Netherlands welcomes Olympic medal expectations
TIANJIN, China(AP) High expectations aren't a problem for the Netherlands, considered among the favorites for the men's Olympic soccer title.
``We're the two-time European (under-21) champion. We're proud of that,'' Netherlands coach Foppe de Haan said. ``That makes everyone think we're good. And we are good. The only reason for being here is to win.''
Selected by many to contend for medals along with defending Olympic champion Argentina and its South American rival Brazil, the Dutch are considered the favorite in Group B, which also includes Nigeria, the United States and Japan.
Making its first appearance in Olympic football since 1952, the Netherlands plays Thursday against Nigeria in Tianjin, the second game of a doubleheader following the United States vs. Japan.
The apparent concern for the Netherlands is its quarterfinal opponent, which will come from Group A - consisting of Argentina, Serbia, Australia and Ivory Coast.
Argentina, boosted by the inclusion of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Juan Roman Riquelme, is the one team that worries the Dutch.
``Messi is one of the best players in the world,'' Feyenoord forward Roy Makaay said. ``Our goal is to win the gold medal.
``We want to be first in our group. We want to play Messi in the final, not earlier. We want to try to avoid Argentina until the final.''
The Group B winner will face the Group A runner-up in the quarterfinals and vice versa. Assuming Argentina wins its group, winning Group B will be imperative for the Dutch to avoid an early meeting.
Besides Makaay, the Netherlands' inclusion of Liverpool forward Ryan Babel is the reason many are predicting a medal for the Dutch.
They also can rely on familiarity. Besides its consecutive European U21 titles the past two years, the Dutch finished fifth at the 2005 Under-20 World Cup and third at the Under-17 World Cup the same year.
Two-thirds of its 18-man roster come from five Dutch league teams: Ajax, PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord, Heerenveen and Alkmaar.
But the side could have been stronger if not for the early season start of Eredivisie, which excluded other over 23s like Makaay.
``In Holland, we had an agreement with the Dutch federation to release some players,'' Makaay said. ``But for players in the Dutch league, they couldn't be released as it starts one week after the Olympics.''