All four members of Group B of the Olympic men’s soccer tournament will feel fortunate to have avoided the European and South American powers in the competition. On paper, Group B is the most wide-open of the four pools and each team will believe they have an excellent chance to advance to the quarterfinals. There is only one combined Olympic medal between the four nations (a bronze for South Korea at the London 2012 Games), so the Japan tournament represents a golden opportunity for Group B’s participants to reach unfamiliar heights.
In addition to its previous Olympic success in London, South Korea is likely to be declared the favorite out of Group B on the back of its victory at the 2020 AFC (Asia) U-23 Championship. Unsurprisingly, manager Kim Hak-Bum has recalled the vast majority of that squad to comprise the Olympic team, making South Korea one of the most familiar and experienced squads taking part in the men’s tournament. However, a handful of key additions to the ranks of the Asian champions, including a trio of senior national team goal scorers as overaged players, gives South Korea an exceptional level of balance that could carry it deep into the competition taking place close to home.
YOUNG PLAYER TO WATCH – Lee Kang-In
South Korea has a potential future star in attacking midfielder Lee Kang-In, who plays for six-time Spanish champions Valencia at the club level. At just 20-years-old, he is the youngest member of South Korea’s Olympic roster and did not participate in the U-23 AFC title run. That’s only because he was busy leading the U-20 national team to historic success. Lee earned Player of the Tournament honors at the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup, collecting two goals and four assists while carrying South Korea to a runner-up finish. The Olympics could provide another breakout stage for the player who first won the hearts of his home nation as a six-year-old on a Korean reality TV show.
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VETERAN LEADER – Hwang Ui-Jo
Despite very much wanting to participate in the Olympic tournament and convincing his club Tottenham Hotspur to grant him the opportunity, superstar forward Son Heung-Min was stunningly not chosen for an overaged player spot by manager Kim Hak-Bum. Kim sited a desire to “protect” Son from potential injury ahead of South Korea’s World Cup qualification campaign, following a condensed 2020-21 season in which Son played 51 matches.
Instead, Kim turns to 28-year-old Bordeaux striker Hwang Ui-Jo to carry the bulk of the goalscoring responsibilities. Hwang has already shown he can deliver when asked, scoring 14 goals in 36 opportunities with the senior national team, including in World Cup qualification. He was named the Korean FA’s Player of the Year in 2018 after powering South Korea’s U-23’s to victory at the Asian Games with nine goals in just seven games.
SOUTH KOREA OLYMPIC SQUAD
Goalkeepers: Song Bum-Keun (Jeonbuk), Ahn Joon-Soo (Busan IPark), An Chan-Gi (Suwon Samsung Bluewings)
Defenders: Lee You-Hyeon (Jeonbuk), Kim Jae-Woo (Daegu FC), Kim Min-Jae (Beijing Guoan), Jeong Tae-Wook (Daegu FC), Seol Young-Woo (Ulsan Hyundai), Kim Jin-Ya (FC Seoul), Kang Yoon-Sung (Jeju United), Lee Sang-Min (Seoul E-Land)
Midfielders: Jeong Seung-Won (Daegu FC), Lee Kang-In (Valencia), Lee Dong-Gyeong (Ulsan Hyundai), Kim Dong-Hyun (Gangwon FC), Won Du-Jae (Ulsan Hyundai), Kim Jin-Kyu (Busan IPark)
Forwards: Kwon Chang-Hoon (Suwon Samsung Bluewings), Song Min-Kyu (Pohang Steelers), Lee Dong-Jun (Ulsan Hyundai), Hwang Ui-Jo (Bordeaux), Um Won-Sang (Gwangju FC)
Fans of the U.S. Men’s National Team won’t need reminding of how Honduras booked its spot in the Tokyo Olympics, bouncing the U.S. out of the CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship in the semifinal round by a 2-1 score. The Central Americas are no strangers to the Olympic stage, having qualified for the previous three tournaments. Only they and CONCACAF neighbors Mexico have managed that feat (Japan and Brazil have also appeared in all three, though were granted automatic qualification as hosts in one instance).
Honduras has retooled its squad slightly since the March qualifier, but still draws heavily from top clubs in the domestic Liga Nacional. Manager Miguel Falero’s side will look to do one better than their Rio 2016 counterparts who advanced to the medal rounds but lost the bronze medal game to Nigeria to finish fourth.
YOUNG PLAYER TO WATCH – Rigoberto Rivas
Attacking midfielder Rigoberto Rivas left Honduras at age 11 to reunite with his mother in Italy. The circumstances accelerated his soccer career, as he was able to train at Serie A club Fiorentina’s youth academy and eventually become a professional with Inter Milan. Though he never made an appearance for the Italian giants before transferring, the 22-year-old is still in the early stages of a promising career abroad. With the national team, he adds creativity both at the senior level and, now, with the Olympic U-23s.
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VETERAN LEADER – Denil Maldonado
Honduras is likely to draw leadership not from an overaged player, but from 23-year-old center back Denil Maldonado. Maldonado captained the Honduran U-23s at the 2019 Pan American Games. His composed penalty conversion in the semifinal shoot-out against Mexico sent his nation to the final of that tournament, where they ultimately fell 4-1 to Argentina. Maldonado plies his trade at the club level with Mexican club Pachuca.
HONDURAS OLYMPIC SQUAD
Goalkeepers: Alex Guity (Olimpia), Michael Perrelo (Real España), Bryan Ramos (Real España)
Defenders: Christopher Melendez (Motagua), Carlos Melendez (Motagua), Wesley Decas (Motagua), Elvin Casildo (Olimpia), Denil Maldonado (Pachuca)
Midfielders: Jonathan Nunez (Motagua), Jose Mario Pinto (Olimpia), Edwin Rodriguez (Olimpia), Jorge Alvarez (Olimpia), Carlos Pineda (Olimpia), Alejandro Reyes (Real España), Rigoberto Rivas (Reggina), Brayan Moya (Primeiro de Agusto)
Forwards: Luis Palma (Vida), Samuel Elvir (Lobos UPNFM), Jorge Benguche (Olimpia), Douglas Martinez (Real Salt Lake), Juan Carlos Obregon (Hartford Athletic)
New Zealand has yet to record a win in an Olympic tournament despite qualifying for two of the last three competitions. They’ll have every opportunity to change that in Japan, after winning Oceania’s lone Olympic berth in a 2019 qualifying tournament. The All Whites understand international tournament appearances are far from guaranteed, so they have called on senior national team manager and former Leeds United player Danny Hay to lead the charge in Japan.
YOUNG PLAYER TO WATCH – Liberato Cacace
Born to Italian parents, Liberato Cacace is New Zealand’s top choice at left back. The 20-year-old, attacking minded Kiwi is coming off his first season in Europe with Sint-Truiden in Belgium’s top flight. Cacace has starred in three levels of New Zealand youth national team and has also made three appearances for the All Whites senior squad.
VETERAN LEADER – Chris Wood
New Zealand will have its star striker Chris Wood leading the lines in Japan. Wood, 29, has scored at least 10 goals in the English Premier League each of the last four seasons with Burnley and has played in the U.K. at some level since 2009. He’s been just as prolific for the national team, accumulating 24 goals – second-most in New Zealand’s history – in only 57 appearances. He is also a veteran of the London 2012 Olympics, scoring once in the group stage against Egypt.
NEW ZEALAND OLYMPIC SQUAD
Goalkeepers: Michael Woud (Almere City), Jamie Searle (Swansea City), Alex Paulsen (Wellington Pheonix)
Defenders: Michael Boxall (Minnesota United), Liberato Cacace (Sint-Truden), Callan Elliot (Xanthi), Dane Ingham (Newcastle Jets), Nando Pijnaker (Rio Ave), Winston Reid (Brentford), George Stanger (Hamilton Academical), Sam Sutton (Wellington Pheonix)
Midfielders: Joe Bell (Viking), Clayton Lewis (Wellington Phoenix), Marko Stamenic (Copenhagen), Gianni Stensness (Central Coast Mariners), Ben Old (Wellington Pheonix)
Forwards: Joe Champness (Newcastle Jets), Elijah Just (Helsingor), Callum McCowatt (Helsingor), Ben Waine (Wellington Pheonix), Chris Wood (Burnley), Matthew Garbett (Falkenbergs FF)
Romania were the shock performers of the 2019 UEFA U-21 Championships, winning a group which included France, England and Croatia to clinch an Olympic berth. Only a handful of players from that squad have been named by manager Mirel Radoi to the Olympic team, however, making Romania even more a wild card ahead of the Japan tournament. Romania have appeared in three prior Olympic men’s soccer competitions, but not since 1964, also held in the host city of Tokyo.
YOUNG PLAYER TO WATCH – Tudor Baluta
One of the players on that U-21 squad was defensive midfielder Tudor Baluta, who contributed a goal in a win against Croatia. Baluta signed with English Premier League club Brighton & Hove Albion in 2018 and has ventured out onto three separate loan spell since then. As a youth player, Baluta attended Gheorghe Popescu Football School, founded by and named after the former Barcelona midfielder and Romanian legend.
VETERAN LEADER – Andrei Ciobanu
Manager Radoi elected not to name any overaged players to the Romanian Olympic team, deferring to his relatively experienced youth internationals like Andrei Ciobanu. The 23-year-old midfielder has logged a combined 33 appearances across four levels of youth national teams. Ciobanu does not score goals at an alarming rate, but his passing ability makes him a constant assist threat for his country.
ROMANIA OLYMPIC SQUAD
Goalkeepers: Mihai Aioani (Farul Constanta), Mihai Popa (Astra Giurgiu), Stefan Tarnovanu (FCSB)
Defenders: Radu Boboc (Farul Constanta), Andrei Chindris (Botosani), Virgil Ghita (Farul Constanta), Ricardo Grigore (Dinamo Bucuresti), Alex Pascanu (Ponferradina), Andrei Ratiu (Villareal), Florin Stefan (Sepsi OSK)
Midfielders: Dragos Nedelcu (FCSB), Tudor Baluta (Brighton & Hove Albion), Marco Dulca (Chindia Targoviste), Marius Marin (Pisa), Andrei Ciobanu (Farul Constanta), Eduard Florescu (Botosani), Ion Gheorghe (Voluntari), Alex Dobre (Dijon), Valentin Gheorghe (Astra Giurgiu), Antonio Sefer (Rapid Bucuresti)
Forwards: George Ganea (Farul Constanta), Andrei Sintean (Hermannstadt)