Chris O (follow on Twitter: @COakleyFtbl)
Thu 3 April 2008

Beijing Bound

Call it the 'Poor Man's World Cup' if you like, but the Olympic Men's Soccer Tournament is a competition that is worthy of its place in the football calendar. This being an Olympic year, we've not got long to go before the next one rolls around and the good news is we now know who's going to be taking part in Beijing this August.

Sixteen teams will be involved, all of whom will be split into four groups of four with the top two from each group qualifying for the quarter finals and the ensuing knockout stages leading to the Final.

China, the hosts, have qualified automatically and probably just as well as they haven't reached the finals of the Olympic soccer tournament since 1988. They go into the First Round draw on April 20th along with the qualifiers from all six FIFA continents including Brazil and Argentina from South America.

Brazil missed out on the last event in Greece but return this time as one of the favourites along with reigning champions and near neighbours Argentina. The Argentineans were a revelation in Athens, playing a free-flowing, attack-minded style of play that saw them score seventeen goals and concede none.

Arguably the most eye-catching player in their team was the top scorer in 2004, Carlos Tevez who, we understand, has gone on to do quite well since. With players like Riquelme and Messi likely to have a similar effect on their 2008 campaign, don't be surprised if the gold medals go to the Albicelestes again.

Africa will be sending an impressive triumvirate of talent to the Games this summer. Returning to the big stage are 1996 Olympic champions Nigeria, 2000 champions Cameroon and newcomers to the tournament, Ivory Coast. All three were among the big names at the recent 2008 African Cup of Nations and all three are capable of causing an upset when this year's competition gets underway.

The Olympic Soccer Tournament is renowned for giving the world its first sight of many stars of the future and Nigeria's victorious team in Atlanta twelve years ago is a good example of this. Among the players who went onto become household names were Taribo West, Celestine Babayaro, Sunday Oliseh, Jay-Jay Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu and Victor Ikpeba. If their current squad can boast potential like that, they could be bound for greatness in Beijing.

There's one or two new names to conjure with alongside the tried and trusted. Accompanying the ever-present USA from the CONCACAF section are Honduras who surprisingly got their place at the expense of the usually-ever-present Mexicans. Mexico showed their gratitude to team coach Hugo Sanchez for his inability to gain qualification for his team by giving him the sack. Perhaps they Mexican Waved him goodbye as they did so - who knows…

Another new name at Beijing 2008 is New Zealand who finally have the chance to compete thanks to Australia's migration to the Asian confederation. It'll be only the All White's second ever Olympic outing since 1952 when they made the huge journey to Melbourne to take part. Obviously not a team that likes to travel long distances very much…

Speaking of Australia, they've been more or less a permanent fixture in Olympic Soccer since 1988 and they'll be competing again in August when they'll be hoping to match their 1992 semi-final finish that ended at the hands of Poland. Representing Asia alongside Australia and China are Japan and South Korea, one of whom should get as far as the quarter finals if recent form is anything to go by.

Finally to Europe where four teams will be making the long journey to Beijing, but here again there are some surprises. If you're looking for the likes of Spain, France, Germany or Portugal, forget it. All of them fell by the wayside during the UEFA Under-21 Championships last June that acted as the qualification round leaving Italy (2004 Olympic semi-finalists), the Netherlands (appearing for the first time since 1952), Belgium (appearing for the first time since 1928) and Serbia, appearing for the first time in their own right.

With a considerable sense of irony, England reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Under-21 competition but as a distinct entity separate from Great Britain (hosts of the 2012 Olympics) they won't, of course, be appearing in this year's games. This caused a play-off to be held between the two third-placed teams, Portugal and Italy, and the latter won after a penalty shoot-out.

Quite a tenuous way of qualifying for the Italians who were only beaten by eventual champions Argentina in 2004 and picked up a bronze medal for their efforts. That must have stuck in the throat of Cristiano Ronaldo who made an appearance for the Portuguese four years ago and may well have done so in 2008 had his side been better at taking penalties against the Italians.

So there they are, the sixteen teams going for gold in Beijing this year. Some are going for Nigeria to win, many think it'll be Argentina, but all things considered you can expect a football tournament full of interest and excitement when the games begin this August.

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