The Opening Ceremony will not be until Friday, but Olympic events continue on Thursday as the men's soccer tournament begins with eight games. The Olympic soccer tournament has long been the step-child of the more popular World Cup, with each of the sixteen nations forced to field what amounts to a "B" team. The tournament is considered U23, which means the players on the roster are 23 years old or younger. The Olympics allow an exception for each side to carry three overage players.
Men's soccer is the only event in the Games in which the best athletes do not compete. Now some events may miss some of the best athletes due to the restrictions on the number of athletes per country allowed in each event (for example, each individual swimming event has a limit of two swimmers per nation); or a difficult qualifying process. However, FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, wants to keep their own World Cup event unique and not have a mini-World Cup obscured within the Olympics.
Some have called for soccer to be removed from the Olympics, but we wouldn't want to throw out the baby with the bath water. The fact of the matter is that the women's tournament, which began on Wednesday, has the best players on each national team. In the United States, the women's competition has been compelling since its debut in 1996 with recognizable names like Mia Hamm and Hope Solo leading the U.S. into the final in each Olympics.
The British national team makes their first appearance in the Olympics since Rome in 1960 as they take on Senegal in Manchester (the Olympic soccer tournament traditionally uses sites from all over the host country with the finals being held in the host city). In team sports, the host nation receives an automatic spot in the tournament without having to go through a continental qualifying tournament.
There has been much concern in Britain over the last several years about the participation of a British soccer team. Soccer is one of several international sports where England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (known as the home nations) compete separately. The three smaller nations have concerns that a British team in the Olympics will lead to a British team in World Cup and Euro championships - thus losing their identities. Ultimately, there was an agreement to allow participation of players from all four British nations. The squad includes 13 Englishmen and 5 Welshmen. Ryan Griggs, the 38 year old team captain, is Welsh.
A similar situation occurs in field hockey. Outside the Olympics, each of the home nations compete for themselves. It is only every four years that a British team will compete in the Olympics, including the men's squad that captured gold in 1988.