Saturday 23 August ~
What have we learnt from the Olympic football tournament? Come on, there must be something. Perhaps that Lionel Messi looks even better playing against Under-23s. Or maybe that young players from west Africa generally have better technique than those from Australia and New Zealand. In other words, precious little that we did not know already – except perhaps that when men and women play tournaments simultaneously, it is not necessarily the men who put on a more engaging spectacle.
The journalist and former British table-tennis representative Matthew Syed has argued that many of the sports at the Olympics do not deserve their place there, or at least should offer fewer medals. He believes the three criteria for an Olympic sport should be: that is not the preserve only of rich and technologically advanced countries; that it is popular across a wide range of countries; and that the Olympics is the highest, or at least equal-highest, level at which that sport is played.
While men’s football easily satisfies the first two, it manifestly fails on the third. With overage players of the experience and calibre of Ronaldinho, Robinho and Riquelme involved (not to mention Brian McBride, who is old enough to be the father of some of the US players), the winning team cannot even claim unequivocally that it is the best Under-23 outfit in the world.
Who needs whom more in this situation? There is an obvious motive for the International Olympic Committee to keep the status quo. Football draws crowds that badminton and rowing never will. Attracting some of the most marketable sportspeople in the world helps round out a package that otherwise looks a lot like athletics + swimming + assorted minority and frankly dubious diversions (BMX bikes? Do us a favour). This also explains why tennis lingers, despite the increasingly whiffy status of its Olympic tournament.
But what is in it for football? With clubs and national associations perpetually at loggerheads, the last thing FIFA should want are superfluous games that create extra, unnecessary tensions. Rather than encouraging more and more underage, regional and global tournaments it should be cutting international games back to the ones that really matter, so that it can fight its battles with the clubs on firmer ground.
The absurd number of World Cup qualifying matches in Europe and South America could be slashed simply by dividing them into more groups. UEFA has 53 members competing for 13 places. With 12 groups of four and one of five, only 164 matches would be needed to find the qualifiers. Instead there are eight groups of six and one of five, which requires 260, plus eight play-offs. In South America the single huge group demands 90 games, rather than 40 if it were split in two. Dumping the Confederations Cup would be another easy win, although FIFA seems determined to cling to its unloved orphan. Cutting the IOC adrift should be next on its list. Mike Ticher