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Olympic hopefuls under starter's orders

Published: Monday 23 July 2012, 11.15CET
Three weeks on from UEFA EURO 2012, the men's Olympic football tournament begins on Thursday, with Team GB full of hope and both Spain and Brazil highly fancied.
by Wayne Harrison
from London
Olympic hopefuls under starter's orders
A Great Britain team featuring captain Ryan Giggs lost 2-0 to Brazil on Friday ©Getty Images features

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Published: Monday 23 July 2012, 11.15CET

Olympic hopefuls under starter's orders

Three weeks on from UEFA EURO 2012, the men's Olympic football tournament begins on Thursday, with Team GB full of hope and both Spain and Brazil highly fancied.

A little over three weeks after lifting the Henri Delaunay Cup in Kyiv, Spain, with three UEFA EURO 2012 winners in their ranks, will begin their bid for Olympic gold on Thursday.

Given all they have achieved in the last four years – two continental titles, FIFA World Cup glory in South Africa, the 2011 UEFA European Under-21 Championship and a number of youth tournament triumphs – it is hard to believe the London games will be Spain's first since 2000, when Xavi Hernández and Carles Puyol helped La Roja to silver.

While that duo are not around this time, two men who featured, and scored, in the recent EURO final have been named in Luis Milla's squad: Jordi Alba and Juan Mata. Javi Martínez, one of three players from UEFA Europa League runners-up Athletic Club, is the third European champion.

Spain – in Group D along with Japan, Honduras and Morocco – are joined in the Under-23 competition from Europe by Switzerland, the nation they defeated in last year's U21 final, debutants Belarus and hosts Great Britain, who are fielding an Olympic football team for the first time in 52 years.

Great Britain, coached by England U21 manager Stuart Pearce, face Senegal in their Group A opener at Old Trafford before taking on the United Arab Emirates at Wembley. They then travel to Cardiff to tackle Uruguay, who have named Liverpool FC striker Luis Suárez and SSC Napoli's Edinson Cavani as two of their three overage players.

Pearce has included Ryan Giggs in his party, giving the Manchester United FC midfielder, 38, the chance to play in a major international tournament, which was the one thing he never managed during his 16-year Wales career.

If Spain are considered favourites to emulate their 1992 gold medal-winning feat in Barcelona, then the strongest challenge is expected to emanate from Brazil, joined in Group C by Belarus, Egypt and New Zealand.

With Olympic gold the only major title to have eluded the Seleção and the event serving as a vital source of competitive action before they host the 2014 World Cup, the importance of the London games to coach Mano Menezes and his squad is clear.

At 27, Paris Saint-Germain FC's new recruit, Thiago Silva, is the oldest in an exciting crop including home-based players Neymar and Leandro Damião and seasoned European campaigners Hulk, Marcelo and Pato. Oscar, who scored a hat-trick in the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup final, took time out from Brazil's preparations to complete a move to Chelsea FC on Wednesday.

Switzerland's bid will be spearheaded by Admir Mehmedi, the FC Dynamo Kyiv forward who was on target three times during the Nati's run to the U21 final in Denmark 13 months ago. In what appears to be an open section, Switzerland, Gabon and South Korea will be aware of the threat posed by Marco Fabián, whose seven goals inspired Mexico to glory at the Toulon Tournament earlier this summer.

Men's Olympic football tournament
Group A: Great Britain, Senegal, United Arab Emirates, Uruguay

Group B: Mexico, South Korea, Gabon, Switzerland

Group C: Brazil, Egypt, Belarus, New Zealand

Group D: Spain, Japan, Honduras, Morocco

The top two in each section qualify for the quarter-finals. The tournament runs from 26 July to 11 August, with matches taking place in Coventry, Cardiff, Glasgow, London, Manchester and Newcastle.

Last updated: 30/11/12 20.20CET

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