As the Olympic Stadium case takes another fresh twist with West Ham's deal collapsing, a look at the Greatest Xl players to strut their stuff at Olympic games, including Barcelona's Messi, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and more...
Played at Wembley, Hampden Park, City of Coventry Stadium, St James’ Park, Old Trafford and the Millennium Stadium, the 2012 Olympic football tournament will enlighten British fans to just how importantly this is taken around the world by nations who use it as a springboard for younger talent, and who view winning a medal at this level as a truly massive achievement.
Much has been made of who will play for and coach the Great Britain side but whoever gets that honour will be amongst exalted company. An Olympic sport since 1900, true football greats throughout the generations have played for gold and so I have selected 11 medalists plus five subs and a manager, and the likes of Romario and Klinsmann don’t get even get near the 4-1-2-3 formation.
Goalkeeper: Lev Yashin, Soviet Union
Gold Medal, 1956 Melbourne Olympics
Dressed all in black and donning a flat cap, Yashin may have looked like a cross between the Milk Tray man and Del-Boy but to a generation the Russian is simply the greatest keeper that ever lived. Agile, imposing and innovative, Yashin had a glittering career, winning five domestic titles for Dynamo Moscow, the European Championships for the Soviet Union and gracing four World Cups. It was at the Melbourne games in 1956 that Yashin first graced the world stage, keeping a clean sheet in a 1-0 win over Yugoslavia in front of 102,000 fans.
Right-Back: Lauren, Cameroon
Gold Medal, 2000 Sydney Olympics
Arsenal fans look away. Memories of a former defender who is strong, aggressive, hated to lose and could get forward are bound to hurt. The Cameroonian right-back was an integral part of the Gunners’ “invincible” team of 2004 and it was on the back of a golden 2000 Sydney Olympics that Arsene Wenger got his man. Cameroon took on and beat a Spanish side (boasting the likes of Xavi, Carlos Puyol and Joan Capdevila) in the final, coming from 2-0 down to win on penalties.
Mesmeric, sometimes unplayable and almost matching his namesake Lionel Blair for fancy footwork, the Barcelona star has become the great player of his generation…and he’s only 23!
Centre-Back: Samuel Kuffour, Ghana
Bronze medal, 1992 Barcelona Olympics
To your average English punter, the overriding image of Kuffour is one of utter despair. It was the Ghanaian defender’s distraught face as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored Manchester United’s last gasp winner in the 1999 Champions League Final that best summed up Bayern Munich’s pain. Seven years earlier though, as a fresh-faced 16-year old, Kuffour helped his country to a vey credible bronze at the 1992 Barcelona games.
Centre-Back: Roberto Ayala, Argentina
Gold medal, 2004 Athens Olympics & Silver medal, 1996 Atlanta Olympics
You have to have something about you to captain Argentina more times than any other player, and it was his unerring passion for his country that saw Ayala excel in not one but two Olympic tournaments. Arguably one of the finest centre-backs of his generation, Ayala saw gold grabbed from his nation’s grasp by a last minute Nigerian goal in the 1996 Atlanta games, but returned (this time as an over-aged player) to captain the side to gold in Athens thanks to a 1-0 win over Paraguay.
Left-Back: Roberto Carlos, Brazil
Bronze medal, 1996 Atlanta Olympics
You can’t ignore a player who made a name for himself doing to footballs what Uri Gellar did to spoons. The Brazilian is solely responsible for making the formerly purely practical position of left-back sexy and it was at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 that the then 23-year-old burst onto the world scene, winning a bronze. A year later and the world collectively gasped as he put the banana into free-kicks.
Defensive Midfield: Javier Mascherano, Argentina
Gold medal, 2004 Athens Olympics & Gold medal, 2008 Beijing Olympics
Having won two gold medals, Barcelona’s enforcer is Argentina’s most successful Olympian (Ok, so some guy called Juan Nelson won two as well but he played Polo and unless you’re related to the queen or you’re Katie Price then Polo no longer counts). Mascherano starred in the 2004 Olympic team and then went as an over-aged player to the 2008 Beijing games where his country beat Nigeria to claim further glory.
Centre Midfield: Xavi, Spain
Silver medal, 2000 Athens Olympics
If passing a football was an Olympic sport, the diminutive Barcelona midfielder would have more gold medals than Sir Steve Redgrave, but instead he had to opt for a silver when, in 2000 Spain were beaten to top spot by Cameroon. Xavi did score in the final and as his club and his country have both gone onto become the world’s ideal, he has since grown into one of the game’s most admired midfielders.
Centre Midfield: Dragan Stojkovic, Yugoslavia
Bronze medal, 1984 Los Angeles Olympics
The main man in an ever-improving Red Star Belgrade side in the late 1980’s, Stojkovic was a hero in his country, playing in the 1984 European Championships and the 1990 and 1998 World Cups. A fantastic dribbler (YouTube him!) Stojkovic got a big money move to Marseille in 1990 where he played alongside Chris Waddle and Jean Pierre Papin. It was at the L.A games in 1984 that he put an Olympic trinket into his collection, winning bronze with a 2-1 win over Italy.
Look closely at a photo of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup winning team and you’ll notice a buck-toothed teenager inanely smiling; simply happy to be there. Four years later that boy was the most talked about footballer on the planet.
Striker: Lionel Messi, Argentina
Gold medal, 2008 Beijing Olympics
Mesmeric, sometimes unplayable and almost matching his namesake Lionel Blair for fancy footwork, the Barcelona star has become the great player of his generation…and he’s only 23. With a mantelpiece already groaning under the sheer weight of team and individual awards, Messi went to the 2008 Beijing games, coming home with gold thanks to a 1-0 win over Nigeria in the final.
Centre-Forward: Ronaldo, Brazil
Bronze medal, 1996 Atlanta Olympics
Look closely at a photo of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup winning team and you’ll notice a buck-toothed teenager inanely smiling; simply happy to be there. Four years later that boy was the most talked about footballer on the planet. Bang in the middle of that transformation were the 1996 Atlanta games where Ronaldo – now just 19 – announced himself to his public, scoring five goals and helping his country to a bronze medal.
Striker: Ferenc Puskas, Hungary
Gold medal, 1952 Helsinki Olympics
At the 1954 World Cup, fans collectively sighed as Hungary lost the final to West Germany. They were seen as the “dream team”, more skillful and innovative than anything before. Their star man was Puskas, a goalscorer with panache who had – along with his team – enlightened the world two years earlier by taking gold at the 1952 Helsinki games. Puskas managed four goals including the vital first in a 2-0 win against Yugoslavia in the final.
Andrea Pirlo, Italy - Bronze medal, 2004 Athens Olympics: Cool, calm and collected, the AC Milan playmaker won bronze at the 2004 Athens game.
Carlos Tevez, Argentina - Gold medal, 2004 Athens Olympics: A gold medalist in Athens, the Manchester City man is unfortunate not to make the starting line-up.
Thomas Hassler, West Germany - Bronze medal, 1988 Seoul Olympics: A World Cup winner in 1990, Hassler was both industrious and skillful, winning bronze at the 1988 Seoul games.
Taribo West, Nigeria - Gold medal, 1996 Atlanta Olympics: The fancy pig-tales defied the steely nature of hard defender and he was a big player in Nigeria’s famous 1996 Olympic win.
Coach: Pep Guardiola, Spain
Gold medal, 1992 Barcelona Olympics
It’s easy to forget that beneath the perfect suits and spotless coaching record there lies a very good ex-pro who captained the Spanish side that took gold in the 1992 Barcelona games.
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