Football’s poor relation simply misunderstood
By Liam Mackey
The runnin’ and hoppin’ and leppin’ — and, if you’re Irish, the punchin’ too — will doubtless hog the headlines in London for the next couple of weeks (with the old dopin’ likely to get a bit of a showing too) but, with 26 sports on offer at the Olympic Games, the unfamiliar, the esoteric and the borderline weird will also get their place in the sun and rain.
So bring on the Greco-Roman grapplers! Let’s all dress up for the dressage! What do we want? Synchronised swimming! When do we want it? Now! And that’s before we make space in our packed TV-watching schedule for the archery, the shooting, the mountain biking and, er, the football.
Yes, the old footie certainly knows its place at the Olympics, kicking off even before the torch has been lit and the Games proper commence. Not so much an after-thought as a pre-thought, it sees the world’s most popular sport cast in the role of Status Quo at Live Aid.
Which, in truth, is nothing really to complain about, given that — notwithstanding the pain of it all for Irish eyes — we’re still basking in the glow of a splendid European Championships and are only two years away from a World Cup in the very home of the beautiful game.
Still, there was undeniable Alice Through The Looking Glass effect when, out of 25,000 accredited media personnel, a mere seven hacks turned up for Stuart Pearce’s press conference ahead of Team GB’s opening game against Senegal, prompting the gaffer to remark that they could have just as easily held the event in his bedroom.
The full house for the actual game itself at Old Trafford will have pleased the organisers, though with the crowd’s high proportion of schoolkids, the atmosphere was markedly more relaxed than you suspect would be the case if the regular home side had been denied a nailed-on penalty and held to a draw by tough-tackling opposition.
England might like to consider itself the home of the game but it tends to be a cold enough house when the game in question is regarded by football’s self-proclaimed authorities as the puny, underage, mix ‘n’ match version of the real thing. In short, the credibility of football at the Olympics suffers in this part of the world not for what it is but for what it isn’t.
That’s not the case on foreign fields. Since 1992 — the year when a Spanish side featuring Pep Guardiola took gold by beating Poland 3-2 in front of, take note, 95,000 at the Nou Camp — Olympic football has been, in essence, an U23 World Cup, with a little veteran magic dust sprinkled on top.
Direct comparisons with the World Cup itself or the Euros or the Copa America are therefore unfair, since the tournament is not even about pitting the best footballers against the best exponents of all the other sports at the same Olympics. What it is, is a developmental platform which, while holding out the tantalising prospect for any sports person of an Olympic medal, is really more about long-term potential than short-term gain.
As is so often the case in football, this seems to be much more clearly understood the further you get from these islands. While the burning issue ahead of the Team GB squad selection was whether or not footballer-turned-celebrity David Beckham would get the nod — and, fair play to Pearce, he resisted pressure to play to the gallery on that one — across in Brazil they were viewing the Olympics as, yes, a chance to win gold for the first time but also as a significant testing ground for the manager and players who will be expected to represent the country when they host the World Cup on home soil in two years’ time.
Little wonder then that senior gaffer Marco Menezes is also in charge of the current Olympics team, with the attendant pressure on the man such that his many critics are saying that anything less than that historic first gold for the country should see him replaced in the top job. Thursday’s 3-2 win over Egypt ensured both sides of the argument had something to take from a thriller.
Samba’s number one superstar Neymar got on the scoresheet in that one, making him just the latest stellar football name to leave his mark on the Olympic Games. At Sydney 2000, Samuel Eto’o helped Cameroon beat a Spanish side featuring Xavi and Carles Puyol to claim gold; four years later in Athens Carlos Tevez scored eight times in Argentina’s climb to the top; and, last time out in Beijing, one Lionel Messi insisted that Barcelona release him to help his country retain gold in a final watched by 90,000.
Brazil 2014 might be the World Cup where Messi finally joins Maradona on the pantheon but, in the meantime, he continues to carry a torch for the Olympics.
“Those three weeks were stunning, an unforgettable experience that will stay in my memories forever,” he has said. Which is not something you’re going to hear from Mr Gareth Bale any time soon.
Meantime, let football people be grateful to these Olympics if for no other reason that they have already given us the exceedingly rare spectacle of a Spanish national team actually losing a match. For those who maintain the sport’s international power base is due to shift east over the coming decades, maybe London is already pointing the way.