With a week-long limbo between pre-season and the start of the Premier League cycle, football fans could be forgiven for sitting by the calendar, counting down the days until they can get their fix of live matches from around the world. But just as it appeared we would be lacking the vital entertainment that football provides for the next seven days or so, the Olympics showed up again with all the vast, colourful array of stars, venues and heart-warming stories with which it has become synonymous, with football just one of the sports to join in on the three week-long fun in Rio de Janeiro. However, there is no doubt at all that once the Premier League, with all of its worldwide, glitzy appeal, has opened up for business for another season, all the eyes on Rio will have turned back to Manchester, London, Liverpool and even Stoke to concentrate on the stars that the EPL boasts rather than the players (a majority of whom are under 23) of Iraq, Honduras and Fiji. Is this a problem that the Olympic organisers need to have a look at for the future of the event in their quadrennial global phenomenon? Does football in the Olympics even have any continued relevance in a modern world of constant, immediate social media coverage of even the smallest event? And should football be removed from the Olympics altogether, considering it doesn’t grasp as many viewers as athletics, swimming and cycling even though it’s the most popular participation sport in the world?
Well, let’s start by being honest. The Olympics is nowhere even near the half way point of prestige on the wide-scaling, craggy mountain that is global footballing tournaments, and truthfully it never will be. By definition, the Olympics is, or at least in truth was, a competition for amateur athletes, and does not offer anywhere near the financial rewards that other high-profile cup competitions such as the World Cup, Euros, Champions League or FA Cup can. Sometimes we don’t even recognise it as a real honour, as when a tournament is only run every four years it is hard to remember it amongst the pile of club fixtures these days. I mean everyone laments Lionel Messi for never having won anything on the international stage, but he did in fact achieve a Gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics with a youthful but very talented Argentinian side also containing Sergio Aguero, Javier Mascherano, Angel Di Maria and the two Ezequiel's, Lavezzi and Garay.
The trouble is, nobody remembers the Olympics for the football, it’s the 100m, the 10,000m and the Cycling road race that stick in the mind. I’m willing to bet most people probably didn’t even realise the football started on Wednesday because it was pushed way out of the schedule, as the BBC, nor the IOC, didn’t want to spoil the magic of opening ceremony by starting their coverage prior to the official start. The only real memories I have of the football at London four years ago was getting my hopes up (only to be disappointed) for a Team GB side which was cobbled together with little involvement from the Scottish and Welsh FA’s, and contained Ryan Giggs, Craig Bellamy and Micah Richards as over-23 players. It just doesn’t have any real value for most of the sides competing in it, other than those who are either the hosts or are mad about football, which this time around are two and the same in Brazil.
Also, unlike in most football tournaments, the medal winners are usually pretty predictable. Maybe the fact that Spain (possibly fatigued after winning Euro 2012) finished bottom of their group and Team GB were knocked out at the quarter-final stage in the men’s tournament in London was a surprise, but Mexico and Brazil (the eventual Gold and Silver medallists) would’ve been tipped to reach the podium from the very beginning by many. In the women’s half of the football, the USA have made the tournament their own, winning Gold three times out of four this century, only missing out in the final against Norway in 2000. Usually, the FA Cup is largely unpredictable in England, the Euros could go to anybody (Greece and Portugal are living proof of this) and the Copa America sees more shocks than Donald Trump’s political career. You just don’t ever witness shocks of this level in the football at the Olympics, rendering it pretty predictable and, despite some decent football, fairly dour. Expect Brazil and the USA to reign supreme in the men’s and women’s sides of the competition respectively this summer.
But this really is the result of the IOC (International Olympic Committee) watering down the men’s football at the Olympics. They had to do this because if they allowed the full senior sides of the world’s best teams, for example Argentina, Brazil, Germany, France and Germany, to enter, they would both anger FIFA in undermining the importance of the World Cup and also potentially overshadow the rest of the Olympic sports as a result of the draw of massive global stars turning up to play. Besides, even if they did open up the barriers to all players for each competing country to turn up, there is also the possibility that they would either be blocked from travelling by their club sides or even decline the invitation, as there is very little prize money up for grabs. It might not attract the best athletes, as ultimately agents hold the keys to player’s movements these days, and if they can’t make a profit out of something, they won’t bother responding to the email. Honestly, the only reason Neymar is turning up this summer in Rio is because Brazil demands it of him, he is their rouletting, rainbow flicking, easily marketable hero who their success entirely depends upon. His very presence makes them so much mentally stronger. As a massive poster boy for the games too (competing in one of the few sports that the hosts are likely to win a Gold medal in), his agent is sure to pick up a decent pay packet with all of the advertisers who want to use him to promote their Rio-linked products. For him, it seems a pretty good deal, especially considering Barcelona only need him back by 20th August (a day before the closing ceremony) for their La Liga opener against Real Betis (although he will miss both legs of the Spanish Super Cup against Sevilla on the 12th and 15th).
But other than the mop-haired Brazilian superstar, stars are few and far between in the men’s tournament this summer. There's nobody else of his calibre certainly, nor arguably the bracket below him, but Marquinhos, Rafinha, the Bender brothers (Lars and Sven), Max Meyer and John Obi Mikel can lay claim to being the other high-class individuals in Rio. There are a few stars of the future amongst the squads; Geronimo Rulli, Giovanni Simeone, Leon Goretzka, Matthias Ginter, Edgar Ié and the Gabriel's Barbosa and Jesus for example, but even though they might bring promise with them, they won’t pull in the paying customers, nor the television viewers at home. Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Nigeria and Portugal will be the main sides vying for medals come the end of the tournament, but by that stage I would expect most viewers to be tuning in to the Athletics, Swimming, Cycling, Tennis and even the Ping Pong for higher-tempo, star-fuelled entertainment rather than a few nobodies kicking a ball around at a slower pace than usual for 90 minutes.
The rules for all sides competing in the men’s draw, constricting them to purely under 23 players, with the option of three overage individuals, also make the competition pale in comparison to other senior tournaments such as the World Cup or Euros. It waters down the quality so much, basically putting it on the level of under 21’s international football, with a few decent players usually shining in comparison to their clearly inferior teammates, which is not the sort of game we should be witnessing at the Olympics, the pinnacle of sport. The thing is; it’s certainly not the pinnacle for footballers around the globe. Maybe squash, or other long-suffering campaigning sports, deserve their places in the Olympics in the near future in place of sports like football or golf (or even the new competitions for Tokyo 2020, skateboarding and sports climbing, for God’s sake), as for squash the Commonwealth Games are the top competition right now, and the Olympics would be a game-changing moment for their sport. Sure, it’s a good, once-in-a-lifetime experience and a decent accolade to be awarded if you win a medal, but it doesn’t make superstars of footballers in the same way the World Cup does. And for men’s football, that will never change. All the IOC can do is maintain their rules and hope one or two more world-class players turn up next time to boost the viewing figures. That is the way it is.
But it’s not quite the same case for the women’s competition. For them, the Olympics is arguably second only to the World Cup in terms of importance, exposure and experience, and it is actually important who wins Gold. The main reason behind this is that they get to use their proper managers get to use their senior first teams, upping the ante of quality amongst all sides, as the best teams (other than England, as they can’t compete without the rest of the uncompliant UK) all face off with real chances of claiming a medal. The ultimate honour in the women’s game is to win tournaments with your national side, as it should be in the men’s but sadly isn’t, and you can physically see that the women who compete at the Olympics really do care about the cause. I was watching the USA play New Zealand on Wednesday night, and I was very impressed by the shifts both sides put in, as even though New Zealand were 2-0 down for a majority of the match, they still gave all they could to grab a goal back. The USA were brilliant though, totally dominant throughout with an effective passing game, wearing down the opposition, and a definite match for their male counterparts if that match ever went ahead.
As soon as you really think about it, it’s mystifying why the USA are really the best women’s team in the world at football, but with a bit of extended thinking, you soon come to an explanation. Realistically, the US men’s team will never be the best in the world, even if they are the so-called ‘biggest’ country in the world, as they simply don’t have an existing and widespread footballing culture. Their 320 million or so people, or at least the male cut of that, are emotionally invested in the big four sports for them; Baseball, American Football, Ice Hockey and Basketball. But the opportunities just aren’t there for the women and girls to rise up the ranks in these sports, as just like football here in the UK, the men’s game is the one that has the tradition, structure and financial investment to prosper. So naturally, the fairer sex in the USA have turned to minor sports which have equal opportunities for boys and girls, and are probably desperate for new blood to continue the success, like football, to get prospects of a serious career in the sport. Women’s football is a big business in the States, and the once-underground culture is now blooming into life above the mainstream ground, with a lot of money now being invested (Nike just one of the companies sponsoring the NWSL, or National Women’s Soccer League) and many top global players joining American clubs. In many ways, the NWSL is very much the Premier League of women’s football, and like the EPL, it is only growing in stature and financial success as new fans are introduced, and clubs become richer and therefore able to sign whoever they want. This means facilities can be renovated and created in more spots across the country, and finally the cycle restarts as youngsters then have the foundations to begin participating in the sport. No other country runs this cycle quite as well as the USA, and on the international stage they have reaped the rewards for the work the USSF (United States Soccer Federation) does behind closed doors at home.
But the women’s game isn’t sensitizing itself to the evils that money can bring with it in the same way the men’s did decades ago. The women’s teams you see competing in Rio compete purely for the love of the sport, not because of the financial rewards up for grabs. You can feel just from the atmosphere around the grounds during matches; everyone is having a good time, they’re not taking it so seriously that their whole day depends on the result in the same way that it does in the EPL over here. It’s much more friendly and relatable than our brand of football, and that is something that we can learn from a branch of the footballing tree which is far less commercialised and immoral. After all, celebrating sport together as a global society is what the Olympics is all about, the matter of who wins the medals is just a sideshow from a perspective of the organisers, who just want a clean, well-remembered, joyful games that can be happily archived for the following four years until the next edition turns up. Women’s football embodies the spirit of the games, and for that reason alone it is much more worthy of a watch than the men’s.
To conclude then, football’s continued inclusion in the Olympic Games is a thorny subject for the IOC and FIFA. Certainly, it’s not vital that the sport be involved in the games for the men’s side, we already know the male game has (billions) more than its fair share of viewers and fans, too many for its own good really. However, for the women’s edition of the world’s most popular sport, the Olympics is a massive springboard for future success. For them, football is totally relevant in the Olympic Games and absolutely priceless for the exposure it affords them, a growing sport, as billions tune in every four years. This kind of viewership is a twice-in-a-decade opportunity, so they have to make sure the competition is engrossing, exciting and more than anything, a good advert for the game, as this may be their only game to grab the imaginations of a generation of young girls. The sport certainly took its chance at the London 2012 Olympics, with the magic of Team GB, Steph Houghton in particular, making the country open its eyes to the previously under-the-radar and underappreciated sport (other than being the focus of Bend it like Beckham, and we all loved that didn’t we, Tyler) and the eventual winners the USA playing excellently to win Gold. Rio 2016 might just provide the same opportunity to women’s football, although it has definitely become a significantly bigger sport than four years ago, largely thanks to a pulsating World Cup in 2015, so it might not need the piggyback that the Olympics provides so vitally this time around. Still, the screen time will definitely expand the sport for the other countries involved, for example China, Zimbabwe and South Africa, so it will play a vital role in the sport’s history.
However, the same cannot be said about the men’s tournament, as that will only continue the inglorious record of somebodies and nobodies in the winning squads when we look back on them in four, or even eight years’ time, as it will never be the Olympics that these players will be remembered for, it will be their success or failure in club football, proving that men’s football doesn’t need the Olympics. But for once, the men cannot be self-centered, as for the good of the sport, they have to continue competing for the sake of the women’s game, as without one sex competing there would be no involvement at all. Besides, the Olympics couldn’t realistically remove the biggest sport in the world from its roster, could it?
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!