Unlike most events at the summer games, Olympic football does not represent the pinnacle of the sport and that will be no different at the 2021 Tokyo games.
However, that wasn’t always the case. Indeed, it was Uruguay’s success at the 1924 and 1928 editions that persuaded FIFA to launch the World Cup in a bid to determine whether the South Americans, led by the Uruguayans and their neighbours from Argentina and Brazil, really were better than the European heavyweights. Uruguay triumphed at the 1930 World Cup and ever since then the Olympics has been a second-rate competition.
Yet there is still plenty of intrigue around the men’s tournament, which has produced some brilliant stories even in recent years. Brazil are the holders following their victory in Rio de Janeiro five years ago. The hosts were desperate to win gold in 2016 as the Olympics was the only tournament they had never won. Twenty years earlier a talented generation of Nigeria players become the first African team to lift the trophy. In 2008 Lionel Messi led the Argentine contingent to glory.
The Olympics is an even bigger deal in the women’s game. The United States have tended to dominate Olympic football, winning four of six editions, but Germany are the reigning champions ahead of the 2021 competition in Tokyo. There will also be a team representing Great Britain, unlike in the men’s section. Fran Kirby, Lucy Bronze and Kim Little are among the stars who will open the tournament against Chile on Wednesday.
There are no age restrictions in the women’s competition. In the men’s, participating squads are made up of players under the age of 24, with three exceptions permitted. The age limit is usually 23 but FIFA agreed to an extension due to the fact that the Olympics were supposed to be held last year.
Looking at the squads for the men’s tournament, Spain are the team to beat. Despite taking part in the European Championship after the most congested club season in living memory, Dani Olmo, Pedri, Mikel Oyarzabal, Unai Simon, Eric Garcia and Pau Torres have all been called up. Marco Asensio, Dani Ceballos and Carlos Soler are also part of the travelling party. As long as the stars are not running on empty, Spain will expect to go all the way in the 2021 Olympic football event.
Their manager, Luis de la Fuente, will be grateful that Barcelona, Real Madrid and other top La Liga sides have agreed to release their players for the Tokyo Games. Clubs are not obliged to do so for the Olympics, as the likes of France (one PSG player) and Germany (none from Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund) have found to their cost.
The Mexico-based veteran Andre-Pierre Gignac will be the talisman of a France side which also contains Florian Thauvin but the likes of Eduardo Camavinga, Dayot Upamecano and Houssem Aouar will not feature despite being absent from Euro 2020.
Brazil are the side that looks most likely to challenge Spain for the 2021 Olympic football gold medal. Neymar took part on home soil in 2016 but will not be present this time round. However, Richarlison is in Tokyo having been a prominent part of the side that reached the Copa America final, while the 38-year-old Dani Alves has been handed the captain’s armband.
Also keep an eye out for Antony, Ajax’s record signing and a player who can leave even the most experienced full-backs with twisted blood. Elsewhere, Reinier, signed by Real Madrid in 2020 and currently on loan at Borussia Dortmund, is an attacking midfielder who has been likened to Kaka.
Argentina also have some talented youngsters in their ranks. Thiago Almada is a precocious talent who can play as a number 10 or out wide while the centre-back, Nehuen Perez, is presumably not far away from become a regular starter at Atletico Madrid. If an African side is going to follow in footsteps of Nigeria in 1996 and Cameroon in 2000, it will probably be an Ivory Coast team containing Manchester United duo Eric Bailly and Amad Diallo, plus Milan midfielder Franck Kessie.
Do not rule out a Japan triumph on home soil, either. The absence of supporters inside stadiums is a blow to their chances but Hiroki Sakai, Wataru Endo and Maya Yoshida are solid over-age picks among a group of youngsters that contains Getafe midfielder Takefusa Kubo and Tottenham-linked centre-back Takehiro Tomiyasu.
The Premier League season is still more than three weeks away, so if you are looking for your football fix between now and then, give the 2021 Olympic football event a chance.
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