Football at The Olympics – A potted history
N.B This article was first published in the Wigan Athletic ‘Mudhutter’ fanzine in January 2016, with the Olympic football finals now upon us I thought it was an ideal time to re-post it.
At the time of writing this it’s currently 146 days until the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro begin. It’s hard to believe that it’s been four years since London 2012 and the tagline inspire a generation. For all of the Olympics faults and indeed London 2012’s faults the natural cynicism ahead of any major event like that melted away and the nation was enthralled with nearly three weeks of top class sporting action.
The big names synonymous with London and indeed Rio later this year are well know, track and field competitors such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Mo Farah, Greg Rutherford, Usain Bolt. How about Neymar, Sandro, Isco and Cleverley? Well maybe not Cleverley. These names and many others were still Olympic athletes but where as The Olympics is the pinnacle for an amateur athlete’s career it’s considered less so for a footballer. The World Cup or the European Championships are considered the be all and end all for International players in football and The Olympics often isn’t considered worthy of a foot note.
I think that Football at the Olympics is unfairly maligned the game has been part of the modern Olympics since 1900 and has been present at every games since then apart from 1932 before being swiftly re-introduced in 1936. Women’s football was introduced in 1996 at the Atlanta Games and has ran alongside the men’s since then.
Fifa being the un-doubted guardians of fair play and equality didn’t want the World Cup to be challenged by The Olympics so pressured the IOC to only allow amateur players to compete in the Olympics. With the professional game on the rise across the world the standard of players and football continued to fall, this impasse lasted until 1984 where the IOC decided to allow professional footballers to compete for the first time.
This still wasn’t enough for Fifa who insisted that the sides representing Uefa and Conmebol (the strongest governing bodies) were not permitted to feature players that had played in the World Cup. Limiting their squad selections left a lop-sided tournament with wins for the likes of Nigeria, Cameroon and the now defunct Soviet Union alongside more familiar names like Argentina and Spain.
Further changes were made ahead of the Barcelona games in 1992 when it was announced that players had to be under the age of 23 effectively reducing Olympic football to the same standard as a youth tournament.
Slight relief for nations wanting to actually compete at the Olympics came four years later again in Atlanta as three players over the age of 23 were permitted. Similar to the restrictions in place to this day which saw the Team GB squad selection descend in to farce when David Beckham was denied a farewell tournament in favour of Ryan Giggs, Craig Bellamy and Micah Richards named as the three over age players.
Despite Fifa’s best efforts Football at The Olympics is still an integral part of the games and for many nations an important development tool for younger players to gain tournament experience. Seen in a wider context alongside the U18, U20, U21 tournaments the Olympics is seen as a decent grounding in tournament football and what to expect when they reach senior level.
Indeed many nations do take it seriously and some stellar names from the world of football both past and current have graced the Olympics.
Who could forget a Spain side captained by Barcelona legend Pep Guardiola taking the Gold medal in the Nou Camp as they came from behind to beat Poland 3-2. That Spain side also featured current Barcelona manager Luis Enrique.
Or more current the 2008 Gold medallists, Argentina who beat Nigeria in the final 1-0 with a side containing the likes of Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Javier Mascherano and Juan Riquelme. All of these players and many more hold a gold medal in the Olympics, it isn’t a World Cup winners medal but surely it must be high up on the list of achievements for those players. Even more so for those who don’t fulfil the expectations laid on them later in their career.
Pep Guardiola realised the importance of the Olympics in a young player’s career as he overturned a decision from the Barcelona board to ensure that Messi would be able to compete at the 2008 Olympics. He understood the impact it had on his career and was determined that Messi shouldn’t be denied the chance he had had.
Because of the various restrictions over the years some of the teams who are successful at the summer Olympics aren’t the usual names you would expect to see succeed in international football. Hungary those past masters lead the men’s medal table with a total of five medals, three gold, one silver and one bronze.
Yugoslavia are level on five but only one gold amongst their lot, Uruguay and the Soviet Union both have two gold medals but the most interesting admission in the leaderboard is Great Britain who currently sit second in the table despite only participating sporadically and having a gap of 48 years between their last appearance in 1960 and their return to competition in 2012.
With the governing bodies of the United Kingdom refusing to enter a Great Britain side to the Rio games and indeed any future Olympics it could be a while until we see Britain add to their total of three gold medals. So who can we expect to make an impression in Rio? A young Brazil side will be hoping to make up for the failure of the senior side in the World Cup, while Argentina always pose a threat.
Mexico won the Gold in London by beating Brazil at Wembley and although strong at all age levels there is no guarantee they will repeat their performance from four years ago. From a European perspective, Spain have failed to qualify after going out in the group stage in 2012. So Germany could well take over the mantle as favourites.
It’s a shame that Olympic Football is so often derided and ignored, I believe it’s a worthwhile event to be included in the Olympics. It offers an invaluable platform for young players to compete on the highest stage with the benefit of gaining competitive tournament experience. Whether Fifa or certain governing bodies realise that i’m not entirely convinced.