Game attempt

Olympic football is becoming increasingly important. Matthew Brown reports

When the final score of the first women’s Olympic football final was flashed up on the stadium scoreboard in giant golden letters just minutes before Michael Johnson’s medal ceremony, the crowd roar almost rivalled the one which erupted when Johnson flashed through the 200 metres finish line earlier in the evening. The world’s most popular sport has had a strange, and sometimes strained, relationship with the world’s biggest sporting event, just as it has with the world’s most powerful nation. Until now. In Atlanta, Olympic football may, just possibly, have become an international competition significant enough to bridge the yawning gap between World Cup Finals.

Since the advent of the FIFA-organized World Cup in 1930, the Olympic Games football tournament, restricted to amateurs from the first official tournament in 1908 until 1984, has been relegated to pub league level as far as many of the games’ fans are concerned.

The teams that competed in the World Cup Finals in Sweden two years ago automatically qualified for the women’s competition, guaranteeing a high quality tournament. The England women’s team would have been there, too, except that in Olympic terms there is no such thing as England, nor Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, just Great Britain. To get a football team, male or female, into the Olympic Games, the FAs of the four home countries would have to bury their differences and be prepared to be a united body within FIFA as well. The last time a combined British team competed in the Olympics was in the qualifiers for the 1972 Games (in the days when FIFA was still being run by the old Empire stalwart, Sir Stanley Rous) when a team composed largely of Isthmian League players lost 5-1 on aggregate to the full Bulgarian national side.

While overall control of the Olympic Games is in the hands of the International Olympic Committee, each sport is under the auspices of, and governed by, the rules of its international federation. FIFA have long wanted a single Great Britain association – one member is less trouble than four, and has a quarter of the votes – and should the four FAs agree to come together for the Olympic Games, then why not for the World Cup and other FIFA tournaments? If that were to happen, of course, the top dogs within the four British associations would lose much of their power. Better not to be there at all.

The rule change to men’s football which allowed up to three over 23 years olds to play for each team meant that a number of the world’s biggest stars were on display. Brazil and Argentina, in particular, put considerable effort into preparing for the tournament, seeing it as an step in the build up to the 1998 World Cup Finals in France. “A gold medal in the Olympics would be like another world title,” said Brazil coach Mario Zagallo. “We know it is more difficult because the teams here are more alike.”

The 85,000 in the Sanford Stadium for the semi-final between Brazil and Nigeria saw an incredible game, in which victory was snatched from the world champions in the 10th minute of extra time, after Brazil had had been 3-1 up and seemingly sailing along to a final showdown with their South American rivals.

Such matches were not unusual. When Norway, the reigning women’s World Cup winners, met the USA in the semi-final, a record 64,000 saw the States fight back from a goal down to snatch victory in the final minutes. The final again smashed the record for the largest crowd ever to watch women’s football, with 76,000 seeing the USA’s Tiffany Milbrett secure the gold with a goal midway through the second half. “The fact that soccer has been followed as well as it has in these Olympics has to be an eye-opener for sponsors,” said Tony Dicicco, coach of the USA women’s team.

Over 3 million went to the games in all, compared to just over 450,000 in Barcelona four years ago.

In contrast to the World Cup Final, the men’s Olympic final was full of fast flowing and open football. The high drama of the final, with Nigeria sneaking a dodgy winner in the dying moments of normal time,was a fitting end to the tournament. It’s never going to rival the World Cup, of course, but if it continues to put some of the world’s best players, men and women, together on the same stage, and continues to attract some of the biggest attendances in Olympic history, then it surely has a future.

From WSC 115 September 1996. What was happening this month