It wasn’t always like this. Olympic soccer used to be huge. Before the first World Cup in 1930, the Olympics was the only place for world tournament soccer. From 1900 until 1928, Olympic winner’s could claim they were the best in the world. Even after 1930, Olympic soccer arguably was the premier soccer spectacle. In time, though, the amateur-only Olympics began to lose its status as more soccer players turned professional.
Still, FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, saw the Olympics as a competitor of the World Cup and in the ‘80s took measures to undercut the Olympic tournament including restricting what kind of players could take part. By 1992, the Olympics had taken the format it has today—professionals are allowed, but teams are limited to players under 23 years-old, plus three “overage” players. Even then, FIFA does not require clubs to release overage players for the Olympics, in contrast to the World Cup. In essence, (men’s) Olympic soccer has become a youth tournament.
This, amongst other reasons, is why our British cousins—hosts of this year’s Olympics—dismiss Olympic soccer. To hear them tell it, Olympic soccer is a waste-of-time, non-prestigious event that tires out players for next month’s start of the professional season.
That apathy is reflected in the ticket sales for the forthcoming Olympic soccer matches. Olympic organizers in London have withdrawn 500,000 tickets for sale, basically acknowledging that they will never be sold. In other words, the otherwise soccer-crazy English can’t be bothered to watch Olympic soccer even though it’s in their own backyard.
Sadly, Americans might follow suit. We barely watch soccer anyway and our (men’s) national team didn’t qualify for the Olympics. The North American spots went to Mexico and Honduras. Our boys couldn’t even make it out of the qualification group stage because they couldn’t beat tiny El Salvador and got their butts kicked by, wait for it. . . Canada.
So the question is, should Americans give a damn about (men’s) Olympic soccer?
Funny you ask, because Shorthanded can think of at least three reasons why you should watch.
First off, all the participating countries (other than Great Britain) are sending their best available players. Whereas England (as part of a mishmash G.B. team) is preventing anyone who competed in this summer’s European Championships from playing in the Olympics, Spain, Uruguay, Brazil, and all the rest are sending their elite.
Reigning world and European champion Spain is sending players who a few weeks ago were competing in the European Championships. Brazil is sending its best youth even though the Brazilian professional league is in the middle of its season. Every team’s overage players are players in their prime—no country (other than Team G.B.) would even consider an honorary participants à la over-the-hill David Beckham (excluded by England, but with much media gnashing of teeth). Every country (other than Team G.B.) is coming in guns ablaze.
Which brings us to the second reason you should check out Olympic soccer: teams really really want to win. Brazil has won every honor there is in international soccer except a gold medal. It itches them like three-day old underwear. Public pressure in Brazil is overwhelming. An overflowing trophy cabinet is nice, but Brazil is ravenous for gold.
Spain want to win, too, so it can continue its world dominance. Since 2008, the senior team has won every major tournament it’s entered. (They lost to the U.S. at the Confederations Cup in 2009, but for some reason that’s not considered a “major” tournament.) Spain’s youth teams have also dominated, winning the most recent Under-21 and Under-19 European Championships. If their Under-23s win Olympic gold, it would burgeon the country’s credentials as the world’s best. It would also be another brick in the argument that Spain’s recent run is the best had by a national soccer program, ever.
Then there’s Uruguay. Soccer (and perhaps beef) is this tiny country’s Uruguay’s claim to fame. Can you even find it on a map? (Shorthanded couldn’t until we were standing at its border and even then. . .) It’s population is smaller than Hanoi’s, but it’s won two World Cups and 15 South American championships. You may remember that they made the semis in World Cup 2010. For the London 2012, Uruguay wants to continue its streak of having won every Olympic tournament it’s qualified for. (Though admittedly, those happened in 1924 and 1928). They have reason to be optimistic. Uruguay is the reigning South American champion. Then there’s added incentive: putting another one over Brazil would be ever so sweet.
But let’s not forget the “lesser” nations like the South Koreas, the Mexicos, the Senegals, and the Egypts. For them, this arguably is their best chance to win a worldwide tournament. Nigeria’s “Screaming Eagles” at Atlanta ‘96 and Cameroon’s “Indomitable Lions” in Sydney 2000 are just two examples of countries that put their stamp on the soccer world by winning gold. England may turn its nose up to Olympic soccer, but the rest of the world sure doesn’t.
But there’s one final reason why you should check out Olympic soccer: you will see these teams again at World Cup 2014. For the soccer elite like Brazil, Uruguay, and Spain, each Olympics sets the stage for each forthcoming World Cup. The countries’ young players get a chance to feel the pressure of an international tournament. In two years many of these players will be in their primes and could play a role in World Cup glory. The players know they’re auditioning for The Biggest Stage and they want to impress.
In two years time you’ll hear about Brazil’s dynamic duo of Neymar and Oscar fighting for glory on home soil. You’ll hear about Uruguay’s overage, Jesus-haired striker Edinson Cavani and its dynamic defender Sebastián Coates trying to carry their tiny country to their first World Cup win since 1950. And for sure you’ll see part of this Mexico team take on the U.S. during World Cup qualification. Olympic soccer will, for the smart teams (i.e. not England), set the stage for World Cup 2012. This is your chance to get in on the ground floor and catch the under-the-radar talent before it hits big time.
Besides, it’s the Olympics, man! There’ll be hands over hearts and national anthems. There’ll be screams of victory and tears of defeat. There will be gold, silver, and bronze. If you’re giving handball, table tennis, and modern pentathlon a try, why not throw in some soccer, too? In fact, with fewer teams and fewer games, Olympic soccer is World Cup, light.
Best of all, for the first time ever, every game is available live and on-demand online. That means you can stream games at work, watch them on your phone, or replay them in the evening when you get home. Ain’t technology grand?
You’re out of excuses. Watch some Olympic soccer. You might even surprise yourself and like it more than synchronized swimming. (We at Shorthanded are nothing if not optimists.)
Games You Should Check Out
(All times EDT)
- Thursday, July 26 — 9:30 a.m. – MEXICO v. SOUTH KOREA
A game between countries with large, American immigrant populations. A great conversation piece for when you run into all your Mexican, Korean, and Mexican-Korean friends.
- Sunday, July 29 — 2:45 p.m. – SPAIN v. HONDURAS
A former colony takes on its former colonizer in a cultural grudge match. Honduras took what might have been the U.S.’s spot in the tournament. Even though Spain should crush Honduras you’ll want to watch because (a) you’ll get to see the Spanish youth play pretty, just like their senior team and (b) it’s a chance to reflect on how the U.S. might have done if it hadn’t botched its tournament qualification.
- Wednesday, August 1– 2:45 p.m. – TEAM GREAT BRITAIN v. URUGUAY
Two of the world’s elite meet in the group stage. Even if Team G.B. feigns disinterest, they’ll be up for this game.
- Every game with Brazil including:
- BRAZIL v. EGYPT – Thursday, July 26, 2:45 p.m.,
- BRAZIL v. BELARUS– Sunday, July 29, 10 a.m., and
- BRAZIL v. NEW ZEALAND – Wednesday, August 1, 9:30 a.m.
The Brazil team is loaded with talent, but raw. One name wonders like Neymar, Oscar, and Hulk look to carry the team to its first gold medal ever. The world will be watching to see whether this inexperienced but talented group holds the key to victory on home soil World Cup 2014. The anticipation and the pressure are immense.
- All the knockout games, starting with the quarterfinals on Saturday, August 4 and finishing in the final game on Saturday, August 11.
Stay tuned throughout the tournament for continuing previews and analysis from your very American Shorthanded.