Let the 30th Summer Olympiad continue!
Yes, you read that right; the opening ceremonies may formally kick off the Games tomorrow night, but the Olympic soccer competition is already underway.
While each squad can only have three players on the team older than 23 years old, the competition is still fierce because of the opportunity for young stars to emerge in the Olympic spotlight. Lionel Messi took gold in Beijing with Argentina, and then returned to FC Barcelona for his breakout season.
16 teams will compete in the group stage, with the top two from each group of four advancing to the elimination round for a chance at Olympic glory. The United States did not qualify, but here’s a quick refresher from the results so far in the first day of competition.
Japan 1, Spain 0
While not the same group of players that is experiencing a dynastic run for the ages, Spain is still the heart of the soccer world right now. Spain won the UEFA European Under-21 Championship last year, and headed into this tournament as the favorites. So yes, sound the upset alarms.
Japan’s Yuki Otso scored in the 34th minute. The Spanish are not known for their offense, but it’s still a disappointment that they were not able to use their brilliant passing and possession to find the net at all.
Spain lost to Switzerland in the 2010 World Cup before winning six straight to take home the championship, so don’t expect doom for the Spanish side. Give Japan the immense amount of credit they deserve, and expect Spanish coach Luis Mila to make some formation adjustments before the elimination round.
Uruguay 2, United Arab Emirates 1
Like their Spanish-speaking colonizers, the Uruguayan side entered their opening match as a huge favorite and fell behind in the first half. Unlike Spain, Uruguay recovered.
Gastón Ramírez showed why the world’s top clubs are battling for his services, booting in a spectacular free kick in the 41st minute to even the match at halftime.
Emirates were the better squad in the first half, but the Uruguayan speed and aggression out-manned their fatigued and out-manned opponents in the second half. Lodeiro blasted a shot past the keeper in the 56th minute, as Uruguay avoided an early scare.
Honduras 2, Morocco 2
While both squads are likely fodder for Spain and Japan in their group, the two put on an exciting opening match to ensure both go home with at least a point.
Morocco struck first with a volley in the 39th minute from Abdelaziz Barrada. Honduras struck back with two goals in nine minutes in the second half from Jerry Bengston, the second coming on a penalty kick in the 65th minute. Morocco’s Zakaria Labyad answered just two minutes later, knotting the match again.
Morocco’s Zakarya Bergdich had a needless red card for kneeing Mario Martinez four minutes after that, after which the Moroccan squad held on with ten men for the tie in an up-and-down second half.
Mexico 0, South Korea 0
Meanwhile, this match was just a yawner. Multiple shots from both sides narrowly missed by hitting all sides of the crossbar, including Raul Jimenez’s injury-time strike. The South Korean defense was near-dominant, but the offensive stagnation held them back.
Both will be favorites in their other group matches against Gabon and Switzerland, so hopefully each squad can find their offensive touch before it’s too late.
Gabon 1, Switzerland 1
Switzerland got on the board early with a penalty conversion by Ahmed Mehmedi in the fifth minute. Gabon’s Pierre Aubameyang equalized right before halftime though, as Gabon earned a point as underdogs in their Olympic soccer debut.
Switzerland had to hold on with ten men after Oliver Buff was sent off with his second yellow card in the 78th minute. Expectations for both squads are tempered, but it’s always a good feeling when a squad earns a point in their debut on the Olympic stage.
On the women’s side, the favorites in the United States, Japan and Brazil are expected to duke it out for the gold. The competition has 12 teams, with three groups of four teams. The winner and runner-up of each group advance, plus the two third-place squads with the most points.
The first matches of the Games are in the books, so here’s a look into yesterday’s matches and how each national squad started off their Olympic campaign.
United States 4, France 2
U.S.A: Characters Welcome. Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan, please take a bow. Four years ago in Beijing, the American squad fell behind 2-0 in their opening match against Norway after just five minutes. This time, they held out 14 minutes before reaching that same deficit.
Both times, the Americans held their opponent scoreless after the initial flurry. In China, the Americans didn’t score either. Not this time around.
American soccer icon Abby Wambach headed in a corner in the 19th minute to put the U.S. on the board, and then Alex Morgan added another goal before halftime to tie the squads at the break.
After subbing for the injured Shannon Boxx in the 17th minute, Carli Lloyd then blasted in the game-winner in the 55th minute. Alex Morgan added the exclamation point in her Olympic debut 11 minutes later, and the Americans emerged winners in their most nerve-wrecking two-goal win in quite some time.
North Korea 2, Colombia 0
Think of two similarly-named countries which one might not want to confuse. Two that are technically still at war. Then imagine this exact gaffe occurring on an international stage. Oops.
After the South Korean flag was shown on the video board before the match, the squad refused to take the field. After likely relaying a pink slip to someone in the sports information department, the match started about an hour late.
Colombia goalkeeper Sandra Sepulveda fumbled an easy cross to let in the first goal by Kim Song-Hui in the 39th minute. Meanwhile the aggressive, pressing style of the North Korean side limited Colombia to just six shots with none on goal.
Colombia plays the U.S. next, while North Korea will take on France. Here’s to Group G keeping things interesting.
Japan 2, Canada 1
The reigning Women’s World Cup champions, Japan took a 2-0 lead by halftime with goals from Nahomi Kayasumi and Aya Miyama.
Canada’s Melissa Tancredi got one back with a 55th-minute strike off a cross, but the Japanese defense was the difference-maker in limiting the Canadians to just four shots.
Japan stunned the United States in the World Cup final last year, and look to have not lost any of the craftiness and confidence that propelled them to victory last summer.
Brazil 5, Cameroon 0
The 2008 Olympic silver medalist versus a squad ranked 50th in the world making its first major international tournament experience. Sounds like a major blowout to me.
Brazil’s Cristiane subbed in right after halftime and became the women’s leader in career Olympic goals with 11 after her open-net strike in the 80th minute. Francielle and Renata Costa each scored to put their squad up 2-0 just 10 minutes in, while Brazil’s dynamic goal-scorer Marta added to her reputation with two late goals.
Great Britain 1, New Zealand 0
Congratulations to the hosts for finishing their first Olympic match on the women’s side with a win. Though playing one of the lower-ranked Olympic squads in the Kiwis didn’t hurt.
Their first goal was actually scored by a defender in Stephanie Houghton in the 64th minute. British keeper Karen Bardsley and the defense held off frenetic aggression late from New Zealand to clinch the victory.
Sweden 4, South Africa 1
So far, the women’s competition looks to have a fair level of parity. Not this match. The Swedish squad scored two goals in two minutes early to take a 3-0 lead by the 21st minute, and cruised through the second half.
Sweden controlled the attack with an impressive 21 shots, 11 on goal. South Africa’s Portia Modise stuck a long-range strike in the 60th minute to put her team on the board, but the field’s lowest-ranked squad (61st) struggled against the Swedes.
Sweden always seems to fall short in major international competitions, so Saturday’s matchup against Japan will show if they’re more than just a dark-horse contender.