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Why isn’t football no. 1 at the Games

Published : Jul 14, 2016, 1:21 am IST
Updated : Jul 14, 2016, 1:21 am IST

Football is unquestionably the most popular sport in the world. By extension it should be the no. 1 at the Olympics, too. But it isn’t. Why

Football is unquestionably the most popular sport in the world. By extension it should be the no. 1 at the Olympics, too. But it isn’t. Why Football at the Games is primarily a U-23 affair, although each team can have three over-aged players.

Fifa doesn’t want a brand to rival its cash cow — the World Cup. The world governing body of the game knows well that Olympic football will upstage the Fifa World Cup in all aspects if it is made an open tournament. That’s why Fifa has zealously been guarding its right to decide who can play at the Olympics.

The Olympics’ magnetism is well established. Fifa, which gets most of its revenue from the quadrennial World Cup, cannot afford to create a monster that will come back to haunt it one day. The World Cup is nowhere as prestigious as the Olympics in other team games.

The amateur ethos of the Games created a lot of friction between the International Olympic Committee and Fifa throughout the 20th century. With professional leagues well entrenched in many countries, football at the Olympics struggled to stay relevant. The Fifa World Cup, set up in 1930, heightened the tension between the IOC and Fifa. Football, which made its debut in 1900, was excluded from the 1932 Games at Los Angeles but it has become a constant on the Olympic programme after making a swift comeback in the next edition. From 1952 to 1980, the gold medal at the Olympics became the preserve of Communist countries because the likes of Easter Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and the USSR didn’t allow their best players to join professional leagues outside. In 1984, the IOC opened the gate for professionals with a condition that players from Europe and South America were not eligible if they had played at the World Cup.

Fifa mandated that only professionals under the age of 23 could take part at the 1992 Olympics. Four years later, it allowed three over-aged players in each team in a bid to lure prominent players to the Olympic arena.

Football at the Olympics hasn’t been shorn of star power. Romario, Careca and Claudio Taffarel were all part of the Brazilian team that finished second in 1988. Lionel Messi’s only gold medal in international football came from the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Neymar was a losing finalist four years later. At Rio, football is sure to be a hit as hosts Brazil have included Neymar in their squad to win the elusive gold.

In the women’s section, the USA are the team to beat as they have won the gold in all editions except one since the discipline made its debut in 1996.