TOKYO, July 19 (Xinhua) — As one of the first events to start and among the last to finish, football is sure to provide a constant talking point during the Tokyo Olympics.

KEY FACTS

These Games mark the 27th time that football has been a part of the Olympic program. The men’s tournament will be played from July 22 to August 7 in six host cities while the women’s tournament starts on July 21.

Hungary and Britain are the most successful nations in the event with three gold medals apiece while Argentina, the former Soviet Union and Uruguay have won two each. Brazil are the reigning champions, having beaten Germany on penalties in the final of the 2016 Games in Rio. Teams are allowed only three players born on or before January 1, 1997.

This will be the seventh time that the Olympics will feature a women’s football competition, which will take place from July 21 to August 6 at seven stadiums in six cities.

The United States lead the all-time gold medal tally with four followed by defending champions Germany and Norway, with one each. Unlike the men’s event, there are no age restrictions.

STAR PLAYERS

Dani Alves: Widely recognized as the most decorated footballer in history with 43 career trophies, Alves has made clear his desire to win one piece of silverware that has so far eluded him: an Olympic gold medal. The 38-year-old former Barcelona and Juventus right-back said his inclusion in Brazil’s squad for Tokyo was a “dream come true”, describing the Olympics as “magical”.

Marco Asensio: The forward has declared himself fit and motivated, having missed Spain’s Euro 2020 campaign after an injury-interrupted season with Real Madrid. In the eyes of some, Asensio has yet to fulfill his undoubted potential. At 25, he still has time on his side and the Tokyo Games might offer the perfect stage to jump-start his career.

Maya Yoshida: Japan’s senior men’s national team captain will also lead the Olympic team as one of three overage players – the other two being Hiroki Sakai and Wataru Endo. Yoshida is coming off a solid season for Sampdoria in Italy’s Serie A, in which he made 32 appearances as the Blucerchiati finished ninth.

Carli Lloyd: Despite a glittering career that has included two World Cup titles and two Olympic gold medals, the U.S. attacker has said winning the final in Tokyo would be the highlight of her career. At 38, this is likely to be her last Olympic appearance.

Caroline Seger: The Sweden captain is still going strong at 36. In June, the midfielder set a new European record for international appearances by earning her 215th cap in a 0-0 friendly draw with Australia.

Fran Kirby: The Chelsea forward will be central to Britain’s hopes of winning a women’s football medal for the first time. Having overcome a heart condition that would have ruled her out of the original dates for the Tokyo Olympics, Kirby had a stellar season in the FA Women’s Super League in 2020-21, scoring 16 goals and providing 11 assists as Chelsea won their fourth league title.

WHO WILL WIN GOLD?

The men:

On paper, Spain’s men appear to be the team to beat. Many of the players in Luis de la Fuente’s squad were a part of the Roja side that won the under-21 European championship two years ago.

De la Fuente has also had the luxury of calling up several full internationals, including Dani Ceballos, Mikel Merino, Dani Olmo, Pedri, Asensio, Unai Simon and Oscar Mingueza.

Reigning champions Brazil, France and Germany are the other leading contenders, though they do not have Spain’s depth of quality.

The women:

Given their dominant record in the event, it is little surprise that the U.S. women are widely tipped to triumph again in Tokyo. Most members of the squad were also a part of the outfit that won the 2019 World Cup in France.

As expected, head coach Vlatko Andonovski has named an all-star squad for the tournament. Apart from Lloyd, the U.S. roster includes OL Reign veteran Megan Rapinoe, her club teammate Rose Lavelle, Orlando Pride striker Alex Morgan, and Manchester United forward Christen Press.

The Netherlands, Brazil and Australia can be expected to advance to the latter stages of the tournament, with all three teams boasting a solid mix of youth and experience. London 2012 silver medalists Japan, who are led by Saki Kumagai, should also not be ruled out as contenders on home soil.