FARPost takes a closer look at Group A which involves South Africa, Japan, Mexico and France.
The group is the deepest of the four on paper and could very well produce the eventual champion, as it kicks off with SA facing Japan at 13:00 SA time.
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 finally make it out of the group stage phase after two failures in 2000 and 2016.
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, Ghana and Jamaica. The hosts will be without talismanic 26-year-old midfielder Takumi Minamino who was not given release by his club, Liverpool FC, but Japan still boasts a squad deep with talent stationed across Europe’s top leagues.
PLAYER TO WATCH – TAKEFUSA KUBO
Real Madrid’s 20-year-old sensation 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 U15 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 for 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 good start, nutmegging four players at once in a June friendly against Jamaica.
Keisuke Osako (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Kosei Tani (Shonan Bellmare), Zion Suzuki (Urawa Red Diamonds)
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)
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)
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 semi-final of the 2019 Uefa European U21 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.
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 U17 World Cup, earning silver boot honors as the tournament’s second top goal scorer. At club level, he became a first-choice attacker for Reims this past season, scoring four goals and assisting another strike for the French side.
Paul Bernardoni (Angers), Stefan Bajic (Saint-Etienne), Dimitry Bertaud (Montpellier)
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)
Alexis Beka Beka (Caen), Jeremy Gelin (Stade Rennais), Enzo Le Fee (FC Lorient), Teji Savanier (Montpellier), Florian Thauvin (Tigres UANL), Lucas Tousart (Hertha Berlin)
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 the Mexican league.
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, U23 manager Lozano was able to secure the left-footed attacker on the trip to Japan.
Guillermo Ochoa (América), Luis Malagon (Necaxa), Sebastian Jurado (Cruz Azul)
Erick Aguirre (Pachuca), Alberto Angulo (Atlas), Gerardo Arteaga (Genk), Cesar Montes (Monterrey), Jorge Sanchez (América), Johan Vasquez (UNAM)
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)
Eduardo Aguirre (Santos Laguna), Henry Martin (América), Alexis Vega (Guadalajara).
South Africa finished third at the 2019 Africa U23 Cup of Nations to qualify for a second consecutive Olympic Games.
At Rio 2016, the African side 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.
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 centre 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 at previous youth tournaments, winning the Golden Boot (top scorer) at the 2017 U20 Africa Cup of Nations.
Singh is one of just a handful of players on the South African Olympic roster playing in Europe, with Portuguese Primeira Liga side SC Braga. Last season, while on loan with Pacos de Ferreira, Singh scored five goals and assisted another five for Ferreira.
Ronwen Williams (SuperSport United), Mondli Mpoto (Bloemfontein Celtic), Sifiso Mlungwana (Golden Arrows)
Katlego Mohamme (Pretoria), Luke Fleurs (SuperSport United), Reeve Frosler, Sibusiso Mabiliso (both Kaizer Chiefs), Thendo Mukumela (Cape Town Spurs), Thabiso Monyane (Orlando Pirates), Tercious Malepe (FK Minaj), MacBeth Mahlangu (TS Galaxy)
Teboho Mokoena (SuperSport United), Thabo Cele (Cova Piedade), Nkosingiphile Ngcobo (Kaizer Chiefs), Goodman Mosele (Orlando Pirates), Kamohelo Mahlatsi (Swallows FC)
Luther Singh (SC Braga), Evidence Makgopa (Baroka FC), Kobamelo Kodisang (SC Braga).
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By FARPost reporter