It’s time for the Olympics to give football the boot
Date: April 18, 2014 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell
The Olympic Summer Games is seen as the pinnacle for most of the 28 sports that take part.
For the vast majority of participants an Olympic gold medal proudly stands as the highest accolade of all in their sport.
There are of course some exceptions but none more glaring than football.
The sport was introduced to the Olympic program at the second of the Modern Games at Paris in 1900, however in that year and the following Games in St Louis, the tournaments were contested by club, rather than national, sides.
At London in 1908 a six-nation tournament was staged and fully sanctioned by FIFA, the sport’s international governing body.
In those days, and for many Olympiads to come, nations had to field teams comprised solely of amateurs in keeping with the IOC’s ideals.
This caused issues for FIFA with many ‘minnows’ achieving more successes than the countries where the sport had powerhouse status.
When Uruguay won consecutive gold medals in 1924 and 1928 it was clear that the rules regarding player eligibility resulted in skewed results when compared to fully-fledged professional internationals or friendlies between the same countries during that period.
As football became more universally professional the gap between the standard at FIFA’s World Cup (inaugurated in 1930) and the Olympic Games became even starker.
From day one the World Cup was the sport’s marquee event with the world’s leading professionals capturing the hearts and minds of myriad spectators.
As time marched on the nations who featured at the pointy end of the World Cup seldom featured in the medal matches at the Olympics.
The Olympic tournaments became the stronghold of the Eastern Bloc nations which cleverly circumvented the amateur eligibility clause by utilising the services of players who were sponsored by the state, which meant they were effectively professionals but still sat within the criteria set down by the IOC for amateur status.
Between the first post-war Games in London in 1948 and Moscow in 1980 a total of 27 medals were decided with all bar four being won by countries from behind the Iron Curtain.
During the same period 24 medals awarded at eight World Cups with all bar three won by non-Eastern Bloc nations.
For the 1984 Los Angeles Games the IOC decided to loosen its eligibility criteria and allow for the first time professional players to take part in the football tournament.
This move was anathema to FIFA which was determined to keep the World Cup as the sport’s pinnacle event so it decided to apply its own criteria to Olympic qualification.
Any nation outside UEFA and the South American Football Federation were allowed to choose any professional player whilst the former pair could only nominate players who had never represented their country at World Cup level.
Then, ahead of the Barcelona Games in 1992, FIFA made its most radical decision with respect to its eligibility criteria when it decided that with the exception of three players every nation’s squad was to be made up of players under the age of 23.
With the stroke of a pen FIFA had pretty much consigned the Olympic gold medal for football to the level of an under-age international tournament.
Such a decision has cheapened the worth of that Olympic gold medal tremendously.
Football is the only sport at the Olympics that has imposed an age ceiling.
It is clear why FIFA chose this path as it guaranteed the unchallenged status of the World Cup but the dilution of an Olympic gold medal is an extremely unsatisfactory way to do it.
The IOC can live without football if it chose to.
It is unlikely that its massive television rights deals would be greatly affected by not having football at the Games.
American network NBC once again contributed over half of the IOC’s broadcast revenue at the 2012 London Olympics by shelling out US$1.18 billion – a figure that would not be substantially reduced should football be given its marching orders.
For mine, I don’t think tennis deserves a berth at the Olympics either as the status of an Olympic gold medal does not equate to the trophy that is presented at any of the four annual grand slam tournaments – a fact evidenced by the number of very high profile names to have bypassed the Olympics since the sport was reintroduced in 1988.
The same can be said for golf which is on the schedule for Rio de Janeiro in two years’ time.
However, there is a fundamental difference – neither tennis nor golf put age restrictions on participation as football does.
I dare say that even some very ardent and passionate followers of the World Game could not name the two finalists at the London Olympics two years ago.
Yet almost all of them could tell you that Spain and The Netherlands battled it out at the final of the 2010 World Cup at Johannesburg.
The Olympics should be the preserve of the very best that sport can offer and football by its own design has denied that with their own selection criteria.
It is time that it was omitted from the Olympic schedule.
First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 17 April 2014