Nicolás Lodeiro (Uruguay)
The career trajectory of Uruguay’s 23 year-old playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro illustrates the dangers of all your dreams coming true too soon. Exhibiting the technical class and intelligence that helped Nacional reach the semi-finals of the 2008/09 Copa Libertadores, Lodeiro was called-up for his country’s senior national team aged only 20, having starred previously for their youth sides. His composure and precocious skill saw the stocky schemer shine in a play-off victory against Costa Rica which ensured qualification for 2010’s World Cup whilst sealing a prestigious move to Dutch giants Ajax at club level. Sadly, such rapid progress was soon to stall. Despite appearing only intermittently throughout the 2nd half of the 2009/10 season as he acclimatised to European football, much was still expected of Lodeiro in South Africa. However, a somewhat unfortunate red card as a substitute in Uruguay’s opening match before suffering a serious injury set his star in sharp decline and rule him out for entirety of the following season.
Nevertheless, returning in time for 2011’s Copa America, Lodeiro showed exceptional ability and awareness to create a goal for Luis Suarez against Peru before being relegated to the bench for the remainder of a tournament his country would ultimately win. Just as his place with the national team had been lost as coach Óscar Tábarez shelved subtlety for a more combative midfield approach, his place in Ajax’s line-up was relinquished by the emergence of hugely promising Dane Christian Eriksen. Having returned to his native continent following a luckless European stint to join Clarence Seedorf at Brazil’s Botofogo, Lodeiro should enter this summer’s competition keen to make up for lost time with a gifted Uruguay squad aiming for their third Olympic triumph.
Marco Fabian (Mexico)
Perhaps Mexico arrive in London with one of the games’ more intriguing selections. Midfield all-rounder Héctor Herrera was named most valuable player at the recent Toulan Tournament having helped his country emerge victorious, classy defender Hiram Mier has been touted as the possible heir to stylish former Barcelona stopper Rafael Marquez whilst Giovani Dos Santos is regularly so outstanding for Mexico as to make a mockery of Harry Redknapp’s bizarre ignorance of him when the two were together at Tottenham Hotspur. Still, diminutive trequartista Marco Fabian could yet end up playing the most prominent role this summer. Noted as much for off-field indiscipline as his technical brilliance on it, the 22 year-old has the potential to emulate the iconic status of Mexico legend Cuauhtémoc Blanco; his predecessor as the nation’s beloved wayward genius. Balancing creative flair with a decisiveness that sees him boast an impressive 12 goals from only 10 appearances at under-23 level, Fabian strook 6 times in that Toulon triumph and carried his form into a recent low-key preparation match with Great Britain, in which he hit the only goal. Although the goals at club level may have dried up of late, Fabian will surely be keen to parade his talent on the international stage after his wilful nature saw him suspended for 6 months from the senior national team last year.
Mohamed Aboutrika (Egypt)
Great Britain may have denied an ageing talisman in David Beckham a place at these finals but their Egyptian counterparts were delighted to indulge 33 year-old idol Mohamed Aboutrika in their 18 man squad. Happily for the Egyptians, despite his advancing years, Aboutrika retains the skills that have seen him favourably likened to Zinedine Zidane and incontrovertibly justify his inclusion on footballing rather than sentimental merits(the ’unlike Beckham’ goes without saying, surely?). A decorated veteran with 2 African Cup of Nations victories and 81 caps with the full national team, Aboutrika’s medal haul also takes in 3 CAF Champions’ League titles and 7 consecutive Egyptian league wins, with his elegant prompting integral to all. Although their squad numbers burgeoning talents such as prolific striker Marwan Mohsen, towering defender Ahmed Hegazy (a recent signing for Serie A’s Fiorentina) and ‘the Egyptian Xavi;’ Shehab Ahmed, it is Aboutrika who Egypt will look to as the central source of inspiration.
Ahmed Khalil (U.A.E.)
Once dubbed as his region’s answer to Samuel Eto’o, 21 year-old striker Ahmed Khalil is yet to live up to the rich promise of his nascent career. Still, his searing pace and eye-for-goal remain to see him retain a threat that has registered a goal a game at under-23 level. His strike-rate outside of the age-restricted game is less impressive but the Emirati front duo of Khalil and the more creative 29 year-old Ismael Matar, a Golden Ball winner at the World Youth Championships of 2003, has the potential to pose problems for any opposition. Also notable in the Gulf state’s squad are centre back Hamdan Al-Kamali, who spent the latter half of last season with Lyon (albeit without making an appearance) and left-footed creator Amer Abdulrahman.
Abdelaziz Barrada (Morocco)
Something of a late-bloomer, 23 year-old Barrada was languishing in Getafe’s B side just 12 months ago, having arrived in the Spanish capital from Paris Saint-Germain, for whom the tall, elegant number 10 failed to make a senior appearance. Like several in Morocco’s squad, Barrada was born in Europe but qualifies to represent the Atlas Lions through ancestry and having belatedly established himself as a classy performer in Spain’s top flight, the French-born midfielder will be looking to underline a talent that already has several of Spain’s more reputable clubs taking notice. Barrada’s guile should be complemented in London by fellow creative attackers Zakaria Labyad and Omar El Kaddouri, whose pledged allegiances to Morocco in the face of eligibility from the Netherlands and Belgium respectively represent something a coup for the North Africans. Teenager Labyad, as technical and versatile as would be expected of one growing up in the Dutch system idolising Barcelona’s Ibrahim Afellay, has recently left PSV Eindhoven to join the swelling ranks of compatriots at Portugal’s Sporting, whereas El Kaddouri was the revelation of the Serie B campaign with Brescia, attracting the obligatory comparisons with Zinedine Zidane and covetous glances from Italy’s elite.
The world’s eyes will unquestionably be on Neymar and for very good reason, as the boy-prince of Brazilian football seeks to justify claims of his genius. Still, although boasting the individual brilliance to craft opportunities for himself, the Santos wonderkid’s impact could hinge to a certain extent on the form of Chelsea-target Oscar. A very modern type of playmaker, combining awareness, movement and industry with the mandatory technical virtuosity, the 20 year-old has seemingly usurped Neymar’s teammate Ganso and his more classical take on the role, as Brazil’s chief supply line. Unlike the Santos man, Oscar has a wonderful record in international tournaments, as illustrated by his hat-trick in the final of the U-20 World Cup final whilst Ganso (the man who incidentally, may replace Oscar at club level but could feature alongside him this summer), is yet to convince for his country at both youth and senior level. With a lop-sided squad bristling with attacking quality, Brazil’s campaign could be defined by Oscar’s success in linking the play and his exceptional understanding with ever-improving target-man Leandro Damiao
Admir Mehmedi (Switzerland)
With the hopes of a talented Swiss generation severely compromised by a spate of high-profile withdrawals, headlined by outstanding new Bundesliga recruits Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, it falls to another of the Albanian diaspora in Admir Mehmedi to spearhead a (now unlikely) medal challenge. An intelligent forward with the skills to drop deep and influence proceedings, Mehmedi’s 3 goals were integral to his country’s second-place finish at last summer’s European under-21 championships, form which in conjunction with a promising return for Grasshoppers Zurich earned him a lucrative move to Dynamo Kyiv. Mehmedi is yet to justify his billing in the Ukrainian capital but a solid showing in London could prove a turning-point in the talented 20 year-old’s career.
Kim Bo-Kyung (South Korea)
Fans of Cardiff City may rightly be disgusted at the cynical rebranding of their club in a ploy to enhance marketability in the Far East. They should however take certain solace in another phase of that plan; namely the signing of Kim Bo-Kyung, a 22 year-old South Korean touted as the heir to Park Ji-Sung. Now, Park may be the nation’s poster boy given his affiliation with Manchester United but as discussed previously, his game is marked more by obedience than inspiration. Contrastingly, Kim is an intelligent, visionary winger, capable of coming inside to play incisive passes and possessing an admirable goal return in Japan’s top flight. Inevitably, his signing represents something of a gamble given the inherent cultural differences but Cardiff fans should be offered an insight into the Korean’s early adaptation to British conditions over the coming weeks.
Few, if any nations could cope with the absences of 2 trequartistas of Thiago and Sergio Canales’ quality, particularly at U-23 level. Spain however are basking in the warm glow of an unprecedented golden era, as they can still call upon a squad featuring Iker Muniain, Juan Mata and the man proclaimed by his club president as his generation’s finest footballer, Isco. Brought back to his hometown club of Malaga for €6m last summer as he stood on the cusp of a breakthrough with Valencia, Isco’s dazzling skill and fondness for the spectacular saw him quickly become a fixture in the big-spending Andalusíans’ plans, despite his youth. A Tendency for over-elaboration remains a weakness but the raw material for a truly remarkable footballer is unquestionably present.
Andy Najar (Honduras)
Given the careers of Freddy Adu, Santino Quaranta and Eddie Gaven, the emergence of the latest (or at least the latest before Diego Fagundez’s debut) MLS superkid is always liable to attract a certain amount of scepticism. The pressure falls upon teenage DC United winger Andy Najar to prove the doubters wrong and with a skill-set that marries impressive close control and technique with a welcome silver of determination and aggression, the Honduran could have the mentality to emerge as the first true star bred through the American system. Having moved to the United States in his early teens, Najar was the subject of a high-profile tug-of-war between his native Honduras and his adopted nation over whose colours the 19 year-old would defend, with the prospect of competing at this summer’s games perhaps a decisive factor in Honduras’ favour. Drawn into a tricky group alongside Spain, Egypt and Morocco, Najar will look to offer an early indication that he was worth the wooing.