Football Media Watch: Olympic football – consistency required?

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. 


Euro 2020: Reformat or cancel

WITH much of Europe still in the mire when it comes to Covid-19 and the task of mass vaccination likely to stretch across the year, the time may have come to assess whether the European Championship needs to take place or not in 2021. 

UEFA may yet have to concede that hosting a pan-European competition is totally impractical in the current climate and even a single-nation event will look foolhardy and a waste of money as a post-pandemic slumps sets in.

From a football perspective, the World Cup is now only 22 months away and by the time the European Championship final is played on July 11, there will be 16 months before 2022 kicks off. The November start may end up being Qatar’s salvation, by then, we must hope the world is discovering a new normal.

Already fixture congestion is causing problems for teams and players and we are currently being bombarded with non-stop football and the Euros and the Olympics are on the horizon. Quite simply, do we really need the European Championship to happen? There’s undoubtedly going to be logistical problems in people travelling all over Europe when there’s been a virtual lockdown of tourism and airlines have been pushed to the brink. The hotel industry is also staring into the abyss and will, post-all crisis, have to change the way it does things. Hygiene and caution will dominate the narrative, and there’s nought so unhygienic than a football crowd, unless you’re a J-League regular.

It is not hard to imagine some governments will try to sit on the fence when they reach the stage when the barricades can be lifted. The decision to declare “business as usual” will be deferred by some politicians for as long as they can. The UK administration is an obvious candidate for having the biggest splinters. It is quite feasible England fans will head for continental Europe with a manifesto of vagueness that has characterised the entire Covid campaign. How can UEFA put the closing stages of their showpiece in the hands of a country that has now entered a third lockdown and a vertical spike in infections?

If UEFA have to “get the Euros done”, then why not minimize risk and concentrate the competition in one or two nations with good track records. Look at the pandemic league table and, with the right amount of precaution (restricted and smaller crowds, controlled access and health checks), allow the countries who have handled the crisis appropriately to host games. 

Moreover, dispense with the bloated format and opt for a streamlined knockout competition. The current format will amount to 51 games in 12 venues. Why not reduce it to 23 over three? Surely this would reduce the risk substantially? The tournament has been made very unwieldy even without the pandemic to contend with, perhaps UEFA, and indeed FIFA, will take note and realise that less is best sometimes.

Football may be the most important of the unimportant things in life, but it certainly isn’t more important than life and death. So many aspects of daily life have been disrupted over the past 12 months: births, marriages and deaths, jobs, food, healthcare, politics, social interaction, relationships and of course, football. There’s no shortage of games at the moment and hopefully, it will continue in the months ahead. But do we really need a carnival that could set us back a few steps? Do we really want a thwarted life in 2021 and beyond? We shouldn’t let the urge to provide “bread and circuses” derail all the good work that has been done.

Photo: PA

Football didn’t come home, but it’s close to home

ENGLAND’S World Cup adventure may have ended in heartbreak, but if non-league football plays its cards right, it could exploit the goodwill impact of an extraordinarily successful campaign in Russia.

There’s no doubt that the nation got behind waistcoated and bearded Gareth Southgate and his young team in much the same way that in Euro ‘96 we all believed that “football was coming home”. Football did go home this time, but it took a flight to Zagreb, Croatia.

But for once, English football exceeded expectations and how often can we say that has happened?

Now the work begins and non-league clubs can really benefit from this upturn in the nation’s fortunes. How? It is relatively simple, there’s an opportunity to capitalise on the renewed interest in the game at a national level and capture some new fans at non-league grounds. Younger fans have, quite noticeably, wanted to be part of the shared experience, that’s the zeitgeist at the moment. Why not reach-out to these supporters and secure them as stakeholders in local football clubs? Let’s be frank, the pricing of top level football makes it prohibitive to many segments of the community. Furthermore, at the highest level, we’re almost at capacity when it comes to stadium utilisation. Even if they wanted to go, and could afford to pay the prices, there’s limited availability to see the top clubs.

After England won the World Cup in 1966 and reached the semi-final in 1990, the game across the country received a boost. In 1966, gates went up and after 1990, we saw the introduction of the Premier League. While the latter really created a football society of haves and have-nots, the game’s immense popularity today owes its roots to Italia ‘90. We cannot expect Premier League football to grow much more than the level it is at today, but surely lower down, the selling point is, “we’re all playing the same game” albeit at a less proficient level.

The important element of taking advantage of the World Cup effect is building and prolonging that spirit that seems to typify major events like the 2012 Olympics, (dare I say) Royal Weddings and other national events. People who never usually speak to each other engage in conversation at such landmark occasions. The World Cup is definitely one of those moments in time and usually in England’s case, it has been to commiserate with each other at under-performance. The World Cup is the largest sporting event on the planet and it can influence people in many different ways. I recall in 1990 one of the players from our local team turning up for the first game with a very close-cropped hair style, only for the fans to start calling him Schillaci because of his new look. Schillaci? He was the wide-eyed, rather limited but successful striker that had his moment of fame in Italia ‘90. A small thing, but there are other instances where the World Cup has left its mark.

How can non-league clubs use the World Cup to their advantage? For a start, make admission prices attractive, not just by comparisons to the local Premier League or League Two club, but also as an inducement to nurture new fans. Then maybe tie-in home games with TV events that bring people into the clubhouse after a game and create that community feeling – perhaps use international matches as a way to recreate the atmosphere we’ve seen around Britain’s towns during this World Cup. And how about actively advertising to build a young supporter group, a band, quasi “ultra” group to give non-league grounds more atmosphere and lower the average age of the crowd.

It’s also worth using the link between non-league and the international set-up, with fantastic examples like Jamie Vardy. If more people can see that World Cups also owe their roots to the very heart of the game and are not just about the Messis and Ronaldos of this world, then non-league’s credibility and appeal can be broadened.

Is this just all a pipe-dream? Just consider that the song that seems to typify national support for England is “football’s coming home”. Perhaps we should recraft the lyrics to suggest that football’s not just coming home but it is also “close to home” – just around the corner from your living room. Isn’t that the essence of non-league? The next few weeks can be a big chance for non-league clubs to maintain the momentum of the summer of 2018. Let’s not let it go to waste!

Photo: PA