A chance to prove themselves

Itumeleng Khune is expected to be in goals. Picture: Steve Haag / Getty Images
Itumeleng Khune is expected to be in goals. Picture: Steve Haag / Getty Images

Most clubs have refused to release their top stars for the Rio Olympic Games because it’s not an official Fifa tournament.

Despite their countries qualifying for the event, the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and James Rodríguez will be missing in action in Rio, unlike in previous years, when they graced the event.

This year’s tournament might not feature many prominent players, but this is a chance for unknown and upcoming youngsters to prove their mettle and shine on the bigger stage.

Granted, no other player will attract as much attention – from fans, media and opposing teams – as Neymar.

While all eyes will be on Brazil and Neymar, who will be the firm focus of everyone in the Olympic Games, it is not only about the Barcelona star player.

A quick glance at all the overaged players going to Rio, it is evident that most countries went for the spine – goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders and strikers – of their teams. The presence of older and more experienced players in a team can only assist the younger players and help the team to perform better. They are there to strengthen the side.

All the participating 16 teams have exercised their option of picking three over-aged players in their teams, although some have only taken two instead of the maximum of three.

At 38, Brazil goalkeeper Fernando Prass will be the oldest player at the tournament, while 36-year-old Nigerian striker Usman Mohammed is the oldest infield player.

With the senior Super Eagles struggling in Confederation of African Football competitions, Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel will carry the hopes of the Nigerians to repeat the 1996 heroics of winning gold in Atlanta. Nigeria, who have failed to qualify for two consecutive Africa Cup of Nations in 2015 and 2017, missed out on another gold in 2008 when they lost to Argentina in the final in Beijing. But Mikel knows he can become a national hero and join the likes of Augustine “Jay-Jay” Okocha, Daniel Amokachi and Nwankwo Kanu, who won the 1996 gold medal.

Germany is also bringing twin brothers Lars and Sven Bender, as well as 2014 Fifa World Cup winner Matthias Ginter.

South African coach Owen Da Gama has also gone with two over-aged players in Itumeleng Khune and Eric Mathoho, and the Bafana Bafana duo will experience to the side.

Brazil has not yet won a gold medal in the football tournament, so Neymar goes to the Games with a heavy load on his shoulders.

If the five-time world champions are to win gold, the 24-year-old striker should be the answer to their prayers. The Barcelona star looks to rebound from the 2014 Fifa World Cup disappointment, when his country was embarrassed by eventual champions Germany in the semifinals.

Two years later, all eyes will be on Neymar once more as he carries the responsibility of leading his country to their first gold medal, particularly after opting to miss the Copa America last month. Brazil were eliminated in the group stages, which prompted the dismissal of coach Dunga.

Neymar knows he can become a national hero if he wins the gold, or join a long list of former stars – Romario, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, among others – who have failed in this pursuit.

Defending champions Mexico will be hoping to make a double and will pin their hopes on 32-year-old striker Oribe Peralta.

The four European representatives are taking mostly youngsters as they used the Uefa European Under-21 Championship as their qualifiers. The last time a European country won a gold medal was back in 1992, when hosts Barcelona beat Poland in the final.

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