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Football at the Olympics: Elite event or white elephant?


Football at the Olympics can prove an underwhelming spectacle for football fans. Here we try to propose solutions to amend the event.

Every two years there is a major international tournament for us to sit down and indulge in. To satisfy our need for the beautiful game after a long league campaign. You can ask any fan to recall their first ever memory of a World Cup or a European Championships, and will likely be met with a cherished recollection.

Yet when you bring up their first memory of watching football at the Olympic Games you will often be treated with a blank stare. They simply do not have one that they can recall. So why is this, and should football even be at the Olympic Games?

The pinnacle?

The Olympic Games is the pinnacle of sport. Many an athlete have ambitions of qualifying, and representing their country in the sport that they have dedicated their entire lives to. From Great Britain alone you can name recent medal winners Tom Daley and Adam Peaty to the Olympic legends of Chris Hoy and Sir Steve Redgrave. Elite athletes who can call back to when their hard work and dedication paid off.

The moment they won their medal be it Bronze, Silver or Gold. These are the greatest moments in their sporting careers.

To ask the majority of footballers what medal they want around their necks however, an Olympic Gold would be far down on the list.

The current rules for any side taking part at the Olympic Games is a unique set. Squads have to be made up of Under-23 players but each nation has the option to choose three above the age of 23 for the competition. This is why for the Tokyo 2020 games you will see likes of Dani Alves and Diego Carlos representing Brazil. This might have once made sense, as football within the Olympics existed before the World Cup was even created.

The Games were the only place for stars to take centre stage and showcase their talent. However, the modern game football has the U20 World Cup and other tournaments for the young stars. The senior World Cup and European Championships exist as the pinnacle for senior players. It is commonplace for the big-name players to choose to head to these over an Olympic Games.

It begs the question that if the Olympic Games is not showcasing the very best of football’s talent, can it still be considered an elite event?

The fan/player view

Whilst writing this piece I reached out and spoke to a few fans about this topic. The feedback received was that that they paid little to no attention to the games that were on during Tokyo 2020 or even at the previous Olympics. Many could not even recall who won a Gold Medal at London 2012 or Rio 2016. For me, this was quite sad and is the reason I felt inspired to write this article.

An Olympic Gold Medal is most likely the one prize that any up and coming footballer does not list as a must on their career resume. Their ambition is winning the Champions League, a league title or the World Cup.

Therefore the Olympic Games is not considered the pinnacle of their sport. So surely that brings forth the argument of “If it is not the pinnacle of the sport why is it even at the Olympics anymore?”.

But if that is the argument, many would argue that this brings the fallibility of other sports such as tennis and now golf into the equation. Events such as Wimbledon and The Masters are the uncontested pinnacle of those respected sports. Should they be scrapped from the Games too? Would Andy Murray trade in his Gold Medal he won at London 2012? Highly unlikely I would imagine.

Winning his medial appeared to inspire him into winning other competitions. Murray went on to lift the Wimbledon crown and the US Open. You could argue that winning the Gold Medal was the start of his journey to even greater success.

The view from the Women’s game is certainly very different to that of the Men’s. It gives women’s football exposure and was originally brought into the Games back in 1996 when they were hosted in Atlanta. Since then, the USA team has won the gold medal four times.

It is clear how much it means to each and every member of those winning teams to have that Gold Medal. To hear their national anthem, medal hanging upon their chest. Removing the sport from the Olympics would be robbing the women’s game of that exposure and many a young woman of representing their country at an Olympic Games. Who are we to put a price on that?

Fixing football at the Olympics

So how to make the men’s side of the sport take pride and care in the Olympics? Well, there is no silver bullet or cure. An idea could be to head down the semi-professional route. Only players that play for a football club that is considered semi-pro can compete in the competition. How this would work for free agents would be difficult. You could easily have Lionel Messi turn up for Argentina at Tokyo 2020 since he himself was a free agent at the time of the event. That could put the other sides at a significant disadvantage.

However, a ruling that if a player has played football at a professional level for a minimum amount of games or minutes then you are ineligible for the squad, it could rule out any players who made it from the academy of a top-level side but only got a few substitute appearances before dropping down the leagues.

This change to the men’s game within the Olympics would bring a more ‘non-league 3pm kick off’ vibe to the sport. During the pandemic, fans were unable to head down to our truly local sides that play to just a few hundred fans each Saturday afternoon. It was something I for one missed. If that atmosphere and sense of occasion could be brought to the sport but watched instead by potentially millions around the world then I strongly believe that each and every single player on that pitch would be truly passionate and driven to win their country the Gold Medal.

It could completely reframe how the event is perceived by football fans. Potentially for the better.

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