Neymar carrying more than just Brazil's Olympic dreams

The World Cup is the child of the Olympic football tournament, but one is now the greatest sporting spectacle on earth while the other is struggling to remain relevant.

Neymar Jr

Source: Getty Images

It all began when Uruguay arrived unheralded for the Paris Games of 1924 – and proceeded to cruise to the gold medal, filling those who watched with enthusiasm for a new type of balletic football.  Four years later in Amsterdam the Uruguayans proved it was no fluke, winning another gold.  And to show off the strength of South American football, Argentina came too, and won the silver.

Football in these countries was still an amateur sport – hence the fact that the best Uruguayans and Argentines could play in the Olympics.  The English professionals, still seen as a benchmark of quality in the game, could not.  A new competition was needed, open to all comers, to discover which really was the best team – and so the World Cup was born.

The Olympic football tournament, then, has a glorious past.  But the truth is that it has a tawdry present.

It sells tickets, and it enables the Games to take on a national dimension – the football tournament is usually farmed out to venues well outside the host city. 

The 2016 version goes well beyond Rio de Janeiro, with matches in Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Salvador and Recife, and even thousands of miles north in Manaus.  But the attempts of the Brazilian media to build it up as a serious competition are a misrepresentation of the facts. 

There is little credibility left in the Olympic football tournament.

The women’s’ tournament is an alternative World Cup, with no age limit and with sides at full strength – which is fine for a sport, which is growing and searching for space. 

The men’s game is at a very different stage of development.  Thoroughly consolidated, it has no need for an alternative World Cup, nor space in the calendar to do justice to an attempt to create one.  Making it an Under-23 competition was the accepted compromise, with three over-aged players there to boost the box office.  Their presence though, does make something of a mockery of the competition. 

There is no real process in place, because over-age players are not allowed in qualification.  The teams won the right to compete at Under-23 level – or Under-20 in the case of the South Americans.  But the line ups that actually take the field are very different.

But even that messy compromise took a mortal blow in 2008.  Barcelona did not want Lionel Messi to play in the Beijing Games.  They took their case all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) – and CAS found in their favour. 

Fortunately, by the time the decision was announced Messi was already in the Far East preparing for the competition.  He wanted to stay there, and he ended up winning the gold medal.

However, the long-term winners were the European clubs.  They had won the right not to release players for the Games, which ceased to form part of the official FIFA calendar.  From this point on, it became difficult to see how the Olympic tournament could survive in its present form.

This was less noted four years ago for a simple reason.  The London 2012 Games started a few days earlier in the year than Rio 2016 (the opening ceremony was 27 July as against 5 August this year).  In 2012, then, there was less conflict with the European club season than there is this year – when the chance of top clubs releasing their star players was obviously reduced.

Little of this has been made clear to the Brazilian public.  This is the first time the Games have been held in South America, a continent where the Olympic tradition is relatively weak.  Brazil have the most diversified Olympic sporting culture, but even so the domination of football is almost total.

A quick story will illustrate my point. 

Four years ago I came back early from the London Olympics to witness the mood in my adopted city as the 2012 Games ended and Rio became the next in line.  During the London closing ceremony Rio had a few minutes to put on a show. 

I went down to the street and wandered around my neighbourhood, keen to see how this was going down with the local population.  I walked past around 20 bars – where a grand total of no TVs were tuned to the events in London.  Two Rio teams were in action in the football championship, and so everyone was watching their matches.

It was, then, somewhat inevitable that football would feature heavily in the Brazilian build up to the 2016 Games – especially as the Olympic gold medal has always eluded Brazil.  Of all the titles for which they are eligible, Olympic gold is the one they need to complete their trophy cabinet.  They should surely put that right this year. 

Neymar is here – Barcelona allowed him to play as long as he sat out the Copa American Centenario.  And the local clubs have proved very co-operative.  Although the domestic league continues during the Games, Brazil have had no problems calling up their best young players.  And so the young lions – Gabriel Jesus of Palmeiras, Gabriel Barbosa of Santos, Luan of Gremio, and so on – have all been released without a whimper.

The same does not apply to the opposition.  The Brazilian media naively speculated about the likes of Messi playing for Argentina, Cristiano Ronaldo turning out for Portugal and Zlatan Ibrahimovic representing Sweden. 

Instead of which, most countries are bringing a hastily assembled band of youthful promises and second raters to take part in a tournament that now seems to serve very little purpose.

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6 min read
Published 30 July 2016 at 2:06pm
By Tim Vickery