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The two faces of Olympic football

6 Aug 2008(Wed)

In what has now become a regular peculiarity of the Games, the football competitions at the Beijing Olympics will kick off on Wednesday (women) and Thursday (men) of this week – before the actual opening ceremony is held on Friday. Japanese television, newspapers, and magazines have already been full of special features on the football tournaments, and the warm-up matches held in the country have attracted packed houses and passionate atmospheres. Supporters are debating their favoured line-ups for ‘Sorimachi Japan’, and even people who never normally watch football are pondering Japan’s chances of grabbing a medal this year. In short, the country is looking forward to a major footballing event that, in its eyes, ranks on a par with the World Cup or the continental competitions.


Meanwhile, the European press and public are also full of anticipation for the Games, but talk about the football competitions is minimal, and the only references that can generally be found in the news are to a sense of hassle surrounding the event. Concerned at the clash with the start of the league campaign and with the Champions League qualifiers, FC Barcelona have appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport against Lionel Messi’s call up to the Argentinean Olympic squad. German clubs Schalke and Werder Bremen have also taken similar measures, while Real Madrid flatly refused to release Robinho for the Brazil team on the grounds of fears over injury. Debate continues to rage between FIFA, which cites release for international competitions as written rule, and the clubs who claim that the Olympics are nothing to do with the international calendar. Ultimately, the teams and their supporters will have to shrug their shoulders at the loss of their players, but few in Europe will have been particularly willing to send them off.


The United Kingdom is, of course, an especially complicated example. Having reached the last four of the 2007 UEFA U-21 Championship, England would technically have qualified for a place at the men’s football tournament in Beijing, but since it participates at the Olympics under the banner of Great Britain – along with Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – the final spot at the Games went to fifth-placed Italy instead. Before the FA abolished the distinction between amateurs and professionals in 1974, the English amateur team did represent the UK in the Olympics, and won the gold medal in 1908 and 1912, but the failed attempt at qualification for the Munich Olympics in 1972 would be its last. Nowadays, British football has little relationship with the Olympics whatsoever.


Ahead of the 2012 Games in London, the British Olympic Association has laid out plans to form a British team especially for the event. However, the Football Associations of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have come out in opposition to the proposal, fearing that it would lead to the loss of their respective footballing independence, and even though Sepp Blatter initially confirmed this independence as set in stone, the ever-unreliable FIFA President has recently been far less reassuring on the issue. Although a football equivalent of rugby union’s Lions would likely bring much excitement to the British public, it would seem that there is much distance to be overcome if this is to be made a reality.


Attitudes to Olympic football in Japan are therefore virtually a polar opposite to those in the UK, and the Olympics may indeed have been the most important competition in Japan’s footballing history to date. Making its first ever appearance at the 1936 Games in Berlin, the Japan national team came from behind to record a famous 3-2 win over Sweden, and appeared again in Melbourne in 1956 while the country was still in a period of recovery after the war. Under the leadership of the German coach Dettmar Cramer, Japan reached the last eight at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, before winning the bronze medal as Kunishige Kamamoto finished as top scorer in Mexico City four years later. More recently, several members of the Olympic side that defeated Brazil in Atlanta in 1996 went on to represent Japan in its first ever World Cup appearance two years later. 2008 will be the fourth consecutive Games in which the Japanese men’s football team has taken part, and the players will be hoping that they can follow in the footsteps of their predecessors and make their mark both for the U-23s and for the full national side.


Despite the fact that Holland will actually be present at the competition, a look at the sports pages of its largest newspaper, De Telegraaf, revealed no news about its Olympic footballers this Monday unless you trawled through the minor articles. The apathy that Europe shows towards Olympic football is unlikely to change in this day and age, but if the 12 non-European competitors out of the 16 teams in Beijing show the kind of positive spirit demonstrated in the build-up by Japan, we should still be in for some excellent football and vibrant atmospheres. This year, I plan to remain unswayed by the lack of interest back home – when in Rome, after all – and look forward to seeing the likes of Messi, Alexandre Pato, and of course Michihiro Yasuda et al in action.

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