Football's Olympic challenge

Football and the Olympics have always looked an awkward fit.


    It is somewhat strange to be sent on a two hour train ride out of an Olympic host city just as the Games are about to get started.  It may well be that my employers were trying to tell me something. But Cardiff, not London, was given the honour of getting the action going.  A women's football match between Great Britain and New Zealand was the relatively low key opening salvo. Football and the Olympics have always looked an awkward fit and that is highlighted by the fact the event cannot even be squeezed into the days between the opening and closing ceremonies.

    Organisers have had to take half a million football tickets off the market, accepting some time ago that venues would not be full. But that is perhaps the wrong way of looking at the situation. Great Britain's opening match may have unfolded in front of lots of empty seats but there were still around 25,000 fans inside Cardiff's Millennium stadium. In the context of women's football in this country that is a huge number. Perhaps more importantly, this was a crowd making a noise one or two octaves higher than your regular football gathering. The vast majority were young families, many experiencing live football for the first time. There could hardly be a better showcase for a domestic game that is predictably squeezed by the all powerful and rather deeper voiced premier league.

    While the women's event sees countries fielding full strength teams, it is the men's tournament that does still look a bit peculiar. In every other Olympic sport the best of the best are taking part. When it comes to men's football though, all but three of the players have to be under the age of 23. That is not to say countries do not take it seriously. Brazil, in particular, see this event as a crucial way of developing their young players. That many of their senior team happen to be under the required age underlines their status as favourites. It is the one major international title Brazil are yet to win and they intend to change that at these Olympics. Egypt are another country with everything to play for. Their domestic league is still suspended following the deadly violence at a match in Port Said earlier this year. This event will at last give Egyptian football fans a positive focal point.

    For the hosts, it is the first time a men's team have appeared at the Olympics since 1960. This is a country that normally divides into four separate nations when it comes to football and not everyone is in favour of the side's latest incarnation. The Scottish Football Association has loudly voiced its disapproval, saying the very concept jeopardises its future as an independent entity. That David Beckham was not selected has also done little to help the popular profile of the team. 

    But 1.6 million football tickets have been sold. That is more than at the recent Euros and more than at any previous Olympics.  More people will watch football than any other sport at these Games. It means a lot of people will witness what is an inescapable sporting paradox. At this gathering of greatness, only at football stadiums will people not be watching the top performers a sport has to offer. It is for this reason that football will always struggle to be the centre of attention at the Olympics. In an era when football seems to effortlessly guide the hand writing global sporting headlines, its position on the inside pages of the Olympic story is perhaps a refreshing change.



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