The Olympics are less than a week away, but the football tournament will kick off with the start of the preliminary round on the 6th, two days before the big show starts.
So, similar to the Euro 2008 Best XI that I did several months ago, I’m doing my part to give you a reason to watch the action in Beijing, in case you were still in need of one. The tournament is set to include several world-class stars and quite a few young prospects whose names you should get to know before they wind up at your favorite European club (or beating them).
Though there are a lot of internationally-known players making their way to the Olympics, as was the case with the Euro 2008 Best XI, I wanted to have a mix of well-knowns, up-and-comers, and future prospects. I also wanted to hold to my ‘no more than two players from a country’ rule that applied for that list, but I broke it for good reason.
Disclaimer: I’m fully aware that many of you may disagree with my selections, but that’s why I have an idea – give your own Olympics best XI in the comments section, and see how yours matches up with mine.
Goalkeeper: Andrea Consigli/Emiliano Viviano (Italy)
One of these two will be in the sticks for Italy in the tournament, and while neither of them are a Buffon (yet), they’re two of the prospects trying to show that they’re the future for Italy at keeper.
Left Back: Taye Taiwo, Marseille (Nigeria)
The 23-year old Taiwo, who has 26 caps for Nigeria, is bound to net a goal or two in the Olympics. He has seven for his country, which is a pretty solid ratio. Taiwo is an excellent long-range shooter and set-piece taker, and if a goalkeeper happens to get in the way of one of his rocket shots, they might come to regret it. Oh, and he’s also a pretty good defender as well.
Center Back: Slobodan Rajkovic, FC Twente (Serbia)
There’s a fair chance that Rajkovic could end up in the Chelsea first-team before compatriot Branislav Ivanovic does, but then, the 19-year old is still very much one for the future. He was on loan at PSV last season, and he’ll be on loan at Twente this season, where he’ll be under the tutelage of everyone’s favorite former England manager, Steve McClaren. Good performances there could help him get a recall and a chance at Chelsea, or earn him a permanent move elsewhere. But, before any of that happens, Rajkovic will have a chance to impress for a Serbian side that has a lot of potential, even without the services of hot-shot forward Miralem Sulejmani.
Center Back: Vincent Kompany, Hamburg SV (Belgium)
Kompany is still only 22, but he’s been regarded as one of the best young defenders in Europe since his days at Anderlecht. He’s been linked with big-money moves to some of Europe’s top clubs over the last several years, despite injury issues that have blighted his potential and success to a certain degree. Kompany will get a severe test against Brazil’s firepower, but if he and Belgium can hold their own against one of the favorites and the rest of Group C, they could qualify behind the Brazilians and ahead of hosts China.
Right Back: Rafinha, Schalke 04 (Brazil)
Rafinha is one of the two Bundesliga-based Brazilians that are currently under a great deal of scrutiny for their decision to bolt for the Olympics against the wishes of their clubs. The 22-year old has been heavily linked with Liverpool, and a move to a European power seems inevitable. He was a key part of Schalke’s march to the Champions League quarterfinals last season, and while there’s no shortage of talented prospects in Brazil’s ranks, quality performances in front of Dunga could help Rafinha soon be a key member of Brazil’s 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign.
Midfielder: Angel Di Maria, Benfica (Argentina)
Di Maria is a promising left winger who moved to Benfica last year from Argentine side Rosario Central. The 20-year old has broken into the senior national team, and he has scored a goal in three senior appearances. Benfica would like to hold on to him as long as possible, but all I can say is good luck to them.
Midfielder: Michael Bradley, Heerenveen (USA)
Say what you want about his dad being the coach of the senior national team, but the recently legal (well, in the U.S., as of Thursday) Bradley is pretty good. Last season, he scored more than 15 goals from midfield for Heerenveen, which is a pretty fair total even in the goal-friendly Eredivisie. He already has 19 caps for the senior team, and he was heavily linked with a move to Middlesbrough this summer before it ended up falling through. If he keeps it up, it shouldn’t be long before he does get that move to England.
Midfielder: Stephane M’Bia, Rennes (Cameroon)
The 22-year old M’Bia has recently been the target of interest from the likes of Everton, and for good reason. He’s been a regular for Rennes for the last three seasons, and earlier this year he helped propel Cameroon towards a runner-up finish in the African Cup of Nations, scoring two key goals in a quarterfinal win over Tunisia. A big tournament for him, and a move before the end of the summer transfer window could be in the cards.
Midfielder: Diego, Werder Bremen (Brazil)
Werder Bremen don’t want Diego anywhere near Beijing, but that doesn’t mean he’s listening. The absence of their influential playmaker could affect them in the early part of the Bundesliga season, but at the same time, his presence for Brazil will be all the better for their hopes for gold. Whether he’s wowing you with spectacular goals or setting up others, he’s definitely deserving of a place on this list.
Forward: Lionel Messi, Barcelona (Argentina)
Well, this one is the biggest no-brainer in the whole bunch. Messi will no doubt be the biggest name on the pitch in the Olympic football tournament, and even though Barca might not be keen on him going and risking injury (which is a legitimate worry, considering how things went for him last season), he should be a big factor in Argentina’s charge at a gold medal.
Forward: Ronaldinho, AC Milan (Brazil)
The Olympics is Ronaldinho’s first real chance to show to the masses that he’s still got it, and that he’s not as washed up as many would like to claim. Sure, he may be playing against some pretty fresh faces, but hey, we have to start somewhere, don’t we? Judging by the performance he had earlier this week in a warm-up against Singapore (once again, we have to start somewhere, right?), then maybe the old Ronnie is coming back, which is all the better for Brazil and football fans.
Now, I know there are a lot of notable names that I left out, like Mascherano, Riquelme, Aguero, Robinho, and several others, but feel free to use them in your selections.
One thing’s certain – there’s a lot of talent, and even if the Olympics aren’t something that you usually pay attention to, these names and several others give you plenty of reason to at least watch the football.