In just three days, one of the world’s greatest sporting events is set to get underway. The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics has already been shrouded in controversy, from the inadequacies of the Olympic village to the hazardous waste floating in Guanabara Bay to the Zika virus that has caused several top athletes to pull out of the games. Despite this, the Olympics are always fantastic to watch, and I have the highest hopes that Brazil will be able to pull the Games off.
By the time the opening ceremonies start, Olympic soccer will have already been going for two days. It seems a little bizarre to have an event begin before the beginning of the games, but if it means that I get to watch soccer earlier, I am not complaining.
The format for the men’s soccer tournament is slightly different from what we are used to seeing. All men’s teams are restricted to under-23-year-olds with a maximum of three over-age players allowed to be called up. Brazilian superstar Neymar is one of these over-age players, and he will be the biggest name that we see, for many reasons.
Winning an Olympic gold medal is not an extraordinarily high priority for many soccer players, especially when compared to the glory of winning a World Cup. Additionally, the Olympics directly interfere with the start of the domestic leagues, where competing in the Games could mean losing out on a first-team spot. This was Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius’ reason for skipping out on playing for Germany, although a broken hand ensures that he will miss the start of the season regardless.
Rather interestingly though, the women’s Olympic soccer tournament is not restricted to U-23s. This means that we will get to see the likes of Marta , Christine Sinclair, Eugénie Le Sommer, and Anja Mittag face off against the United States Women’s National Team. It is like last year’s World Cup all over again, an enticing thought that means I will likely be paying more attention to the women’s side than the men’s.
There is yet another difference between the two tournaments. For some reason, the men’s bracket has an extra four teams, meaning that there are 16 men’s teams and 12 women’s. It seems rather unfair, considering that the women’s side often provides higher-quality football during the Olympics. The upside of this is that the two best third-place teams also move on into the knockout stage, instead of just the two best teams in every group. As we saw with the European Championship, however, this is not always a good thing.
Brazil will be adequately prepared for the challenge of hosting an Olympic soccer tournament thanks to hosting the men’s World Cup tournament back in 2014. In addition to the Estádio Olímpico and Maracanã Stadium in Rio itself, the soccer games will be hosted in Brasilia, São Paulo, Salvador in the Bahia region, Manaus in the Amazon region and Belo Horizonte. These stadiums should be in good shape, considering that most of them were built specifically for the World Cup, so the soccer side of the Olympics really should go off without a hitch.
On the men’s side of the bracket, some of the groups are really quite interesting. For example, Group A is made up of Brazil, Denmark, Iraq and South Africa. Expectations will be enormously high for the Brazilians , especially after the humiliating tournament that it had during the World Cup.
Copa America did not really make things better for Brazil, with Head Coach Dunga being fired immediately after Brazil did not make it out of the group stage. While it is only an under-23 squad and not the full out threat that Brazil traditionally poses, I would not be surprised if the nation is furious with anything less than the gold medal.
Group B is made up of Colombia — playing without star midfielder James Rodriguez — Japan, Nigeria and Sweden. Fiji, Germany, Mexico and South Korea round out Group C. I for one am incredibly interested to see how Fiji does in this group. While my expectations are not overly high, it is always great to see small teams compete for the very first time. Furthermore, Mexico looks set to defend its gold medal and hopefully recover from a disappointing Copa America campaign. The final group, Group D, consists of Algeria, a very different Argentina, Honduras and Portugal in what should prove to be a fascinating tournament.
On the women’s side, Group E is made up of Brazil, China, South Africa and Sweden. The Brazilians are enormously favored to do quite well here, so it would be downright shocking if this did not end up happening. Australia, Canada, Germany and Zimbabwe are all in Group F together. It may come as a surprise to some people, but the Canadian women’s team is actually quite good, finishing third at the London Olympics. I would expect captain Christine Sinclair to really carry the team here and hopefully do even better.
Our final group, Group G, is home to Colombia, France, New Zealand and the defending champion, the United States. As always, it seems impossible to not favor the USWNT because it is just so dominant. Even without Abby Wambach, who retired after last year’s triumph at the World Cup, the Americans are just incredibly stacked with talent.
I am tapping the USWNT and Brazil to win the gold medals in Rio. It may not compare to other tournaments in some people’s eyes, but soccer is soccer, and I cannot wait to see how the teams do. In another friendly reminder, the Premier League kicks off in just 11 days, in what is my favorite time of the year. Until then, we can fill our need for soccer with what should be a phenomenal Olympic tournament.
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