Though there are four months to go before the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008 gets underway, a genuine milestone was reached last weekend when Nigeria emerged from African qualifying to take the last available berth. FIFA.com is on hand to round up the qualifying competitions from around the globe and introduce those sides preparing to battle for gold between 6 and 24 August this year.
China to welcome world's elite
In contrast to Athens 2004, most of the world's footballing superpowers have safely ensured their place in Beijing. The first to do so were the South American contingent, the region using January 2007's Sudamericano U-20 competition to decide its Olympic representatives.
First and second place at the event in Paraguay went to continental heavyweights Brazil and Argentina, and it was the Alexandre Pato-inspired Auriverde who made all the running. Indeed, Argentina, Olympic champions in 2004, only scraped through thanks to a last-gasp Lautaro Acosta winner against Uruguay in their final game.
As a result, the likes of established superstars Juan Roman
Riquelme, Lionel Messi, Kaka and the aforementioned Pato could all
be in action this August.
Over in Africa, meanwhile, qualifying drew to a close in March 2008 with Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire and Cameroon taking the region's three tickets. And the trio will all fancy their chances in China, particularly with Nigeria having won gold at Atlanta 1996, Cameroon matching that feat at Sydney 2000 and the Ivorians catching the eye on their first FIFA World Cup finals appearance at Germany 2006.
Surprise results were also thin on the ground in Asia. China PR qualified automatically as host nation, while Australia, Japan and Korea Republic will all be back on the Olympic stage four years after appearing in Athens. Not that the qualifiers had things their own way, with all three only guaranteeing their place on the final matchday of November 2007's qualifying competition.
For Australia, under Graham Arnold, it was their first Olympic qualifying tournament as an AFC nation, the Socceroos eventually making it through after eliminating Iraq, semi-finalists on Greek soil. Both Japan and Korea, meanwhile, have hinted at using of the overage player rule to boost their own chances of success.
Joining them will be New Zealand who, without their Aussie neighbours blocking their path, cruised through Oceania's six-team final qualifying round held in Fiji in March 2008.
Italy aiming high, Mexico miss out
In Europe, Italy's U-21s were their reliable selves in securing an Olympic spot for their country, though it could so easily have eluded them. The Azzurri, bronze medallists at Athens 2004, only edged out Portugal on penalties in their sides' play-off encounter, but will now travel to China along with fellow Europeans Belgium, Serbia and the Netherlands. For the Dutch, emphatic winners of the UEFA U-21 Championship, Beijing will end a 55-year absence from the Olympic football arena.
The biggest surprise of all came in the CONCACAF zone as Mexico, world U-17 champions in 2005, missed out on one of the two available qualifying berths. Representing the region in China will be the United States and surprise qualifying winners Honduras, while the Mexican football authorities reacted to their disappointment by sacking Tricolor coach Hugo Sanchez. The last time both the USA and Honduras reached the Men's Olympic Football Tournament was eight years ago at Sydney 2000.
Qualifiers for Beijing 2008
CONMEBOL: Brazil and Argentina.
UEFA: Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Serbia.
CAF: Côte d'Ivoire, Cameroon and Nigeria.
OFC: New Zealand.
CONCACAF: Honduras and the United States.
AFC: Australia, Japan and Korea Republic.
Host nation: China.
* The draw is due to take place on 20 April.