2016 Olympic Games Football Tournament
Brazil, as hosts, will start as hot favourites in the summer and a lot of expectation will be on the over-age shoulders of star man and skipper of the full national side, Neymar. The 23 year old Barcelona player, who finished third in the Ballon d`Or, is hoping to lead the team as one of the three permitted overage players.
Copious words have been written about Neymar`s quality as he stars with Suarez and Messi in Spain but the biggest improvement in his game has been his vastly improved maturity. No longer the self-centred egotistic and selfish striker he was when he first burst onto the scene as a teenager Neymar these days is just as likely to provide an assist for a team mate as he is to score himself. After Brazil`s abject failure in 2014 he and his team mates will be keen to make amends and will take some stopping in the summer.
Fast becoming THE football nation in Africa Algeria qualified for Rio courtesy of reaching the Final of the CAF African Cup of Nations Under 23 Championships, in Senegal, which they lost to Nigeria.
Their star player is 22 year old goalkeeper Abdelkader Salhi, who worked as a car mechanic before becoming number one choice for Algerian club side ASO Chlef.
Salhi only conceded three goals in the Continental finals, fewer than any other goalkeeper.
Tall and athletic Salhi is a good reader of the game and very commanding in the air. In keeping with modern custodians he is more than adept with the ball at his feet.
Salhi is already on the radar of a number of top European clubs and is almost certain to make the move north after the Olympic Games.
Iraq qualified for this summer`s Olympic football tournament by beating Qatar 2-1 after extra-time after being 1-0 down, to clinch 3rd place in the AFC Under 23 Championships in Qatar.But they left it very late. Losing 1-0 with just four minutes remaining Iraq equalised through Karrar before Aymen Hussein netted the decisive goal in extra time to book Iraq`s place in Rio.
Iraq`s star player, Ali Adnan Kadhim, is often referred to as the Asian Gareth Bale. The strapping left back can in fact play anywhere along the left flank and his athleticism not to mention powerful shot in a lethal left foot is a potent weapon for his club, Serie A side Udinese. Although a proficient attacker Kadhim is exceptionally good at the day job, defending, and that, allied to his athleticism, has made him a potential target for some of the top European clubs, including Chelsea.
Mexico go to Rio as holders of the Olympic title which will tend to rub Brazil`s noses in it having beaten the same nation in the Wembley Final of London 2012 to clinch the gold medal.
Mexico topped Group B of last year`s CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament by beating Honduras 2-0 in the final to reach this summer`s Olympics and stand a very good chance of at least reaching the last four.
Most of the current squad play their football in Mexico though the potential start man, Erick Torres, is an exception as he plays in the MLS. However, flitting between Houston Dynamo and Guadalajara does not bode well in terms of consistency.
Never having been prolific as a goal scorer it is baffling to see comparisons made with Javier Hernandez for Torres. In four seasons with Guadalajara he scored 14 goals in 64 games but when sent on loan to Chivas his ratio rocketed to 22 in 44 games, the ultimate strike ratio of one goal every two games. It was that purple patch with Chivas that earned Torres a move to Houston Dynamo but the Texan club loaned him back to Guadalajara in 2015. At various international levels, from Under 17 to the full national side Torres has a scoring ratio of one in three, eight goals in 25 internationals
Portugal has a track record of international success on the football field but too many times a `Golden Generation` has failed to deliver. They very nearly did so in 2015 when their talented side reached the Final of the UEFA Under 21 Championship where they lost a dramatic penalty shoot-out to Sweden, who they drew with in Group B. However it was the 5-0 thrashing of Germany that made the football world sit up and pay attention to the threat Portugal pose in the Rio football tournament.
Potential star man for Portugal is 21 year old forward Armindo Tue Na Bangna, Bruma. Currently on loan at Real Sociedad, from Galatasaray, Bruma has represented Portugal at all levels from Under 15 to Under 21 and although he plays predominantly as a winger he has an impressive goals per game ratio of 28 in 69 games for his country. Unfortunately that drops to a less than 1 in ten at club level. Bruma has won the Turkish Cup twice and was awarded the Silver Shoe for ending the 2013 FIFA Under 20 World Cup with five goals in four games as Portugal went out at the Round of 16 stage.
Sweden earned universal plaudits for the way their young side won the first UEFA Under 21 European Championship in the Czech Republic in 2015. They emerged from the toughest of groups, containing England, Italy and Portugal, in second place and in so doing qualified for Rio this summer.
Simon Gustafson, is a goal scoring midfielder who plays for Dutch side Feyenoord for whom he has just signed a four year contract after joining them for a reported fee of £1 million. Already capped twice for the full national side, the 21 year old has an impressive scoring record for the Under 21s of three goals in nine games, exactly the same as for Feyenoord last year, and is sure to be a potent player for the Swedes in Rio.
Japan`s momentum towards Rio 2016 began in London 2012 when they lost the Olympic Bronze medal to fierce rivals the Republic of Korea. They dominated the recent AFC Championships in Qatar and swept through their group winning all three games and scoring 10 goals without reply. Their semi-final win over Iraq earned qualification for Rio but it was the impressive way they managed the final, against the Korea Republic, that signposts them as one of the favourites for Olympic gold in the summer. Japan were 2-0 down just after half time but after coming off the bench Takuma Asano pulled a goal back before Yajima levelled two minutes later, in the 68th minute. Asano completed the fairy tale by netting his second, to win the Final, nine minutes from time.
Eight of the current squad ply their trade in Europe and it shows. Yuya Kubo, a 21 year old striker, plays for BSC Young Boys in the Swiss Super League for whom he has a strike rate of one goal every four games. However in the national team he has a tally of 34 goals in 35 games across the various levels from Under 16 to Under 23, very nearly a goal a game.
Fiji qualified for the Olympic Finals by winning Olympic Qualifying Final at 2015 Pacific Games Football Tournament in Papua New Guinea.
It will be an Olympic Finals debut for Fiji who despite setting a world record with a 38-0 win over non FIFA member Micronesia only managed four goals in four qualifying matches for Rio 2016 though they were undefeated across the five group games. Draws with Vanuatu and Tahiti, either side of the 38-0 win, were followed by a 3-1 win over Papua New Guinea in the semi-final. In the final itself a tense game against Vanuatu went to penalties before the decisive spot kick was converted by skipper Jale Deloa to send Fiji to Rio.
Fiji`s major problem, among many, is the fact that as a football nation they are ranked 186th in the world. A bigger problem however is the fact that so many of their football team are not only home-based but are in their late 20s and therefore too old for the Olympics.
Star man and one of the three over-age players permitted is likely to be Roy Krishna. He plays his club football in New Zealand for Wellington Phoenix for whom he has a one in three goal ratio. His figures at international level are even better. He has scored three in five appearances for the Under 23 side but has an even better ratio for the full national team of 15 in 23 appearances.
Korea impressively swept through qualification for the finals of the 2016 AFC Championships with a 12-0 scoring record. In the finals they were equally impressive in reaching the Final after a tense semi-final against hosts, and equally impressive, Qatar. It took a very late goal to send the semi into extra-time and they snatched two more goals to reach the final, 3-1. Korea seemed to take a stranglehold against Japan in the Final and led 2-0 just into the second half but the game turned after the introduction of Japan substitute Asano who scored twice to snatch the trophy, 3-2.
Midfielder Ryu Seung-Woo, 22, is one of only two Korea players who plies his trade outside his homeland. He joined Bayer Leverkusen in 2014 but has in recent times been on loan at Eintracht Braunschweig and Arminia Bielefeld, his current club. He is an intelligent player who is very aware of space around him and how to use it. He is also very mobile and uses that mobility to utilise space effectively.
Denmark, as a football nation, revels in triumphing from a perceived `underdog` position. They topped their group in last year`s UEFA Under 21 Championships, despite losing to Germany, and in so doing qualified for Rio 2016. The team got as far as the semi-final where they were swamped 4-1 by Sweden.
Amongst the players to shine in the Czech Republic last year was the impressive 21 year old Viktor Fischer. As a playmaker or a winger the Ajax man has a quite outstanding scoring record. For his club Viktor has netted 23 times in 67 appearances and for Denmark, from Under 16 to the full national team, he has amassed a tally of 29 goals in 59 appearances, including 20 goals in his 30 appearances for the Danish Under 17 side.
Predominantly a left winger Fischer has pace and the ability to pick out a telling cross or hit the target from distance. Long term target of a number of Premier League clubs including Chelsea and Manchester United.
Transition would seem to be the word as far as German football is concerned. Singularly unimpressive in the UEFA Under 21 Championships which earned them their ticket to Rio Germany has a long way to go before getting back to their days of pre-eminence in world football.
One of the players on whose young shoulders the future of German football is resting is Schalke 04s Leroy Sane. Only just 20 he is the kind of attacking midfielder that has grown in importance in world football because he can score goals as well as perform the other tasks required in midfield, tackling and passing.
Sane made his Schalke debut in 2014 and in his 34 games to date he has scored eight goals but it is with the national set up he has a superior goals per game ratio. For Germany Under 19s he scored eight times in 11 appearances and seven times in his four Under 21 appearances. Of dual French and German nationality the Essen-born youngster made his debut for the senior German side in 2015, against France.
Although they may be less well known outside their Central American region Honduras, nevertheless has an impressive record in Olympic football. Qualification for Rio 2016 means three consecutive Olympic games for Los Catrachos.
Qualification was achieved by virtue of finishing runners-up to Mexico in the 2015 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying tournament. They reached the Final after eliminating the USA.
Alberth Elis is the one to watch in Rio. It was his brace that eliminated the USA last year and still aged only 19 he has time on his side not to mention a possess of top clubs chasing his signature, including Everton. Though still a novice in terms of senior football experience Alberth nevertheless has a perfect stiker`s ratio in international football. His four goals in five Under 23 internationals plus the two goals he netted on his full debut, in a friendly against Cuba in December 2015, means he has a perfect goal a game ratio, thus far. Not the biggest of players, standing just six feet tall he is nevertheless strong and has pace to burn, two assets that make him a threat to any team at any level.
South Africa`s route to this summer`s Olympic Games was tense to say the least. They went through the CAF Under 23 Africa Cup of Nations after entering the final play-off stage where they beat Zimbabwe 4-1 over two legs. That took Bafana Bafana through to the Senegal finals where they reached the semi-finals where they lost 2-0 to Algeria. That meant a straight winner-takes-all game with Senegal in the form of the third-place play-off. A tense encounter finished goalless meaning a penalty shoot-out. Jody February was the hero as he saved a penalty during normal time and then three spots kicks during the shoot-out. That set up Phakamani Mahlambi to score the decisive penalty to clinch South Africa`s place in Rio.
Keagan Dolly, who scored a hat-trick that helped South Africa edge past Zimbabwe and on towards Rio, is likely to be an important player in Brazil. He plays for Mamelodi Showdowns in the Premier Soccer League and was the Young Player of the Season in 2013-14. Though not noted for his goal scoring at club level he has an impressive four goals in his five appearances for South Africa.
Nigeria, like South Africa, entered the CAF Under 23 Cup of Nations at the final play off stage. There they eliminated Congo 2-1. In Senegal their second place finish in Group B , to Algeria, booked their place in Rio. Nigeria, who have won more Olympic football tournament games than any other African nation, went on to defeat Algeria, 2-1, in the 2015 Final.
Junior Ajayi is a 20 year old forward who plays his football for CS Faxien in Tunisia.
He can play up front as a striker or lie deep as an attacking midfielder. It was his two goals that earned Nigeria the victory over Congo that took them on to Senegal. He was also the platform on which Nigeria built their victory over Mali which helped them progress in the Cup of Nations. His performances in the Tunisian top flight look like earning him a big money move to another Tunisian club although he could end up in Europe if his appearance on the world stage in Rio merits it.
Argentina became the first nation to qualify for the Olympic Tournament this summer by virtue of their success in winning the South American Under 20 Tournament in Uruguay, early last year. They did in fact lose a group game, to Paraguay, but went on to reach the Final after beating Brazil on the way. Argentina defeated hosts Uruguay in their final game to push the hosts down to third place, behind Colombia.
Giovanni Simeone is the son of Atletico Madrid manager Diego and despite that connection, Dad was a defensive midfielder, Giovanni is most definitely not. The son of the father is, in a long line of star Argentine strikers, a goal scorer. In fact he won the Golden Boot as top scorer in that Under 20 tournament with nine goals, of the 24 Argentina netted. In fact his scoring record for his country is far superior to that of his club career. The 20 year old has scored 10 goals in just 12 appearances for the Argentine Under 20 team. He may have a lot to live up to in Rio 2016.
There is just one slot left in the Men`s Olympic Football Tournament in Rio 2016. Colombia and the United States will play-off over two legs in March of this year.
Written by Brian Beard.