The men’s soccer tournament at the Olympic Games gets underway on Wednesday in Japan and there are plenty of top young players on show until the gold medal match on Aug. 7.
Traditionally, the men’s Olympic tournament only allows countries to use players under the age of 23, with the exception of three “overage” players. This year, squads have increased from 18 to 22 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the U23 rule remains and the majority of players must be born on or after Jan. 1, 1997 to qualify.
In the past, stars such as Argentina‘s Lionel Messi (2008), Mexico‘s Raul Jimenez (2012) and Brazil‘s Neymar (2016) have walked away with the gold medal, but the pandemic has limited the number of top players that clubs are willing to let go this summer. And there will be no fans.
The Olympic tournament is not recognised as part of the official FIFA calendar so generally domestic clubs in Europe aren’t obligated to release their players. But Spain‘s law says that those playing in La Liga must be allowed, which may explain the strength of their squad with six members of their Euro 2020 side included: Pedri, Eric Garcia, Dani Olmo, Unai Simon, Mikel Oyarzabal and Pau Torres.
Spain and defending champions Brazil are favourites to take home the gold medal in Yokohama, so which young players should we be looking out for this summer?
Originally a number of top youngsters were in the squad — including Rennes midfielder Eduardo Camavinga, Arsenal‘s William Saliba and Nice‘s Amine Gouiri — before being removed at the behest of their clubs. But from a mixed bag of players mainly consisting of untried youth from top clubs and those who failed to make the European Under-21 Championship squad, Mbuku is one of the most exciting inclusions. Direct, fast and unpredictable, the Reims winger experienced a mini-breakthrough last season. Now that he has started to provide an end product, he will be scouted by all the top clubs in France.
The home nation has assembled a respectable squad consisting of seasoned European pros mixed with some of the country’s most prominent talent. Kubo, long considered Japan‘s superstar in the making, is the one expected to create the moments of magic. The multi-functional attacking midfielder spent two loan spells — first with Villarreal, then with Getafe — away from Real Madrid last season and, though he mainly featured off the bench, will no doubt have benefitted from exposure.
Despite not being as influential as expected for Cruz Azul this year, the attacking midfielder is one of the difference makers in the Mexico side — alongside the outstanding forward in the qualification tournament, Alexis Vega. Already capped 20 times at senior level, Alvarado has a potent left foot and enjoys cutting in from the right with quick dribbles and changes of pace. Real Betis‘ Diego Lainez will also be one to watch, while eccentric goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa was part of the 2004 Olympic squad and has been to four World Cups.
Out of a depleted South Africa squad, Singh is one of the few to have played first-team football at a decent European level over the past year. Singh, who moved to Europe at the age of 18 to join Swedish side GAIS, is primarily a tricky, speedy winger who is able to score from distance — either at the end of audacious runs or from set pieces. Leicester City‘s Khanya Leshabela and Brighton’s Percy Tau weren’t in the final squad and goalkeeper Ronwen Williams is the only over-age player.
Over-age players: Ronwen Williams (29, goalkeeper, SuperSport United)
There’s no doubt that one of the heroes of the qualifying tournament will have to repeat his inspirational shot-stopping in Japan for Honduras to stand much of a chance. Along with most of his teammates, the goalkeeper is based in Honduras but is still looking to obtain the No. 1 jersey at the country’s biggest club, Olimpia. Even so, with his brave style of goalkeeping, cat-like reflexes and agility, Guity was one of the reasons why the country landed the second qualifying spot (by beating the United States). Also keep an eye on forward Douglas Martinez, who plays in MLS with Real Salt Lake.
While Valencia forward Lee Kang-In is the most illustrious name in this South Korea side, Song has gone under the radar as he still plays his club football at home. Having starred on the left wing for Pohang Steelers, the 21-year-old was recently awarded his first full cap for his country. An industrious and aggressive winger who is a good crosser even with his weaker left foot, Song enjoys taking on defenders and has a knack for scoring from headers despite being 5-foot-10.
Over-age players: Kim Min-Jae (24, centre-back, Beijing Guoan), Hwang Ui-Jo (28, forward, Bordeaux), Kwon Chang-Hoon (27, attacking midfielder, Suwon Bluewings)
Over the past season, Waine has emerged as one of the best prospects in the A-League. He chipped in with seven goals for the Phoenix during the past season and is on the verge of establishing himself as a regular in the first XI. A quick thinker, and an opportunist who’s excellent at sniffing out where the ball is going to drop, Waine recently turned down overtures from European clubs in favour of staying in Wellington. Bayern Munich‘s Sarpreet Singh was not included in the squad, but New Zealand boast Premier League experience from their over-age players.
The technically gifted attacking midfielder is arguably the most exciting representative of a Romania team who have not been allowed to call up key players like Rangers’ Ianis Hagi. Still, Ciobanu made his mark with a wonderfully executed free kick against Netherlands at the group stage of the European Under-21 Championship in March. An entertaining midfielder, Ciobanu’s flicks, backheels and creative problem-solving makes him a real crowd-pleaser in the Romanian league.
Over-age players: Florin Stefan (25, left-back, no club)
Argentina haven’t got the same kind of talent that won the gold in 2008 (Messi, Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero to name but a few) but Almada is the pick of a squad clearly hit by ongoing South American competitions and European clubs being reluctant to release their players at a crucial stage of preseason. Bayer Leverkusen‘s Lucas Alario was cut from squad and Atlanta United’s Ezequiel Barco should shine too, but Almada has been linked with some of the elite clubs in world football ever since he broke through as a 17-year-old. An efficient and dangerous counter-attacker, who can open the game with a wonderful pass or run at opponents with the ball, he’s still at Velez Sarsfield and hit the headlines for the wrong reasons when he was accused of sexual abuse and suspended by his club in February, though he was reinstated a week later when new evidence emerged.
Over-age players: Jeremias Ledesma (28, goalkeeper, Cadiz)
The left-footed central midfielder is among four newly crowned A-League champions with Melbourne City and a rising star on Australia’s football scene. Originally a defensive midfielder who preferred to sit in front of the defence as a link player to midfield, Metcalfe has gradually unleashed his attacking potential, too. Often making deep runs behind the opposing defensive line or getting on the scoresheet from late runs into the box, he is turning into a proper “No. 8.” An enthusiastic, positive footballer with a first-class work rate, he was recently capped by the senior Socceroos side.
Over-age players: Mitchell Duke (30, striker, Western Sydney Wanderers)
EGYPT: Ahmed Fotouh (23, left-back, Zamalek)
In a league which is not traditionally kind to young players, the left-back has established himself as first choice over the past six months at 12-time champions Zamalek. Fotouh’s game has a fine balance between attacking and defending. Though his adventures in the final third can leave him exposed defensively, the 23-year-old can recover quickly, is a decent crosser of the ball and can use his weaker right foot to get him out of trouble when an opponent cuts inside.
Over-age players: Mohamed El Shenawy (32, goalkeeper, Al Ahly), Ahmed Hegazi (30, centre-back, Al-Ittihad)
Spain are serious about grabbing their first gold medal since their home Olympics in 1992. Outstanding Euro 2020 performers Torres, Olmo, Pedri, Garcia and Oyarzabal all make Luis de la Fuente’s side, while they have quality over-age players too. Perhaps overshadowed by the spectacular first line of stars, Cucurella is among a group of up-and-coming players on the verge of breaking through to the next level. He mostly operates as a left midfielder and can play at left-back, but he’s far more comfortable further up the pitch. Indeed, full of ideas, positive in his passing and a good crosser of the ball, Cucurella is particularly dangerous when he drops into central areas around the box.
Aside from Spain, the reigning champions are arguably favourites to retain their title. A strong contingent headed by Premier League names such as Richarlison (Everton), Gabriel Martinelli (Arsenal) and Douglas Luiz (Aston Villa) is backed up by Bruno Guimaraes (Lyon), Paulinho (Bayer Leverkusen), Antony (Ajax), Matheus Cunha (Hertha Berlin) and a couple of well-known over-age heavyweights in Dani Alves and Diego Carlos. Within the framework of such a strong group, Reinier may find his chance to shine. The exceptionally talented Brazilian played a minor role on loan at Dortmund from Madrid last season, but he has another year there to prove himself, and there are few more naturally talented attacking midfielders in European football.
Over-age players: Diego Carlos (28, centre-back, Sevilla), Dani Alves (38, right-back, Sao Paulo), Santos (31, goalkeeper, Athletico Paranaense)
By no means an unknown name, Diallo is still an unknown quantity. The 19-year-old signed for Manchester United from Atalanta in January 2021 for a transfer fee that could reach €41m. There are huge expectations on his shoulders, but he has been used sparingly by his new club with only eight appearances so far. Whether Diallo has the potential to eventually become a first-team regular at Old Trafford is still heavily debated among scouts and insiders, but hopefully a run of games at the Olympics will offer more clues. United teammate Eric Bailly will add some experience, while Franck Kessie is a quality addition to the squad.
Germany won the European Under-21 Championship last month but with the likes of Lukas Nmecha, Florian Wirtz and Karim Adeyemi staying at home, they are sending a somewhat underwhelming group of players to Japan. One exciting inclusion, however, is winger Ismail Jakobs. Just signed by Monaco from Cologne, Jakobs is an energetic left-sided midfielder whose skillful left foot and vision make him a fine combination player — both when it comes to making space for teammates and finding useful positions around the penalty area. Sadly, Germany’s preparations for the Olympics have been dominated by news of the team walking off the pitch during a warm-up game against Honduras after defender Jordan Torunarigha was allegedly racially abused.
The attacking midfielder is on the verge of becoming a key player at one of Saudi Arabia‘s top clubs, Al-Nasr. Though still not a regular, Yahya has mainly been used as an impact substitute in the league and AFC Champions League. With his low centre of gravity, quick feet and ability to make things happen in the final third — in particular with clever balls behind the defence when he cuts in from wide positions — he can be fun to watch.
Over-age players: Yasser Al-Shahrani (29, full-back, Al-Hilal), Salem Al-Dawsari (29, winger, Al-Hilal), Salman Al-Faraj (31, midfielder, Al-Hilal).