly if they have any hope of advancing out of Group A.
Uruguay-Uruguay is back in the Olympic football tournament for the first time since 1928, and will hope to replicate the success they had at both of their previous appearances in the Olympics, where they won gold both in 1924 and again 4 years later in 1928. This year’s team has high hopes as well, as the Uruguayans come in with a very talented young nucleus and also have selected top flight strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani(both pictured to the right) as 2 of their 3 overage players. Suarez who applies his trade in England with Liverpool, is coming off a tumultuous season in which he scored 17 goals in all competitions but also dealt with an 8 games ban due to racist conduct. Suarez who is bound to make headlines either positive or negative, is an electric player when he is focused on the pitch and was a major cog in the Uruguay side that reached the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the side that won the 2011 Copa Amercia. In all Suarez has scored 28 times in 54 appearances for “La Celeste”, an astonishing record that he will look to build upon while playing for the U-23 side in London. In fact, the MVP of the 2011 Copa America , is now just 5 goals away from tying Diego Forlan as Uruguay’s all- time leading scorer. Cavani on the other hand, is a lesser known but just as explosive striker, who has scored 66 goals for Italian club Napoli over the past 2 seasons. Cavani has thrived at the club level but is still trying to achieve the same measure of success with the national team, as at recent tournaments he has taken a back seat to players like Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan. Cavani who has constantly been rumored to bigger clubs, has a chance to really make a name for himself internationally at this event, as the 25 year old striker is one of the more sought after attacking players in the world. In terms of the under 23 players, Uruguay has a few key names to remember for the future, in Sebastian Coates(Liverpool), Gaston Ramirez(Bologna), Abel Hernandez(Palmero) and Alexis Rolin(Nacional). We’ll start in the backs where 21 year old Sebastian Coates anchors a defense that is filled with youth and promise. Coates who signed with Liverpool last season, is the likely successor to veteran national team member Diego Lugano and was voted the top young player of last summer’s Copa America tournament. He will be flanked by promising young players Diego Polenta, Ramon Arias and Alexis Rolin, a trio of young defenders who will all likely move to European football within the next year. In the midfield, Gaston Ramirez is the biggest name of the group, as the Bologna midfielder has developed into a skilled playmaker since joining the Italian side back in 2010. Ramirez is a pretty player to watch, who is gifted with the ball at his feet and adept at playing in balls behind opposing defenders. Egidio Arevalo Rios of Palermo will also start in the midfield, as the 29 year old is Uruguay’s 3rd designated overage player and should bring toughness and experience to a very young but very talented midfield. The rest of the midfield will be made up of Ajax signing Nicolas Lodeiro and domestic players Diego Rodriguez (Defensor) and Maximilliano Calzada (Nacional). The strength of Uruguay’s side like I mentioned before, is their attack, as designated players Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani give Uruguay as good a forward duo as any in the tournament. The 3rd attacking player to keep an eye on is Abel Hernandez. Hernandez a 21 year old phenom who plays with Palermo in Serie A, has battled injuries the past few seasons but when he is healthy, can be a handful for opposing defenses, due to his blazing speed and classy skill level. Hernandez will be the least talked about of the Uruguay forwards but don’t sleep on the 21 year old, who could be poised for a breakout tournament. Uruguay will be coached at the Summer Games by their senior national team coach Oscar Tabarez, so many of these players will be playing to impress the manager in the hopes of a senior team call up. Tabarez has guided Uruguayan football back to prominence after decades of disappointment and after a good showing at the last World Cup and a title at last summer’s Copa America, Uruguay looks to be one of the best in form sides heading into this tournament. Uruguay is my pick to win group A and at the very least should be able to finish 2nd and advance to the quarterfinal round. Many are sleeping on Uruguay as a title contender in this event but I could see “La Celeste” making a run later this month in London, as they have a series of promising young players and 2 proven strikers in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
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