The Ring of Olympic Soccer

Olympic Soccer

USA striker, Abby Wambach, scored a goal to remember at last year’s wildly successful Women’s World Cup in Germany. In the dying seconds of the quarterfinal against Brazil, she towered over the defenders to header the ball into the back of the net, tying the score. A nearby television microphone picked up the impact. It pinged like a bullet. Brazil was stunned. The Americans finished them off in a penalty shoot-out. Then went on and unexpectedly lost in the final to Japan.

The upcoming London Olympics offer the chance for the States to return to mastery. The women kick off their quest for medals next Wednesday against France. Games follow against Colombia and North Korea. Team USA has played in every Olympic final since 1996, hanging gold around their necks on all but one occasion; that was in 2000. England’s famous Wembley Stadium will host the final. Should you be lucky enough to be in London for the Games, put on the raincoat, leave the warm ale and bangers and mash in the pub, and toddle out to the bookies (they are usually located next door) and bet on the Stars and Stripes running up the champions flagpole. US women know how to win.

That can’t be said for the men. No dazzling gold for the boys, they failed to even qualify for the men’s tournament. That came as a shock. The Olympics were to be the platform showing off our young talent and assure everyone that our international soccer future was in safe hands. But not to worry too much, we’re not talking the World Cup here. Failing to qualify for Brazil 2014 would be an enormous disaster and set back the entire US soccer project. Don’t even think about it.

Remember, the rules for the men at the Olympics are different from the World Cup.  All but three Olympian players must be under-23. (There are no age restrictions for the women.) So while a spread of young glitter will be on the field, you will not see the likes of Lionel Messi or Xavi. Many European countries look down on Olympics soccer as somewhat of a minor event. Certainly, many soccer fans do. Hundreds of thousands of tickets remain unsold. Expect to see some half-empty stadiums.

So who to look out for? Besides Wambach, the US features TV’s Dancing with the Stars goalie, Hope Solo, rolling the rumba between the sticks. Teammate Megan Rapinoe possesses a blinding cross. She loaded Wambach’s bullet header against Brazil in Germany. The world’s best female player, the Brazilian Marta, will be aiming to avenge the defeat to the USA last year.

Marta’s compatriot in the Brazilian men’s team, Neymar, is the most sought after twenty-year old on the planet. Agents from the world’s top clubs will be hanging around the locker room door hoping to ink his name to their rosters. Look out for Mexico in the men’s competition. El Tri seems to have hit a rich seam of talent in their Under-23 category adding weight to a very bright future for their national game. The guardians of US soccer will be watching and wondering how can we catch up with our rivals again? FIFA released its world rankings this month. Mexico occupies #19. USA is two stories lower at #36. That narrative must change. But it won’t be starting at the Olympics.

Image: Soccer Squared

Alan Black is the soccer columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.




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