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Lords of the Rings

Lords of the Rings

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Published by Martin North
Is it just me or does the summer seem to last forever when you’re a football supporter? With the exception of the enjoyable two week interlude that was Euro 2008, it’s now 78 days since we last saw some real football (apologies to Don Garber and MLS). It feels like an age since Manchester United snatched Champions League glory from Chelsea in Moscow. Like sugar-high kids on Christmas Eve, eager fans must wait just a little longer for the fun to begin...
Is it just me or does the summer seem to last forever when you’re a football supporter? With the exception of the enjoyable two week interlude that was Euro 2008, it’s now 78 days since we last saw some real football (apologies to Don Garber and MLS). It feels like an age since Manchester United snatched Champions League glory from Chelsea in Moscow. Like sugar-high kids on Christmas Eve, eager fans must wait just a little longer for the fun to begin...

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Published by: Martin North on Aug 31, 2011
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Lords of the Rings
Is it just me or does the summer seem to last forever when you’re a football supporter?With the exception of the enjoyable two week interlude that was Euro 2008, it’s now 78 days since we last sawsome real football (apologies to Don Garber and MLS). It feels like an age since Manchester United snatchedChampions League glory from Chelsea in Moscow.Like sugar-high kids on Christmas Eve, eager fans must wait just a little longer for the fun to begin; until thePremier League (AKA The Greatest Show on Earth™) kicks off again in 10 days. In the meantime we are“treated” to the customarily pointless pre-season fixtures that litter late July and early August.What could Arsene Wenger possibly learn from his team’s 10-2 demolition of Austrian amateur side,Burgenland? Likewise, what pearls of wisdom did Big Phil Scolari glean from Chelsea’s 7-0 trouncing of Chengdu Blades in China. And this Sunday, the most meaningless friendly of all will play out – The CommunityShield. Manchester United and Portsmouth will meet for the second time this pre-season having already playedeach other in Abuja, Nigeria. United were the victors in that money-making encounter, so why not just give themthe Shield and get on with the season?But wait! There is another option for the football junkie. Instead of spending the next week trawling the internetfor live coverage of Bolton v AEK Athens, how about waking up ridiculously early every morning and tuning in toan obscure sporting tournament that’s about to get underway in Beijing?That’s right. The Olympics isn’t just about beach volleyball and steroids. There’s actually a football tournamentand it’s kind of a big deal. In Europe it gets shunted to the undercard by the European Championships, but to therest of the world Olympic football matters and here’s why:
The History
Football became an Olympic sport in 1900 and until 1930, when the first FIFA World Cup took place in Uruguay,the Olympics represented the de facto World Championship. The tournament provided the platform for the greatUruguayan team of the 1920s to take Europe by storm, winning the 1924 and 1928 gold medals (the latter against arch-rivals Argentina).The success of the South Americans highlighted the unavoidable conflict that was arising between the Olympianamateur code and the growing professionalism within football. With some nations unable to field their bestplayers, there was a desperate need for an international tournament without ethical limitations. Thus, the WorldCup was born.As the popularity of the World Cup soared and amateurism in football died out, the Olympics declined inimportance and quality. Between 1948 and 1980, Soviet Bloc countries dominated the competition since their players were state-sponsored and thus able to retain amateur status.In 1984 the IOC attempted to revive the tournament by admitting professional players for the first time. To protectthe status of the World Cup, FIFA insisted that the stronger European and South American entrants only beallowed to field players who had not previously taken part in a World Cup. The end result was a trend towardsyounger teams that eventually became policy in 1992 when FIFA and the IOC agreed to restrict the tournamentto players under the age of 23 (with 3 overage exceptions).
“Why should I care?”
So, now the Olympic football tournament is essentially a U-23 World Cup, does that make it less important? Notif you ask the average Argentinean or Brazilian, like Manchester United’s Anderson;“Every player wants to win in Europe, but I can't deny how important it is to win the only medal that Brazil hasnever won.”That’s right. Olympic gold is the only title Brazil have yet to celebrate on the streets and beaches of Rio. It is agaping hole that pierces the pride of Brazilian football, especially since fierce rivals Argentina are the reigning
 
champions. Dunga helped Brazil to silver as a player in 1984, but after an inauspicious start as national coach itis rumored that only gold will be enough to keep the former captain in his job.A quick glance at Argentina’s squad – featuring names like Riquelme, Mascherano and Aguero – indicates howintent the Albicelestes are on retaining their crown. If recent history is any guide, their main challengers shouldcome from South America and Africa. Only one European team has reached the final in the last 3 tournaments(Spain in 2000). Compare that to the World Cup where Europe has supplied 4 finalists in the last 3 competitions.In the absence of European dominance there have been numerous surprise packages at recent Games –Nigeria in 1996, Cameroon in 2000 - and the best of all came four years ago. Leaving the turmoil of a war-tornhomeland behind them, Iraq provided the ultimate feel-good story by reaching the semi finals, beating a Portugalside that featured Cristiano Ronaldo in the process.
Cutting teeth at the Games
Above all, the Olympics, with the focus on youth, are a great showcase for the best young starlets in the game. Iremember my first sight of Ronaldo (the gap-toothed Brazilian, not the dangerously tanned Portuguese) at the1996 Games. He played with “Ronaldinho” (little Ronaldo) on his shirt back then, but his talent was clearlyanything but minimal. For the millions that watched him tearing defences to shreds in the Atlanta sunshine, a star was born.That was Ronaldo’s first real involvement in a major tournament at 19 years of age. The same summer hemoved from PSV Eindhoven to Barcelona and went on to win two consecutive FIFA Player of the Year awards.Success at the Olympics can mean a fast-track into the senior national team. It can also attract amorous glancesfrom Europe’s wealthiest clubs. Here are some more stars who found fame at the Olympic Games, many of whom moved to greener pastures shortly afterwards.
1996 (Atlanta)
Raul (Spain)
Rivaldo (Brazil)
Roberto Carlos (Brazil)
Hernan Crespo (Argentina)
Kanu (Nigeria)
2000 (Sydney)
Andrea Pirlo (Italy)
David Suazo (Honduras)
Xavi (Spain)
Carles Puyol (Spain)
Landon Donovan (USA)
2004 (Athens)
Carlos Tevez (Argentina)
Javier Mascherano (Argentina)
Daniele De Rossi (Italy)
Alberto Gilardino (Italy)
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, also played at Euro 2004)
What (and who) to look out for in Beijing
Brazil and Argentina are the joint 3/1 favorites with the bookmakers and it’s hard to look past the South Americanheavyweights.If they play to their potential, the tremendously talented Argentineans look well placed to keep their gold medals.
 
The squad contains no fewer than 15 European-based players, including Liverpool’s Javier Mascherano,Valencia’s Ever Banega and Real Madrid’s Fernado Gago. Yet they may be without their brightest star; LeoMessi was included in the squad, but Barcelona objected and their rights were upheld by the Court of Arbitrationfor Sport (CAS).The same ruling also seems set to deprive Brazil of Werder Bremen’s exciting playmaker, Diego. Thetournament could be a springboard for Ronaldinho to re-launch his flagging career, but look for younger guns likePato, Anderson and Manchester City’s new striker, Jô to lead the Seleção’s charge.Holland, led by 33 year old Roy Makaay, will pose a threat, but a well balanced Italian side probably representsEurope’s best chance of winning gold for the first time since Spain in 1992. The Azzurri squad features much of the side that won this year’s prestigious Toulon tournament. Gifted playmakers Sebastian Giovinco and RicardoMontolivo combine with midfield stalwart Antonio Nocerino and energetic full back Lorenzo De Silvestri.The African sides – Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Cameroon – are relatively unknown quantities, but they do boastthe odd recognizable name. Ivory Coast’s attack will rely heavily on Chelsea’s Salomon Kalou, while Arsenal’sAlexandre Song and Reading’s Andre Bikey are Cameroon’s defensive lynchpins.Elsewhere, the US will hope to progress with the help of young forwards Freddy Adu and Jozy Altidore. Andhosts China will do well to qualify for the knockout stages, with Manchester United’s Dong Fangzhou playing amajor role.Here are my players to watch - the young stars and the soon-to-be:
Argentina
Star men - Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid), Javier Macherano (Liverpool), Ever Banega (Valencia)
Ones to watch - Ezequiel Lavezzi (Napoli), Andel Di Maria (Benfica), Diego Buonanotte (River Plate)
Belgium
Star men - Vincent Kompany (Hamburg), Tom De Mul (Sevilla)
Ones to watch - Anthony Vanden Borre (Genoa), Marouane Fellaini (Standard Liege)
Brazil
Star men - Pato (AC Milan), Anderson (Manchester United), Lucas (Liverpool)
Ones to watch - Breno (Bayern Munich), Marcelo (Real Madrid), Jô (Manchester City)
Cameroon
Star men – Andre Bikey (Reading), Alexandre Song (Arsenal)
Ones to watch – Franck Songo’o (Portsmouth), Stephane Mbia (Rennes)
Holland
Star men - Ryan Babel (Liverpool), Urby Emmanuelson (Ajax), Hedwiges Maduro (Valencia)
Ones to watch - Royston Drenthe (Real Madrid), Jonathan de Guzman (Feyenoord)
Italy
Star men – Guiseppe Rossi (Villareal), Ricardo Montolivo (Fiorentina)
Ones to watch – Antonio Nocerino (Palermo), Sebastian Giovinco (Juventus), Lorenzo De Silvestri(Lazio)
Ivory Coast
Star men - Salomon Kalou (Chelsea)
Ones to watch - Gervinho (Le Mans)
Nigeria
Star men - Victor Obinna (Chievo), Taye Taiwo (Marseille)
Ones to watch - Victor Anichebe (Everton)

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