The Copa America Centenario and Euro 2016 may now be over, but there is still one big international competition to go before attention can fully switch back to the new domestic seasons. As the world turns its attention to the Olympics in Rio, in the land that gave birth to O Jogo Bonito, soccer is set to play a particularly prominent role in the 2016 Summer Games.
With the men’s event essentially an Under-23 tournament, with three overage players allowed, teams often go into it with different priorities. But for the host nation, there is no question that there is a determination bordering on desperation to claim gold. Remarkably for a country that has won a record five World Cups, Brazil has never won the Olympic gold. It is the one honor to have eluded the world’s most successful soccer nation.
Displaying the importance the tournament holds, Brazil chose to leave its star man, Neymar, out of the Copa America in order that he could be fielded in the Olympics. The Barcelona forward is undoubtedly the biggest name going to Rio, although he will get support in the Brazil squad from Barcelona teammate Rafinha, Paris Saint-Germain defender Marquinhos, Lazio’s Felipe Anderson and playmaker Renato Augusto, who started all three of Brazil’s games at the Copa America.
But the Olympics is also a place where young players can blossom toward stardom. Twenty years ago, one of Brazil’s greatest ever strikers, Ronaldo, burst onto the international stage, scoring five goals when he was still known as Ronaldinho, or “little Ronaldo.” In 2016 it could be the turn of 19-year-old Gabriel Barbosa, nicknamed “Gabigol,” who scored on his debut for the senior team at the Copa America and is thought to be attracting interest from Chelsea.
Argentina, which has a history of Olympic success, having won gold in both 2004 and 2008, will also feature a hot young striker. Angel Correa has already made the move to Europe, having completed his first season at Atletico Madrid. And, while fellow top young talents Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi were left out, Correa could lift some of the gloom in Argentina following Lionel Messi’s international retirement amid chaos at the country’s football association. Correa could be partnered in attack by the son of his Atletico manager, Diego Simeone, with 21-year-old Giovanni Simeone also a part of the squad.
Another contender for gold looks set to be Germany. Renowned for its production of young talent in the past decade, Germany has a strong squad, including Borussia Dortmund’s Matthias Ginter and Schalke attacking midfielder Max Meyer. Experienced twins Lars and Sven Bender have also been chosen as overage players.
The new champions of Europe at senior level, Portugal, will also be present in Rio. And, although it has opted to leave out eligible players like Renato Sanches and Raphael Guerreiro after their exploits in France, Portugal will have seven players who finished runners-up at last year’s European Under-21 Championship.
The gold medalist four years has also named a squad that signals its keenness to retain its crown. Mexico has included plenty of exciting young talent with senior international experience, headlined by Pachuca duo Hirving “Chucky” Lozano and Rodolfo Pizarro. And the three overage players, goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera, defender Jorge Torres Nilo and scorer of the winning goal four years ago Oribe Peralta all offer key experience and address deficiencies in the roster.
It may not have the cache of the summer’s other international events, but the men’s Olympic tournament promises to offer plenty of thrills and the chance to spot future stars.