Let the Games begin
Football at the Olympics is a divisive topic at the best of times. With the Games less than a week away, plentiful arguments are still being offered as to why the game itself is simply unsuitable for inclusion at world sport's biggest party.
Is football suitable for the Games, though? With the World Cup firmly established as the pinnacle of the sport, many would say no. Beyond that, there are those who question whether football fans even care about the event, given that it is principally an Under-23 tournament. In this respect, the failure to sell out tickets for this summer's competition only adds to the naysayers' rejection of the world game.
However, with the Olympics now arriving in the United Kingdom, a country where football as an Olympic discipline is treated with particular distain, could the 2012 tournament finally turn the tide of public opinion?
With the rising individual stars of Brazil, the next generation of the all-consuming Spanish footballing machine and the new, intriguing concept of a Great Britain side, there are several potential storylines that could capture the imagination. Could Neymar end Brazil's relentless quest for Olympic glory? Will Ryan Giggs obtain an international tournament medal? Or could an Asian side win a major global tournament for the first time? Besides, while it may not always be the case for this year's hosts, it should not be forgotten that Olympic football is regarded with the utmost seriousness in many countries and, to those people at least, the results of the next three weeks matter greatly.
It is perhaps true to say that nowhere takes Olympic football more seriously than Brazil, and the pre-tournament favourites are undoubtedly the star attraction of London 2012. For Brazil, the men's Olympic tournament is an obsession, being the only major international tournament, at any level, in which they have participated without winning - while major rivals Argentina are twice winners.
It has not been through a lack of trying, either. The much vaunted 1996 side, for example, featured the likes of Roberto Carlos, Bebeto, Rivaldo and Ronaldo but still came up short in Atlanta, picking up a bronze medal after a 4-3 semi-final defeat to eventual champions Nigeria. This year's esteemed cast features the likes of Neymar, Oscar and Lucas Moura, three of world football's most wanted players, as well as Europe-based senior professionals Thiago Silva, Marcelo and Hulk. Expectations at home are of a gold medal; anything else will constitute failure.
Brazil's major opposition for gold comes from Spain. While this new Brazil side are a somewhat unknown force to many outside South America, Spain feature some of European football's most recognisable names: Javi Martinez, Juan Mata and Adrian are the squad's three overage players, and they will be joined by the likes of Iker Muniain, David de Gea and Jordi Alba in a group packed with players who are experienced at the highest level. With Spain currently senior champions at both World and European levels, as well as being current European champions at Under-19 and Under-21 levels, there is little doubt that the 1992 Olympic champions will be among the teams to beat in the weeks ahead.
Football, though, is an unpredictable beast, and the Olympic tournament has proved no exception. With Argentina failing to qualify after successive titles in 2004 and 2008, the field is shorn of a traditional powerhouse, giving hope to some of the perceived outsiders that they could repeat the recent triumphs of unlikely winners Cameroon and Nigeria.
While UAE or New Zealand are not expected to trouble the favourites, the likes of Japan, Mexico and Uruguay will all have an eye on a date with destiny at Wembley on August 11. Then, of course, there are the hosts, who will no doubt be roared on by a series of highly partisan home crowds, full of Olympic fervour - but they possess a hurriedly assembled side that lacks even basic familiarity.
While Team GB may not be coming into the tournament with extensive preparation, others have been meticulously planning their strategy for some time. Mexico, for example, played their U-23 side in last year's Copa America in preparation for this summer, while several sides have come through an U-23 level qualification campaign just to reach the competition.
With the Olympic Games effectively the most senior rank of international youth football, the tournament also offers an exciting glimpse of potential stars of the future - the last two editions of the competition have played host to Lionel Messi, Andrea Pirlo and Cristiano Ronaldo, amongst others. With a new generation of bright young stars on show once more, as well as the unique potential storylines that this year provides, London 2012 could offer a feast of football that maybe just maybe, will win over some of those who fail to see the sport's value to the Olympic spectacle.