It’s slightly predictable that the pro-Beckham contingent have started to put-down the Olympic football tournament as meaningless. Is that so? 90,000 people watched the 2008 final, 104,000 the 2000 climax and 101,000 the 1984 final. Olympic football is not a dead duck – it’s just that Great Britain has not played a part in it since the post-Edwardian days.
Olympic football can provide a few pointers to the future. Already, Spain are being tipped to win this year’s competition as their talented crop of youngsters is given its chance to shine.
Some of the greatest modern-era players have turned out in the Olympics. Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez have both played for Argentina, while Spain’s Xavi played in the 2000 series. Notable names like Kanu, Crespo, Eto’o, Bebeto and Ronaldo have all appeared since the competition became more open in 1984.
Argentina have appeared in three of the last four finals, winning two of them (2004 and 2008) and Nigeria have lined-up in two. In 1996, a Kanu-inspired Nigeria beat Argentina 3-2 after earlier disposing of Brazil in spectacular fashion.
The Olympics have acted as a springboard for some players – and teams. Once Great Britain’s early dominance of the competition was over and professional football took over in England, it was hard for GB to mount a serious challenge for the gold medal.
Those early GB teams lacked nothing for talent – notably the talented Vivien J Woodward. When “amateurism” was phased out, Britain didn’t even enter the competition.
After WW2, the Eastern Bloc dominated Olympic football, mostly because they were, at least technically amateur players. But in truth they were not, they were merely servicemen out of convenience. So while they donned the uniform of soldiers or policemen, in effect they were sportsmen attached to those services. From 1952 to 1980, Eastern Bloc countries won the gold medal in football.
These included the great Hungarian team of Puskas, Hidegkuti, Czibor and Bozsik, a later Hungarian team that formed the backbone of its 1966 World Cup side, and the Polish team that went on to illuminate World Cup 1974 – Deyna, Lato and their pals. And then there was USSR, East Germany, Yugoslavia and Czechoslavakia.
But just as the end of “amateur” status killed off the British challenge, the fall of the Berlin Wall diluted the effectiveness of Eastern European football. It’s now a free-for-all.
Once things for certain, Team GB’s motley collection is unlikely to be a contender for gold. The organisers are anticipating that Spain will reign in London as well as Kiev 2012. And they may just be right.
Group A: Team GB, Senegal, UAE, Uruguay
Group B: Mexico, South Korea, Gabon, Switzerland
Group C: Brazil, Egypt, Belarus, New Zealand
Group D: Spain, Japan, Honduras, Morocco
Given Game of the People’s abysmal prediction rate – just how good was that Germany v Portugal final? – no forecasts will be made. We’re heading for Coventry on July 29 and a Group B double bill. Come on, Gabon!