For most sportsmen, the Olympics is the ultimate; the pinnacle of their careers. In football, however, the showpiece invariably plays second fiddle to the FIFA World Cup™ and is utilised by competing nations as a building block towards the beautiful game’s big event.
The Olympics’ U-23 status, and position between the end of one FIFA World Cup and the beginning of another, guarantees this crucial developmental role, and every fan watching London 2012 will have been on the look-out for potential stars of Brazil 2014. Sure enough, several players staked a strong claim to be considered key men, and FIFA.com looks over some of those who made the biggest impression.
For Mexico, gold medals weren’t the only prize with which they returned from the UK. The blossoming of Oribe Peralta, 28, into a proven match-winner represented an unexpected boon, and the Santos Laguna star’s decisive double in the final has left him a sought-after figure in Europe. "England, Italy or Spain - there are plenty of choices," he said recently. "This experience can change your life." Though Peralta grabbed the headlines, the performances of his 21-year-old team-mate Jorge Enriquez were every bit as impressive, with this powerful, box-to-box midfielder as influential in Mexico’s Olympic campaign as he had been in their FIFA U-20 World Cup triumph a year earlier.
Crestfallen though they were, there were also crumbs of comfort for beaten finalists Brazil. A string of scintillating performances from Oscar, for example, left the Chelsea youngster in pole position to assume playmaking responsibilities in 2014, while the likes of Neymar and Marcelo affirmed their status as star turns. Yet the most significant bonus for Mano Menezes was the form of Leandro Damiao.
The Internacional striker had failed to score in any of his eight international appearances prior to London 2012, but having arrived at the tournament with the tag of potential weak link, he left as its top scorer – and with one hand on the No9 shirt for the FIFA World Cup. “It’s up to me to keep on playing well to have more chances with the national team,” he said after the tournament. “Hopefully I will. Despite not having won gold, Mano gave us this vow of confidence."
Should Leandro Damiao line up for Brazil in 2014, chances are he will come up against some of the players who pushed him all the way in the top-scorer race at London 2012. His principal challenger, Senegal’s Moussa Konate, averaged a goal every 76 minutes before bidding farewell to the tournament at the quarter-final stage, and is now being touted for a big move. The Lions of Teranga aren’t exactly short of striking talent, but they may well look to re-establish at senior level the potent partnership between Konate, 19, and Pape Souare, their overlapping full-back and set piece expert.
Another productive alliance that looks likely to be reprised during FIFA World Cup qualifying is in Korea Republic’s midfield. Crucial to the Taeguk Warriors’ historic third-place finish was the slick link-up play between Ki Sungyueng and Koo Jacheol, and both are sure to be influential figures in the Asian Zone preliminaries. The same seems certain to be true of Yuki Otsu, the lively attacking midfielder who shot down Spain and provided much of Japan’s attacking verve. At the other end, Maya Yoshida was the rock around which a defence that began the tournament with four straight clean sheets was built, and the centre-half departed the UK having made a compelling case for further senior involvement.
Elsewhere, Honduras had the attacking duo of Roger Espinoza and Jerry Bengtson to thank for the colourful and energetic brand of football that endeared them to British fans, while Zakaria Labyad confirmed his status as Morocco’s rising star with one of the tournament’s great goals. And fans in Oceania can surely look forward to seeing a great deal more of another of the tournament’s youngsters.
Though still just 18, Tim Payne patrolled the New Zealand midfield with a maturity and match intelligence that belied his tender years. Among those wowed by his performances was the Kiwis’ coach, Neil Emblem. “It’s unbelievable how comfortable Tim is for us in a position with such responsibility at such a major tournament,” he said. “I have no doubt that he’ll find his way.”
Whether that way will lead to Brazil 2014, only time will tell. But Payne and his fellow Olympic standouts have undoubtedly given their FIFA World Cup hopes a significant boost.
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