London 2012: Summer Games Need Soccer a Lot More Than Soccer Needs Olympics
Raise a torch if you're seriously excited about this summer's men's football tournament at the London 2012 Olympics.
Hello and thank you, David Beckham!
Nice to see you there, Stuart Pearce.
Oh, and good day to you, Lord Sebastian Coe. Really appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule, playing god of the five rings, to vote.
But how about the fans? Are there really that many of you out there feeling a tingling sense of anticipation about the 16-team tournament?
I'll lay my cards on the table. I'm rather underwhelmed by the prospect.
The men's Olympic tournament feels like the Carling Cup of international football. It means nothing unless you win it, and it will be marked as much by talk of the players who aren't playing as by those who are.
We already know Manchester United are against the release of any overage players bar Ryan Giggs. Then there's Euro 2012 to consider—which will likely rule out the very best players from England and Spain.
Over the next few weeks, we can expect to hear the names of plenty more players made unavailable too, as club coaches seek to protect their most valuable assets for the domestic campaigns to follow.
A cynic might predict a raft of long-awaited surgeries being scheduled, just to keep the biggest names away from the Olympics.
The problem for the 16 nations is this: Unlike for general international duty, there is no legal requirement for clubs to release their player for the Olympics. As The Independent points out, this was confirmed in a ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2008.
That said, a FIFA appeal did prompt several clubs to make a U-turn for the Beijing Games. One of them was Barcelona, whose release of Lionel Messi helped Argentina win the gold medal.
FIFA have told clubs they must release under-23 players this time around, but that won't stop them from trying to get around the problem.
To be fair, we can still count on some stellar talent this summer. Brazil alone may give us Neymar, Ganso, Alexandre Pato, Thiago Silva, Marcelo and Hulk. That's some serious box office and well over £200 million worth of draw.
Uruguay may put out Diego Forlan and, who knows, maybe that most Olympic-spirited of strikers, Luis Suarez, too. Then there's the potential pairing of Newcastle's Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse for Senegal.
But the big names are unlikely to distract from the contrived nature of the tournament.
We certainly won't be watching the best 16 nations in the world. We'll be watching a strangely weighted representation from six regional qualification areas, which somehow resulted in more teams from Asia than South America making the tournament.
Europe will provide just four of the 16. When you consider the continent will send 13 teams to the 32-team 2014 World Cup, you can't help but feel the Olympic spirit is diluting the meritocracy a little.
What should we have at the Olympics?
Then there are the strange age restrictions. Olympic squads are made up of 18 players, of which only three can have been born before Jan. 1, 1989.
If it were strictly under-23 you could understand it, but the inclusion of three "designated" overage stars comes off as a crude attempt to meet public interest at the halfway point.
So why have the rule? Is it there to ensure we get a good smattering of household names, like Forlan and David Beckham? Or simply to avoid a situation where teams are unable to select 75 percent of their first-choice players?
Either way, it feels forced.
Football is at the Olympics because it has to be. But the world's most popular sport needs the London Games a lot less than the Games need it to be there.
After a season of relentless entertainment across Europe, and with Euro 2012 to come, the Olympic men's tournament can't hope to compare with what has come before.
Maybe the problem is that it's trying to. And what Olympic football competition really needs, is to be different from what we get served on a weekly basis—and to a far higher standard.
My vote is for a straight under-21 tournament—with special dispensation from the Queen to allow Beckham to come on and take free kicks.
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