Everyone and their dog knows about the talent of Neymar. He’s the poster boy of Brazilian football and one of the superstars of a star-studded Barcelona team.
Yet Olympic football is more about the unknown talent — the players who aren’t household names but will one day be the top transfers at the biggest clubs.
Here’s who you should be looking out for, and the matches they’ll star in over the group phase of the Olympic football competition.
Mexico-Germany, August 4th
Germany are a mighty footballing nation, but this is their first Olympic team since 1988. It goes without saying that the pressure is definitely on them to perform.
In what could be the liveliest match of the opening day of football, Germany face Mexico, the reigning Olympic champions.
Group C — including Mexico, Germany, Fiji and South Korea — is arguably the most-talented with some outstanding young players.
For Mexico, Hirving Lozano is someone to watch. He scored 23 goals in 93 games for Mexican league club Pachuca. These numbers would be good for a striker, but Lozano is a winger who has been rated as one of the best players born after 1994 by Don Balón, a Spanish sports magazine.
With the ability to take it past players in Mexico’s Liga MX, Germany will need to be cautious and close him down — ensuring he doesn’t cut-in with his explosive right foot.
The Germans have Max Meyer, a creative force for his club Schalke. For most at the Olympics, they are just breaking into their club teams or, at the best, on the periphery. However, Meyer has already proven himself at Champions League level. With rapid feet and the ability to find the net, Meyer will be one of the most gifted players at the Olympics.
We expect either Mexico or Germany to reach the semifinals, with the other not even getting out of the group stage as South Korea are a definite.
Fiji-South Korea, August 4th
How on Earth could Fiji versus South Korea be a game to watch you may ask?
Well South Korea earned a well-deserved Bronze medal at the London Olympic games. A victory in this match gives them a great chance to reach the quarterfinals. Besides this, getting on that medal podium means all the South Korean team avoids military duty. Quite the incentive.
The exciting thing is that Fiji won’t be a push over. They have been playing together since the Under-20 World Cup and have a coach who focuses on their strengths. This match could end up like an old-fashioned heavyweight boxing match with both teams desperate to land a knock-out blow. So which players could shine?
Kwon Chang-hoon is a creative attacking midfielder who plays for Suwon Bluewings in the K-League Classic (Korean) league. He’s already made a name for himself with standout performances at the under-22 Asian Championship, and is considered the future of Korean football by Gamba Osaka coach Kenta Hasegawa.
Kwon will likely be the next Asian footballing superstar in the mold of Shinji Kagawa — creative with an eye for a pass and the ability to score goals.
The most-interesting player for Fiji is their powerful forward Iosefo Verevou. At just 20 years of age, this 6-foot-2 young giant has something most nations at the Olympics don’t, a target man.
Verevou is capable of dominating an opponent’s defense aerially and physically. This is where all of South Korea’s craft and guile could be sucker punched, in Fiji’s ability to counter and cause mayhem during set pieces.
South Korea have too much incentive to reach the podium but Fiji have enough to cause an upset during the group stage, likely causing either Germany or Mexico to get knocked out.
Colombia-Japan, August 7th
With Japan winning the recent Asian under-23 Championship and Colombia winning the 2013 under-20 South American Championship, this game could become a battle between past and future footballing continent superpowers.
Colombia are missing two key players from these Olympics in defender Yerry Mina and star forward Marlos Moreno.
With youth coach Carlos Restrepo having led Columbia to success at the under-20 South American Championship in 2013, and many of those winning players being promoted to this Olympic team, can they replicate such success? Who knows with the competitive nature of Group B.
At the 2012 Olympics in London, Japan lost to South Korea, and in turn, lost out on a bronze medal.
They may have beat their South Korean rivals to win the under-23 Asian Championship earlier this year but is that enough to mask an Olympic loss? If Japan starts this competition with that 2012 defeat in mind, they have the perfect motivation and enough talent to be competing for a podium spot.
Colombia have a young and relatively unknown forward in Miguel Borja — a player that was in fantastic goal-scoring form throughout the 2015-16 season. He scored 19 goals in 21 matches for his former club Cortuluá and broke the existing goal-scoring record set by Jackson Martinez.
The Japanese star player Takumo Asano has already made a big move this summer to the English Premier League giant Arsenal for $6.5 million.
Some consider this move out of the blue, but Arsene Wenger has a trend of buying low while a player still has room to grow. With some fantastic performances at his former club Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Arsenal fans will be watching their new man with a keen eye hoping he can become the perfect competition for Olivier Giroud.
Group B is a real battle royale. Every match on the seventh will be a decider if the recent Euro 2016 is anything to go by. Expect the winner of this match to come top of Group B.
Sweden-Nigeria, August 7th
There is a probability that both Sweden and Nigeria will play tight football in their opening games against Colombia and Japan respectively. This puts the impetus on winning this match, which could be either team’s best chance of reaching the knockout rounds of the Olympic competition.
It would be easy to recall Sweden’s awful Euro 2016 efforts and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s retirement from international football as an indicator for probable failure at the Olympics.
What you may not know is that Sweden won the under-21 European Championships in 2015 and parts of that squad are now playing at these Olympics.
With the under-21 manager Hakan Ericson leading the nation at those championships. and now at the Olympics. there is high hope that Sweden can reach the knockout rounds. Heck, earning a medal isn’t out of the equation here.
The Nigeria coach, Samson Siasia, has already taken his nation to an Olympic silver medal in the 2008 Beijing games. Can he repeat such success in his second spell in charge? As Nigeria won the under-23 African Championships in 2015 there is a chance this might happen.
Nigeria have an Olympic football pedigree and cannot be written off.
Without Zlatan, Sweden will be looking to their young striker, Mikael Ishak, who has been impressive for the Swedish under-21 side, scoring 10 goals in 24 matches.
While the young striker had a baron few years with Parma and FC Koln, it wasn’t until joining Randers FC in 2014 that Ishak’s goal-scoring prowess came to the forefront with 24 goals in 57 matches.
Azubuike Okechukwu will probably be playing for a top European club before the end of this transfer window. That is our bold claim.
He currently plays for Yeni Malatyaspor in the Turkish league. We’ve only seen a few performances, but he plays like Chelsea’s summer signing N’Golo Kante in a defensive midfield role. With an ability to run with the ball, play accurate passes, and most importantly, intercept the ball, he is a commodity that will be in the shop window and probably the most vital player in the Nigerian team.
If Okechukwu performs, Sweden will need to get their points against Japan or Colombia. If he doesn’t, it will be Sweden and either Colombia or Japan going through from Group B.
Argentina-Honduras, August 10th
This game is going to be a battle of attrition and possibly an indicator of what the future of international football will be like. It will be structured, defensive, tactical and based on rapid counter-attacking rather than possession.
Argentina normally has the perfect balance of flair and steel but after the Copa Centenario final defeat, they have imploded.
Lionel Messi has retired, their coach resigned and a number of clubs have been reluctant to release players for the Olympics. This has put their new coach, Julio Olarticoechea, on the back foot — scrambling to put together a team under the worst possible circumstances.
On the other hand, Honduras are very much on the rise. Having beat the United States to qualify for the Olympics and with a very tactical and passionate coach in Jose Luis Pinto, Honduras have a chance to upset Group D, in particular Argentina.
For all their problems, Argentina are still able to call on talented youngsters, in particularly Angel Correa of Atlético Madrid.
Correa was sidelined for six months due to a heart tumor. But after undergoing surgery, he has returned to the Atlético team, where he has made 26 starts, scoring five goals in the process. Correa has already played for the full international Argentina team three times.
For all their tactical rigidity, the star of Honduras is the tricky and powerful wide forward Alberth Elis. With the ability to come in from wide or start centrally, Elis is turning heads in Europe and will likely make the move from his club Olimpia in the coming months.
Elis is already a full international, having scored two goals in his one start against the United States in a playoff match.
A lot of people have already wrote off Honduras but if they set up like they did against the United States, there is a chance they’ll upset either Argentina or Portugal in Group D.
Rather than stating the obvious and highlighting a specific game to watch, we’ll just say “watch Brazil.”
Brazil are not just the favorites to win, but they want to do it in style thanks to a team full of eager stars and their attack-minded new coach Rodrigo Micale. The nation is taking the Olympic men’s football competition seriously. It really is gold or bust here.
We can’t pin-point a star player for Brazil, they have so many. Neymar will take the spotlight, but they have players like Marquinhos, Augusto, Felipe Anderson, Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Barbosa to help him out.
Take note. In the next two seasons, Barbosa will move on from Santos with Barcelona a likely destination, especially considering the Neymar transfer allegedly included a first option on Barbosa as part of the deal.
The Olympic football competition is often unpredictable, bizarre and full of moments where individuals become national stars. We expect at least one player to emerge and cause a stir in both the competition and the transfer market. Watch this space.