ALTHOUGH you might think it from all the publicity, it won’t just be David Beckham playing at the Olympics.
It may be an under-23 tournament in a European Championship year, but there will be no shortage of familiar names at St James’ Park this summer.
Ronaldinho is expected to be in Brazil’s line-up, alongside Sandro of Tottenham Hotspur and Marcelo of Real Madrid. Sandro’s club-mate Ryan Nelsen will captain New Zealand, Adel Taarabt is sure to make waves of some sort with Morocco, Switzerland’s provisional squad includes the Fulham pair of Philippe Senderos and Kerim Frei, and Premier League players Maynor Figueroa, Hendry Thomas and Wilson Palacios could all be wearing Honduras’ colours, alongside highly-rated Celtic defender Emilio Izaguirre.
There will more than likely be Manchester United players on show at every day of men’s football at the home of the Magpies, with Javier Hernández (Mexico), David De Gea (Spain) and the Da Silva twins (Brazil) all expected to be named by their countries.
There should even be a Sunderland player for the more partisan supporters to boo, in South Korea’s Ji Dong-won.
But the Olympic football tournament is not really about the players you already know inside out, it is about the star names you are yet to discover.
Nwankwo Kanu, Samuel Eto'o, Carlos Tévez and Angel di María all had gold medals hung around their necks before they were household names – in this country at least.
With less than a quarter of tickets sold, Olympic football is yet to capture the public imagination. The idea of it at the Olympics does not sit well with most people, and with good reason.
The European Championships are England’s focus this summer, and England will be the focal point of “Team GB”. The Football Association are running the team and it will be managed by Stuart Pearce, about as English an Englishman as you will find.
Worried about losing their independence in the corridors of world power, the home nations are not just lukewarm to the tournament, they are positively against it. However, Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium will host both the men’s and women’s teams, while the best the North East will get is a warm-up game for both in Middlesbrough.
That apart, St James’ Park did pretty well out of the draw made yesterday. Spain and Brazil are always a big draw at football, and Mexico are a rising power at junior level. The bookmakers consider France, Sweden and Canada more likely to win the women’s tournament than hosts England, who are sixth in the betting.
It is an international football tournament, so Brazil are obviously the men’s favourites, along with all-powerful Spain.
Juan Mata, Sergio Busquets and Thiago Alcántara are all said to be willing to skip Euro 2012 to play at London 2012, and Barcelona’s academy is churning out so many talented footballers right now there are bound to be some left over for the under-23s. Forwards Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello have both played Champions League football this season, but remain uncapped.
If it matters to Spain, it matters even more to Brazil. Neymar is widely regarded as one of – if not the – best young footballers on the planet. He says of the Olympics: “This is a dream of mine. It’s very important to everyone here.”
There is no looking down the nose at Olympic football in South America, and Argentina have the last two men’s tournaments. They even went to court to have Lionel Messi in the 2008 team.
If Argentina do well at something, Brazil want a piece of the action. Brazil have never won either the men’s or women’s tournament – a gaping hole in the CV of a country which prides itself on its football. Uruguay have, which only makes Brazil more determined.
With Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and Bebeto in the team shocked by Kanu’s Nigeria two years after they had all been part of a World Cup-winning squad, weakened teams are not to blame.
The Seleção could be in the North East three times in quick succession. They are set for a warm-up against Beckham and co at the Riverside (a GB women’s game is also due to take place) on July 20, and are at St James’ Park to face New Zealand on August 1. They will hoping they are not back for a quarter-final three days later, as it will mean they only finished second in their group.
For Premier League managers, the tournament is an unwanted distraction. Sir Alex Ferguson last week complained he could be without ten British players in pre-season, although Euro 2012 will reduce that . The FA has promised no Englishman will be asked to play in both. Alan Pardew must already be fearing Demba Ba and Papiss Cissé being called into Senegal’s squad as over-age players (countries are allowed three) at a time when Newcastle’s European fate could be decided.
Plenty, then, are apathetic towards or against football’s presence at the Greatest Show on Earth. The players, though, are not. It could make it worth watching after all.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH DURING THE GAMES
XHERDAN SHAQIRI (Switzerland)
A SPEEDY left-footed wide player who caught the eye playing for Basel against Manchester United in this season’s Champions League, he set up both goals in December’s 2-1 win.
The Kosovo-born 20-year-old is an 18-cap full international with Switzerland, scoring five times, including a hat-trick against Bulgaria in September, and a long-distance left-footer in Switzerland’s 3-1 defeat to England in a Euro 2012 qualifier. He will be a Bayern Munich player when the tournament kicks off.
WHEN YOU MIGHT SEE HIM: July 26, St James’ Park
ISAAC CUENCA (Spain)
THE Barcelona forward who turns 21 later this week was thought too slight by B team coach, Luis Enrique, and was twice loaned out. Pep Guardiola, however, is a big fan of his tactical nous.
Having joined Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy in 2003, this has been his breakthrough season at the Camp Nou, making his La Liga debut in October. He was an unused substitute in December’s World Club Cup final, when Neymar’s Santos were beaten 4-0.
WHEN YOU MIGHT SEE HIM: July 29, St James’ Park; possible August 4 quarter-final (also SJP)
THE 20-year-old with a dodgy Mohican is regarded as one of the future stars of world football. The Santos striker was voted South American footballer of the year by a record margin. He also won the 2011 FIFA Puskás Award for the best goal on the planet, against Flamengo (YouTube it, you won’t be disappointed).
Made his Brazil debut aged 18, scoring the first of eight goals in 16 full internationals. He had a trial at Real Madrid aged 14, but Santos convinced him to stay with a reported £329,000. They turned down a £12m West Ham United bid and a £20m Chelsea offer, and have extended his contract until after the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but it seems inevitable Neymar will one day move to Europe.
WHEN YOU MIGHT SEE HIM: August 1, St James’ Park; possible August 4 quarter-final (also SJP)
ULISES DÁVILA (Mexico)
A TWO-FOOTED attacking midfielder, Chelsea signed Dávila on a five-year contract from Javier Hernández’s old club Chivas last summer, but loaned him straight out to feeder club Vitesse, where the 20-year-old has struggled to win a regular place, but has been prolific in the reserves.
Dávila had a busy year of tournament football in 2011, winning the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship, finishing fourth at Toulon, and scoring at the Under-20 World Cup (Mexico were third) and was an unused player at the Copa America.
WHEN YOU MIGHT SEE HIM: July 26, St James’ Park
DAVID BECKHAM (Great Britain)
WHETHER you like it or not, it will be impossible to ignore the former England captain when the Brand Beckham circus returns to this country for his farewell tour, otherwise known as the Olympics – his reward for all the flesh-pressing he did for London to secure the Games in 2005. Obviously Team GB will be kept well away from the likes of us when the tournament kicks off, but a warm-up game in Middlesbrough could be Beckham’s last appearance in the North East.
WHEN YOU MIGHT SEE HIM: July 20, Riverside, on every bleedin’ poster, advert and article about the Olympic football tournament from now until it finishes.