As it was in Athens four years ago, new stars were formed, especially in the shape of one Carlitos Tevez, who accumulated an 8 goal tally, the highest in 32 years. Argentina triumphed then and they are back now to defend their gold medals, with Brazil among others chasing the title which has successfully eluded them since they began they began their participation in the Olympics some 56 years ago in 1952 in Helsinki, Finland.
While some house-hold names are participating in Beijing, greater interest in the Games arises from politics, selection issues and transfer stories. The preliminary rounds began before the actual Opening Ceremony with some potential stars looking to showcase their talents and perhaps win a big money move to a European giant. Brazil have had their fair share of media attention, following the inclusion of Ronaldinho as Brazil Captain, after his high profile move to AC Milan from Barcelona.
Another curious incident is the removal of Robinho from the squad, with his side Real Madrid citing a groin strain as the reason, though the player was deemed fit enough to play in last week’s Emirates Cup. Time will tell whether a move to Chelsea is the reason behind the withdrawal of the flamboyant attacker. No doubt the biggest story concerned Lionel Messi and his club side’s reliance on him, so much so that they don’t want to take on minnows without the diminutive Argentine.
Barcelona even appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and won their case, as did Schalke concerning Rafinha and Werder Bremen concerning Diego. All three sides have allowed their players to remain at the Olympic Games, thus rendering their defence and protest an utter waste of time. The media focus on Messi has led to suggestions that Argentina’s preparations were affected, despite the plethora of talent boasted in their squad, ranging from Juan Roman Riquelme, the Boca Juniors schemer, to Sergio Aguero, Player of the Year in La Liga last year.
Brazil manager Dunga is under immense pressure after poor qualifying results in the marathon South American World Cup qualifying race. A 2007 Copa America win hasn’t been enough to remove the doubters, with the mind-numbing football being played by the side, inspired by a three-man defensive pivot of Josue, Gilberto Silva and Mineiro, which achieves little if any imaginative creative forward play. The Olympics squad is full of dynamic, creative players, such as Hernanes of Sao Paulo.
The name Anderson Hernanes de Carvalho Andrade Lima won’t be familiar at all to European football fans but the man voted best ‘volante’ in 2007 by the respected football magazine Placar. He has the ability to mark without fouling, and has a fine passing range. Oh, and he boasts a great long range shot and can dribble with ease. Trouble is, Barcelona are tracking him, but a reported fee of 25 million euros is likely to put them off. Considering no Brazilian midfielder over the age of 23 has been sold for over 9 million euros, the fee could be exaggerated or simply a reflection of how highly rated the player is.
He already has made a short cameo in the friendly with Sweden at the Emirates, in which he attempted a curling effort from distance. The classy player has already made an impact in Beijing, scoring the winner against Belgium, showing clever feet and a powerful shot to clinch as close game. The two-footed player is thought to eventually fulfil an attacking role, and his style reminds me of Edu as does his upright pose when playing. A fine goal against Cruzeiro in 2007, was very similar to Edu’s effort against Celta Vigo in the Champions League in 2004.
Other names such Pato, the teenager from Milan, his much-criticised team-mate Ronaldinho, and the likes of Diego, Breno all represent a European interest in the Brazilian side. A disappointing opening performance could be an indicator of another failure attempting to land the prize which South Americans rate most highly. Argentina, on the other hand seem quick and incisive in their passing, but the number of small players has caused concerns regard the physical side of the game. Players such as Diego Buonanotte and Pablo Piatti have great technical ability but with a side full of small, tricky players, Argentina may suffer against a physical side, such as the Brazil team they faced in the Copa America final.
Sergio Batista, the Argentina Olympics football coach, will rely on the imagination of Riquelme, a player whose mood reflects his output. Majestic at his composer-like best, and completely ineffective when put off his stride, Argentina are solely at his mercy. Playing the Boca Juniors ‘enganche’ alongside Barcelona’s Messi, has some fans disappointed, concerning the impact of the duo together, but their combination in the victory over the Ivorians, with Messi scoring from a Riquelme through-ball.
Let us not forget Sergio ‘Kun’ Aguero, who makes it a triumvirate, from which most of Argentina’s attacking patterns will emerge. The explosive forward, who has drawn comparisons with Romario scored 19 goals in La Liga, with his most memorable performance, the 4-2 win over Messi’s Barcelona in the Calderon, netting two and embarrassing the Catalonian side’s back-line. Javier Mascherano, Burdisso and Riquelme are the three overage players allowed, with the former two hoping to form a solid defensive spine.
Oscar Ustari, the next bright goalkeeping hope for the Argentinians, has many qualities but his size is an issue, with Cisse’s headed effort looping over him in a 2-1 defeat of the African nation. The Ivory Coast have a youthful squad in Beijing, epitomised by including a 16 year old keeper in the squad. Chelsea fans will be looking for the impact of Kalou, who supported the Ivorian attack, which included Gervinho (or Gervais Yao Kouassi, as he is actually called). The Le Mans striker, linked strongly to Arsenal, has been touted as the new Drogba, and he troubled the Argentineans with his powerful frame.
If it were not for England not taking up their place in the 16-team tournament, Italy wouldn’t be in Beijing. Thankfully, a young and talented side, led by ‘trequartista’ Sebastian Giovinco, should challenge for the crown, having been named as one of the favourites. The young Juventus talent, sadly not on show during the Emirat es Cup, due to his Olympic commitments, has been in the middle of a contract dispute, with his agent using the issue to bring in names such as Arsenal to try and get his client a better deal. He scored a fine opening goal against Honduras, helping the side reach a 3-0 score-line. The Hondurans had a late chance to find a consolation, but their 34 year old striker Carlos Pavon blazed his spot-kick over the bar. The young Azzurri have great talent and will look to improve the reputation of the national team with a better showing than the full side did at Euro 2008.
In looking at the big names, Holland boasts the veteran Roy Makaay to lead their attack alongside Ryan Babel. The new West Brom signing Zuiverlooon will also be on display. Yet the most interesting prospect is Ismaïl Aissati, the attacking midfielder, who became only the fourth player move from PSV to Ajax, as the lure of Van Basten and Bergkamp proves irresistible. The Oranje began in a competitive match against Nigeria, but couldn’t force the break-through as it ended 0-0.
And finally, we have to look out for our very own Alexandre Song, who became a star over a fortnight in January this year, making the team of the tournament and helping Cameroon reach the final. Unfortunately, he was unable to complete the final due to injury, but now he has a chance to win the Olympics. Having risen greatly in the estimation of Arsenal fans, many of whom chastise him still based on that horrible performance at Fulham a few years back, forgetting the whole side failed to perform.
In the eyes of Arsene Wenger, Song doesn’t have the stamina to play 60 games in central midfield, but I can’t think of any players who have made that many appearances in the middle of the park. Perhaps he’ll change the mind of the manager with a strong tournament in Beijing. The Boss prefers him at centre-back but as with many of these youngsters, he too has a lot to prove, be it his ability to play in midfield or in the case of others, to prove their quality to earn a big money move. Whatever happens after a promising start, Beijing will see a new star being born.