Why Olympic Football Is More Important Than People Think
Olympic football has never been considered as prestigious as the World Cup. However, it actually plays a bigger role than people think.
For example, Romario may be the best football player ever to feature at the Summer Olympics. There are many other contenders, like Bebeto, Tevez and Crespo.
Then of course there were young men called Messi and Ronaldinho...
Brazil have been one of the leading countries in recent years.
Great Britain have not really taken Olympic football seriously since winning it twice 100 years ago, despite the game as we know it being invented by a group of English gentlemen at Cambridge University in 1863.
Until this year, that is. Not surprising with it being on home territory. That doesn't mean they will win it, however. Might have had a better chance if David Beckham had been in the team...
Uruguay may be having a renaissance, having been one of the world's great footballing nations through the 1930s and also winning the tournament twice.
For many years after the last war, it was dominated by Eastern European countries, but we were never quite sure if the players were amateur.
Eventually, in 1984, the IOC decided to admit professional players but, in one of its dafter decisions, prevented the better, Western nations from entering players who had played in a World Cup.
Eventually common sense prevailed, and from 1992 on, it was open to any players under 23, together with three "over age" players. That is the modern format.
For some, it will always be a sideshow—especially women's football—but there are at least five reasons why Olympic football is more important than some people think.
The Oldest International Football Tournament in History
Yes, the oldest.
Olympic football started at the 1900 Games, but the first time it was competed for by nations, rather than clubs, was in 1908, when it was won by Great Britain (who won it four years later).
So what about "the First World Cup," you ask?
The World Cup was only started in 1930. The competition known colloquially as "the First World Cup" was actually the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy, started by an English tea magnate in 1909. It was immortalised in the film The World Cup: A Captain's Tale (1982).
The European Cup (now reconstituted as the European Champions League) commenced in 1955, and the European Championships (played between national teams) in 1960.
The history of football is one of a game played between amateur teams of gentlemen, in the Corinthian tradition. That "First World Cup" was won by a team of Durham miners, who probably only got expenses.
Like tennis and, in future, golf, the Olympics, which were originally an amateur Games, has become pragmatic in allowing professionals to compete against each other, though there is no prize money.
This does not prevent sponsored athletes and those who win prize money elsewhere from competing, but it is always for national and individual pride.
This is the Olympic spirit.
A Proving Ground for Stars and Teams of the Future
Brazil were the only bidders for the 2014 World Cup, which, by rotation, has to be played in South America.
They are taking it seriously, to the extent that they are using the 2012 Olympics as a proving ground for their likely 2014 team.
It is by no means certain that they will win, but with Spain's elimination, they must be hot favourites now. Not surprising, really, with so many hot or talked-about young players. The media has been full of speculation about the likes of Oscar (signed by Chelsea), Hulk, Lucas Moura, Ganso, etc.
Are we indeed seeing a repeat of the period from the 1984 to the 1996 Olympics when Brazilian stars emerged?
It's similar to what happened with Uruguay and players like Coates and Gaston Ramirez, or Team GB and Cleverley, Joe Allen, Danny Rose, etc.
A Showcase for Lesser Nations
African football has been developing fast in the last 20 years, and this must in part be due to the success of Ghana finishing third in the 1992 Olympics, Nigeria winning in 1996 and Cameroon winning in 2000. Nigeria were also losing finalists in 2008.
This progress has been reinforced by the showing of other nations this time. Senegal have shocked Uruguay and earned a deserved draw against GB. Gabon, Morocco, UAE and Egypt have all showed up surprisingly well.
A Stage for Women's Football
The USA women's football team has done wonders for promoting both the credibility and popularity of women's football. It is a pity that their professional league has ceased.
For those who until relatively recently would have thought it was something of a curiosity, they must surely have noted the significant improvement in skill and tenacity.
Marta (five times consecutively FIFA Player of the Year) and her talented teammates will have something to say about the USA's chances of winning the gold, and GB can't be ruled out, especially now they have beaten Brazil and joined USA with an unbeaten record. That keeps Brazil and USA apart until the final.
Japan, Sweden and France cannot be ruled out either.
Women's football needs an audience. It may be less physical than the men's game (try telling GB that, after the Cameroon match), but it is well worth watching.
The TV coverage of the London Olympics will be the widest and best ever. Women's sport in general gets a raw deal. If GB can somehow top their table, we could see a mouthwatering final between USA and Brazil on August 9 to inspire girls across the globe.
No Apparent Corruption
Genuine football fans have become utterly fed up with allegations of corruption in international football, with the media focus on FIFA Governance.
While there have been allegations of corruption elsewhere in the Olympic movement, football seems fairly immune.
That hasn't prevented the IOC from being vigilant against the possibility of betting scandals at the London Olympics.
It is a tragedy that already the extraordinary performance of a Chinese swimmer has attracted unnecessary accusations of doping. There will be 6,000 drugs tests in London.
So far, both versions of the football have been played in a good spirit, despite the somewhat physical approach of such as the Senegalese men.
Let's hope Olympic football continues to be untainted; that the men's tournament is a portent of future super-stardom; and the women's tournament puts their sport firmly at the top of world women's spectator sport.