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Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Brazil means business in London

By Jeff Carlisle
ESPN.com

Neymar
With the help of Neymar, Brazil is looking to win the Olympics -- the one major tournament that has eluded the country.

The men's Olympic soccer tournament is a bit like the game itself in the United States: It doesn't get enough respect. It doesn't seem to matter that some of the sport's greats, such as Franco Baresi, Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, have graced the Olympics. Instead, the tournament is treated like some poor relative whom you would just as soon not invite to family gatherings.

Given some of the talent that will be on display in London, fans of the beautiful game would be wise to tune in. Granted, the tournament is an under-23 affair -- save for the three overage players each squad is allowed to include -- but a quick look at the rosters reveals some impressive teams and players, some of whom will no doubt be gracing the field at the 2014 World Cup.

Here's what else fans should keep an eye on when the tournament starts Thursday:

1. Can Brazil be stopped?

One country that takes the tournament seriously (and has for many years) is Brazil. It galls the five-time World Cup winners that the Olympics are the one tournament it has never managed to win. 2008 was supposed to be the tournament where Brazil made a breakthrough, only to run into an Argentina side featuring Messi, Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria. Not only has Brazil shown up in London with a roster featuring an absurd amount of talent, but the team has been sequestered in a hotel away from the considerable temptations of the Olympic Village.

At the back, the Selecao boasts Paris St. Germain defender Thiago Silva and Real Madrid fullback Marcelo. In midfield, you have the likes of Paulo Henrique Ganso, Oscar and Manchester United target Lucas Moura. Up top, Brazil sports players like Alexandre Pato, Hulk and Neymar. It's like the United States showing up for the Olympic basketball tournament with ... never mind. You get the picture.

So will Brazil finally win the Olympic tournament? It is certainly the favorite but is by no means the only strong team present. Which brings us to ...

2. Spain goes for another trophy

A favorite barroom argument of fans around the globe is trying to figure out how well a team of reserve players on Spain's national team would fare in a major tournament. The Olympics might be the closest one comes to putting such a theory into practice. Included on the roster are World Cup and Euro 2012 winners Juan Mata and Javi Martinez. New Barcelona signing Jordi Alba, another Euro 2012 veteran, will also be on the squad, as will Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea. A group with Japan, Honduras and Morocco should prove navigable for Spain, and the draw is such that, if all goes according to form, teams like Brazil and Uruguay won't be encountered until the semifinals at the earliest.

Stuart Pearce
England manager Stuart Pearce left David Beckham off the team. Will his leadership be missed?

3. Will Stuart Pearce regret leaving David Beckham off Team GB?

Without question, many fans were dismayed that Pearce opted for Ryan Giggs, Craig Bellamy and Micah Richards as his three overage players, leaving no room for Beckham. The second-guessing grew louder when Great Britain was outclassed by Brazil 2-0 in its only warm-up match.

Pearce has some talented players at his disposal in the form of Manchester United midfielder Tom Cleverley, Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey and Chelsea forward Daniel Sturridge, but a tricky group with Senegal, the United Arab Emirates and a Luis Suarez-led Uruguay side could leave many pining for Beckham's leadership and ability on set pieces.

4. Is Mexico's glass half-full or half-empty?

There is no shortage of imposing attacking players for El Tri. Striker Oribe Peralta is in the prime of his career, and Chivas de Guadalajara attacker Marco Fabian has been impressive throughout Mexico's road to the Olympics. But there is a gnawing sense that the team will disappoint. Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez was not made available by club side Manchester United, and Carlos Vela turned down an invitation from manager Luis Tena to go to London. Add in the sketchy form of Giovani Dos Santos, not to mention questions in the center of defense, and many fans are already thinking of what might have been.

5. Don't sleep on Uruguay

While Brazil, Spain and the hosts are getting most of the attention, Uruguay is flying under the radar. Yet La Celeste are clear contenders to medal. Not only do they have a match winner in Suarez, but Napoli attacker Edinson Cavani is also on board, as is attacking midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro. There is also steel to go with the flair in the form of midfield workhorse Egidio Arevalo. Manager Oscar Tabarez is doing what he can to dampen expectations, but Uruguay is expected to progress out of Group A and probably reach the semifinals.

6. Need a team to root for? Try Egypt

The failure of the U.S. U-23 national team to qualify for London sticks in the craw of many a U.S. fan, but for those in need of a rooting interest, Egypt is plenty deserving. The Port Said stadium disaster that took place in February, which claimed 79 lives and injured more than 1,000 people when fans of Al-Masry attacked those from rival club Al-Ahly, is still a gaping wound in a country lurching toward democracy. The charge that the attacks were politically motivated has made it especially difficult to move on. Compounding matters for manager Hany Ramzy is the fact that games in the country's domestic league have been suspended ever since. With players from both clubs on the roster, the Olympic Games are an opportunity to for some healing, however slight, to take place.

One of the players on the field that terrible night was talismanic midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, who will captain the side in London and aim to get Egypt past the group stage for the first time in 40 years. Former U.S. manager Bob Bradley, who coaches Egypt's full national team, will be among the interested observers.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.