Football

Messi & Ronaldo plot path for 2012 Olympians

Messi & Aguero celebrate gold in 2008 (©GettyImages)
Messi & Aguero celebrate gold in 2008 (©GettyImages).

You've heard all the arguments before - it's not the pinnacle of the sport, it's a glorified youth tournament, no-one takes it seriously.

Those first two may be true, but the last one certainly isn't. While we in Britain may dismiss its importance, the rest of the world certainly does not. And while British stars have sat on their sunloungers, the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, Ronaldinho and Daniele De Rossi have taken the field, hoping to bring home Olympic gold.

For, while it pales in comparison to the World Cup or European Championships, the Olympic football tournament is a prestigious tournament nonetheless.

Five-time world champions Brazil are by far the world's most successful international side but are yet to win Olympic gold. The fact that bitter rivals Argentina have won the last two adds extra urgency to Brazil's bid to win this year - they want it badly.

Hence Mano Menezes' formidable squad selection, including three of the world's most highly rated young stars, Neymar, Lucas Moura and Ganso. Add to the mix a £40m-rated Hulk, £35m-defender Thiago Silva and Real Madrid fullback Marcelo and you have one of the strongest sides in Olympic history.

And while Team GB's players cannot be blamed for their absence at prior Games - wrangles between national Football Associations held up even their appearance at this year's home Games - the supporters apathy towards the tournament seems odd when you consider the calibre of players on show.

Aside from Brazil's stellar squad list, Spain have brought along Euro 2012 winners Juan Mata, Javi Martinez and Jordi Alba, while Uruguay boast Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez and Liverpool target Gaston Ramirez.

The absence of current holders Argentina hasn't helped, and Italy and France can normally be relied upon to field strong teams.

In 1996 a French team including Patrick Vieira, Sylvain Wiltord and Robert Pires competed at the Atlanta summer games, two years before before Vieira and Pires became World Cup winners, and four years before all three became champions of Europe.

In 2000 at Sydney, Ronaldinho made his first appearance - two years before he also became a World Cup winner - the world's highest paid player Samuel Eto'o also starred, as did Barcelona duo Carles Puyol and Xavi, Italian greats Andrea Pirlo, Gianluca Zambrotta and Gennaro Gattuso.

Four years later brought Cristiano Ronaldo, a future World Player of the Year, to Greece, where he and Portugal finished bottom of Group D, beaten by Iraq, Costa Rica, and Morocco.

Daniele De Rossi, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Pirlo all showed up for Italy - Pirlo and Ronaldo playing in Euro 2004 as well, while Carlos Tevez top scored for gold medal winners Argentina.

The South American side defended their crown with one of the most talented squads in Olympic history in Beijing. Captained by the mercurial Juan Roman Riquelme, Sergio Batista's squad included three-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi, Real Madrid star Angel Di Maria, PSG's latest £21m recruit Ezequiel Lavezzi, and Manchester City star Sergio Aguero.

The Premier League trio Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, and Jan Vertonghen all starred for Belgium, hinting at the Belgian's 'Golden Generation' that is now flourishing four years on. Chelsea and United transfer target Moussa Dembele also made the Belgium squad.

And it's this kind of talent-spotting that makes the Olympics so great to watch. Olympics football has never just been about the established stars - it's more about the young, up and coming stars of the future, the next World Player of the Year, the next Ballon d'Or candidate.

Much of this is down to the fact that Olympic qualification is granted through the European Under-21 Championships and the South American Youth Championships. And very often, the best young players from these tournaments, combined with three over-age players, earn the right to compete a year later at the Olympics.

But unfortunately, British stars look down upon the competition - the quinniel gathering of the world's most talented athletes is spurned because it's not the "pinnacle" of football's self-contained orbit. Only the World Cup and Euros can matter on the international stage.

Which makes the Team GB squad, and the general mood of moderate indifference that many hold towards the Olympics, baffling.

While the likes of Craig Dawson, Marvin Sordell and James Tomkins are all competent performers, they hardly represent the cream of Britain's crop. Even the over-age picks fall victim to apathy - players just don't care enough to play at the Olympics - whether that be fear of injury, tiredness or the low priority they attach to Olympic medals.

Of course, Team GB selection largely rested in the hands of the 20 Premier League managers - quick to withdraw their established stars - rather than Stuart Pearce. But how much more exciting would it have been to watch Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck, Andy Carroll, Theo Walcott, or even Jordan Henderson - all 23 or younger.

Their Euro excursions should prove no barrier - Cristiano Ronaldo, Andrea Pirlo and Juan Mata have all played in both. And only Danny Welbeck can reasonably point to any substantial game time in Ukraine and Poland.

From this year's tournament Neymar looks the best bet for superstardom - you could argue he's already well on his way there, but he's unlikely to be the only one. Nevertheless, he follows in an illustrious line of some of football's greatest players of the last 15 years.

Messi, Ronaldo, Xavi and Ronaldinho are all Olympic graduates.

It's easy to dismiss the Olympics as a second-rate event, but if you want to spot another future star, the class of 2012 is sure to contain one or two once again.

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