As at the inaugural 2010 event in Singapore, the first sport on the schedule at the Nanjing Youth Olympic Games will be football. This year’s Youth Olympic Football Tournament is among the most eagerly anticipated of the 28 featured disciplines and will be the longest event, starting first (on the 14th) and finishing last (on the 27th).
A total of 216 players representing 12 teams will be going for gold in the boys' and girls' events. Although South American sides shone four years ago when Bolivia and Chile clinched the respective titles, their successors Peru and Venezuela will face stiff opposition in their bid to claim another continental clean sweep.
Stars grace girls' stage
Whereas the inaugural Girls' Youth Olympic Football Tournament brought a number of new talents to the fore, this latest installment provides the stage for a plethora of established stars. The richest crop is to be found in a Venezuelan team led by head coach Kenneth Zseremeta, who has brought along six members of the Vinotinto squad he guided to the semi-finals of the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup 2014 in Costa Rica during April, including the tournament’s joint-top scorer Deyna Castellanos.
Fifteen-year-old Castellanos hit six goals at the global showpiece to win the adidas Golden Boot award alongside fellow top-scorer and team-mate Gabriela Garcia. Eager for a second shot at success, Vinotinto coach Zseremeta will be hoping that his star striker's firepower can get Venezuela off to a strong start in the curtain-raiser against Papua New Guinea, who are contesting their second Youth Olympic Football Tournament. "Our luck wasn’t good enough in the U-17 World Cup, we weren’t able to go far,” reflected the Panamanian tactician. "The upcoming Youth Olympic Games provides us with the opportunity to make amends and we will do our utmost to win gold in the [girls’] football."
However, Zseremeta and his protégées would be wise not to under-estimate the threat posed by Mexico. Las Tricolores achieved convincing 4-0 wins over Colombia and China PR at this year’s U-17 Women’s World Cup and can draw on the experience of two veterans of that campaign in Kimberley Rodriguez and Montserrat Hernandez, as well as midfield No10 Marianna Maldonado, who plays for prestigious US youth soccer club Slammers FC.
Another weapon in the Mexican arsenal is head coach Monica Vergara, a legend of Mexican women’s football. The 31-year-old played for Las Tricolores aged just 16 at the FIFA Women's World Cup United States 1999TM, contested the inaugural FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup at Canada 2002 and was the North Americans’ assistant coach during this year's U-17 Women's World Cup.
Nevertheless, the girls in green will themselves face a tough opening-day challenge from China PR, who have been preparing hard under the stewardship of head coach Lu Yiliang. "The Youth Olympic Games is a platform for friendship and exchange," the Chinese taskmaster told FIFA.com, "but as sportspeople, we must go out there to win and perform at our very best to win the gold medal."
Island minnows threaten Korean ambition
The boys’ event welcomes back South Pacific minnows Vanuatu, who lost to Bolivia and Haiti four years ago in Singapore before battling to a 2-0 win over Zimbabwe in the match for fifth place.
However, the experienced islanders kick off their campaign against an ambitious Korea Republic side whose gold medal in last year’s Asian Youth Games served as a perfect dress rehearsal for the Olympics and demonstrates their strength in this age group. The majority of the South Korean squad play in the reserve teams of the country’s domestic clubs, including four players from reigning league champions Pohang Steelers.
One team hoping to keep the Olympic boys’ title in South America are last year's CONMEBOL U-15 champions Peru. After opening their Olympic campaign against Iceland, Los Incas will face Honduras, whose roster includes reserve team players from top Honduran clubs, as well as forward Paolo Belloni, who plays for Genoa in Italy.
Last but not least are Cape Verde Islands, a side whom opponents will underrate at their peril. An emerging force on the African continent, the Tubaroes Azuis (Blue Sharks) secured their first ever berth in last year's CAF African Cup of Nations before storming into the last eight. Inspired by this landmark performance, the junior Sharks will be raring to write a new chapter in the history of Cape Verdean football as they prepare for the country’s maiden appearance in a FIFA finals tournament.