Olympic Soccer Is Simply a Farce

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The world’s most famous and ancient sports event will take place this summer in London. For thousands of athletes, in sports ranging from synchronized swimming to the modern pentathlon, participation in the Olympics is the culmination of a successful career.

And though the Olympic basketball cannot match the NBA in terms of general quality, Team USA will include such household names as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, a sign that even those at the highest level hold the games in high regard.

But if you plan on watching the soccer tournament, don’t expect to see Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, whose teams are not included. Don’t look forward to watching the Germans, the Italians, or the Dutch, mainstays of most international soccer competitions. Their places are taken up by such storied teams as Belarus, the United Arab Emirates and Gabon.

Spain won’t field the most successful team in history, the one which won three major tournaments in a row. Brazil will not send its best side, and neither will the newly concocted Great Britain experiment.

Instead, soccer at the Olympics will be a desultory affair that won’t bear a modicum of resemblance to a serious sports competition. Soccer at the Olympics is an insult to the prestige of London 2012.

But there was a time when the Olympics were the hallmark of achievement in soccer. The Olympic soccer tournament is older than the World Cup, the European Championship, and the Champions League.

Indeed, soccer made its Olympic debut in Paris in 1900, at only the second edition of the modern games. The Games were at first reserved for amateurs, so the advent of professionalism meant that the Olympics could not keep pace with the World Cup.

But as with all international agreements, there was no shortage of authoritarian regimes seeking to circumvent this one. Communist-block countries in Eastern Europe would send their best players under the premise that they were not professional. Logically, they dominated.

This attitude made a mockery of the competition and its most basic ideals of fair play.

So in the 1980s, the tournament was opened up to professionals. However, FIFA has always placed restrictions to prevent the Olympics from reaching the same level as the World Cup.

Today, teams can only field players who are under 24. They are allowed three exceptions. No other sport has such a restriction.

Since the games take place in the lead-up to the regular season, clubs aren’t always willing to release their players. In 2008, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that professional clubs are not compelled to allow their players to participate in the Olympics.

In other words, it’s up to the club’s discretion if a player can feature. If a player wants to participate at the Olympics, his national team needs to beg his club coach for permission.

Not surprisingly, some club coaches don’t grant it. There is a reason why Great Britain’s over-age players are the 38-year old Ryan Giggs, the inconsistent Craig Bellamy, and Micah Richards, who did not even make it into England’s Euro Cup squad.

Only a third of Great Britain’s players have regular Premier League appearances. It is because they are non-essential players at their clubs that coaches are willing to release them. The Olympics have become a second-class tournament for players whose time isn’t too valuable to participate.

The entire concept of the Great Britain team adds to the surreal sense of confusion that is defining the competition. Great Britain never fields a team. There is England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But medals at the Olympics are awarded to countries, not subdivisions. So imagine if England, Scotland and Wales finished first, second, and third in the soccer competition. One country would get three medals at an event where its competitors could only hope for one.

So now Scotland and Northern Ireland are boycotting the Olympics. They are worried that FIFA could use this precedent to force them to permanently join Great Britain and lose their current identity.

The Great Britain fiasco adds a new level of farce to this ill-conceived tournament.

What is the purpose of Olympic soccer? At best, it offers young players experience. At worst, it is a venue for lawsuits and contractual theatre.

But should the Olympics serve as a training ground for aspiring athletes? If not, it’s time for the International Olympic Committee to reconsider soccer’s presence.

Unfortunately, soccer has been endorsed by the most respected pundit of them all: money. The soccer tournament is the most lucrative event at the Olympics, so it won’t go away soon.

For now, the tournament will remain an afterthought in professional soccer. And no Olympic event should be an afterthought.

Theodore Furchtgott is a RealClearSports soccer columnist. He can be reached at Theodore.Furchtgott@gmail.com.

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