Timbers goalkeeper Jake Gleeson and his compatriots on the New Zealand “Oly Whites” National Team take to the pitch today in their first London 2012 Olympics group game against fellow Group C opponents Belarus. In a group containing gold medal-hopefuls and Neymar-led Brazil, the scramble between New Zealand, Belarus and African qualifiers Egypt will be for second place and the quarterfinal berth it guarantees.
With the U.S. having sadly missed out of qualifying for London 2012, we're asking Timbers supporters to adopt New Zealand as their team to root for in this Olympic tournament. Follow Gleeson's updates from the road on Twitter (@jgleeson20) and send your soccer chatter with hashtags #OlyWhites & #GoJake.
New Zealand v Belarus
City of Coventry Stadium, Coventry
New Zealand Men v Egypt
Old Trafford, Manchester
New Zealand Men v Brazil
St James’ Park, Newcastle
To help root on Gleeson and the Oly Whites, here’s a quick breakdown of New Zealand and its opponents in what’s seen as one of the more wide-open groups.
The Oly Whites breezed through Oceania Qualifying for London 2012 and come into the tournament looking to build upon their 2008 showing when the team earned just one point. Manager Neil Emblen's side took heart from a recent draw with Olympic darkhorse Japan but, after Gleeson was sidelined in a 2-1 loss to Korea a few days later, the Oly Whites let in four against the United Arab Emirates in their final warm-up for the tournament. However, Gleeson is scheduled to return for group play and along with veteran English Premier League defender Ryan Nelsen (Queens Park Rangers) who will give New Zealand a steadying presence at the back. While the team is made-up of largely New Zealand-based players, the Oly Whites do boast young Blackburn midfielder Tim Payne and Panathinaikos midfielder Kosta Barbarouses. West Bromwich Albion striker Chris Wood will also feature in the New Zealand attack. It will take a special performance throughout the tournament for New Zealand to advance to the quarterfinals, but the Oly Whites relish the underdog role and will be looking to make believers out of their fans back home.
The Oly Whites will have their work cut out against a Belarus side that claimed a surprising third place finish at last summer’s European U-21 Championship, an achievement that qualified the team for London 2012. Belarus has brought only one player over the 23-year-old age limit and, as it happens, Sergei Kornilenko is also the only foreign-based player in the squad. The 29-year-old striker plies his trade for Russian Premier League side Krylia Sovetov where he scored 10 goals in 22 matches last season. The team also boasts five players from perennial Belarusian powerhouse BATE Borisov, which should give it some cohesion. In order to generate a realistic chance of progressing, New Zealand will have to take points from its opening match against Belarus at City of Coventry Stadium.
An Olympic gold medal remains the only major international prize to elude the Brazilians and not for lack of trying. The Seleção have sent such legends as Roberto Carlos, Bebeto, Rivaldo and Ronaldo to capture gold at the Olympics, but even that golden generation returned with only a bronze from Atlanta in 1996. Now the next generation of highly coveted talents including three of the most sought after players in the world: Neymar, Oscar and Lucas Moura That trio joins European-based stars Thiago Silva, Marcelo and Hulk in a quest for what is becoming Brazil’s “Secondary Grail.” A result for New Zealand against the pre-tournament favorites would require a truly special confluence of circumstances, but would give the Oly Whites an undeniable edge over Belarus and Egypt.
The Egyptians are a crafty side that claimed the third Olympic qualifying spot of the four available to African nations for London 2012. While results leading up to this year’s Olympics have been mixed for the Pharaohs, the team has endeavored to develop a good, pre-tournament chemistry by playing 15 matches already in 2012. Egypt has brought a seasoned triumvirate to London with Al Ahly striker Emad Meteab and dead-ball specialist Mohamed Aboutrika, a five-time Egyptian Player of the Year. New Zealand meets Egypt in their second game of the Olympic tournament on July 29 at famed soccer theater Old Trafford in Manchester, England. If the Oly Whites come up short against Belarus, anything but a win against Egypt could spell a tournament send off against a Brazil side that doesn’t take games off.