We are blessed this summer with some big sporting events – no sooner has Euro 2016 finished then we have the Rio 2016 Olympics. Euro 2016 is one of the biggest football tournaments there is, but if you were to ask most people they probably wouldn’t exactly think of the Olympics as a huge show-piece for football. The Olympics is a wonderful sporting event, where we learn about a number of sports that we don’t hear so much about for 4 years – the 100m sprint, the cycling, the rowing, hell people certainly watch the beach volleyball for… Some reason. But football, while being arguably the biggest sport in the world, is certainly not even close to one of the biggest sports at the Olympics – and when you start to think about it, you wonder whether football should still actually be in the Olympics at all.
Looking at it on a base level, the rules of football at the Olympics seem strange when compared to every other footballing event. The squads have to be made up of Under-23 players but for the option to choose 3 players above the age of 23 for the competition, something that may have made more sense in the past than it does in the present day. Modern football simply separates itself into U-21 tournaments in order to blood youngsters, and senior tournaments like Euro 2016 for the superstars and even some of the aforementioned youngsters. It is perhaps unfortunate that Euro 2016 comes the same summer as the Olympics, because it is clear where the European superstars will end up. Both of these examples just sum up how football has separated itself from the Olympics with bigger competitive international tournaments than ever before, none of which follow the U-23 model that calls back to a bygone era. It could be argued that football and the Olympics once seemed more in sync, but over the decades they have headed in directions that to my mind makes them fundamentally at odds with each other, both in scheduling and in the squad selection. It is interesting to note that football was played at the Olympics long before the World Cup, the Copa América or the Euros ever even existed, but now we have endless club and international football events across the world that are making the sport bigger and, more importantly, busier, than ever before. Football has become a business model in its own right, to great success, but as a result it doesn’t stand for the same things that the Olympics is about.
What do I mean by this? Well while the Olympics isn’t the all-amateur sports event it once was, it is certainly still an opportunity for the lesser-known sports to thrive on the big stage. But it is more than that – for these sports the Olympics is the pinnacle, and the gold medal is the biggest honour that the athletes can achieve in their career. This is a big reason that I question football as an Olympics sport: I don’t think that an Olympic gold medal is high in the priorities of a footballer, and is certainly not considered the pinnacle of the sport. Hell it’s not even the pinnacle for a footballer this summer, with Euro 2016 and the Copa América Centenario taking place this summer, not to mention the fact that the new Premier League season is actually kicking off during the period that the Olympic football tournament is taking place! That’s not a criticism, it’s just the consequence of there being so many club and international tournaments that are much higher up the pecking order. And not just the players, can it really be said that there is a high demand for Olympics football from the public? When I mentioned the idea of this article to my girlfriend, she was surprised that football was even in the Olympics. I understand that football is a big world-renown sport so there is some financial gain to be made from its inclusion and that would be beneficial of course, but at the same time the Olympics is a world event itself that I would have thought it could surely survive just fine without football’s help. And while sports like squash struggle to make it into the Olympics, football actively seem to treat it as a chore, complaining that it leaves them knackered for pre-season and the impending domestic league season. And because of that, I struggle to see why football should be in the Olympics – the priorities of footballers, and the pinnacles of their sport, lie elsewhere.
We love seeing Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis-Hill, even some randomer doing the triathlon when we are flicking channels. We especially love seeing Usain Bolt, who has gone on to become a global superstar in his own right. These people are competing for the pinnacle achievement of their sport, but footballers often seem to view the Olympics as a tournament too far, time they could be training with their clubs. Now I’m not picking on football just because it’s a more popular global sport – I feel that basketball and arguably even tennis are a questionable part of the Olympics, being professional sports with a number of other tournaments that are arguably seen as more important. Some may disagree with me on this though, highlighting that it is difficult to say where to draw the line when it comes to the more lucrative professional sports that are in the Olympics. But even tennis places a degree of importance on winning a gold medal, with the existence of the ‘Golden Slam’ where a player has won all the Grand Slams and an Olympic gold. When Andy Murray beat Roger Federer to the Olympic gold in 2012, it certainly meant a lot and arguably propelled Murray to his US Open and Wimbledon Grand Slam triumphs in the 12 months that followed. Do you hear tennis players complain about the Olympics? Few sports have more congested scheduling, and yet tennis players seem to be moving plans around to actively ensure that they can compete – directly opposing the stance that football seems to take even though it is also a professional sport of high standing.
Then again, I think that British football fans may be more inclined to criticise Olympics football than others though. This is due largely to the farce that has been Great Britain football teams in the modern era, the worst example of apparent disdain for the Olympics that I’ve seen so far. Bear in mind Great Britain (otherwise known as the home of football) is joint top for the most wins in history of Olympic men’s football gold medals, so surely we should have a sense of pride and expectation at the Olympics? Well, not really – 2012 was the first time that Great Britain competed at the Olympics for 42 years. I loved London 2012 along with everybody else, it was a wonderful Olympics so close to home, but the football was perhaps the only negative thing to come from it. Rather than seeing it as a great opportunity to send youngsters to a big tournament, to unite countries and effectively form a super-team, the political manoeuvring and outright stubbornness of major officials nearly ensured that there was no Team GB football team in London.
Now in 2016 Wales and Northern Ireland have both qualified for the Euros, but back in 2012 this seemed a distant possibility – Wales for example hadn’t appeared in a major tournament since 1958. As a result it seemed a wonderful thought to pool the talents of four nations to create a GB super-team. But instead it was viewed with cynicism and distrust.
From the get-go all I read about was complaining from the footballing authorities of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, saying that their identities would be lost. There was huge criticism of Welsh players Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale for appearing in promotional pictures showing them in supporters’ shirts – how dare they want to play at a big tournament on the world stage! I was astounded to read former Scotland manager Craig Brown actually say in June 2011, “I would rather lose as Scotland than win as Great Britain”. There were suggestions of fielding individual teams for the different nations, but once again this went against what the Olympics was about. Why is it that every single other event is competed by a Great Britain line-up without trouble? Forgetting the Olympics, what about the Davis Cup in the tennis which Andy Murray helped Great Britain win in 2015? And what about the British and Irish Lions in the rugby, a combination of England, Wales, Scotland and the whole of Ireland that has been going for 128 years and won their latest tour to the southern hemisphere in 2013? There is evidence that it is possible, a unique and fantastic sporting experience that transcends rivalries – but in football is was treated as some sort of threat, and I genuinely don’t understand why.
And so after much arguing, Team GB entered a squad into London 2012 football competition that was made up of English and Welsh players. It was a real shame to only have two of the four possible nations represented, but there were some elements to the team that I liked. It was a great shout to have Ryan Giggs as captain, hell it was great to finally see Giggs at an international tournament. There were some promising young players in the squad like Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen, and then-relative unknowns who we would now recognise like Daniel Sturridge, Ryan Bertrand, Danny Rose and Jack Butland. There was also Micah Richards, Tom Cleverley, Steven Caulker and Scott Sinclair… Okay so evidently not everyone was a hit but it was still great that they made some effort to adhere to the squad format and as a result picked an intersting array of players.
But there were still problems that added a sour taste to it all – the first was David Beckham. I remember buying a Team GB Olympics shirt and I noticed that there were loads of ‘Beckham’ t-shirts on the shelves. He was and is a globally recognised name, as much for his brand as his footballing ability, but I think he should have been picked in the squad. When the torch was handed over at Beijing 2008, Beckham was there because he is our most recognised sportsman, pure and simple. But it’s not just to do with his popularity – David Beckham was a huge part of getting us the Olympics, and advertising the Olympics – as if to emphasise his part in it all he quite literally brought the Olympic torch to British soil in the build-up to the Olympic Games. He was a part of the opening ceremony too, but to my surprise he was not picked in the final squad. Beckham was over 23, but the three over-23 slots went to Ryan Giggs, Craig Bellamy and Micah Richards. Remember, FA of Wales President Phil Pritchard said in 2011, “I am not against Welsh involvement in the Games. I’d be delighted to enter a team of our own and have no objections to England having a team of their own”. Does it seem odd that two of the over-23 slots went to players from one of the countries that didn’t even want a Team GB football team, while a famous player who actively campaigned for Team GB wasn’t selected? Some may disagree with me on this but on top of that I don’t think that Bellamy or even Micah Richards were better players than Beckham at the time, and it would have been great to have former Manchester United team-mates Giggs and Beckham playing together again. I like that Craig Bellamy was so enthusiastic about playing in interviews at the time, but I still think Beckham should have got one of the slots, either Bellamy’s or the one that Micah Richards took. I think that the decision not to pick him was politically motivated, perhaps even not to seem too English-centric in selection, and if so it is a real shame that it came to that because this was a big setback to the team before the Olympics even began.
Another detriment to the Team GB football team was another incident involving Gareth Bale. Before the Olympics it was announced that Gareth Bale, who had of course appeared in Team GB advertising the year before, had aggravated a back injury and would not be able to participate. However Bale then played for Tottenham Hotspur in a friendly against LA Galaxy before Team GB’s first game… I suppose we should have seen it coming. In 2011 Phil Pritchard had posed the question, “Do the BOC (British Olympic Committee) really believe Premier League managers such as Harry Redknapp and Arsene Wenger would be happy with their players appearing in the Olympics next July and August when the new season is just about the commence?” and unfortunately his cynicism here was proven correct. In the end the Olympics was clearly not considered important enough, first when English players who went to Euro 2012 weren’t even considered for selection that summer, and then with this Bale incident. This along with the Beckham non-selection added to the sour taste I described in what was an otherwise incredible Olympics that none of us will ever forget, and it is football’s loss that it didn’t embrace being a part of it. I seem to recall that Team GB lost on penalties though (familiar), a clear indicator that the team was English-dominated…
Fast-forward to 2016, and Team GB will not have a football team at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Apparently London 2012 was viewed as a one-off, which again is a real shame. There seems to be an attempt to make it happen for Tokyo 2020 but it is going to be tricky, and it still surprises me how ridiculously difficult it continues to be. Let’s imagine an ideal scenario where you can pick any U-23 players from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland for 2016, here are some of the players that we could have competing:
Jack Butland, Ben Davies, Paddy McNair, John Stones, Raheem Sterling, Kieran Tierney, Danny Ward, Ross Barkley, Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Harry Kane, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Chuba Akpom, Andrew Robertson, Adam Henley, Tom Carroll, Luke Shaw, Jesse Lingard, John McGinn, Tosin Adarabioyo, Marcus Rashford, Ryan McLaughlin, Patrick Roberts, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Calum Chambers, Emyr Huws, James Ward-Prowse, John McGinn, Oliver Burke, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Jordan Ibe, Reece Oxford, Tony Watt and Jack Grealish.
Then for the over-23’s chuck in Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Northern Ireland’s Kyle Lafferty for even more of a mixture. Not a bad team right? But no, we treat it as something worrying and that is ridiculous – the authorities have completely lost sight of how special the Olympics are. I looked at who is competing in the football at Rio 2016, and I noticed that Fiji and Iraq are in the mix… Fiji, and Iraq? You know what, good for them, I hope that they treat the tournament as something to be proud of, rather than complaining about being a part of it, complaining about the honour of being an Olympian. The treatment of football in the Olympics with such disdain by Great Britain is perhaps the thing that makes it most difficult for me to support the sport’s involvement in the Olympics at all, and I just hope that other countries aren’t so overwhelmingly negative about it.
But let’s forget GB for a second though. Once we do that, perhaps there’s hope for football as an Olympics sport? While many teams seem to view it as an inconvenience in the way that British clubs do (I’m very intrigued to see if Real Madrid will let Cristiano Ronaldo play for Portugal at Rio 2016), there are examples that show belief in the importance of participating at the Olympics. When Argentina won the Olympic gold medal in 2008 their squad featured Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Juan Román Riquelme, Pablo Zabaleta, Javier Mascherano and Ángel Di María. Sure you could argue that Argentina didn’t have a major tournament just before that year (although they will have the Copa América Centenario in 2016). You could also weep at the thought that this was once their youth team, but it’s interesting that they were allowed to go and play… And how many of those players grew from this experience and were competing in a World Cup Final six years later in 2014? There were also great surprises relatively recently with Cameroon unexpectedly beating Spain at Sydney 2000 in a penalty shoot-out, and Mexico surprising Brazil in 2012, suggesting that there are still some great sporting moments to be seen.
Another huge benefit of football being an Olympics sport is that women’s football gets some good exposure. First introduced as an Olympic sport at Atlanta 1996, the USA team has won the gold medal four times, and Norway once. I would actually say that it is a far bigger shame than the men’s team not playing that there won’t be a Team GB women’s football team at Rio 2016. For one, it would have been great for them to receive that extra exposure, as they do not have the benefit of being showcased at all the tournaments their male counterparts participate in. I would think that the Olympics would actually mean a lot more to them, and as such they would be a lot better suited to it, which makes it even more of a shame that British female footballers miss out this time around. Watching the England women’s 3rd-placed finish at the 2015 Women’s World Cup was great because they were so passionate and inspiring, much more so than the men’s team damp squib of a tournament at the Brazil 2014 World Cup in fact. So I’d say that football as an Olympic sport certainly makes sense when you see how much it matters to players like England captain Steph Houghton who represented Great Britain in 2012, and I would have thought would do so again in Tokyo 2020 if given the choice.
What’s more, for all my points about football being generally ill-suited to being an Olympic sport, ironically Rio 2016 is likely the best suited Olympics for football that there has ever been. Football is huge in Brazil, a religion followed by the nation to an obsessive extent, so it will be nice to see another international tournament hosted there… They are using some of the stadiums that were built for the 2014 World Cup too, which is probably a good thing. A lot of said stadiums were laughed at in 2014 after the tournament, with some falling apart mere months after the tournament ended, some struggling to be filled for actual football games and instead being hired out for children’s birthday parties, and one even serving as a car park! If led by talisman Neymar, most of all this could be a great opportunity for Brazil to redeem themselves after the embarrassing end to their 2014 World Cup campaign – plus it is intriguing to note that for all their footballing history, Brazil have never won an Olympic gold medal in the football. Look at it one way, and at the fact is that the Olympics had competitive football long before World Cups and the Euros, so it could be viewed as the oldest football competition that there is. In a country with the biggest support for football in the world, Rio 2016 could be an ideal fit to bring football back to the Olympics, to make it truly matter again.
Rio 2016 could yet prove to be a pivotal moment in the future of football at the Olympics. There have been some relatively recent examples of countries showing great desire at the Games, and for women’s football it is great exposure and a further opportunity to play on the big stage which can only be a good thing. Perhaps an Olympic football competition in Brazil could be just the thing to remind people that football still matters at the Olympics and should continue to be a part of it. But there needs to be a global change in perception if this is to continue long-term, the British team being a big example of this, because people can’t view it as a chore any longer. Being an Olympian is not a hazard to someone’s pre-season, it is an honour for athletes across the world. Furthermore if the perception changes, the public could start to view the Olympics as a uniquely thrilling stage to see our most exciting young football players prove themselves, with the added help and tutelage of 3 superstars to make this unique format a benefit rather than a source of confusion. If teams pick players to genuinely compete then football will become a greater part of the Olympics, as opposed to just being a bit of a financial benefit due to its separate worldwide popularity. Will the financial reward continue to justify its inclusion? Because as things stand, I’m not sure it is important enough to the public, or worse, to the athletes themselves. If this trend continues then football will continue to be at odds with what the Olympics stands for, and won’t even generate much additional revenue because let’s face it, people are always going to watch the Olympics regardless. And because of that then perhaps in future it should not continue to be an Olympic sport, if only to allow a sport to replace it that would truly treat participation at the Olympics as the honour that it is. Only time will tell, but something needs to change.