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.
Best photos of Neymar
Neymar attends a training session for Brazil ahead of the Copa America on June 27, 2011 in Campana, Argentina.
Neymar controls the ball during Brazil's Copa America match against Venezuela on July 3, 2011 in La Plata, Argentina.
Brazil's past and present: Pele and Neymar at a Santos FC commemoration match in 2012.
Neymar celebrates at the end of Santos' Sao Paulo state league final match against Guarani on May 13, 2012 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Santos won 4-2.
Neymar heads the ball during Brazil's gold medal match against Mexico on Aug. 11, 2012 in the Summer Olympics at Wembley Stadium in London. Brazil lost 2-1.
Neymar celebrates after scoring in Brazil's FIFA Confederations Cup match against Japan on June 15, 2013 at Estadio Nacional in Brazil. Brazil won 3-0.
Neymar celebrates with Barcelona teammates Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas after Messi scored his third goal against Valencia during their La Liga match on Sept. 1, 2013 at Mestalla Stadium in Valencia, Spain.
Neymar celebrates after scoring Barcelona's first goal during a first leg quarterfinal Champions League match against Atletico Madrid on April 1, 2014 at Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain.
Neymar looks to throw-in the ball during Brazil's International Friendly match against Panama on June 03, 2014 at Serra Dourada Stadium in Goiania, Brazil.
Neymar of Brazil poses during the official FIFA World Cup 2014 portrait session on June 8, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Neymar celebrates a goal during Brazil's World Cup match against Croatia on June 12, 2014 at the Arena de Sao Paulo in Brazil.
Neymar plays the ball during Brazil's World Cup match against Cameroon on June 23, 2014 at Estadio Nacional in Brasilia, Brazil.
Neymar lies injured while teammate Marcelo appeals during Brazil's World Cup quarterfinal match against Colombia on July 4, 2014 at Estadio Castelao in Fortaleza, Brazil.
Neymar answers a question from the media as his eyes well up with tears during a press conference on July 10, 2014 at the Granja Comary training center in Teresopolis, Brazil. Neymar suffered a broken vertebrae during the World Cup match against Colombia one week earlier.
Neymar tries to get around Enzo Roco during Barcelona's Copa del Rey match against Elche CF on Jan. 8, 2016 at Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain.
Neymar celebrates with Barcelona teammates Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi after scoring against Atletico Madrid during their La Liga match on Jan. 11, 2015 at Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain.
Neymar scores a goal for Barcelona against Atletico de Madrid's Jan Oblak during their Copa del Rey quarterfinal match on Jan. 28, 2015 at the Vicente Calderon Stadium in Madrid, Spain.
Neymar celebrates with teammate Lionel Messi after Messi scored during Barcelona's La Liga match against SD Eibar on March 14, 2015 at Ipurua Municipal Stadium in Eibar, Spain.
Neymar heads the ball to score his second goal during Barcolona's Champions League quarterfinal match against Paris Saint-Germain on April 21, 2015 at Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain.
Neymar poses with La Liga trophy after Barcelona's match against Deportivo La Coruña on May 23, 2015 at Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain.
Neymar lifts the trophy following Barcelona's UEFA Champions League Final match against Juventus on June 6, 2015 at the Olympiastadion in Berlin, Germany.
Neymar celebrates after scoring during Barcelona's La Liga match against Getafe on Oct. 31, 2015 at the Coliseum Alfonso Perez in Getafe, Spain.
Neymar scores during Barcelona's La Liga match against Real Sociedad on Nov. 28, 2015 at Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain.
Neymar plays the ball during Barcelona's La Liga match against Espanyol on Jan. 2, 2016 at Cornella-El Prat Stadium in Barcelona, Spain.
Neymar celebrates scoring a goal during Barcelona's Copa del Rey match against Espanyol on Jan. 6, 2016 at Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain.
Neymar celebrates with Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi after Messi scored against Sevilla during their La Liga match on Feb. 28, 2016 at Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain.
Neymar scores the winning penalty kick during the gold medal game between Brazil and Germany on Aug. 20, 2016 at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Neymar collapses to the ground overcome with emotion after his decisive penalty kick clinched Brazil's first Olympic gold medal in soccer on Aug. 20, 2016 at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Neymar soaks up the love after leading Brazil to the Olympic gold medal on Aug. 20, 2016 at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Bolivia goalie Carlos Emilio Lampe checks on Neymar as he kneels on the pitch with his face bleeding after receiving an elbow to the face by Bolivia's Yasmani Duk during Brazil's 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Qualifier on Oct. 6, 2016 in Natal, Brazil.
Neymar plays the ball against Nicolas Otamendi and Pablo Zabaleta during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Qualifier between Brazil and Argentina on Nov. 10, 2016 at Mineirao stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
Philippe Coutinho, Neymar and Gabriel Jesus celebrate a goal against Argentina during Brazil's 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Qualifier on Nov. 10, 2016 at Mineirao stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
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