[OLYMPIC COUNTDOWN] Despite its reputation as a second-rate tournament, the Olympics have long provided a proving ground for young players as well as an opportunity for older players to take their careers to the next level. Argentina dominated the past two Olympics with Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi exploding onto the international stage in 2004 and 2008 respectively, but with La Albiceleste failing to qualify this year, we are guaranteed not only a new gold-medal winner, but also for new international stars to be born. Whether playing in order to earn a transfer to a prestigious club or to win a spot on their country's senior team, look for these five players to arrive in London with something to prove.
Lucas Moura (midfielder) Brazil
With Neymar continuously pledging his future to Santos, Lucas Moura may be the hottest Brazilian starlet on the transfer market this summer. Only 19, Lucas has already made 15 appearances for Brazil's senior side and scored a goal against Argentina back in September.
After two seasons with Brazil's Sao Paulo, Lucas has attracted the attention of top European clubs such as Inter Milan, Manchester United, and Real Madrid. Sao Paulo has set a roughly $46 million price tag on Lucas, and last week turned down a $42 million bid from Man United. The pressure will certainly be on Lucas to live up to his hefty valuation. Whether starting or coming off the bench, Lucas has the pace and creativity to torment defenders.
Edinson Cavani (forward) Uruguay
Although Brazil's potent offense led by Neymar, Hulk andAlexandre Pato has received most of the pre-Olympic hype, Uruguay certainly boasts the most experienced strike duo. Coach Oscar Tabarez brought overage players Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez to London to lead La Celeste Olimpica's attack. Suarez burst onto the international scene with an eventful 2010 World Cup and winning best player at the 2011 Copa America, but comparatively Cavani has yet to make the same impact at the international level.
Cavani has just finished up his second full season at Napoli and has netted 66 times in 94 games for the Italian club. But on July 24 Cavani's agent stated that his client wanted to move on to a more prestigious club. The Olympics will be a major proving ground for Cavani as he will need to convince Europe's top clubs that he is worth the exorbitant price tag of more than $120 million his club values him at. At Napoli, Cavani has proven that he can score goals in bundles, and Uruguay will need him to if they hope to make a run at the gold medal. Cavani has the supporting cast to do so, and look for him to challenge Neymar and Co. for the Golden Shoe in London.
Micah Richards (defender) Great Britain
After Rio Ferdinand, Micah Richards may have been the biggest snub from Roy Hodgson's England squad at Euro 2012. After breaking through with Manchester City's first-team at the age of 17 in 2005, Richards has since made 170 appearances with the reigning Premier League champions. Now 24, Richards will represent Team GB as one of Coach Stuart Pearce's three over-age players.
The Olympics could prove crucial for Richards' role at City and with England. Injuries and inconsistent play this past season caused Roberto Mancini to replace Richards with Pablo Zabaleta at right back for City. A strong Olympic showing would certainly build momentum for Richards as he not only looks to solidify his place with City, but also force his way back into the national team picture.
Marco Fabian (forward) Mexico
If there's one thing certain about Mexico's young and inexperienced Olympic squad, it's that El Tri will boast plenty of offensive firepower. While Giovani dos Santos will headline the attack, Mexico will largely rely on Chivas Guadalajara forward Marco Fabian for goals. Fabian, 23, has made 125 appearances and scored 25 goals for Chivas since making his first-team debut as an 18-year-old in 2007.
Fabian has been in prolific form for Mexico's Olympic team since it assembled in March for the Concacaf Olympic Qualifying tournament. Fabian led the tournament, which Mexico won, with five goals and was named the tournament's MVP. In May, Fabian continued his form in the Olympic tune-up Toulon Tournament in France by netting seven goals in Mexico's championship run.
Most recently, Fabian has scored in each of El Tri's pre-Olympic friendlies, bringing his goal total to 13 in 12 games. Mexico's offense will need to be clicking to overcome a shaky backline if they hope to win a medal. Fabian has the ability to lead Mexico's attack, and is certainly a dark horse contender to be the top scorer in London. Additionally, if Fabian continues his dazzling form Chivas will have a hard time holding on to him as the European transfer market heats up.
Javi Martinez (defender) Spain
Joining Juan Mata and Jordi Alba, Javi Martinez rounds out the trio of Spanish Olympians who won Euro 2012. Martinez' versatility makes him a unique player on Spain's squad. In 2006, Athletic Bilbao signed Martinez, then 17, as a central midfielder. Martinez immediately became a starter and even made Coach Vicente del Bosque's 2010 World Cup squad.
This past season, new Bilbao coach Marcelo Bielsa moved Martinez to the backline and his game took off. Martinez anchored a Bilbao backline that beat Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United on its road to the UEFA Europa League final, where it fell to fellow La Liga side Atletico Madrid.
Although Martinez only played in one game at Euro 2012, many believe he is the heir to Carles Puyol in La Roja's center defense. Martinez will captain Spain at the Olympics and will have the opportunity to prove that he has what it takes to compete for Spain's senior side. The pressure will be on Spain as it looks to continue its winning ways this summer, and especially the Spanish defense due to the lack of a proven goalscorer in the attack. Coach Luis Milla will need Martinez to play the kind of game that has Barcelona and Bayern Munich closely monitoring the young defender's progress.