GROUP B

Thursday, July 26

Mexico v South Korea (14.30, Newcastle)
Gabon v Switzerland (17.15, Newcastle)

Sunday, July 29
Mexico v Gabon (14.30, Coventry)
South Korea v Switzerland (17.15, Coventry)

Wednesday, August 1

Mexico v Switzerland (17.00, Cardiff)
South Korea v Gabon (17.00, London)

Mexico

Mexico flagMexico will travel to London with big ambitions. The under-23 team won their place at the Olympic finals by finishing first in the CONCACAF qualifiers, where Luis Fernando Tena’s side won all their matches, scoring 16 goals and conceding only three in the process. They then proceeded to win the prestigious under-21 Toulon Tournament in France, demolishing Holland in the semi-finals and Turkey in the Final, adding 14 more goals to their tally, with seven of them scored by Marco Fabian.

It is no surprise, then, to discover there are lofty expectations for the team to win the nation’s first Olympic football medal. Fabian himself said in a recent interview: “Why can’t we dream of the gold? We have a great generation of players and we are peaking just
at the right moment.

“The time has come for us to show what we are worth.”

He is indeed right that this team seems to be peaking at the right time. Before the qualifiers started there was widespread pessimism from the Mexican media and fans about the team’s chances. It was, after all, the same players who were suspended for six months after sneaking prostitutes in during the run-up to the 2011 Copa America and that went on to lose their three matches in the tournament, failing to score a single goal.

The measure of how things have changed is that everybody now expects Mexico to easily go through the group stage and are already confident about a possible quarter-final clash against either Great Britain or Uruguay.

If the team play to their potential they can go all the way, but there have been so many ups and downs in the process that it’s impossible to know exactly which Mexican team will feature in the Olympics: the Dr Jekyll of 2012 or the Mr Hyde of 2011.

The coach

Luis Fernando Tena, a competent club coach who won domestic titles in 1997 and 2000, was going through a dry spell when he was appointed national under-23 coach. Heavily criticised in the wake of the Copa America fiasco, he remained in his job only because of the unconditional support of senior national boss Jose Manuel de la Torre. After changing his usual defensive focus and giving the players more attacking freedom, he was repaid with a fantastic string of performances this year.

Key players

Giovani Dos Santos hasn’t impressed at Tottenham Hotspur but he has been superb for the national team. The main star of his generation, he will spearhead the Olympic team and hope that a good tournament will convince Spurs’ new manager that Harry Redknapp had him completely wrong.

Marco Fabian – who has been nicknamed “Marquito” (little Marco) due to immature behaviour that has betrayed his immense talent – has come into his own after being suspended for six months following the prostitutes episode at the Copa America. A powerful and technical playmaker, he has a knack for spectacular goals.

Carlos Salcido will be one of the squad’s over-age reinforcements. The former Fulham left-back will skipper the team and play a key role in a defence that seems to be the side’s weakest link. He can cover every position across the back line and even act as a midfield anchorman.

Hector Herrera was named player of the Toulon Tournament and he has developed into a fast, box-to-box midfielder who is reported to have caught the attention of Liverpool and Manchester United.

Squad:
Goalkeepers

1 Jose CORONA
18 Jose RODRIGUEZ

Defenders
2 Israel JIMENEZ
3 Carlos SALCIDO
4 Hiram MIER
5 Darvin CHAVEZ
13 Diego REYES
15 Nestor VIDRIO
17 Nestor ARAUJO

Midfielders
6 Hector HERRERA
7 Javier CORTES
11 Javier AQUINO
14 Jorge ENRIQUEZ
16 Miguel PONCE

Forwards

8 Marco FABIAN
9 Oribe PERALTA
10 Giovani DOS SANTOS
12 Raul JIMENEZ

Coach
Luis Fernando TENA

By Martin del Palacio Langer

 

Gabon

The surprise winners of the first African Under-23 Championship in Morocco at the end of last year gave the form book a severe working over as they emerged from the ranks of likely also-rans to grab a place in the Games finals.

Gabon’s main focus had been on preparing the senior side for their hosting of the African Nations Cup, but the under-23s stole the spotlight from them.

This will be the first time the country has competed in the Olympic football tournament and their presence will more than double the number of the nation’s competitors in London.

Coach Claude Albert Mbourounot is likely to be assisted at the Games by the new national senior coach Paulo Duarte and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who is the central African country’s star player and is set to be one of their over-age choices.

The Saint-Etienne striker was both hero and villain at the African Nations Cup and has a chance for redemption after his penalty shoot-out miss cost Gabon a semi-final spot.

Gabon’s side will be drawn mainly from home-based clubs, but there are also players from France and Spain.

The coach

Claude Albert Mbourounot is the technical director of the Gabon federation and was an he was an assistant at this year’s African Nations Cup.

Key players

In midfield, Andre Poko of Bordeaux scored the goal that put Gabon in the finals, while Cedric Boussoughou was captain of the side that won last year’s African Under-23 Championship.

Remy Ebanega is a defender who played at the African Nations Cup finals as a replacement centre-back, while Alexander N’doumbou – a junior at Marseille who has a Chinese mother – has already been capped at senior level.

Squad:
Goalkeepers

1 Didier OVONO
18 Anthony MFA MEZUI

Defenders
2 Muller DINDA
3 Stevy NZAMBE
5 Bruno ECUELE
6 Remy EBANEGA
16 Emmanuel NDONG

Midfielders
4 Franck ENGONGA
8 Alexander NDOUMBOU
10 Levy MADINDA
12 Merlin TANDJIGORA
13 Mabikou BOUSSOUGHOU
14 Andre BIYOGHO
15 Henry NDONG
17 Jerry OBIANG

Forwards
7 Allen NONO
9 Pierre AUBAMEYANG
11 Axel MEYE

Coach
Claude MBOUROUNOT

By Mark Gleeson

 

South Korea

Lacking a squad with any great depth of experience in the top leagues of Europe, the Koreans could scarcely have chosen more fortuitous group opponents than Gabon, Mexico and Switzerland.

But the team’s potential downfall could be that they have highlighted that fact with a hint of overconfidence in their estimation of Mexico and Switzerland in particular.

On the other hand, the side do have some extra motivation to achieve a place on the Olympic podium: any Korean male who wins an Olympic medal automatically forgoes the country’s mandatory two-year military service.

The coach

Hong Myung-bo represents a footballing institution in South Korea, having played at four consecutive World Cups as well as at the Olympics. As a coach, he led the under-20s to the 2009 World Cup quarter-finals and the Asian Games semi-finals in his present role with the under-23s.

Key players

Ji Dong-won had an indifferent season in the Premier League with Sunderland, but could be a key part of the Korean attack, which is traditionally the weakest area of the country’s national sides at all levels.

After a 15-game loan spell in which he bagged five goals at Augsburg in the Bundesliga, Wolfsburg attacking midfielder Koo Ja-cheol will carry the creative weight of South Korea during the tournament.

Jeju United centre-back Hong Jeong-ho will captain the side and could be crucial to a solid defensive platform. Much is also expected
of winger Kim Bo-kyung, who has been heralded as the next Park Ji-sung. He has impressed with Cerezo Osaka in Japan over the last couple of years and has a keen eye for goal.

Squad:
Goalkeepers

1 JUNG Sungryong
18 LEE Bumyoung

Defenders
2 OH Jaesuk
3 YUN Sukyoung
4 KIM Younggwon
5 KIM Keehee
12 HWANG Seokho
14 KIM Changsoo

Midfielders
6 KI Sungyueng
7 KIM Bokyung
8 BAEK Sungdong
9 JI Dongwon
11 NAM Taehee
13 KOO Jacheol
15 PARK Jongwoo
16 JUNG Wooyoung

Forwards
10 PARK Chuyoung
17 KIM Hyunsung

Coach
Myung Bo HONG

By Bryan Kay

 

Switzerland

Working a passage to London by virtue of their runners-up spot at last year’s European Under-21 Championship in Denmark, Switzerland will be keen to make an impression this summer.

Not only do they intend to underline the good health of the country’s footballing grassroots, they also have a lot of Olympic catching up to do – not having taken part in the Games since Amsterdam in 1928, four years after they clinched silver at the Paris Olympiad. Coach Pierluigi Tami describes a first-round group which pits his charges against Gabon, South Korea and Mexico as “not easy at all” and his task is likely to be made all the more difficult because of selection problems.

Domestic champions Basle, who must pre-qualify for the Champions League at around the same time, are unwilling to let any of their potential Olympians – goalkeeper Yann Sommer and midfielders Fabian Frei and Valentin Stocker – go, while Bayern Munich may well prevent the participation of their new signing, ex-Basle forward Xherdan Shaqiri.

For his three overage men, Tami looks keen on established international goalkeeper Diego Benaglio, stopper Philippe Senderos and wing-back Valon Behrami.

The coach

Pierluigi Tami is a 50-year-old from the Italian-speaking province of Ticino who was voted the country’s coach of the year
in 2011 for his great work with the under-21s.

Key players

Twenty-year-old Dynamo Kiev striker Admir Mehmedi, who scored his first full international goal in a 5-3 friendly win over Germany recently, could be one to watch, as is Jonathan Rossini, a highly rated central defender who has been on the books of Serie A Sampdoria since the age of 16.

Of the more established overage players, Valon Behrami of Fiorentina can play either on the right-side of midfield or at full-back, while Diego Benaglio was a Bundesliga winner with Wolfsburg three years ago.

Squad:
Goalkeepers

1 Diego BENAGLIO
18 Benjamin SIEGRIST

Defenders
3 Fabio DAPRELA
5 Francois AFFOLTER
13 Ricardo RODRIGUEZ
15 Timm KLOSE
16 Fabian SCHAER
17 Michel MORGANELLA

Midfielders
2 Xavier HOCHSTRASSER
4 Oliver BUFF
6 Alain WISS
8 Amir ABRASHI
9 Fabian FREI
10 Pajtim KASAMI

Forwards
7 Innocent EMEGHARA
11 Admir MEHMEDI
12 Josip DRMIC
14 Steven ZUBER

Coach
Pierluigi TAMI

by Nick Bidwell