Men’s Olympic soccer has always been played in a strange sort of sporting limbo. It’s usually the best-attended competition at a given Games, but it’s never quite established itself as a marquee event.
Hindered by an amateurs-only policy at the beginning, Olympic soccer subsequently was overshadowed by the World Cup and then dominated for decades by state-sponsored players from Europe’s Eastern Bloc. In 1992 the men’s tournament became an age-restricted Under-23 event, and four years later in Atlanta, organizers agreed to add a bit of star power by inviting three older players per team.
Olympic soccer affords fans outside the host city access to the Games, and it remains a great way to discover and celebrate new talent. But at the moment, an Olympic medal remains a secondary honor in the soccer world. Just ask Lionel Messi, who claimed gold with Argentina in 2008 but still felt as though he’d won nothing truly major for his country when he announced his international retirement following a loss in June’s Copa América Centenario final. Or ask Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. national team coach and technical director (and 1988 bronze medal winner) who kept his job after the Americans failed to even qualify for a second consecutive Olympiad.
That being said, this summer’s tournament matters immensely to the hosts. For evidence, look no further than last month, when Brazil sacrificed any shot at the Copa América as part of its quest to win an Olympic title. At the senior level, Brazil is soccer’s most decorated nation. It has won the World Cup a record five times. But it still doesn’t have the full set. France is the only country that has won a World Cup, Confederations Cup, senior continental championship, Olympic gold medal, Under-20 World Cup and Under-17 World Cup. Brazil needs only the gold medal to join that exclusive club, and it’s so desperate to get it that officials left Neymar, the Barcelona forward who's the country’s best player, off the Copa América team so he could fill one of the over-age spots on the Olympic squad.
It’s practically unheard of to prioritize a U-23 event over a senior competition, but Brazil needs this. The humiliating 7-1 World Cup semifinal loss to Germany in Belo Horizonte still stings two years later (and will for years to come). Another home-soil failure may send a program that’s under considerable pressure (coach Dunga was fired following the Copa) into a tailspin. For Brazil, which lost the 2012 Olympic final to Mexico, these Games are serious business.
The rest of the field is tough to handicap. Olympic tournaments often feature surprises, and countries that typically don’t challenge for World Cup honors—especially those from Africa and Asia—have fared far better at the U-23 level. Meanwhile, squads from Europe, home of the past three World Cup winners, have claimed only one of the last nine Olympic medals (Italy won bronze in ’04).
There are few household names among the over-age players, thanks in part to this summer’s Copa América and European Championship tournaments and in part to the August kickoff to international club soccer’s preseason. A couple of exceptions will be playing for Mexico, which is taking its title defense seriously. Club América star Oribe Peralta, 33, will be leading the attack. He scored the gold medal-winning goal four years ago. He’ll be joined by UANL Tigres defender Jorge Torres Nilo, an El Tri mainstay.
Five players to watch
Julian Brandt, Germany: Next up on Germany’s turbo-powered talent conveyor belt is this 20-year-old attacker from Bayer Leverkusen, who’s already played once for the world champion senior side. Often deployed on the left flank, Brandt tallied 10 goals and three assists last season for Leverkusen, which finished an impressive third in the Bundesliga. He’ll be key to Germany’s hopes in its first Olympic appearance in 28 years.
Ángel Correa, Argentina: He scored four goals as Argentina claimed the South American youth championship last year then returned to Spain, where he made his senior debut with Atlético Madrid last August. He then parlayed his skill and nose for goal into eight goals during a 2015-16 campaign that included five Champions League appearances. Argentina advanced to the World Cup final in Brazil two years ago and is a threat once again thanks in part to Correa.
Gabriel Jesus, Brazil: Neymar is only 24 years old, but Gabriel Jesus already is the ‘New Neymar.’ The Palmeiras forward is coveted by several big European clubs and will hope to take some of the pressure off his famous and only slightly older countryman this summer. Gabriel Jesus, 19, was named the best newcomer in the Brazilian Serie A last year and helped Palmeiras to the Copa do Brasil title.
Neymar, Brazil: The Barcelona star will be the central figure at this Olympic tournament, seeing as how the pressure to win will be immense and he’s clearly the most capable player during this forlorn era of Brazilian soccer. Neymar was handling the spotlight well at the 2014 World Cup until he was injured in a brutal quarterfinal against Colombia, and he’ll have to do so again—but for longer—this time. He’s clearly capable. Neymar scored 31 goals for the Spanish champions last season.
Son Heung-min, South Korea: Korea’s senior team finished runner-up in last year’s Asian Cup and its Olympic team won bronze in 2012. There’s potential for a similar run in Brazil this summer if Son finds his form. The winger just turned 24, so he counts as an overage player, but he’s already accomplished quite a bit, including scoring 16 goals for the senior national team (including three at the Asian Cup) and becoming the most expensive Asian player ever when he transferred last summer from Leverkusen to Tottenham Hotspur for $34 million. Son scored eight times for Spurs last season.
Group A: Brazil, South Africa, Iraq, Denmark
Group B: Sweden, Colombia, Nigeria, Japan
Group C: Germany, Mexico, Fiji, South Korea
Group D: Portugal, Argentina, Honduras, Algeria
Group match days: Aug. 4, 7, 10
Quarterfinals: Aug. 13
Semifinals: Aug. 17
Bronze medal: Aug. 20 at Mineirão, Belo Horizonte
Gold medal: Aug. 20 at Estádio do Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro