The history of football at the Olympics is a chequered one. Before the World Cup became the Holy Grail of the sport, it was the Olympics which nurtured it. The founder of modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, was said to have had a ‘special partiality’ for the game.
According to the famous football writer Brian Glanville, in 1904, FIFA “decided rather grandly that it alone had the right to organise a world championship.” In 1908, the football competition at the London Games was given official status and in 1914, FIFA made a decision that the competition would represent the world title in the sport.
In 1932, when the International Olympic Committee couldn’t properly define who an amateur was, FIFA decided not to organise a football tournament at the Los Angeles Games that year. An eight-year absence of the Olympic football tournament ensued, and coupled with the fact that FIFA held its second World Cup in 1934, the Olympics was relegated to second spot.
Stamping the authority
So when Brazilian star Neymar was rested for the Copa America centenary in June and instead asked to prepare to lead his team in Rio, what did it convey? When Europe and the rest of the football world looked away, why is Olympic football so important to the South Americans?
The answer can both be found in those intervening years from 1908 to 1930 and in the modern-day set up. When Uruguay won the 1924 and 1928 Olympic gold medals, it was called “The Second Discovery of America,” by the Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano in his Soccer in Sun and Shadow. It was a way of stamping their identity.
“Match after match, crowds lined up to see those men, slippery like squirrels, who played chess with the ball,” he wrote. “The English had perfected the long pass and the high ball, but these dis-inherited children, begotten in far-off America, did not walk in their fathers’ footsteps. They chose to invent a game of close passes directly to the foot, with lightning changes in rhythm and high-speed dribbling.”
Cut to now, Brazilian football is facing an identity crisis. In light of the apex of world football decisively shifting to Europe and Brazil getting hammered at home by Germany 7-1 in the 2014 World Cup semifinal, they are no longer the high priests.
The prized South American qualities of individuality and self-expression are being sought to be contained within the European style of technical excellence, often bordering on dogma. And Brazil is now a nation plagued by endemic corruption and strife. A gold medal at home will perhaps be the most effective of balms. It’s also that South America has not made a huge impact on the Olympics. Brazil has a sum total of 23 gold medals. Argentina’s glory days ended in the 1950s but for the back-to-back football golds in 2004 and 2008.
Paraguay has been on the podium only once — silver in football in 2004 and Uruguay’s two golds were both for football.
“I know that this gold medal has eluded Brazil so far, and we will do everything to try to win it,” Neymar said. “It’s rare that a country like Brazil, considered the land of football, still hasn’t won this gold.”
The tournament, which is an under-23 event with a maximum of three older players allowed per team, often features surprises. In the past, those from Africa and Asia have fared rather well and the likes of Nigeria, South Korea and Japan can be expected to come good.
Of the 18 medals awarded since 1992, South America has eight, Europe and Africa have shared another eight while Asia and Latin America have one each.
In Rio, World champion Germany will be making its first appearance in 28 years and in its ranks will be the 20-year-old Bayer Leverkusen attacker Julian Brandt, one marked for a bright future.
Newly-crowned European champion Portugal has a reputation for unearthing fine young talent and it needs to be kept an eye on. Mexico, the 2012 gold medallist, is always a tough nut to crack.
All said and done, it will be an Olympics for the Americas in general and Brazil in particular. Win or lose, they will be the story.