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Football Football’s place at the Olympics

FOOTBALL’S inclusion at the Olympics is often questioned, but past and present versions of the Games demonstrate why it does have a place.

Tomorrow’s quarter-finals in the men’s competition at Tokyo 2020 feature teams from Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania, South America and North America, while only Oceania and Asia are yet to produce a gold medal-winning nation.

Compare this to the quarter-finals of the last World Cup which featured teams from Europe and South America only, while World Cup finals have only ever been contested by teams from those two regions.

The women’s quarter-finals are similarly diverse, and though the United States have won four of the six women’s football gold medals to date, other regions are catching up. Past finals have already featured teams from Asia as well as Europe and South America.

The first women’s football tournament at the Olympics didn’t take place until 1996 in Atlanta, but it has gone on to play an important part in the development, albeit gradual, of the women’s game around the world, encouraging nations to invest in the sport.

The history of men’s football at the Olympics predates the World Cup. Though there was no football tournament at the first modern Olympics (hosted by Athens in 1896) amateur club sides represented their nations in 1900 and 1904. 

Great Britain’s representatives, Upton Park FC, triumphed in Paris in a three-team tournament in 1900 and though medals weren’t awarded, the win is retrospectively recognised by the International Olympic Committee as a Great Britain gold.

Galt FC won gold for Canada at the St Louis games in 1904 when, again, just three teams took part with the other two hailing from the US.

Even though it naturally attracts crowds and viewers, football isn’t the main event at the Olympics. 

For a sport that dominates back pages and column inches across the globe throughout the year, taking a back seat can be a good thing.

There’s an idea that men’s football is almost too big for the Olympics, but the sport had been played at the Games long before other international tournaments existed.

It even predates the Copa America, which is considered the oldest major international football tournament, with men’s football having been played between teams representing nations at the Olympics prior to the first Copa in 1916.

The Copa did have an effect on the Games though, with Uruguay winning Olympic gold in Paris in 1924 and in Amsterdam four years later where they defeated Argentina in a replayed final.

Uruguay were a dominant force as international football became more and more prominent, and their performances at the Olympics were a springboard for them to go on and win the first World Cup in 1930.

They might have won more, but they refused to take part in the next two World Cups due to their annoyance that several European teams didn’t accept invitations to compete in Montevideo in 1930, and that consecutive tournaments were held in Europe in 1934 and 1938 rather than alternating between the two continents.

Uruguay triumphed again on their return to the World Cup in 1950, famously defeating hosts and favourites Brazil, but still value those early Olympic triumphs alongside their World Cup wins.

With its original amateur ethos, the Olympics was also affected by the tug of war between amateur and professional football. Great Britain’s refusal to take part in what they saw as an increasingly professional tournament meant they didn’t appear at the 1924 and 1928 editions. 

This also saw them withdraw from Fifa, meaning they wouldn’t take part in a World Cup until 1950, missing the first three tournaments.

For various reasons, including the merging of professional and amateur football and fears around the recognition of the separate home nations teams, Great Britain have not entered a men’s team since 1976, making an exception for the 2012 London games.

While Uruguay value those early Olympic triumphs alongside their World Cup wins, Brazil hold Olympic football in high esteem for pretty much the opposite reason — that it took so long for them to win it.

Brazil won silver in 1984, 1988 and 2012 and Bronze twice, but despite being the most successful team in the World Cup and having won the Copa America on numerous occasions, Olympic gold evaded them until 2016.

That they finally won gold in their home Olympics in Rio de Janeiro made it all the more satisfying, and went some way towards making up for their failure to win the World Cup on home soil two years earlier.

The idea that Olympic football is unnecessary or not important may be a view taken by some people in some nations, but it’s certainly not one shared by all.

In the men’s tournament, the use of U23 squads plus three overage players is often given as a reason for it not to be taken as seriously as World Cups, Copa Americas or European Championships, but such an eclectic combination of players can be part of the appeal.

It can provide a platform for future stars, with perhaps the most glaring example of this being Argentina’s 2008 gold medal-winning side.

That team featured a 20-year-old Sergio Aguero and 21-year-old Lionel Messi, and were captained by one of their overage players — the then 30-year-old Juan Roman Riquelme.

Football may take a back seat at the Olympics, but that it’s humbly part of the wider Games is good for the game. 

It’s also one of few football tournaments where the men’s and women’s games are on an equal footing and receive equal coverage. This could encourage a similar situation in other areas of football.

It can be a refreshing antidote to the arrogance sometimes evident in top-level men’s football — an arrogance that can also emerge unwittingly from within those suggestions that men’s football is too big for the Olympics.

The global game deserves its place at the most global of sporting get-togethers. That this place isn’t at the top of the bill doesn’t matter, and it might even be a healthier state of affairs than exists elsewhere in football.


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