With just 114 days remaining before the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament begins in London, and three weeks until the competition draw is made at Wembley, 15 teams have now booked their place for the 23rd edition at the Games.
The conclusion of the CONCACAF U-23 Men’s Championship yesterday, which saw Honduras and Mexico confirm their participation in July and August, means that just one spot remains to be filled for the 16-team tournament.
Oman and Senegal, representing the AFC and CAF regions respectively, will do battle to decide who claims the 16th berth with a play-off at the City of Coventry Stadium on 23 April, with the winner joining those already qualified in the following day’s tournament draw.
A potent mix of heavyweight contenders, former winners and debutants will be included in that draw, which will divide the 16 sides into four groups of four. FIFA.com now casts a keen eye over the 15 countries that have completed the preliminary step towards a gold medal.
Not content with being European and world champions at senior level, Spain are also one of the dominant forces in youth football. Their U-21 side were crowned champions at the 2011 UEFA European U-21 Championship, which acted as a qualifier for the Olympics, after seeing off Switzerland 2-0 in the final in Denmark.
With a team containing youngsters already making their mark in club football, including Barcelona’s Thiago Alcantara and Athletic Bilbao duo Javi Martinez and Iker Muniain, La Roja are sure to be contenders again in London as they groom their next generation before the 2014 FIFA World Cup™.
Despite defeat at the final hurdle last June, Switzerland also reached London by virtue of finishing runners-up. Inspired by Bayern Munich-bound midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri, the 1924 silver-medallists will be making their first appearance at the Olympics since 1928. First-time participants Belarus complete the trio of competitors from Europe, having overcome Czech Republic in a play-off to finish third in the same tournament.
The 2012 event will also feature another of the world’s form teams, Uruguay, who return to the Olympics for the first time since winning the tournament twice consecutively in 1924 and 1928. La Celeste qualified by finishing second at the 2011 South American Youth Championship ahead of two-time reigning champions Argentina, who miss out on this occasion.
The continental tournament was won by Brazil, with Santos superstar Neymar bagging nine goals along the way, and the South Americans must be among the favourites to claim gold following their FIFA U-20 World Cup triumph in Colombia last year. Luck has not been on their side in the past, however, with two second-placed and two third-placed finishes but no winner's medal.
The best performance by an Asian team at the Olympics was the third position achieved at Mexico City 1968 by Japan, who will line up in London as one of three guaranteed participants from the region. Five wins out of six in the final stage of qualifying was enough to secure their passage alongside fellow group winners Korea Republic and United Arab Emirates, who denied improving Uzbekistan to qualify for the first time in their history.
New Zealand continued their recent hegemony in Oceania by claiming the sole spot available to the region. As well as hosting the preliminary qualifying tournament, the Oly Whites ended as victors with a 1-0 win against Fiji in the final after narrowly overcoming Vanuatu in the last four for their second consecutive appearance at the Olympics.
The shock of Olympic qualifying undoubtedly came in the CONCACAF region, where USA were eliminated at the group stage in dramatic circumstances. Defeat in their second match, against neighbours Canada, left the States needing victory against El Salvador to progress to the final phase. But a stoppage-time goal from Jaime Alas ended the 14-time participants’ dreams.
In their place will be Honduras, who fought their way to a final with Mexico, which was enough for both teams to seal a spot in London. The former endured a difficult encounter with El Salvador, eventually winning 3-2 after extra time, while the latter were rather more comfortable during a 3-1 victory over Canada. Honduras have featured at the Olympics just twice before, while 2012 will be a ninth attempt for El Tri.
The inaugural CAF U-23 Championship, held at the end of 2011, provided the three direct qualifiers from Africa. Gabon were the surprise champions, recovering from the brink of elimination to achieve what coach Claude Albert Mbourounot described as “the biggest victory in Gabonese football history”.
Although Gabon will be participating at the Olympics for the first time, they will be joined by two countries with considerable pedigree in the competition. Egypt’s third-placed finish secured their passage to London, their 11th qualification and first for two decades, while beaten finalists Morocco progressed for the fifth time in the last eight attempts and the seventh overall.
One team who have known for a long time that they would be featuring in the Olympics football tournament are the hosts, Great Britain. Guaranteed one of the 16 places available, qualification was not necessary, and the main point of intrigue is focused on who will be selected by coach Stuart Pearce. The former England international can choose players from his own country plus Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but will be without any players who feature for the senior team at UEFA EURO 2012.
With a single spot still remaining for the tournament, Oman will face off against Senegal on 23 April in a winner-takes-all play-off. Oman’s long journey to this stage saw Paul Le Guen’s team come out on top in the final stage of Asian qualifying, above Syria and Uzbekistan, to earn a last chance. Senegal reached this point after finishing fourth at the CAF U-23 Championship and will travel to Coventry hoping to secure their first-ever berth at the Olympics, just like their opponents.
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