EVEN the most devoted football fans sometimes struggle to embrace the concept of Olympic football. In Britain, it has always been a struggle – the idea of a Great Britain XI works against the desire to have independent representation within FIFA.
In the past, it was supposed to be amateur football that appeared in the games. There was a degree of farce around that requirement as the Soviet Union and its friends sent out teams that were de facto professionals. From 1952 to 1988, the gold medals went to Hungary (three times), USSR (twice), Yugoslavia, Poland, East Germany and Czechoslavakia. The only break in the sequence was in 1984 when France were Olympic champions. There were some fine winners, however, notably Hungary’s golden team of 1952 and Poland’s 1972 line-up.
The Olympics, of course, have changed dramatically since the days when gifted gentlemen and wealthy hobbyists represented Great Britain. And since the late 1980s, football at the Olympics has certainly changed, starting with the attempt to make it a competition that allowed young professionals into the contest. We saw, in the early days of the shift, the likes of Jürgen Klinsmann, Romario, Bebeto and Ronaldo tread the boards.
Jonathan Liew of The Guardian asks if football really belongs in the modern Olympics. “Nobody really seems to know what it is: a development competition, a star vehicle, a sideshow knockabout.” The participants have varying interpretations of the importance of the Olympic football tournament. Some countries send strong squads, some send academy-orientated selections, while others even send whoever they can.
It doesn’t help that the games this year (delayed by a year) come at a time when football schedules have been condensed and we have seen the Euros, the Copa America and the CONCACAF Gold Cup take place in the build-up. We do have to ask if Olympic football, in its current guise, is really necessary, especially when it will never be regarded as the pinnacle of the sport, which really should be a pre-requisite.
Let’s not forget the World Cup started life as a response to the Olympic football competitions of 1924 and 1928 when Uruguay won gold both times. The appeal of Olympic football fluctuates, the crowds for 2012 in the UK were strong (average 47,660 for men, 25,423 for women), but compare the figures for the 2016 Olympics with the World Cup of 2014 (both in Brazil) – Olympic men’s football averaged 31,513, World Cup 2014, 53,592). Conversely, in the Olympics of 2016 the women’s tournament drew an average of 24,500 compared to the last World Cup’s average of 21,800.
Britain has been absent from the last two Olympics because the various football associations have trouble agreeing among themselves and the old worry of FIFA independence keeps returning. The i newspapercommented, though, that “if the Football Association managed to gain the support of the other home nations and Premier League clubs, a Team GB squad would have been formidable.”
European nations have been absent from the roster of winners since the competition became more flexible in its requirements – Spain won in 1992, but since then, Africa and the Americas have dominated. This is in contrast to the World Cup, which has been won by Europe five out of the last six times (France, Italy, Spain, Germany and France again). Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea have an excellent chance in Japan this year, suggested John Duerden in Channel News Asia. “The sight of an Asian men’s team beating international opposition to win gold will be a step forward for Asian football, a big story in the continent and inspiration for young football players,” said Duerden.
In both the men’s and women’s football, Asia has yet to win gold, but the region’s women have won two silvers (China 1996 and Japan 2012) and the men have two bronzes to their name (Japan 1968 and South Korea 2012).
If the Olympics are a competition too far for some, then why not revert to their original purpose, perhaps non-league football is more appropriate? Just consider the prestige for the clubs and players who form the bulk of almost every nation’s football eco-system.
As for the women’s game, the Olympics could still serve a purpose in continuing the sport’s evolution, creating greater awareness and expanding global growth. Women’s football is still in its infancy in many ways, so the Olympics can play a part in raising standards and adding more depth. There may come a time when that, too, becomes superfluous. It does seem vaguely ridiculous that Great Britain can field a women’s team, but fail to reach common ground over a men’s side.
Want to test how much Olympic football stays in the memory? Ask the average fan who are the current champions and see how many people will know. It’s Brazil for the men, Germany for the women, by the way.