Tom English: Olympic football offers insight into stars of the future
PITY the marketing manager for Oman versus Senegal at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry tomorrow night. Imagine getting that gig? A match to decide the final qualifying spot for the Olympic football tournament and not a star to be found. Senegal’s Demba Ba? Nah. Papiss Cisse, his Newcastle mate? Like Ba – the wrong birth date. Too old, you see. And probably not too interested either.
Every Olympic squad is allowed three players over the age of 23 but Senegal haven’t managed to lure Ba or Cisse and nor have Oman been able to entice their own marquee name – er, Ali Al-Habsi, of Wigan.
The game will pass by without much, if any, comment. The only vaguely interesting thing about it from our perspective is that Paul Le Guen is manager of Oman. Maybe we could fetch up and quiz him about his old club, maybe ask if he’s heard the trouble Rangers are in, get a number for some loaded Arab and pass it on to administrators Duff & Phelps? Then again, we could just let the whole thing pass us by and, let’s face it, that is what’s going to happen.
Olympic football. Does it float your boat? Maybe not yet, but it might soon. At Wembley on Tuesday they’re doing the draw for the finals and it is then we will discover who plays where and when. Eight games will be played at Hampden between 25 July and 3 August, five in the women’s competition and three in the men’s, including one of the women’s quarter-finals.
For years there has been cynicism surrounding the football tournament. Cynicism and rancour. The Scottish Football Association have no truck with Team GB, nor have the Welsh and the Northern Irish. The more they were encouraged to get on board, the deeper their resistance grew. No matter. One way or another there will be players from the four home unions, a Steven Fletcher from Scotland, a Gareth Bale from Wales, a Chris Brunt from Northern Ireland and, of course, leading them all, David Beckham, one of the certainties in Britain’s over-age bracket. How could there be an Olympic football tournament on these islands without King David at the heart of it?
Cynicism there, too, of course. Beckham’s presence in the final squad will have nothing to do with the quality of his football and everything to do with the appeal of his brand. Beckham is marketing gold, so he’s in. Doesn’t matter if he can’t operate at this level anymore, he’s still the first name on Stuart Pearce’s squad list.
It’s easy to get haughty about Olympic football, to single out the great names that won’t be there and to dismiss it as an irrelevance. But it’s not. There are teams that are just glad to be involved, nations such as Gabon and Morocco and Egypt, South Korea, Japan, the United Arab Emirates and New Zealand, but then there is the hardcore and no land is more focused on the importance of Olympic gold than Brazil.
In Brazil, Olympic football matters. Oh boy does it matter. Brazil have never won gold. Strange, but true. Two silvers and two bronzes, but no gold. Vava in the 1950s, Gerson in the 1960s, Dirceu in the 1970s, Dunga and Romario and Bebeto in the 1980s, Ronaldo and Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos in the 1990s and Ronaldinho and Robinho and a host of others in the new millennium have all tried and all failed and, frankly, it has become an irritant, especially in the last eight years as their great rivals Argentina have twice been crowned Olympic champions, their 2004 victory inspired by Carlos Tevez, their 2008 triumph orchestrated by Lionel Messi.
Brazil mean business and what a joy it would be to have them in Scotland. They are reigning world under-20 champions and reigning South American Youth champions and have some of the finest and most sought-after young players on the planet. Oscar, for instance. Twenty years old and an attacking midfielder from Internacional. Scored a hat-trick in the World U20 final victory over Portugal last summer. Then there’s Henrique, the striker who scored six goals in seven games in those championships, including the two that saw off Mexico in the semi-finals.
They have Neymar, rated at £50m and courted by Barcelona, and Paulo Henrique Ganso, at his best a fabulously talented playmaker, and Leandro Damioa, the striker that Spurs have twice tried to sign. They have Casemiro and Wilian Jose and Alexandre Pato – all of these outstanding kids are looking at London 2012 but they are also looking at Brazil 2014. The whole country is preparing for an Olympics but, on top of that, they are thinking about hosting their first football World Cup in more than 60 years and some of the young men we will see at the Olympics are the ones who will be charged with the task of delivering that World Cup glory in two years’ time.
Brazil are not messing about. Mano Menezes, the national team coach, is taking charge of the team and he knows what he wants to do. Ronaldinho would appear to be one of his over-age picks and the fine AC Milan centre-half, Thiago Silva, will be probably be another. That leaves one more from a list that includes Dani Alves and Adriano of Barcelona, David Luiz of Chelsea, Hulk of Porto, Rafael of Manchester United and Marcelo of Real Madrid.
“I have a lot of confidence in the team that we will bring,” said Menezes recently. “We will have a team capable of fighting from the start to try and win the Olympics.”
If it’s not Brazil in Glasgow then how about the Spaniards? Again, we’re talking about a driven nation here, a nation that has, for some reason, not qualified for an Olympic football tournament since Xavi and Carlos Puyol were beaten finalists in Sydney in 2000. Unlike Brazil, though, they have won it in the past, in 1992 in front of 95,000 of their own people in Barcelona.
Pep Guardiola was on that team. Having achieved gold himself, he will have to decide in the summer whether to allow one of his players the chance to do the same. Sergio Busquets wants to do it all. He wants to play at Euro 2012 and he wants to play in London at the Olympics. “The two coaches [Vicente Del Bosque, boss of the senior team, and Luis Milla, Olympic manager] know it’s my dream. I will do everything to go,” said Busquets.
Spain, the European under-21 champions, will be an enormous attraction and a huge danger. Milla is likely to pick Chelsea’s Juan Mata as one of his over-age players – Chelsea-permitting – and there is a host of under-age stars who could electrify the tournament. Barcelona’s Thiago Alcantara; the brilliant Bilbao midfielder Javi Martinez, seemingly a £25m target of Manchester City; Iker Muniain, the Bilbao teenager and already a full Spanish international; Adrian Lopez, top scorer last summer as the under-20s were crowned champions of Europe; Ander Herrera, another Bilbao youngster and a key performer for the U20 side. Manchester United’s David de Gea is likely to be in goal for Milla’s side.
Is it all about Brazil and Spain and Great Britain? No. Uruguay have a chance, as do Switzerland. Like the Brazilians, the Uruguayans have appointed the national team coach as manager of the Olympic side, Oscar Tabarez in this case. In Uruguay they talk about David Texeira the way they once spoke about a younger Luis Suarez. Maybe that’s why rumours persist of Liverpool’s interest in the Groningen player. Texeira could be one of the stars.
The Swiss have a potential superstar of their own. Xherdan Shaqiri, born to parents from Kosovo, is only 20 but has already scored a senior hat-trick for his country, not to mention a long-range rocket against England. He was an inspiration on the wing for Basel in this season’s Champions League and did immense damage to Manchester United in the group stage. Shaqiri will play for Bayern Munich next season. He’ll be something to see this summer in the Olympics.
Beckham might represent the glamour but the real footballing class will be elsewhere.
Let’s hope that Tuesday’s draw is kind to Glasgow and that the quality comes north, if only for a little while.
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Tuesday 21 May 2013
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