Group C of the Tokyo Olympics men’s soccer tournament offers a fascinating quartet of nations hailing from four different continents. Among them are the prohibitive tournament favorites Spain, two-time gold medalists Argentina and a pair of dangerous underdogs with medal round aspirations in Egypt and Australia. Of the four Group C nations, three won their continent’s U-23 championship to qualify for the Olympics.
Group C officially kicks off the men’s tournament July 22 at 3:30 a.m. ET when Egypt takes on Spain at the Sapporo Dome.
Spain enters the Olympic tournament with such a distinct competitive advantage over its rivals that it borders on unfair. Generally, clubs in Europe’s top leagues are not required to release players to the Olympics because the tournament is not recognized as part of the official FIFA calendar. The one exception is Spanish players plying their trade domestically in La Liga. By national law, Spain’s top clubs such as Real Madrid and Barcelona must grant their home-grown stars permission to chase gold at the Olympics.
Taking advantage of this arrangement, manager Luis de la Fuente has named six players to the Olympic squad who earlier in July reached the semifinal stage of the European Championships with Spain’s senior team. La Liga goalkeeper Unai Simon, defenders Eric Garcia and Pau Torres, midfielder Pedri and forward Mikel Oyarzabal all made significant contributions to Spain’s EURO 2020 run, as did forward Dani Olmo, who was granted release by his German club RB Leipzig.
With its embarrassment of senior national team riches, Spain will aim for a second Olympic men’s soccer gold medal after emerging victorious on home soil at the Barcelona 1992 Olympics.
YOUNG PLAYER TO WATCH – Pedri
Barcelona’s sensational 18-year-old creative midfielder has earned comparisons to Spanish legend Andres Iniesta due to his play over the past 12 months. Against Italy in the EURO 2020 semifinal, Pedri completed an unheard-of 61 out of 62 passes across 120 minutes in a match Spain eventually lost on penalty kicks, leaving senior team manager Luis Enrique at a loss for words. “His performances, the way he reads the game, the way he finds space, his quality, his personality, I’ve never seen anything like that, not even Andres Iniesta,” Enrique said. “It’s absolutely impossible to explain.”
Though they were powerless to stop it, Barcelona expressed extreme concern that Pedri’s inclusion on both the Euros roster and the Olympic squad after a long club season would leave the teenager overworked. Though Pedri assured his club he would arrive for the season well rested, telling Spanish radio show ‘El Transistor’, “I just love to play football and I'll be happy to keep playing.”
Pedri playing for Spain at the 2020 European Championships
VETERAN LEADER – Marco Asensio
Things have not gone quite according to plan in recent years for 25-year-old Marco Asensio, who looked for several years like a centerpiece of the future of Spanish soccer. The Real Madrid winger has been slow to regain his top form following a 2019 ACL tear, and has – temporarily, he hopes – fallen out of favor with the senior national team. However, he brings to the Olympics some of the most valuable international experience a 25-year-old can hope to offer. Asensio has been a factor in the traditionally strong Spanish youth national team picture since 2012. He helped guide Spain to victory at the U-19 European Championships in 2015 and to the final of the U-21 Euros in 2017, losing to Germany. In 2018, Asensio represented Spain at the FIFA World Cup, where La Roja excited in disappointing fashion in the quarterfinal stage against host nation Russia. In all, Asensio has scored 16 goals in 52 appearances for Spain across all levels.
SPAIN OLYMPIC SQUAD
Goalkeepers: Álvaro Fernández (Huesca), Unai Simón (Athletic Bilbao), Álex Domínguez (Las Palmas)
Defenders: Óscar Mingueza (Barcelona), Jesús Vallejo (Granada), Eric García (Barcelona), Pau Torres (Villarreal), Óscar Gil (Espanyol), Juan Miranda (Real Betis)
Midfielders: Marc Cucurella (Getafe), Jon Moncayola (Osasuna), Martín Zubimendi (Real Sociedad), Dani Ceballos (Real Madrid), Mikel Merino (Real Sociedad), Carlos Soler (Valencia), Pedri González (Barcelona)
Forwards: Bryan Gil (Sevilla), Marco Asensio (Real Madrid), Dani Olmo (Leipzig), Mikel Oyarzabal (Real Sociedad), Rafa Mir (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Javier Puado (Espanyol)
El Albiceleste have gone to far reaches to assemble a roster that can compete for the nation’s third Olympic men’s soccer gold medal. The 22 players play their club soccer in a combined eight different nations, including Spain, England, Mexico and the United States. That fact is in stark contrast to the U-23 team which won Argentina its Olympic berth in a 2020 qualifier tournament. In that squad, all but three players were located domestically. Fernando Batista’s men enter Japan in good form off a pair of June friendly wins over Denmark and Saudi Arabia.
YOUNG PLAYER TO WATCH – Thiago Almada
Fitting the mold of the classic Argentine “No. 10”, Thiago Almada has a chance to flourish in Japan seeing much of the ball in dangerous positions. He stands just 5 feet, 5 inches tall, but makes up for his diminutive stature in flair and skill. Almada, 20, has been the subject of constant transfer speculation in recent years, linked with moves to Europe’s top clubs. However, he remains with his boyhood club Velez Sarsfield in Buenos Aires for the time being. A head-turning Olympics performance may go along way to changing that.
Thiago Almada playing for Argentina in a U-23 international friendly.
VETERAN LEADER – Jeremias Ledesma
Argentina has brought in just one overaged player to their Olympic squad, 28-year-old goalkeeper Jeremias Ledesma. The 6-foot-1 shot stopper spent last season on loan at Spanish club Cadiz
, where he started 32 matches in La Liga. Ledesma has spent time involved with Argentina’s senior national team as an alternate keeper but has yet to make an appearance for El Albiceleste.
ARGENTINA OLYMPIC SQUAD
Goalkeepers: Joaquin Blazquez (Talleres), Lautaro Morales (Lanus), Jeremias Ledesma (Cadiz)
Defenders: Hernan de la Fuente (Velez Sarsfield), Marcelo Herrera (San Lorezo), Nehuen Perez (Granada), Leonel Mosevich (Vizela), Facundo Medina (Lens), Francisco Ortega (Velez Sarsfield), Claudio Bravo (Portland Timbers)
Midfielders: Fausto Vera (Argentinos Juniors), Santiago Colombatto (Leon), Tomas Belmonte (Lanus), Martin Payero (Middlesbrough), Thiago Almada (Velez Sarsfield), Esequiel Barco (Atlanta United)
Forwards: Carlos Valenzuela (Famalicao), Pedro de la Vega (Lanus), Alexis Mac Allister (Brighton & Hove Albion), Agustin Urzi (Banfield), Adolfo Gaich (CSKA Moscow), Ezequiel Ponce (Spartak Moscow)
The story for the Pharaohs coming into their 12th Olympic men’s soccer tournament unfortunately revolves around who is not included in the squad, rather than who is. Superstar forward Mohamed Salah, Egypt’s second all-time top goal scorer, had publicly expressed a strong desire to represent his country as an overaged player in the Olympic tournament and was included in the provisional squad. However, his club, Liverpool, ultimately refused to grant Salah his release. On the bright side for manager Shawky Gharieb, he has been able to return 14 players from the team that won the 2019 Africa U-23 Cup of Nations, which gained Egypt its Olympic spot. That alone makes the Pharaohs a threat to progress out of a difficult group.
YOUNG PLAYER TO WATCH – Ramadan Sobhi
Egypt lacks a true can’t-miss prospect, but winger Ramadan Sobhi fits the mold of an exciting goal threat with European pedigree. 24-year-old Sobhi returned to Egyptian Premier League last season following four years in England with Stoke City and Huddersfield Town. He has already made 28 appearances for Egypt’s senior national team, including at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The following year, he was named Player of the Tournament at the Africa U-23 Cup of Nations, leading the Pharaohs to victory.
VETERAN LEADER – Ahmed Hegazi
Egypt will have critical leadership and experience in defense with 30-year-old center back Ahmed Hegazi. The former English Premier League starter with West Bromwich Albion has been a constant for Egypt’s senior national team since 2011, making 62 appearances in the last decade. Those caps include three group stage matches for Egypt at the London 2012 Olympic tournament, the last Games to feature the Pharaohs. He also started every match for his nation at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Ahmed Hegazi playing for Egypt at the 2018 FIFA World Cup
EGYPT OLYMPIC SQUAD
Goalkeepers: Mohamed El Shenawy (Al Ahly), Mohamed Sobhy (Al Ittihad), Mahmoud Gad (ENPPI)
Defenders: Ahmed Hegazi (Al-Ittihad), Mahmoud Hamdy (Zamalek), Mohamed Abdel Salam (Zamalek), Osama Galal (Pyramids), Ahmed Ramadan (Al Ahly), Karim El-Eraky (Al Masry), Karim Fouad (ENPPI), Ahmed Abou El Fotouh (Zamalek)
Midfielders: Akram Tawfik (Al Ahly), Amar Hamdy (Al Ittihad), Nasser Maher (Al Ahly), Emam Ashour (Zamalek)
Forwards: Ramadan Sobhi (Pyramids), Ibrahim Adel (Pyramids), Abdel Rahman Magdy (Ismaily), Taher Mohamed (Al Ahly), Salah Mohsen (Al Ahly), Nasser Mansi (Tala’ea El Gaish), Ahmed Yasser (Ceramica Cleopatra)
From 1988 to 2008, Australia appeared at every Olympic men’s soccer tournament. This summer will mark the Olyroos’ return to the Games after failing to qualify for the London and Rio Games. A 1-0 win in the third place match of the 2020 AFC U-23 Championship against Uzbekistan secured the Olympic spot for an Australian squad that pulls heavily from the domestic A-League but also includes a handful of internationally-stationed talent. They will hope to recover some momentum early in the tournament after dropping a trio of June friendlies, including an embarrassing 2-1 loss to Ireland’s U-21 team.
YOUNG PLAYER TO WATCH – Harry Souttar
Towering center back Harry Souttar is on a fast rise through the ranks at English club Stoke City, becoming a first-choice player for the club last season. Souttar, 22, was born in Scotland and originally represented his birth nation at the youth level. He has since switched allegiances to his mother’s home country, which has paid dividends. Since debuting with Australia’s senior team in 2019, he has scored a staggering six goals in five games from a defensive position. His 6-foot-6-inch frame offers a dangerous target in the box off set pieces and could be key to the Olyroos snatching an upset victory in a tough Group C.
Harry Souttar of Australia heads a chance on goal during a 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification match
VETERAN LEADER – Mitchell Duke
Striker Mitchell Duke, Australia’s lone overaged player, will be relied upon to provide a threatening presence in front of goal. At 30 years old, his soccer career has taken him from his home state of New South Wales to Japan, Saudi Arabia, and now back to Sydney. Duke originally debuted for Australia’s senior national team in 2013 but did not stick for long. However, he returned to the Socceroos ranks this summer and scored twice in a June World Cup qualification match against Chinese Taipei, so he heads to Japan with confidence.
AUSTRALIA OLYMPIC SQUAD
Goalkeepers: Tom Glover (Melbourne City), Ashley Maynard-Brewer (Charlton Athletic), Jordan Holmes (Ebbsfleet United)
Defenders: Nathaniel Atkinson (Melbourne City), Thomas Deng (Urawa Red Diamonds), Joel King (Sydney FC), Kye Rowles (Central Coast Mariners), Harry Souttar (Stoke City), Jay Rich-Baghuelou (Crystal Palace), Dylan Pierias (Western United)
Midfielders: Keanu Baccus (Western Sydney Wanderers), Denis Genreau (Macarthur FC), Riley McGree (Birmingham City), Connor Metcalfe (Melbourne City), Caleb Watts (Southampton), Cameron Devlin (Wellington Pheonix), Marco Tilio (Melbourne City)
Forwards: Daniel Arzani (AGF), Nicholas D’Agostino (Perth Glory), Mitchell Duke (Western Sydney Wanderers), Reno Piscopo (Wellington Phoenix), Lachlan Wales (Western United)