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Thursday, 4 August 2016

#BetweenTheRings: Men's Football Preview
Can the host nation finally top the football podium?


On the eve of the Opening Ceremonies, Brazilian fans are salivating at the mouth for a chance to cheer on their top national sport (and best gold medal threat?): Men's Football!  The Brazilians have been waiting for redemption from 4 years ago in London and the opportunity to finally win gold on their home pitch is something dreams are made of for all Brazilian footy fans.

The competition is fairly wide open this year.  Remember Olympic men's football is restricted to under-23 players with a maximum of three overage players.  Basically meaning just because a nation is ranked high in the FIFA World Rankings, it does necessarily translate over to the ranking of the nation's U23 team.  Some nations continue to produce top U23 and Senior Men's teams on a consistent basis (ie: Brazil, Argentina, Germany) while others seem to find greater success at one or the other.

Here is a quick #RioRewind at the men's Olympic football history:

  • Football has been contested at every Summer Games except two: 1896 and 1932.
  • Controversy has clouded the football competition in the early years.  In 1936, returning to the Olympics after the absence, the Italian team was accused of intimidating a referee during a match.  Peru and Austria's match required a replay after fan invasions at the end of the original match caused concern.  When FIFA agreed, Peru refused to replay a match they previously won and walked out of the Olympics.  In 1984, the IOC allowed professional players but FIFA had a different idea allowing Africa, Asia, Oceania and CONCACAF to field their top teams while UEFA and CONMEBOL were left to only field teams with player who had not previously competed in a World Cup.
  • Italy has qualified for the most Olympic tournaments, 15.  However, the often considered football powerhouse has only won the tournament once (1936) and collected 2 bronze medals (1928, 2004) and have failed to qualify since 2008.
  • The USA has the second most Summer Olympic appearances with 14.  However their best result was a silver medal in 1904.  They have failed to qualify for the past two Olympic competitions as well.
  • Host nation Brazil will be making their 13th Olympic appearance but have yet to win a gold medal.  They have won a silver medal 3 times (1984, 1988, 2012) and 2 bronze medals (1996, 2008) however.  Could this finally be the year?
  • Hungary and Great Britain have won the most gold medals: 3.  However, Great Britain's success all came in the early years of the Oympiad (1900, 1908, 1912).  Hungary found success in 1952, 1960 and 1968.  Since 1968, Hungary has qualified for only 2 Summer Olympics (1972, 1996) and Great Britain only once (2012 as hosts).
  • Germany, France and Spain are often considered UEFA powerhouse nations and contenders for the championship in any football event.  However, these powerhouse nations have a combined 2 gold medals (France - 1984 and Spain - 1992).  East Germany did win a gold medal in 1976.
  • European nations dominated the competition in the early years of the Summer Olympics.  From 1900 to 1992, a European nation took home gold in 17 of the 20 tournaments contested.  Since 1992, European nations have combined to win only 2 medals: Spain - Silver (2000) and Italy - Bronze (2004).
  • CONMEBOL nations have been the most successful over the past 20 years.  Argentina has won back-to-back gold medals (2004, 2008) while Brazil has collected multiple medals and Chile and Paraguay have found the podium as well.  Brazil and Argentina will both be heavy favourites in Rio, joined by fellow CONMEBOL nation Columbia as the triple medal threat.
  • Since 1996, CAF nations have produced the same amount of gold medal victories as CONMEBOL (2) and more than any other federation.  Nigeria claimed gold in 1996 and Cameroon followed suit in 2000.  Nigeria also took home a silver medal in 2008.  After missing the 2012 Olympics, Nigeria will return to the pitch in Rio, making their 7th Summer Olympics appearance.  They will be joined by Algeria and South Africa, both making only their 2nd appearance.
  • AFC nations have struggled the most on the Olympic stage.  In the history of the competition, only two AFC nations have found the podium: Japan - Bronze (1968) and South Korea - Bronze (2012).  South Korea will be competing in their 10th Summer Olympics and 7th in a row while Japan will also compete in their 10th Summer Olympics and 6th in a row.  Both AFC nations will be joined by Iraq in Rio.  

The numbers, stats and history lessons above don't lie friends.  If we follow trends over the past 20 years, we should expect to see a South American team find the top of the podium in Rio, European nations to struggle and Africa to produce a surprise medal threat.

Remember the different format for the Olympic competition as well.  Unlike most FIFA events, and even in comparison to the women's tournament, only the Top 2 nations in each group will advance.  Usually we see a few of the top third place teams make the knockout stage but not here.

Here is the #TwineTime Rio 2016 Men's Football Preview:

Men's Football

2012 Podium:  G - Mexico, S - Brazil, B - South Korea

Group A

Nations:  Brazil, South Africa, Iraq, Denmark

Host nation Brazil should walk away with this group comfortably.  Taking into consideration the age requirements for the competition, Brazil again would be considered strong favourites.  At the 2015 FIFA U20 World Cup, Brazil is the only nation in this group to have qualified.  Brazil even made the final, losing to Serbia in added extra time.  The Summer Olympic team will field players who competed in 2015 and should be ready to perform in front of home fans.  Oh and not to mention the star of the tournament: Neymar!  The pressure will be intense though, just ask the senior men's team when they hosted the World Cup in 2014.  The disappointing SF loss back then still haunts the hearts and minds of Brazilian football fans so a strong result, basically a top of the podium finish, is needed!

The other three nations are almost wildcards.  This will be South Africa's second Olympic appearance, Iraq's fifth and Denmark's ninth.  All three have had gaps though since their most recent appearance.  South Africa last competed in 2000, Iraq in 2004 and Denmark in 1992.  The opening match of the competition between Denmark and Iraq could go a long way in determining how this group shakes out.  Denmark has the draw advantage, getting to play Brazil in their final group stage match.  Interesting to note, in South Africa's only other Summer Olympic appearance they did defeat Brazil (3-1) in the Group Stage...and the same two nations will play their opening match against one another.

#TwineTime Projected Standings:  1. Brazil  2. Iraq  3. Denmark  4. South Africa

Group B

Nations:  Sweden, Columbia, Nigeria, Japan

This will be a tight group and one many fans should pay attention to.  All 4 of these nations have the ability to advance out of the group stage.  Sweden are the current UEFA U21 Champions.  Nigeria currently hold the CAF U23 Championship.  Japan won the AFC U23 title and are only 4 years removed from a tough 4th place finish.  And Columbia could be the strongest nation of all 4, qualifying out of a difficult CONMEBOL region and defeating USA in a play-off to get here.

This group has the "tie" feel to it doesn't it?  You get a feeling we will see more tie results than wins in the matches played and a team may only need to win 1 game to win the group.  Similar to Group A, we see another Europe-South America-Africa-Asia battle.  And similar to Group A, the South American nation SHOULD come out on top.  European teams struggle at the Olympics and struggle playing in the South American climate, expect Sweden to suffer the same twist of fate.  Nigeria has two Olympic gold medals to their federation resume already and should not be underestimated this time around.

#TwineTime Projected Standings:  1. Columbia  2. Nigeria  3. Japan  4. Sweden

Group C

Nations:  Fiji, South Korea, Mexico, Germany

The Group of Death!  Here we find the defending Olympic champion (Mexico), the defending Olympic bronze medal winner (South Korea), one of the strongest football nations on the planet (Germany) and....the only debut nation competing (Fiji).  Many predict two nations from this group could make a SF run and two nations from this group could reach the podium.  Not hard to see why!

Mexico, as defending champions, has seen their federation focus on the success in London and really try to elevate the U23 program for the future.  This will be the test to see how the new system is working.  Anything short of a medal will be a disappointment.  Germany should be a strong contender here as well.  It works to both nations advantage to have Mexico vs. Germany as the opening group stage match.  Both teams can afford a slip up early on against one another and still regroup to make the knockout stage by winning their remaining matches.

Don't underestimate Fiji just because they are making their Summer Olympic debut.  The Bula Boys are the current OFC U23 Champions and have made a strong push on the international stage in the past few years, including qualifying for the 2015 U20 World Cup.  Oddly enough, at the World Cup they were drawn against Germany as well and suffered a tough opening match 8-1 loss.  Welcome to Rio Fiji!  South Korea, similar to Mexico, has also seen a strong push from their national federation to build on the success in London.  To replicate that feat, given the group they have drawn, might be a bit out of reach; however, interesting motivation factor here: bring home a medal and players are exempt from the mandatory military duty.  #Yikes

#TwineTime Projected Standings:  1. Mexico  2. Germany  3. South Korea  4. Fiji

Group D

Nations:  Honduras, Algeria, Portugal, Argentina

See Group A above?  Ok in all seriousness though, Argentina should easily dominate this group.  And the football crazy nation really needs a strong result in Rio right now after the Lionel Messi retirement broke the hearts of many.  Is Argentina a medal threat?  Probably not given the competition awaiting them in the knockout stage.  Can they make a strong showing here though to hopefully repair some of the ill-will feelings towards the sport back home?  I think so!

Portugal is still celebrating their recent Euro 2016 championship but don't be foolish in thinking that victory will right away equate over to an Olympic triumph.  None of the players from Euro 2016 will be in Rio.  This is still a strong squad, bolstered by their runner-up finish at the European U21 Championship.  Honduras could be a surprise dark horse contender.  While Argentina and Portugal are the favourites on paper, Los Catrachos could catch them looking ahead and score a few goals (and even steal points) from the main group contenders.  With Portugal and Argentina opening play against one another, Honduras has the more winnable opening game vs Algeria while also having the opportunity to directly scout both nations before playing them.  And...Hi Algeria!  We see you in this group and welcome back to the Olympics, your first since 1980.  Unfortunately, a team consisting of hyper-local talent and optioning not to draw on the max 3 overage players does not seem to be in contention here.

#TwineTime Projected Standings:  1. Argentina  2. Honduras  3. Portugal  4. Algeria

Knockout Stage

Quarterfinals

Brazil over Nigeria
Mexico over Honduras
Columbia over Iraq
Germany over Argentina

Semifinals

Brazil over Mexico
Columbia over Germany

Bronze Medal

Mexico over Germany

Gold Medal

Brazil over Columbia

#TwineTime Medal Picks

Gold - Brazil
Silver - Columbia
Bronze - Mexico

Stay up to date on all the #BetweenTheRings Previews below:

Welcome to Rio 2016
Women's Football Preview