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Men’s football at the Olympics: Everything you need to know

Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Rafinha

The Olympics Games might not be the most sort after competition in men’s football but this competition has provided some memorable moments since first being played in 1900.

Uruguay claimed back-to-back golds in 1924 and 1928 and football was so popular at those tournaments that the World Cup was founded shortly after.

Fast forward to 1996 and Nigeria claimed gold with a squad featuring future superstars like Nwankwo Kanu and Jay-Jay Okocha.

Some of the world’s most well-known players have won Olympic Gold such as Ferenc Puskás, Lev Yashin, Pep Guardiola, Samuel Eto’o, Ángel Di María, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Agüero, Neymar and Lionel Messi.

In just a few weeks time, 22 more players will write their names into the history books by claiming glory at the International Stadium Yokohama.

The Euros and Copa América may be over but the entertaining, highly-competitive international football this summer certainly isn’t.

When are matches taking place?

Group stage matches: 22, 25 & 28 July.

Quarter-finals: 31 July.

Semi-finals: 3 August.

Bronze medal match: 6 August.

Gold medal match: 7 August.

What is the draw?

Group A: Japan, South Africa, Mexico & France.

Group B: New Zealand, Korea Republic, Honduras & Romania.

Group C: Egypt, Spain, Argentina & Australia.

Group D: Brazil, Germany, Côte d’Ivoire & Saudi Arabia.

Which teams are most likely to win a medal?

1) Brazil

Men’s football at the Olympics: Everything you need to know

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – JULY 07: Dani Alves of Brazil is presented with the Player of the Tournament trophy after the Copa América Brazil 2019 Final match between Brazil and Peru at Maracanã on July 07, 2019 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)

As ever, Brazil are amongst the favourites to win this competition.

In 2016, Seleção won Olympic Gold for the very first time, beating Germany on penalties in the final at the Maracanã.

Neymar converted the crucial kick, thereby somewhat banishing the ghost of the World Cup semi-final two years earlier.

Overall, Brazil have qualified for seven of the last nine Olympics, claiming two bronzes, three silvers and that solitary gold in this time.

Only once, since 1976, have they failed to win any variation of medal.

This trend is likely to continue based on the squad André Jardine has assembled for Tokyo.

Captain Dani Alves is one of the three overaged players along with Sevilla’s Diego Carlos and goalkeeper Santos who plays for Atlético Paranaense.

Alongside them is a plethora of uber-talented under-24 players.

In midfield there’s Bruno Guimarães of Lyon, Aston Villa’s Douglas Luiz as well as Reinier who’s currently on loan from Real Madrid to Borussia Dortmund.

The six nominative attackers all ply their trade at big European clubs including Arsenal’s Gabriel Martinelli, Antony, who’s at Ajax and Malcom of Zenit Saint Petersburg.

Arguably, the talisman though is Richarlison who’s jetted straight to Japan after playing 90 minutes in the Copa América Final defeat to Argentina.

The Everton man has scored ten goals in 32 caps at senior level and is one of the most high-profile players in the whole tournament.

Seleção kick off the defence of their title against the side they beat in the 2016 final, Germany, before matches with Côte d’Ivoire and Saudi Arabia.

Can Brazil join Great Britain, Uruguay, Hungary and Argentina in winning back-to-back golds?

2) Germany

NORDERSTEDT, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 03: Youssoufa Moukoko of Germany gestures during the international friendly match between Germany U20 and Denmark U20 at Edmund-Plambeck-Stadion on September 03, 2020 in Norderstedt, Germany. (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)

NORDERSTEDT, GERMANY – SEPTEMBER 03: Youssoufa Moukoko of Germany gestures during the international friendly match between Germany U20 and Denmark U20 at Edmund-Plambeck-Stadion on September 03, 2020 in Norderstedt, Germany. (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)

Having won silver five years ago, can Die Mannschaft go one better this time?

In the past, Germany’s Olympic record is poor; East Germany claimed gold in 1976 before the West won bronze 12 years later.

2016 was the first time for 60 years that a united German side competed and, as mentioned, they reached the final, leaving with silver.

This time, Stefan Kuntz has named a very talented squad, as outlined in this excellent announcement video.

Under Kuntz, Germany have reached three successive Under-21 Euro Finals, winning the trophy in 2017 and 2021, so will be confident of more success at this tournament.

Wolfsburg legend Maximilian Arnold and Max Kruse are amongst the overaged players, the latter enjoyed an outstanding season at Union Berlin in 2020/21, scoring 11 times in the Bundesliga.

Benjamin Henrichs of RB Leipzig is, probably, the most high-profile of the under-24 players but there’s still plenty of other talent.

The whole squad plays in Germany’s top-tier apart from back-up goalkeeper Svend Brodersen who left St. Pauli for Yokohama FC this summer.

He’ll be familiar with the surroundings if nothing else.

As mentioned, Germany kick off with a huge clash against Brazil in Yokohama before matches against Saudi Arabia and Côte d’Ivoire.

Group D certainly won’t be easy to negotiate but Germany will be confident of picking up some sort of medal in early August.

3) France

Men’s football at the Olympics: Everything you need to know

CESENA, ITALY – JUNE 18: Jeff Reine-Adélaïde of France controls the ball during the 2019 UEFA U-21 Championship Group C match between England and France at Dino Manuzzi Stadium on June 18, 2019 in Cesena, Italy. (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)

Will the World Champions now become Olympic Gold Medalists?

At Senior level, les Bleus have won six major honours: Two Confederations Cups, two Euros and two World Cups.

At the Olympics though, medals have been harder to come-by.

Their only gold was won in LA in 1984 having won silver in 1900; they last qualified in 1996.

Nevertheless, this outstanding squad is very much capable of rewriting history.

Two of the overage players now ply their trade in Liga MX for Tigres UANL; André-Pierre Gignac and 2018 World Cup winner Flo Thauvin.

The rest of the squad are stars of the future: Timothée Pembélé (Paris Saint-Germain), Pierre Kalulu (A.C. Milan) and Arnaud Nordin (Saint-Étienne) the pick of the bunch.

Under Sylvain Ripoll, France have disappointed at the Under-21 Euros, reaching the semi-finals in 2019 and the quarter-finals earlier this summer.

Now would be a good time for this group of French players to realise their potential.

Les Bleuets kick off their campaign against Mexico before facing South Africa and then hosts Japan.

France are favourites to top Group A and amounts the front-runners to hold a medal.

4) Spain

Men’s football at the Olympics: Everything you need to know

Daniel Ceballos Fernandez of Spain U21 during the Uefa Under 21 European Championship final match between Spain and Germany at Stadio Friuli on June 30, 2019 in Udine, Italy. (Photo by Danilo Di Giovanni/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Possibly, the most talented group of players in this tournament will be in the red, blue and yellow of Spain.

La Rojita have previously won three medals at the Olympics, claiming silver in 1920 and 2000 as well as gold on home soil at Barcelona 1992.

This summer, the Real Federación Española de Fútbol (RFEF) are clearly going all out to bring home gold.

It’s already been a busy summer for Spanish football, reaching the semi-finals of both the European Championships and the Under-21 equivalent.

Nevertheless, Luis de la Fuente has named an amazingly talented squad for this competition.

Unai Simón will be in goal having started all six of Spain’s matches at Euro 2020.

He’s one of six players in this squad who were also at Euro 2020; Eric García  and Pau Torres, Pedri, Dani Olmo and Mikel Oyarzabal the others.

Torres and García are part of the superb selection of defenders as well as Óscar Mingueza, Jesús Vallejo, Juan Miranda and Marc Cucurella.

In midfield, Dani Ceballos, Mikel Merino, Jon Moncayola and Carlos Soler would be a strong group on their own.

But, Pedri is the outstanding member of this team.

The 18 year old has played 63 matches already this season for Barça and Spain, playing 629 minutes at the Euros.

If everything goes to plan, the teenager will play another six matches in Japan.

Scoring goals was Spain’s problem at the Euros, personified by Álvaro Morata.

Olmo and Oyarzabal are options in this squad, as they were there, along with Bryan Gil, Marco Asensio, who’s scored in a Champions League Final, and Rafa Mir.

The latter is owned by Wolverhampton Wanderers but spent last season at Huesca where he scored 16 of their 35 goals (46%).

La Roja are in Group C alongside Egypt, Australia and Argentina and it would be a major surprise if this outstanding group didn’t win some colour medal next month.

5) Argentina

Men’s football at the Olympics: Everything you need to know

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – JULY 10: Lionel Messi of Argentina kisses the trophy as he celebrates with teammates after winning the final of Copa America Brazil 2021 between Brazil and Argentina at Maracanã on July 10, 2021 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images)

Will it be another tournament of celebration for Argentina?

As recently as 10 July, la Albiceleste beat Brazil 1-0 in the Copa América Final, Ángel Di María scoring, ending their 28 year wait for some senior silverware.

Before this, they’d lost in seven successive finals.

At the Olympic Games, Argentina have been one of the most successful nations, particularly in modern times.

They won gold in 2004 and 2008 to add to their two silvers won in 1928 and 1996.

Five years ago in Rio though they disappointed, going out in the group stages to Portugal and Honduras.

So, this time, Fernando Batista has assembled a high-talented squad in search of glory.

Centre-back Nehuén Pérez is the captain; he’s owned by Atlético Madrid and spent last season at Granada.

Portland Timbers’ sought-after left-back Claudio Bravo will join him in the backline.

Ahead of them, Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister and Ezequiel Barco will provide the creative spark; the latter commanded the most-expensive transfer fee in MLS history.

Two forwards separated by the Moscow divide, Adolfo Gaich of CSKA and Spartak’s Ezequiel Ponce will be looking to get the goals.

Some future Albicelestes superstars have won Olympic Golds, notably Lionel Messi, and this group of players are looking to follow in their footsteps.

They kick off against Australia at Sapporo Dome before facing Egypt and then one of the other favourites Spain on matchday three.

Will the Copa América champions add another Olympic Gold to their haul of honours?

6) Mexico

Hirving Lozano

MOSCOW, RUSSIA – JUNE 17: Hirving Lozano of Mexico celebrates with team mate Andres Guardado of Mexico after scoring his team’s first goal during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group F match between Germany and Mexico at Luzhniki Stadium on June 17, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Can Mexico repeat their exploits of 2012 in 2021?

Nine years ago, el Tri won their first ever Olympic medal, beating Brazil 2-1 in the Gold medal match at a packed Wembley Stadium.

Before this, their best result was coming fourth at the 1968 Olympics which they hosted.

Five years ago, as defending champions, they crashed out in the group stages thanks to a matchday three defeat to Korea Republic.

This year, they’re expecting much better despite Mexico’s resources currently being split.

The CONCACAF Gold Cup is currently taking place and Mexico have advanced to the quarter-finals as they seek to retain thaat trophy.

Despite this, some big names have been set aside and sent to Japan in pursuit of Olympic Gold.

35 year old, first-choice goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa has won 114 international caps and is apart of this roster as an overaged player.

The only player in the squad who doesn’t play in Liga MX is Real Betis’ 21 year old winger Diego Lainez; he could be a key player.

Henry Martín is another overaged member of the squad; the Club América forward scored 15 goals for them last season.

Mexico have only lost three of their last 21 Olympics matches and will have to be at their best in this tournament too.

Jaime Lozano’s side kick off against, probably, the strongest side in Group A, France, before facing the hosts and then South Africa.

Will fans of el Tri be celebrating success from the other side of the world?

7) Côte d’Ivoire

Men’s football at the Olympics: Everything you need to know

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM – OCTOBER 8: Hans Vanaken of Belgium between Sereso Geoffroy Dié and Eric Bailly of Côte d’Ivoire during the International friendly match between Belgium and Côte d’Ivoire at King Baudouin Stadium on October 8, 2020 in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Côte d’Ivoire have qualified for the Men’s Olympics tournament for just the second time but they intend to make the most of it.

Back in 2008, on their debut, wins over Serbia and Australia saw Ivory Coast into the quarter-finals where they were beaten by Nigeria in Qinhuangdao.

13 years later, they’re back and dreaming of making an even deeper run.

Les Éléphants’ squad selection suggests they’re really taking this competition seriously.

Manchester United duo Amad and Eric Bailly have made the trip to Tokyo, the latter as an overaged player.

The other squad members over 24 are Max-Alain Gradel and their star man: Franck Yannick Kessié of A.C. Milan.

Soualiho Haïdara has also included some players who he hopes will be future stars of the national team.

Youssouf Dao (Sparta Praha), Idrissa Doumbia (Sporting CP) and a pair of former Celtic players, Eboue Kouassi and Vakoun Issouf Bayo, now of Genk and Toulouse, to name but a few.

The only problem for Côte d’Ivoire is that they’re in a very tough group.

They kick off against Group D’s likely whipping boys Saudi Arabia before facing Brazil in Yokohama and Germany in Rifu.

If they are to get through, chances are they’re going to have to beat either the Silver or Gold Medal winners from 2016.

It won’t be easy but, if there is going to be a team to cause an upset, it could well be Côte d’Ivoire.

Who are five other young players to look out for?

Men’s football at the Olympics: Everything you need to know

OSAKA, JAPAN – JULY 12: Takehiro Tomiyasu of Japan is seen during the U-24 international friendly match between Japan and Honduras at the Yodoko Sakura Stadium on July 12, 2021 in Osaka, Japan. (Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)

Takehiro Tomiyasu: Japan & Bologna

Whilst Japan are unlikely to claim a medal on home soil, they do have some players to keep an eye on.

Bologna centre-back Takehiro Tomiyasu made 31 Serie A appearances last season, making 59 blocks and 43 tackles.

His performances have seen him linked with a move away from Emilia-Romagna this summer, perhaps to Tottenham Hotspur.

Could Tomiyasu’s performances at this competition increase his profile and, ultimately, his price-tag?

Takefusa Kubo: Japan & Real Madrid

Even before he’d ever made his first team debut for FC Tokyo aged 15, Takefusa Kubo has been touted as a future superstar.

Despite having already spent four years at FC Barcelona’s famous La Masia, Kubo joined Real Madrid in 2019.

He’s since spent loan spells at three different Spanish clubs, Mallorca, Villarreal and Getafe, with mixed results.

Still only 20, this could be Kubo’s time to shine.

Japan do have a strong side representing the Samurai Blue in this competition but are likely to come up short, meaning Kubo and the rest will have to make an instant impact.

Lee Kang-in: Korea Republic & Valencia

Over in Korea Republic, they have a Spanish-based young superstar of their own.

Lee Kang-in joined Valencia a decade ago, aged just ten, and has made 62 appearances for los Che’s first team, scoring three times.

He’s the seventh youngest man to play for Korea Republic at senior level, winning six caps thus far.

Lee was part of the Korea squad that got all the way to the Under-20 World Cup Final in 2019, losing 3-1 to Ukraine in Łódź.

Now, the Taegeuk Warriors are dreaming of winning another medal, this time at the Olympic Games.

Tudor Băluță: Romania & Brighton & Hove Albion

Tudor Băluță has only made one appearance for Brighton, coming in the EFL Cup, but they have high hopes for him in Sussex by the sea.

Since joining the Seagulls from Viitorul Constanța, the Midfielder has spent three loan spells away, first rejoining Viitorul before visiting ADO Den Haag and then Dynamo Kyiv.

At international level, he’s won seven caps for Romania, playing as a defensive midfielder.

The reason Romania have qualified for the Olympics is thanks to their run to the Under-21 Euros semi-finals in 2019.

Băluță was a key man in that squad and will be this summer too as the Small Tricolours aim to pull off a similarly surprising adventure.

Daniel Arzani: Australia & Manchester City

Every Socceroos fan far and wide has heard the name Daniel Arzani.

The Iranian born winger made his A-League debut just two days after his 17th birthday, coming off the bench for Melbourne City.

In that game, he provided both assists as his side beat Wellington Phoenix 2-1, turning him into an instant superstar.

Not long after, Manchester City hoovered him up from one of their many sister clubs and, three years after joining the Premier League champions, he’s yet to appear for them.

On Halloween 2018 is when his career really took a turn for the worse.

Arzani joined Celtic on loan and, on his Premiership debut at Dens Park, he tore his ACL and would play for Celtic just once more.

The Aussie has since spent loan spells at Utrecht, Jong Utrecht and AGF but hasn’t been able to hit the heights that were expected of him.

Still only 22, there’s plenty of time for Arzani to get back on track and this tournament could be where he shows the world his talent.

Predictions:

Gold Medal: Spain.

Silver Medal: Brazil.

Bronze Medal: Argentina.