BBC football commentator Jonathan Pearce got through last Friday evening without once name-checking his current love…Cristiano bloody Ronaldo. He also avoided one word you would have thought key to his commentary on a football match between Great Britain and Brazil. Britain. In an age where succinct branding is so important (and Google “Bill Hicks advertising marketing” for my “view” on such things), “Team GB” is about as much detail as the modern sports fan is deemed capable of understanding. So Stuart Pearce’s hastily-flung together team of B-list England stars and most of the best of the Welsh were “Team GB” for the night. Maybe if they had the ball long enough to force Pearce to use two descriptions…
This was just one of many examples of the unease with which Olympic football is, and has long been, viewed in this country – by which, more confusingly, I actually mean the ‘United Kingdom’ of course. There are at least two reasons for this. History and politics. Early tournaments produced predictable British victories as most other nations had barely started playing the game. But the other nations “caught up” thanks to football’s international development. And the Olympic tournaments of the 1920s showcased the exotically sensational Uruguayan team which went on to win the first World Cup in 1930 – the 1928 Olympic decider in Amsterdam being a precursor to that 1930 final between Uruguay and Argentina. So it was that Olympic football became a victim of its own success, as the World Cup idea it had inspired took hold and speedily overtook the Olympics as the major international football tournament. Indeed, even if the Uruguayans had wanted to go for an Olympic three-in-a-row in Los Angeles in 1932, they couldn’t, as the sport was dropped from those games entirely. Football returned to the Olympics in 1936. Uruguay didn’t return to the Olympics until…well…next week. Olympic football became a “shamateur” event to a significant extent during the ‘Cold War’ years in Europe, as Eastern European athletes maintained their amateur status through extensive state sponsorship.
The “Magnificent Magyars” team which hammered England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953, and 7-1 in Budapest the following year lest anyone think the Wembley win was a freak, were pretty much the 1952 Olympic champions. The Polish squad which won the 1972 event in Munich contained a number of the team which knocked Sir Alf Ramsey’s England side out of the World Cup qualifying tournament, thirteen months later – Jan Tomaszewski and all that… (though Tomaszewski himself didn’t feature in the Olympics until winning a silver medal in 1976). And “Eastern Bloc” countries won every tournament, and all but three of the medals, between Hungary’s 1952 triumph and 1984, when the nations in the “Soviet sphere of influence” boycotted the games and left Yugoslavia to fly the ‘red’ flag. Great Britain’s amateurs were just that, Walthamstow Avenue and Bishop Auckland’s finest (along with some from my own team, Kingstonian) were sent into battle against Puskas et al. And even the best of the “non-league” game in the country had turned semi-professional by 1971, when Great Britain last kicked an Olympic football (the formal distinction between amateurs and professionals in English football ended in 1974).
So it is a long time since Olympic football has adhered to Olympic ideals. And in many people’s living memories, Olympic football had nothing to do with that key ingredient of the Olympics in my sport-obsessed youth amateurism. Meanwhile, international football politics was turning towards a new and, as confirmed recently, easily bought order. The 1974 FIFA presidential election victory of Brazilian bribe-merchant Joao Havelange over English anachronism Sir Stanley Rous was the symbol of the power shift in world football away from the mother country and the inventor of the modern game. In this new order, the idea that one nation, the United Kingdom, should have the power of four – through the separate football associations in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, was as anachronistic as doddery old Sir Stan himself. And if a Great Britain team ever took to a field for the Olympics – especially after 1984 when the tournament allowed professionals – gone would be any logical reason for four separate international teams, representing geographical entities which weren’t nations at all…and gone would be three of the four “home” nations’ votes.
Hence the debate over whether there should even be British Olympic football teams in 2012. For the host nation not to take part at all would look plain weird. The attendances at such an event could probably be accommodated by the best grounds in the modern non-league, or “national,” game. And it was ‘England’, not Britain, who qualified for the men’s and women’s tournaments in 2008, with the men’s European under-21 championships and the women’s actual World Cup serving as Olympic qualification events. So the debate was only ever going to be ignited by a London Olympics. And it was won so grudgingly and belatedly by the pro-entry lobby that Stuart Pearce’s side played last Friday like a side that had never met on a proper pitch in front of a proper crowd; because that’s exactly what they were. It’s madness, really. The tournament is not a part of the “official” international football calendar, as the International Olympic Committee has often seemed to covet the role of most corrupt international sporting body and maybe feared they might suffer in direct comparison with Sepp Blatter’s FIFA.
However, since professionalism, its roster of eligible players has become high quality. At first, only European and South American professionals with no World Cup experience were disbarred. So these nations selected up-and-coming young talent who would soon gain that World Cup experience. This had occasionally happened under old rules (the 1976 French Olympic team included Michel Platini) but was now to become more usual – with players such as Jurgen Klinsmann, Franco Baresi and Romario taking part before World Cups made them household footballing names. By 1996, the tournament had evolved into a superannuated under-23s World Cup, with the world’s young adults joined by three “over-age” players – hence the availability of David Beckham and the selection of Ryan Giggs for Pearce’s squad. And the tournament’s image received a timely boost with African successes in 1996 and 2000. Nigeria won the Atlanta gold in ’96, lighting up an otherwise dismal games with thrilling victories over Brazil and Argentina in the semi-final and final respectively. And Cameroon, including one Samuel Eto’o, triumphed in Sydney four years later.
Iraq were the story, if not the winners, in Athens in 2004, reaching the semi-finals thanks most eye-catchingly to a 4-2 group stage victory over Portugal. Argentina won that tournament, thanks to eight goals in the six matches from one C. Tevez esq, and successfully defended their title in Beijing. Their chances of three-in-a-row, however, were hampered somewhat by their failure to even qualify for London. So Hungary and Great Britain top the Olympic football honours board with three titles each. And Britain will go clear if they triumph in… no, let’s not lose the run of ourselves here.
The women’s tournament has thrown up equivalent quality and imagery. It quite simply offers the best that women’s’ international football. And, as recent World Cups have demonstrated, that is very good indeed. However, the tournament has virtually been the preserve of the United States since the inaugural event in Atlanta. Norway beat the States in the 2000 final to avenge their defeat in 1996. But the States beat Brazil in both 2004 and 2008. And they fully – and loudly and annoyingly in equal measure – expect to complete three-in-a-row next month. They don’t enter the competition as World Champions, having lost – unfortunately, even I have to admit – to Japan in last year’s World Cup final in Frankfurt on penalties (although they only took Brazil to penalties, and beat them, in the quarter-finals thanks to a last-header of the game equaliser by the experienced and…ahem…’combative’ Abby Wambach). In fact, their World Cup record is less impressive, champions twice in the nineties and only one final since, than their Olympic one. Japan, meanwhile, have improved steadily in recent Olympics, quarter-finalists in Athens and semi-finalists in Beijing. England’s performance in Germany would have qualified Britain even without host nation status. And dull though Britain’s 0-0 draw with Sweden was last Friday at the Riverside, Sweden did finish third in Germany. Manager Hope Powell’s team are an outside medal bet.
Stuart Pearce’s team are not. They will be at a huge competitive disadvantage. Their incoherence against Brazil at the Riverside last Friday was as complete as it was understandable. And they improved… well… 200% over the ninety minutes. But not even Pearce in his most jingoistically-optimistic mood sounded convinced when he said his charges would be “ready” when they play Senegal this Thursday. And the Africans were dangerously under-estimated by the BBC’s pundits in Middlesbrough, as they, like every other competing nation, have been through a qualifying process and are a genuine team. Olympic qualification is as idiosyncratic as you’d expect, given that FIFA under-aged tournaments only stretch to under-21 level. There is, of course, no space in years that only last 12 months, for a separate stand-alone qualification competition in Europe or South America (although you could imagine Blatter asking for a thirteenth month if he thought there was money in it for FIFA).
So last year’s European under-21 championships in Denmark, won by Spain naturally, and the 2011 South American Youth Championship – an under-20s event – won by Brazil, served as Olympic qualifiers. Other confederations arranged discrete qualifying tournaments, even Africa, who could have used the 2011 All-Africa games for the purpose but…er…didn’t. Senegal therefore come into Thursday’s game against Britain on the back of an extensive, almost club-like, schedule of matches. They only finished fourth in the qualifiers. But they made it to London via Coventry’s Ricoh Arena, beating Asia’s fourth-best, Oman, 2-0 and so have more competitive experience of the 2012 Games’ venues than Britain. Britain’s second opponents, the United Arab Emirates qualified as one of the three finals groups winners in the 13-month Asian competition, playing ten games in all. And Uruguay await in Britain’s third match, by which time Pearce’s team will want to have made a few more 200% improvements if they are to suppress a strike-pairing of Liverpool’s Luis Suarez and Napoli’s Edinson Cavani.
The prospects for the tournament as a whole, though, are as bright as Britain’s are grim. Brazil showed what they could do last Friday, and were only denied a repeat of their 6-0 South American Youth championship triumph over Uruguay by Britain keeper Jack Butland’s magnificent display. And with these names on show, there will surely be some performances to savour: Neymar, Juan Mata, Jordi Alba, Marcelo, Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, the afore-mentioned Suarez and Cavani, David de Gea and, yes, Ryan Giggs, on a major international stage at last. But this semi-stellar line-up, even when combined with the tournament’s colourful and star-studded recent history has failed to overcome good old British cynicism. Only last month, a friend of mine confidently declared that “you won’t find the likes of Messi and Ronaldo bothering with a tinpot trophy like this.” But even ignoring his curious description of a gold medal, this was rubbish. Messi played and starred in Argentina’s 2008 triumph. And among the Portuguese humbled by Iraq in 2004? Jose Bosingwa, Bruno Alves and…Cristiano bloody Ronaldo. I’m surprised Jonathan Pearce never mentioned that.
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