The 2012 London Olympics is upon us and will be one of the largest sporting spectacles the world has ever seen. A range of competitive games and sports will be played over 17 days in the English capital and football will certainly be one of the most watched events of the tournament.
Football has been a part of every Summer Olympics except the 1896 and 1932 chapters. Only 3 teams participated in the first edition with Great Britain representatives Upton Park FC running out as eventual winners.
Much has changed over the course of the century and Olympic football now is a keenly contested affair with 16 teams participating from all corners of the globe. The 2012 edition will see 4 teams from Europe (including hosts Great Britain), 4 from Africa, 3 from Asia, 2 from S. America, 2 from N. America and 1 from Oceania.
Since 1936, European teams have won gold in every single Olympics. However after Spain’s victory on home soil at Barcelona in 1992, no European team has managed to win gold at the event. In spite of boasting some of the most competitive leagues in world football only 2 European teams have managed to finish among the medals since 1992 (Spain won silver in 2000 and Italy finished with bronze in 2004).
This decline among European nations at Olympic-level football has been attributed to the change of rules in Olympic football which allows only 3 players over the age of 23 in a squad of 22 players. The rise of footballing powers in other parts of the world such as Africa’s titans Nigeria and Cameroon might also have played its part.
However, yours truly is is of the opinion that there are even more reasons behind Europe’s fall from Olympic grace. Unsurprisingly perhaps, this decline in performance among European teams coincides with the rise of commercialism in world football especially in the European leagues of England, Spain and Italy.
That there has been a huge influx of money in modern football and that players are now stratospherically rich is no secret. With the proliferation of television, revenues have skyrocketed. The 2010 FIFA World Cup Finals were watched by over 3.2 billion people around the world. Companies pay huge premiums to market their products and services on such a massive stage.
Club football revenues have also skyrocketed. TV rights for the Barclays Premier League were sold for a record £3 Billion to Sky Sports and BT recently. Sponsorships, tie-ups and world tours have become increasingly common. Clubs, players, agents and federations are making more money than ever before.
None of these parties stand to gain anywhere close to that amount by participating in the Olympics. In fact, the time spent by players away at the Olympic Games might impact, both directly and indirectly, their money-raking potential in more market-friendly avenues as identified by their clubs and football federations. It inevitably presents an inherent conflict of interest for them. Europe with its largest share of the revenue pie, thus also stands the most to lose.
When clubs can make millions on overseas tours and give their younger talent some much needed hands-on footballing action, why would they feel the need to do the Olympics a favor?
FIFA and IOC – Clash of Interest?
The clash of interests between the governing body for world football – FIFA and the International Olympic Committee has been well documented. FIFA does not want Olympic Football to rival the FIFA World Cup and have undertaken several negotiations with the IOC to ensure that Olympic Football does not clash directly with the World Cup.
In stark contrast to the modern scenario in Olympic football, European nations have dominated the world game, winning 3 of the last 4 World Cups. The last two finals have been an all-European affair while there has been a European team in every World Cup final since 1950. You can’t help but raise eyebrows at the huge discrepancy between the performance of the European teams then, at the Olympics and at the World Cup. Could Europe’s strong representation in FIFA have anything to do with it?
Despite the size and stature of the event, many European nations have started to treat The Games as an unnecessary side-show and very often send uncompetitive teams to the Olympics.
Moreover, the last four editions including London 2012 have seen World Champions Spain qualify only twice. European powerhouse Germany has not qualified for Olympic football in the last 6 editions and Great Britain is fielding a football team for the first time in 52 years by virtue of them being the host nation.
In contrast, teams from other parts of the globe view the tournament as an excellent opportunity to act as ambassadors of the sport to the world. Countries from South America, Africa desperately want to win gold and this is evident in the strength of their squad. Uruguay have included two of their biggest stars – Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani – in their squad in an effort to win a medal at The Games.
Olympic Football – Club over Country?
The debate of club over country has raged on for ages but it is seldom more apparent than during the Olympics. FIFA has announced a rule mandating all clubs release players under 23 years of age for the Olympic games. Smart move, you might say. But the reality of the situation is however quite different. Xherdan Shaqiri has been left out of the Switzerland squad after Bayern Munich requested the Switzerland FA to do so.
Clubs are also at liberty to veto the selection for any over-age player in the Olympic squad. This has been a common practice and several big European clubs and national bodies being at loggerheads with each other over player availability. Jordi Alba’s inclusion in the Spanish squad was vehemently opposed by Barcelona and only relented after the player himself insisted on being included in the squad.
Olympic football is seen as an unnecessary distraction to clubs’ preparation for the coming season. Many players also return injured after playing international games and this only adds to the reluctance of clubs when it comes to letting players go.
Football at the Summer Olympics is a highly anticipated event enjoyed by fans around the world. However, with some of the world’s premier footballing nations and talents not participating, the tournament does lose some sheen. It’s a loss for football and for audiences around the world, that what is arguably the most dominant continent recently in world football, treats this tournament with such disdain.