Chelsea internationals John Obi Mikel and Hedvig Lindahl are among the most experienced players about to compete in the Olympic football tournament starting in Brazil on Wednesday.
Certain to be one of the feature attractions for the host nation at Rio 2016, the men’s and women’s football is scheduled to start before Friday’s official opening ceremony, in which Mikel will carry the Nigeria flag, in order to accommodate all of the group games.
No man taking part in the competition has appeared more frequently on the global stage than Mikel, who has represented Nigeria 75 times and will captain the side during the Games.
The midfielder, who has lifted nearly every trophy possible in his decade with the Blues, is one of three designated players over the age of 23 in the Super Eagles squad, tasked with mentoring and inspiring an inexperienced team to emulate their remarkable victory at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics.
Nigeria held a training camp at the site of their historic triumph in Georgia last week to prepare the players psychologically for the tournament, whichMikel joined after the Austrian leg of Chelsea’s pre-season preparations. The Under-23 African champions are considered dark horses for the gold medal and will travel into the Amazon rainforest for their opener against Japan in the early hours of Friday.
Mikel will skipper Nigeria at the Olympics in Brazil.
The strength of opposition gradually increases for Nigeria as they take on Sweden on Sunday before their final group game against Colombia at the same time next Wednesday. The top two teams then advance to the quarter-finals, where the Nigerians could meet favourites Brazil.
Local rivals Argentina and world champions Germany are also in strong contention, while Great Britain are absent from the tournament due to concerns over the independence of home nations.
Mikel will aim to surpass the success of his Chelsea club-mate Oscar, who helped Brazil claim a silver medal last time around and was one of nine Blues involved at London 2012. Juan Mata and Oriol Romeu suffered a premature exit with Spain, along with Ryan Bertrand and Daniel Sturridge who represented a one-off Team GB outfit. In the women’s event, Claire Rafferty was the pick of the Chelsea players, performing in front of a record-breaking Wembley crowd as Britain beat Brazil.
Meanwhile, Chelsea Ladies goalkeeper Lindahl and her Sweden team-mates will be the first Olympians in action alongside South Africa Women when the teams meet at 5pm (UK time) on Wednesday.
The Scandinavian veteran, who won a famous FA Women’s Super League and Women’s FA Cup double in between the posts for Chelsea Ladies last season, is participating in her fourth Olympic Games and will be hoping to upgrade the bronze medal she picked up at London 2012.
Lindahl in action for Sweden at London 2012.
Lindahl is a vital reference point for a Swedish side in transition, which will rely on her 120-cap expertise to invigorate the old guard for one more successful campaign, as well as marshalling the younger supporting players who entered the fray after their last-16 exit from the 2015 World Cup.
Together with the United States and Brazil, Pia Sundhage’s women are the favourites to win their first ever Olympic title and a third consecutive gold medal for the former USA manager. A critical test of their credentials will come against the hosts on Saturday night (2am on Sunday, UK time) before they take on a rapidly-improving Chinese team across the country in Brasilia exactly four days later. The Rio final takes place on Friday 19 August.
In 2016, the world will be watching and their team-mates taking note as Mikel and Lindahl compete to win one of the few honours that Chelsea players have never achieved. Let the Games begin.