The Games kick off on July 27 in London, so over the next week we'll be giving yinz the rundown on what you need to know in preparation for the greatest international competition in existence. We also have Adam dropping some knowledge on us about athletes and teams you can expect to see on the medal stand. Since there are 31 different events in the Summer Games, we've condensed them down and combined them so we don't have to write 31 different posts. Today, I'll be looking at Soccer.
If you're a fan of international soccer, at first glance you might be excited for another big-time tournament. Well, hopefully you enjoyed the Euro 2012 tournament, because that's about all you're going to get this year. Due to a ridiculously stupid FIFA regulation, Olympic squads may only contain 3 players over the age of 23. Therefore, the normal powerhouse teams are not participating in the Olympics. The qualification tournaments featured Under-21 squads which means most big-name players didn't even partake in qualifying. Due to this, the Euro tournament is considered a bigger deal than the Olympics, which are pretty much an afterthought.
That said, the age restrictions do enable some lesser-known players and nations to compete on a national stage. I don't have much to go off of to make my analysis, and the closest thing many of these teams have seen to international competition is the Under-20 World Cup last year, so I'll probably make mention of their finishes there as a good barometer for these teams.
Group A - Great Britain, Senegal, United Arab Emirates, Uruguay
If striker Luis Suarez is playing for Uruguay, they have a good chance of sweeping their way through this group. He's an exciting player that led Uruguay to the 2011 Copa America championship while being named the Player of the Tournament. He also helped Uruguay to a 4th place finish in the 2010 World Cup. Great Britain and Uruguay should advance from this group.
Group B - Mexico, South Korea, Gabon, Switzerland
Mexico has a squad that is capable of making a deep run in the tournament. Most players have international experience from their 3rd place finish in last year's Under-20 World Cup. South Korea has quietly built a solid soccer team, advancing to the knockout stage in both the 2011 U-20 World Cup and 2010 World Cup. Mexico and South Korea should advance, but Switzerland could cause some problems.
Group C - Brazil, Egypt, Belarus, New Zealand
Brazil should easily sweep through this group and has a great chance to bring home Gold to back up their U-20 World Cup title from last year. Brazil and Egypt are familiar with each other, having played to a 1-1 draw in the group stage of the U-20 World Cup. Egypt was eliminated in the Round of 16 and could well advance from this group. New Zealand has quietly made their way onto the international stage after earning 3 draws at the 2010 World Cup against Paraguay, Slovakia, and Italy. The Kiwis play a defensive style that isn't going to overpower anyone, but their propensity for earning draws (had draws against Uruguay and Cameroon in the group stage of the U-20 World Cup) could make them a tough out in this group. I expect Brazil and Egypt to advance here.
Group D - Spain, Japan, Honduras, Morocco
Spain has won 3 consecutive major tournaments (2008 Euro, 2010 World Cup, 2012 Euro) without allowing a goal in the Knockout stage of any of them. That's impressive, but with a U-23 roster, this Spanish side may not be as dominant as their full National Team. That said, they should be able to advance through this group. Spain dominated their group in the U-20 World Cup and lost to eventual champion Brazil in the Round of 8 on penalty kicks. None of the other 3 squads competed in the U-20 World Cup, so I don't really know what to expect. Honduras beat El Salvador in the semi-finals of the North American qualifiers (the US went out in the group stage) to earn the 2nd North American bid. Japan will probably advance, but I'm going on reputation.
With the US not competing in Men's Football Soccer, I don't have to be accused of hating America if I don't pick them to win.
Ian's Prediction: Gold - Brazil, Silver - Spain, Bronze - Uruguay, 4th - Mexico
Unlike the Men's Competition, there are no age restrictions on the Women's side, which means the US was able to qualify and will be out for revenge after losing to Japan in the Women's World Cup last year. This should be a very good competition with 10 of the 12 teams having competed in the 2011 Women's World Cup. The Women's competition at the Olympics is made up of 3 groups of 4 with the top 2 in each group advancing along with the top 2 3rd place finishers.
Group E - Great Britain, New Zealand, Cameroon, Brazil
Brazil tore through the group stage at the Women's World Cup with a 7-0 goal differential but lost to the US in the opening round of the knockout stage. England won their group and lost to France in the Round of 8 and New Zealand was eliminated in group play. Expect Brazil and Great Britain to advance here. If New Zealand can earn a few draws, they might be able to advance.
Group F - Japan, Canada, Sweden, South Africa
Sweden is a very good squad that actually won their Group (which featured the US) at the Women's World Cup and wound up finishing 3rd. Japan is the reigning world champions. The Canadian side is coming off an embarrassing performance at the Women's World Cup but might be good enough to earn a spot in the elimination stage.
Group G - United States, France, Colombia, North Korea
If there's a Group of Death at the Olympics, it's this one. And that's not because Colombia and North Korea are involved. All 4 of these teams competed at the Women's World Cup. The US has experience against all of them, having competed in the Group Stage against Colombia and North Korea and beating France in the Semi-Finals. The US beat North Korea 2-0, Colombia 3-0, and France 3-1. Colombia and North Korea drew 0-0 at the Women's World Cup which should set up an interesting rematch with a potential spot in the quarterfinals on the line. The US and France should easily advance.
The elimination stage should be exciting. Finishing 1st in Group G is a must for the US as they would draw one of the 3rd place squads. A 2nd place finish would force them into a match with the winner of Group F (likely reigning champion Japan or a very good Sweden team). The top 4 from the Women's World Cup are all competing in this tournament so a favorable draw in the knockout stage is essential. The US will likely have to face either Japan or Brazil before the finals, but not having to face either of them in the Round of 8 is huge.
Ian's Prediction: Gold - US, Silver - Japan, Bronze - Brazil, 4th - Sweden