The 2012 Olympic Gold Medal Match features Brazil and Mexico, but more than anything, it features some of the world's best young players on the verge of stardom.
Brazil is the best national team in the world, with a record five World Cup titles and eight Copa America championships to go with it. Mexico is the best team in CONCACAF, now and historically, counting itself as the only team from the region that has been a legitimate factor in world soccer for more than a decade. Yet despite both Brazil and Mexico's long list of accomplishments and successes, neither has ever won an Olympic gold medal.
On Saturday, that will change for one team as the two countries square off at Wembley in the 2012 Olympics Gold Medal Match. Either Brazil or Mexico will have a gold medal to their name, but as wonderful as that may be, it won't be anywhere near the top of either team's trophy case.
Forget the overage players, the Olympics are an under 23 tournament. It's a youth tournament and while it is fun to parade around youth tournament titles, they only mean so much. Just ask Ghana, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Nigeria and Cameroon, all of whom have U-17 World Cup, U-20 World Cup or Olympic titles to their names and then consider just how much that has paid off at the senior level.
When Brazil and Mexico take to the field at Wembley and the anthems are played, a gold medal will be on the line, but more important will be the array of young talent on each team. They represent two of the brighter young generations that either country has produced -- which says a lot considering the countries involved -- and are ready to take the next step, from youth tournament starlets to stars for the senior team and some of the world's best club teams.
Neymar was pegged as the tournament's star from the beginning and for good reason -- he is the best underage player in the tournament. But Neymar isn't leaving Santos anytime soon and is already in Brazil's first team at the senior level. As tremendous as Neymar is, and you can use almost any synonym for tremendous you would like for Neymar and still not adequately depict his talent, nothing is changing for Brazil's young superstar.
The same is not true of Leandro Damião, who leads the Olympics with six goals. That a 6'2'' striker with good pace who is a lethal finisher is succeeding at the Olympics is no surprise, especially considering that he has 72 goals for Internacional in the last two years. He has already made his presence felt at the senior level, where he has nine caps, but his place in the first team is tenuous. This Olympics could be what makes him the clear cut number one choice, but so could a move to Europe.
Tottenham Hotspur and Juventus have both been linked to Damião in the last year and while Internacional are asking for a king's ransom for their star striker, one of the team's could pony up. If he does make that move and succeeds then it will be tough for the struggling Alexandre Pato or any of the other Brazilian senior team strikers to keep pace.
But Internacional don't necessarily have to sell Damião because they just made £25 million on Oscar, who they sold to Chelsea. He has been excellent in the Olympics and if he can settle in at Stamford Bridge, he too will be able to make a case for a senior team place.
No spot is more open with the Brazil senior team right now than in the center of the midfield, where Lucas Leiva has a spot when healthy, but nobody else has claimed the place next to him, at least not yet. Sandro and Rômulo are both playing in Europe now, Sandro with Tottenham and Rômulo with Spartak Moscow, and both are playing as well as they ever have.
That has shown in the Olympics, where they have made progress in earning that spot next to Leiva, but they still have to secure that spot. Sandro will have that chance with Spurs this season, where he is expected to become the team's first choice holding midfielder, while Rômulo's Spartak team is a play-off round win away from the group stage of the UEFA Champions League under their bright new manager Unai Emery. The senior team door is wide open for Sandro and Rômulo and both have great opportunities to walk right through it.
The center of the midfield is also a problem for Mexico's senior team, who have struggled for a couple years to figure out who to play as holders behind their bright, young attacking quartet. This Olympics could be the glimpse into the future of that senior team central midfield, though, as Héctor Herrera and Jorge Enríquez have turned in fine tournaments.
Both midfielders have established themselves for their clubs, Herrera for Pachuca and Enríquez for Chivas, and are starting to generate senior team interest. This Olympics has been their chance to make a name for themselves at the international level and they have, but a World Cup would be much better. With the Mexicans still struggling to find that holding duo and two years to go before the World Cup, there is plenty of time for Herrera and Enríquez to make their moves.
At the back, Diego Reyes and Israel Jiménez have shone. Jimenez is the more immediate senior team candidate with the Mexicans' lack of quality at the position, but long term, Mexico might not have anyone better than Reyes in defense. The 19-year-old the present and future of the Club America defense and the same could be true of the El Tri defense before long.
Finally, there is Marco Fabian, the best player that Mexico's Olympic team has and the closest one to making a move to Europe. The Chivas star could stick with the Goats for his career and be just fine, but he has European interest and a move will be waiting there whenever he wants it. He has been absolutely sensational for the U-23 team, scoring 15 goals in 18 matches, and was never better than he was at the Toulon Tournament, where he led the tournament in goals and sparked rumors of a potential move to one of England's best.
For now, Fabian is settling for Chivas star at the club level and U-23 fulcrum with Mexico, but he has a lot more on his horizon. Whether he emerges as one of the best that Liga MX has to offer or gets his chance in Europe, Fabian is ready for more at the club level and as good as Mexico has been going forward at the senior level, they will only be able to hold off on giving Fabian his chance for so much longer. He is the next Mexican superstar and that star will shine sooner rather than later.
Th winner of the final will hold their gold medals aloft for all to see, but whether Brazil or Mexico stands atop the podium at Wembley will be forgotten before long. Such is the nature of youth tournaments. Who won the Olympics is a question only soccer nerds know the answer to, but the match is still well worth tuning into.
The best countries from two confederations will square off at Wembley with two teams representing two of the best crops of young talent either has ever boasted. It will be a field littered with potential and a glimpse into the future of the senior teams. Right now, the star label only applies to Neymar, but it's a tag that will be slapped on several other players in the Gold Medal Match before long. They are the future stars of Brazil, Mexico, and the world.