The 2012 summer Olympics in London gives many of us a chance to watch sports we don’t typically follow, which for me, includes gymnastics, track and field, and swimming.
One Olympic sport that has not garnered as much attention is soccer. This week and next I will catch you up on the men’s and women’s soccer tournaments.
This week focuses on a preview of the men’s tournament while next week the women’s tournament will be covered.
The men begin play today, Thursday, July 26, with the United States failing to make the tournament.
On the women’s side, play began Wednesday, July 25, with Team USA beating France 4-2, in the opening round.
Action will continue for the duration of the Olympics and gold medal matches will be held August 9 for women and August 11 for men. Soccer begins before the opening ceremonies because the tournament-style setup takes longer than other sports.
Not just any nation can send a team to the Olympics. Both men’s and women’s teams have to qualify to participate. Qualification tournaments were held in regions of the world to determine which team would be among the 16 teams to compete in Great Britain for a gold medal.
Unlike the World Cup, the men’s Olympic competition is an under-23 tournament. The reason for this: the world’s soccer governing body (FIFA) wanted to differentiate this tournament from the World Cup. But each country is allowed to incorporate three over-aged players in order to generate interest, as these players are often more recognizable and high-profile personalities.
Which countries qualified and who’s MIA?
Many of the traditional soccer powerhouses will be present at the Olympic tournament. These include: Uruguay (semi-finalists in the last World Cup and the current South American champions), Spain (currently European and World Champions), Great Britain (the country that made the rules for the sport), and Brazil (the team with the most World Cup trophies). What might come as more of a surprise is who is not involved in the competition. Traditional powerhouses such as Germany, Italy, Holland, Argentina, and the United States all failed to qualify. Instead of these countries, you can root for underdogs like Gabon and Belarus. But before you start cheering though, get out your atlas and find them on the map because the Olympics give great opportunities for geographical education.
Who are some players to watch for?
This Olympic tournament could be a “coming out” party for Neymar, the 20-year-old Brazilian phenom. There’s precedent for this. Four years ago a 5-foot-7 Argentinian led his country to the gold medal and has since become the best player in the world. His name is Lionel Messi. While Neymar is a young star taking center stage, another player is getting a chance to finally represent his “country” in a major tournament. Years ago Ryan Giggs (now 38) chose to represent Wales and not England in international competitions. Wales, however, is a minnow in international soccer and never qualifies for the World Cup or European championship. But because Great Britain in a unified team representing Wales, Northern Ireland, England and Scotland, Giggs has his chance. He was even named captain of the side.
Who are the favorites?
Nearly every expert is predicting that Brazil will walk away with the gold medal. The country is sending a quality squad that includes several players with vast experience in the top-tier international professional leagues, and their over-age players match up with just about any of other countries.
But I think that they will come up short in the gold medal match against Spain. The Spanish have simply been unstoppable in recent years, winning the last two European championships, the most recent World Cup, and, earlier this summer, the under-19 European Championship. Quite simply, Spain has displaced Brazil as the center of the soccer world. Other teams that have a great chance to medal include the hosts Great Britain, Mexico, and (my favorite for the bronze medal) Uruguay.
Can you watch the games?
According to their website, NBC is streaming all events, so if you’re interested in soccer (or any other event) visit their website. But soccer, both women’s and men’s, started before the July 27 opening ceremonies, on July 25 and 26, respectively. Opening round games for the men will be held on July 26, 29, and August 1.
Greg Olson has taught history for 13 years at Baymonte Christian School in Scotts Valley. He has played soccer for more than 30 years and coached for nearly 20. He earned his doctorate in history from Claremont Graduate University in 2008.