Group A of the Olympic men's soccer tournament is the deepest of the four on paper and could very well produce the eventual champion. Mexico understands what is required for Olympic success, France is never short of talented players, and hosts Japan will be motivated to reach new heights on home soil. South Africa, meanwhile, will be keen to play spoiler against the three favorites.
As the host nation, Japan is the only team in the field that did not have to qualify for the Olympic tournament. They’ve kept themselves busy regardless, hosting four friendlies in 2021 – and winning three of them – against high-level competition in Argentina (L/W), Ghana (W) and Jamaica (W). The hosts will be without talismanic 26-year-old midfielder Takumi Minamino who was not given release by his club, Liverpool FC (more on the Reds later), but Japan still boasts a squad deep with talent stationed across Europe’s top leagues. They begin their Olympic campaign against South Africa in a Group A clash at Tokyo Stadium July 22.
YOUNG PLAYER TO WATCH – Takefusa Kubo
Real Madrid’s 20-year-old wunderkind Takefusa Kubo has all the talent and flair to be the breakout star of the tournament for the host nation. Kubo has been the subject of Japanese excitement since his early teenage years as an FC Barcelona youth product. He first broke into the Japanese national team ranks as a U-15 player and has participated in every age level of youth national team since, scoring 20 goals from the right wing. His dribbling ability in one-on-one situations and powerful left-footed strike have earned him the nickname “Japanese Messi.”
Kubo is entering a pivotal period for his club future. He has yet to make an appearance for his parent club, Real Madrid, and has spent each of the past three seasons on loan to smaller La Liga sides, with mixed success. The Olympic tournament offers an excellent opportunity for Kubo to announce his arrival as a player not just of the future, but of the present as well, and capture the attention of new Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti in the process. He’s off to a gaudy start, nutmegging four players at once in a June friendly against Jamaica.
VETERAN LEADER – Maya Yoshida
Japan has called on its senior national team captain to lead the Olympic squad deep in the tournament on home soil. Yoshida, 32, is the eight-most capped player in Japan’s history with 107 and has scored 11 goals from his center back position. The Tokyo Olympic tournament will be his second, having also captained Japan to the semifinals of the London 2012 Games. Yoshida is also a veteran of two FIFA World Cups and was a key contributor to Japan’s 2011 AFC Asian Cup championship run. Yoshida played eight seasons for English Premier League club Southampton, and now starts regularly for Italian Serie A side Sampdoria.
JAPAN OLYMPIC SQUAD
Goalkeepers: Keisuke Osako (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Kosei Tani (Shonan Bellmare), Zion Suzuki (Urawa Red Diamonds)
Defenders: Maya Yoshida (Sampdoria), Hiroki Sakai (Urawa Reds), Kou Itakura (Groningen), Yuta Nakayama (PEC Zwolle), Reo Hatate (Kawasaki Frontale), Takehiro Tomiyasu (Bologna), Daiki Hashioka (Sint-Truiden), Koki Machida (Kashima Antlers), Ayumu Seko (Cerezo Osaka)
Midfielders: Wataru Endo (Stuttgart), Yuki Soma (Nagoya Grampus), Koji Miyoshi (Antwerp), Kaoru Mitoma (Kawasaki Frontale), Ritsu Doan (PSV Eindhoven), Ao Tanaka (Kawasaki Frontale), Takefusa Kubo (Real Madrid)
Forwards: Daizen Maeda (Yokohama F Marinos), Ayase Ueda (Kashima Antlers), Daichi Hayashi (Sagan Tosu)
The defending World Cup champions hope the Tokyo Olympics will offer a glimpse of the next great generation of French talent. The squad pulls heavily from France’s Ligue 1, though it will not include Paris Saint-Germain’s 22-year-old superstar forward Kylian Mbappe, who exited the European Championships in disappointing fashion with the French senior team. Manager Sylvain Ripoll, who also led France to the semifinals of the 2019 UEFA European U-21 Championships which granted the nation Olympic qualification, has only called upon three players from that tournament to the Olympic squad.
With a gold-medal win in Japan, France could become just the sixth nation with multiple Olympic men’s titles, having won gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
YOUNG PLAYER TO WATCH – Nathanael Mbuku
The 19-year-old forward Nathanael Mbuku has been a fixture for French youth international sides for several years and has scored with consistency at every level (14 goals in 39 matches total). He led France to bronze at the 2019 U-17 World Cup, earning silver boot honors as the tournament’s second-top scorer. At the club level, he became a first-choice attacker for Reims this past season, scoring four goals and assisting another for the mid-table Ligue 1 side.
VETERAN LEADER – Florian Thauvin
Both Thauvin and Tigres UANL teammate Andre-Pierre Gignac were named as overaged players to the French Olympic roster and both offer senior national team experience. However, only Thauvin brings the reverence of a World Cup champion, having been included on Didier Deschamps’ victorious Russia 2018 squad. His on-field contributions in that tournament were minimal, but he has excelled at club level in recent years and heads to Japan firmly in his prime at age 28. In five seasons with Marseille before heading to Mexico this summer, Thauvin provided 67 goals from the right wing and midfield in 180 games.
FRANCE OLYMPIC SQUAD
Goalkeepers: Paul Bernardoni (Angers), Stefan Bajic (Saint-Etienne), Dimitry Bertaud (Montpellier)
Defenders: Melvin Bard (Olympique Lyonnais), Anthony Caci (Strasbourg), Ismael Doukoure (Valenciennes), Pierre Kalulu (AC Milan), Clement Michelin (Lens), Timothee Pembele (Paris Saint-Germain), Modibo Sagnan (Real Sociedad)
Midfielders: Alexis Beka Beka (Caen), Jeremy Gelin (Stade Rennais), Enzo Le Fee (FC Lorient), Teji Savanier (Montpellier), Florian Thauvin (Tigres UANL), Lucas Tousart (Hertha Berlin)
Forwards: Andre-Pierre Gignac (Tigres UANL), Randal Kolo Muani (FC Nantes), Isaac Lihadji (Lille), Nathanael Mbuku (Reims), Arnaud Nordin (Saint-Etienne)
It all came together for Mexico at the London 2012 Olympics, winning its first Olympic soccer gold medal in a dramatic final against Brazil at Wembley Stadium. Things did not go according to plan for El Tri at the Rio 2016 Games with a group stage exit, but victory in March’s CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship ensured Mexico would join only fellow North American nation Honduras in qualifying for all three of the most recent Olympic tournaments (Japan and Brazil have also appeared in all three, but automatically qualified as hosts in one occasion). All but two members of Jaime Lozano’s 2021 squad play their club soccer domestically in Liga MX.
YOUNG PLAYER TO WATCH – Diego Lainez
One of El Tri’s few players abroad is 21-year-old Lainez, a winger for Spanish La Liga side Real Betis. Lainez has already carved out a place for himself in the Mexican senior national team with three goals in 14 appearances, including two in the current international window. It was uncertain whether Lainez, who was not involved in the Olympic qualifying campaign, would join Mexico’s Olympic team this summer, or if he would remain with the senior team for the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament. Ultimately, U-23 manager Lozano was able to secure the left-footed attacker on the trip to Japan.
VETERAN LEADER – Guillermo Ochoa
Mexico will have a veteran of four World Cups and two Olympic Games between the posts in goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who will be 36 when the tournament begins in late July. “Memo” has been a mainstay of Mexico’s senior team in recent years, collecting 114 caps including many as captain. He was El Tri’s breakout star of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil but has performed as an elite shot stopper since logging his first appearance for the national team in 2005. After spending a decade playing his club soccer in Europe, Ochoa returned to his boyhood club América in Liga MX in 2019, where he’s played with and against most of his Olympic teammates.
MEXICO OLYMPIC SQUAD
Goalkeepers: Guillermo Ochoa (América), Luis Malagon (Necaxa), Sebastian Jurado (Cruz Azul)
Defenders: Erick Aguirre (Pachuca), Alberto Angulo (Atlas), Gerardo Arteaga (Genk), Cesar Montes (Monterrey), Jorge Sanchez (América), Johan Vasquez (UNAM)
Midfielders: Roberto Alvarado (Cruz Azul), Ricardo Angulo (Guadalajara), Uriel Antuna (Guadalajara), Fernando Beltran (Guadalajara), Sebastian Cordova (América), Jose Joaquin Esquivel (Juarez), Diego Lainez (Real Betis), Carlos Rodriguez (Monterrey), Luis Romo (Cruz Azul)
Forwards: Eduardo Aguirre (Santos Laguna), Henry Martin (América), Alexis Vega (Guadalajara)
South Africa placed third at the 2019 Africa U-23 Cup of Nations to qualify for a second consecutive Olympic Games. At Rio 2016, “Bafana Bafana” exited in the group stage with a loss and two draws through three games. Manager David Notoane will hope for a better showing from his squad in Japan, but he will have to rely on a roster of mainly domestic players anonymous to a global audience. However, one or two upset victories in a difficult Group A could bring the South Africans instant notoriety.
YOUNG PLAYER TO WATCH – Luther Singh
If South Africa is to cause any kind of surprise in Japan, Luther Singh will almost certainly be at the center of it. The 23-year-old forward has the potential to be one of the tournament’s most exciting players and has already shined internationally for “Bafana Bafana,” winning Golden Boot honors (top scorer) at the 2017 Africa U-20 Cup of Nations. Singh is one of just a handful of players on the South African Olympic roster playing his club soccer in Europe, with Portuguese Primeira Liga side SC Braga. Last season, while on loan with Pacos de Ferreira of the same league, Singh logged five goals and five assists, including this audacious strike:
VETERAN LEADER – Abbubaker Mobara
David Notoane elected to name just two overaged players to the Olympic squad. Goalkeeper Ronwen Williams brings slightly more senior national team pedigree, but central defender Abbubaker Mobara offers South Africa valuable Olympic tournament experience. Mobara played every minute of South Africa’s three group-stage matches at the Rio 2016 Olympics. At 27 years old, he still has plenty to offer his nation in defense.
SOUTH AFRICA OLYMPIC SQUAD
Goalkeepers: Ronwen Williams (SuperSport United), Mondli Mpoto (Bloemfontein Celtic), Sifiso Mlungwana (Golden Arrows)
Defenders: Katlego Mohamme (Pretoria), Luke Fleurs (SuperSport United), Sibusiso Mabiliso (AmaZulu FC), Abbubaker Mobara (Cape Town City FC), Thabiso Monyane (Orlando Pirates), Tercious Malepe (FK Minaj)
Midfielders: Teboho Mokoena (SuperSport United), Thabo Cele (Cova Piedade), Nkosingiphile Ngcobo (Kaizer Chiefs), Sipho Mbule (SuperSport United), Goodman Mosele (Orlando Pirates), Kamohelo Mahlatsi (Swallows FC)
Forwards: Fagrie Lakay (Cape Town City FC), Luther Singh (SC Braga), Evidence Makgopa (Baroka FC), Lyle Foster (Vitoria Guimaraes), Kobamelo Kodisang (SC Braga B)