For an event that has long existed far down the pecking order of international competitions, the Olympic men's soccer tournament is getting some unexpected attention these days, and not all of it good. With various European club teams threatening to withhold players (and in some cases succeeding), no less an authority than FIFA President Sepp Blatter has stated that clubs must release their age-eligible players (those under 23), despite the tournament not being on the international calendar and many clubs not feeling obliged to follow Blatter's mandate.
So far it's unclear whether player power (or Blatter power) will triumph over that of the clubs. But despite this uncertainty, a number of talented players will be on display, with some of the squads positively brimming with talent. Here's a pre-tournament ranking of how the teams shape up:
The approach of the reigning Olympic champions will be like showing up for the shooting competition with a howitzer, as the Argentine squad is flat out loaded. This is especially true in midfield, where Juan Roman Riquelme and Javier Mascherano should dominate. Up top, things are less certain with Lionel Messi's participation still in doubt due to the aforementioned club versus FIFA row, though Sergio Aguero -- who won the Golden Ball at last year's U-20 World Cup in Canada -- should provide enough quality to get the necessary goals.
The club versus country debate could hit Brazil harder than any other team. Not only has A.C. Milan's Kaka been ruled out, but so has Real Madrid's Robinho, who has recently been plagued by a groin injury. Schalke 04 defender Rafinha and Werder Bremen midfielder Diego are also at odds with their clubs. But Brazil still has enough talent to make a run at the gold medal and secure the only international title to elude them. Ronaldinho looks set to partner the precocious Alexandre Pato in attack, with new Manchester City signing Jo ready to play a part as well.
3. The Netherlands
While the Dutch aren't getting as much ink as Brazil and Argentina, they have quietly put together an imposing side, the backbone of which is similar to the team that triumphed in last year's European U-21 championship for the second straight time. Ryan Babel's ankle injury may have ruled him out of Euro 2008, but he's now available for the Olympics, where he'll be aided by Real Madrid's Royston Drenthe, Celtic midfielder Evander Sno and Valencia midfielder Hedwiges Maduro. All will be expected to feed veteran forward Roy Makaay, who claims one of the overage spots.
Italy owes its spot in the Olympics to a penalty shootout victory over Portugal in last year's European U-21 championships. The team later strolled to victory at this year's Toulon Espoirs tournament, and a few key additions should help the Azzurrini get to the medal round. Villareal forward (and U.S. citizen) Giuseppe Rossi and overage addition Tommaso Rocchi lead the frontline. Palermo midfielder Antonio Nocerino provides the necessary steel in the center of the park, while Juventus' Sebastian Giovinco, fresh off an excellent season on loan at Empoli, should provide the creativity.
The modestly named Dream Team IV doesn't have quite the star power of the original version that triumphed at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. But head coach Samson Siasia has assembled a capable group that draws heavily from the side that finished second at the 2005 U-20 World Cup. Included in this team is Everton forward Victor Anichebe, while Columbus Crew fans will keep a close eye on midfielder Emmanuel Ekpo. The defense will be lead by Olympique Marseille's Taye Taiwo, whose thunderous free kicks will aid Nigeria's attack as well.
The Indomitable Lions return for their third consecutive tournament and are eager to recapture their gold-medal glory of 2000. The defense, with Arsenal's Alexandre Song and Reading's Andre Bikey in tow, should be solid, but Cameroon suffered a blow recently when Nancy midfielder Landry Nguemo withdrew from the squad due to illness. That will put increased pressure on the likes of Stephane Mbia and forward Gustave Mbangue to pick up the slack.
Olympic coaches who are in a tug-of-war over players would do well to employ the tactics of Serbian head coach Miroslav Djukic. When Serbian club Partizan Belgrade hinted they would withhold their players, Djukic threatened to resign. Partizan ultimately relented, and Djukic is now more optimistic about his side, one that earned a runner-up finish in the most recent European U-21 championship. The spine of the team is particularly impressive, with defender Slobodan Rajkovic and attacker Stefan Babovic the lynchpins of the team.
8. Ivory Coast
Incredibly, the Elephants had never previously qualified for an Olympic games, but the Ivorians punched their ticket to Beijing, winning their group by an impressive five points. The side will be among several teams employing no overage players, but there is still quality in the side. Among the headliners for Ivory Coast is Chelsea attacker Salomon Kalou, who along with Roda JC forward Sekou Cisse will spearhead the team's attack. In midfield, the imposing physical style of Kafoumba Coulibaly should dovetail nicely with that of playmaker Gervais Yao Kouassi.
9. United States
After scoring only six goals in five games during qualifying, the Americans will only go as far as their attack will take them, with the performance of the their midfield vital to any success. Fortunately, the U.S. has several midfielders who have performed at senior level, with Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu and Benny Feilhaber possessing significant experience. Up top, head coach Peter Nowak has brought in the ageless Brian McBride in the hope that his physicality will open up spaces for Freddy Adu and Jozy Altidore. Nowak has also brought in Michael Parkhurst to shore up the defense, but a hamstring injury to Nathan Sturgis has left the U.S. threadbare in the back.
Spare a thought for Japanese head coach Yasuharu Sorimachi. Every time he looked to name an overage player, that performer was rendered unavailable, with the most bizarre incident involving Gamba Osaka midfielder Yasuhito Endo, who was laid low by a viral infection. As a result, the Japanese will rely exclusively on U-23 players. Japan's reputation is that of a technical side, with VVV Venlo midfielder Keisuke Honda fitting the bill. Catania striker Takayuki Morimoto, along with Tadanari Lee will be expected to score the goals.
The Little Devils will attemp to rekindle past glories, and a recent 1-0 defeat to long-time rivals Holland has raised hopes that Belgium can do some damage in the tournament. Helping matters further is the fact that Belgium won their club versus country battle when defender Vincent Kompany was released by Bundesliga side Hamburg. Other key performers will be forward Maarten Martens and midfielder Jan Vertonghen. And while Belgium's opening game against Brazil is daunting, is should progress through a weak group to the quarterfinals.
12. South Korea
The Taeguk Warriors were another team that relied heavily on defense during qualifying, conceding only four goals in 12 matches. And with Zenit St. Petersburg defender Kim Dong-Jin organizing the backline, defense figures to be the South Koreans strength again. And it will need to improve the tepid attacking performances from the last round of qualifying, when South Korea managed just four goals in six games. The absence due to injury of Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-Sung doesn't help, but striker Lee Keun-Ho has begun to find his scoring touch in recent friendlies, giving South Korea some hope of advancing past the group stage.
The Olyroos appear to be the weakest team in Group A, a fact borne out by less than impressive friendly results. But if the last World Cup taught us anything, it's that teams underestimate Australia at their peril. Head coach Graham Arnold made controversial omissions from his squad, with AEK Athens striker Nathan Burns and Gençlerbirligi forward Bruce Djite among the more puzzling absentees. Of the players in the team, look for veteran Archie Thompson to be the focal point of the attack with fellow overage addition Jade North marshalling the defense. In midfield, look for the likes of Stuart Musialik and Mark Milligan to hold things together.
Outside of Euro 2008, never has so little been expected of a host nation. Not only has China already been eliminated from qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, but they shoved aside Olympic head coach Ratomir Dujkovic just three weeks before the start of the tournament. In light of this turmoil, the experience of Charlton Athletic midfielder Zheng Zhi will be vital to China's faint hopes of advancing beyond the group stage, as will the performance of the team's only other overseas-based player, Manchester United forward Dong Fangzhou.
The Catrachos won the CONCACAF qualifying tournament with the help of airtight defending. As a result, head coach Gilberto Yearwood has brought in forward Carlos Pavon to add some much-needed experience to his attack. But Pavon's effectiveness will be largely at the mercy of midfielders Ramon Nunez as well as Hendry Thomas. Given the lack of consistency shown by Nunez, both during his stint in MLS as well as in Olympic qualifying, Honduras will need someone else to step up.
16. New Zealand
When Australia left the Oceania confederation and decided to call Asia home, New Zealand were the prime beneficiaries, and while they recorded a perfect record in the Oceania qualifying tournament, they made hard work of disposing of Fiji and the Solomon Islands. Central to the Oly-Whites' hopes are two players recognizable to long-time MLS fans. Former D.C. United standout Ryan Nelsen will anchor the defense while ex-Los Angeles Galaxy and Columbus Crew midfielder Simon Elliott -- who was just released by Fulham -- will help out in midfield. Of New Zealand's domestic players, striker Jeremy Brockie is one to watch.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.