Goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune appears set to be one of South Africa’s three over-age players (ESPN FC)
A newspaper leak in South Africa revealed a rather embarrassing list of pedantic possibilities for South Africa’s Olympic team, as they consider which over-age players to pick to strengthen the side for the men’s football tournament in Rio.
Coach Owen da Gama’s list looked more like a collection of personal favourites and brought howls of derision, followed by a rapid but unconvincing denial as spin doctors at the South African Football Association “slipped” an alternative list to the media.
The updated inventory better reflects the available talent that will ultimately be used to shore up and strengthen the squad that goes to Brazil. Da Gama, like all the other coaches, will seek to use the concession to good effect, making up for deficiencies or adding a little gold dust and leadership to the youthful squad.
While the qualifying campaign is restricted to players aged under-23, three overage players can compete at the Olympics. Africa will spend the next weeks debating the identity of the trio of overage players as coaches have little time before they must submit preliminary lists for the August tournament.
South Africa, who meet the hosts in the opening game at the Mane Garrincha Stadium in Brasilia on Aug. 4, will probably take on a goalkeeper and two midfielders from the ranks of the beleaguered national side. The choice of keeper should be relatively simple with Bafana Bafana captain Itumeleng Khune — already the country’s most capped goalkeeper of all time — bringing experience and inspiration. The goalkeeper used in last November’s qualifiers, teenager Jody February, has played only two matches at senior level for his club Ajax Cape Town, and while an obvious talent for the future, February would likely be out of his depth at the Olympic tournament. But for the other two places, Da Gama has a wide variety of choices and until June 1 to mull over them before sending in his official list to FIFA.
Algeria and Nigeria are the continent’s other representatives at the 16-team tournament and Riyad Mahrez would seem the perfect choice for the north Africans as they head to the Olympic Games for only the second time.
His heroics with Leicester City have made him the Premier League’s top footballer, in the eyes of his peers, and the lead candidate for the African Footballer of the Year award in December. But several months ago, Algerian Football Federation president Mohamed Raouraoua ruled out the participation of Mahrez and the team’s other star, Yacine Brahimi of FC Porto, because he did not want to burden them with too many international assignments next season — notably with an eye on making a run at next year’s African Nations’ Cup title.
Algeria might yet change their minds and try and select the pair but, for the moment, Islam Slimani, the imposing striker from Sporting Lisbon, is the overage player most likely to be included by coach Pierre-Andre Schurmann.
Nigeria media has already given out plenty of column inches to speculation over the identity of their country’s over-age trio for Brazil, as they go in search of a second gold medal 20 years after their first.
High on the list is John Obi Mikel and Odion Ighalo, two players from the Premier League, and also goalkeeper Victor Enyeama, who is a strong candidate according to ESPNFC columnist Colin Udoh. The France-based goalkeeper had quit the national team last year when dropped from selection, but now could return.
The Olympic Games football tournament might be seen as something of a misnomer at an event where all the world’s finest athletes are competing … except in football. But for Africa it is important and it marked the early breakthroughs for the continent in the international arena.
Zambia’s upset win over Italy in 1988 was followed by a bronze for Ghana in Barcelona four years later. Then came the magical Nigerian performance of 1996 and gold again for Africa in Sydney in 2000 when Cameroon emerged victorious.
Brazil and Neymar will have the tag of favourites and be the firm focus of everyone in August, but the African challenge will be a very real one — with the right over age players to spur on their chances.
– ESPN FC
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