Hurdles

It’s time, then. The 2020 Olympics – actually, 2021 – are here, whether you wanted them or not. And the football tournament starts today with the first games in the women’s field. Tomorrow, instead, we’re gonna have the debut of Japan in their Group, where we find three tricky opponents to manage.

Compared to Rio 2016, the group isn’t balanced like it used to be. Back then, Nigeria, Sweden and Colombia looked on paper all on the same level. Now, instead, it seems clear there’s one big favorite, two contenders and one team trailing in the background. Group A, in fact, features France (Olympic gold-medalist in 1984), Mexico (who won the football tournament just nine years ago) and South Africa (at the second consecutive participation).

To talk about these opponents, J. League Regista seeked the help of expert voices about their national teams. And that’s where these three journalists came in play to help us figuring out more about Japan’s opponents in Group A:

Time to know more about these squads and their ambitions for Tokyo.

After one year of waiting, Tokyo Olympics are here. What are the expectations for this tournament in your country?

RJ: Generally speaking there’s not been a great deal of media hype surrounding the Olympics tournament, especially since the fallout from our Euros exit has been dominating the headlines. Many French clubs see it as a nuisance and have flat out refused to let their players leave, even after they were named in the squad.

There’s also a certain amount of irritation with manager Sylvain Ripoll, under whom the France U21 side has rarely performed well since he took over in 2017, despite the wealth of talent at his disposal. That said, I think it will be a great opportunity from some of the more overlooked talents in French football to make their name on an international stage, like Milan’s Pierre Kalulu.

RH: The feeling around Mexico is positive although tempered. Mexico cares a lot about the Olympics, and they will go with a good team but that it’s missing some players. That being said, they have been preparing for some time and the news that France send a weaker team than expected gave more hope although knowing Andre Pierre Gignac and Thauvin are with the team, it will still be a tough test.

LK: It’s a good squad of players that have played alongside each other for many years throughout the journey within the various age group levels but by no means the strongest squad South African could have put together. The feeling is optimism as it’s the second consecutive Olympics. Captain Tercious Malepe was in the squad during the 2016 edition in Rio so he’ll be key. But there’s some worries coming out the camp due to three Covid-19 cases which has left them unable to train since arriving in Tokyo.

So… the Olympic squad. Satisfaction over the choices made for Tokyo?

RJ: The squad went through a fair amount of changes because of the clubs stopping their players from leaving, so the initial list released in June looked quite different – for instance, Rennes’ Eduardo Camavinga, Lyon’s Maxence Caqueret, Arsenal’s William Saliba and Nice’s Amine Gouiri are all staying at their clubs instead.

RH: The squad is not as strong as people expected. Mexico will be missing two key players in Edson Alvarez (Ajax didn’t give permission) and Gerardo Arteaga (personal reasons). They also will not have Jose Juan Macias because of injury although he wasn’t on a great level. That being said a lot of the team has been during the whole process and the best U24 player in Diego Lainez will be with the team.

LK: Overseas/European contingent has been denied by their respective clubs to be called up. ‘Yaya’ Sithole, Gift Links, Percy Tau, Khanya Leshabela are some of the names that would have been in the squad. Lyle Foster and Sipho Mbule were among the players released before they jetted off from South Africa – and they have been crucial players throughout the qualification journey.

Olympics provided not only an expanded roster (from 18 to 22 players), but also three overaged players. Did the national teams pick the right options?

RJ: Two of our overage players are well-known to football fans in Florian Thauvin and André-Pierre Gignac – they now both play for the same club, Tigres in Mexico. Both of them have expressed their excitement at going out to Japan and both are fantastic players.

You also have Téji Savanier, a Montpellier midfielder who’s gone under the radar recently but has easily been one of Ligue 1’s best players in the last few years. He emerged in the top flight quite late in his career but is a great creator with a fantastic range of passes and is able to drive the play up from midfield effectively. He’s definitely one to watch in the France team.

RH: The overage players are a mixed bag. Goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa is Mexico’s main goalkeeper and maybe the best ever for Mexico. Luis Romo is a top guy who was one of the best players in Liga MX and should be with the NT. But striker Henry Martin is inexperienced and had a bad run earlier this summer with the Senior NT. I believe Mexico should have gone with another player with more experience like Javier Hernandez and not a player that will be playing his first tournament with Mexico.

LK: Captain Rownen Williams in goal was an imperative selection as usually the case at U-23 level, he’s been included. He’s the only overage player after Cape Town City FC defender Aboubakr Mobara was withdrawn. Mobara is an incredibly talented ball-playing defender that pocketed Neymar in the previous Olympics.

Williams is definitely excited, he brings leadership into the group and he’s quite vocal during games – I can safely say he and the rest of the squad are relishing the opportunity to take part in the global showpiece to make the nation that’s going through so much turmoil right now, proud. For many it’s also a potential shop window to Europe and the Middle East.

The final goal of this tournament may vary depending on which side we’re talking about. What’s the real objective for the national team you’re following?

RJ: Considering the amount of established quality in the squad, even with the omissions, we should be in with a chance of winning the whole thing! This is our first tournament since 1996, but the likes of Florian Thauvin and André-Pierre Gignac will feel they have something to prove after underwhelming careers for the national side.

RH: With France and Japan, it will be tough, but Mexico should be battling for a place in the Quarterfinals. Should they get it, Mexico should be favored to make the Semifinals. It’s a strange situation where getting eliminated in the Quarterfinals would be a bigger failure than not making it out of the group stage. Mexico has a good team, but they are also in a tough draw.

LK: If you look at the strength of France, Mexico and Japan’s squads – the first objective would be to try and qualify for the knockout stage. Preparation has been horrendous due to the constraints of the pandemic and with a squad that’s not really full strength they will be hoping their team spirt can lead them to greater heights. Just qualifying for the tournament was an achievement amongst some of the more high-profile nations in Africa.


July 22nd will see the beginning of the men’s football tournament. Prepare yourself with our coverage: you can read a two-pieces revisitation of the 2016 Rio squad – called “Saudade” (Part 1 & Part 2) – and a Roundtable conversation about the chances of Japan’s U-24 team at clinching one medal.

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