Olympic football has its detractors and in the cluttered calendar of the modern game, the argument that the tournament should no longer exist is not entirely without merit.
But football is no interloper. It always has been part of the Games, and it is worth remembering that the World Cup is essentially the child of the Olympic football tournament – though this is not a fact with which the British audience is largely familiar.
Sales of tickets for football at the 2012 Games have been disappointing. It has been argued that this is because of the sophistication of the Great British football public, who are aware that Olympic football is more of a sub-standard sideshow than the real thing. Perhaps.
But I think it is just as accurate to flip this argument round. Remember that, for political and cultural reasons there is normally no Great Britain Olympic football team, and that an exception is being made this year because the Games are taking place in London.
Consequently there is no tradition of following the tournament in the country. I would argue that one of the main reasons for the disappointing ticket sales is precisely because the British public are unaware that Olympic football can be extremely significant.
I was certainly unaware of this when I moved to Rio in 1994. I had the usual British attitude towards the thing. But I very soon had reason to be grateful to the Olympic football tournament.
France 98 was the first World Cup after Nike got involved with the Brazil national team. With their commercial aim of selling shirts all over the world, Nike undoubtedly did wonders for Brazil’s profile.
Before the previous World Cup in 1994 the average British fan did not really know any of the Brazil team – they became acquainted with Romario and company during the tournament.
By 1998 that had all changed. British fans were even familiar with some of Brazil’s substitutes. The omnipresent TV advert set in an airport lounge had made a real impression.
The image had been created of a dream team, one that would barely break sweat on the way to a successful defence of its world title.
Had that World Cup been played in an airport lounge then maybe Brazil would have emerged triumphant. On the football field, though, I never thought it was likely. Firstly, because of the degree of difficulty involved. Brazil had managed to win the World Cup in Europe before – in Sweden in 1958. It had also managed to defend its title on a previous occasion – in Chile in 1962. But it had never managed to defend its title on European soil.
There was a reason for that. It is a huge ask, all the harder, as then, when the holder had an automatic World Cup place and did not have the benefit of a qualification campaign to whip a new side into shape.
So Brazil’s task in France 98 was always going to be a tough one. It got much tougher two years before.
Brazilian football was flush with confidence in 1994. Winning its first World Cup in 24 years had restored a swagger to its stride. The feeling was that it had a hugely talented young generation coming through. The expectation was that these youngsters would stroll to Olympic gold in Atlanta in 1996 and then go on to form the backbone of the team for 1998. A victory over a Rest of the World XI on the eve of the Games only served to re-enforce such beliefs.
But when the competitive stuff began in the Olympic tournament, there were all sorts of worrying signs. A goofy teenage striker called Ronaldo, Barcelona-bound, certainly looked like a real talent. But the rest of the team did not look convincing.
It began with a defeat to Japan and was knocked out, dramatically but deservedly, in the semi final against Nigeria, which eventually claimed the gold. Brazil had to settle for bronze. More importantly, the side gave the impression of being leaderless, rudderless, lacking in spine.
The panic button was pushed. The solution for the World Cup was the recall of USA 94 captain Dunga. He had been a fine central midfielder, a gutsy figure who had worked hard on improving his passing. But he was now based in Japan, hardly one of the world’s most demanding leagues.
The evidence had been plain since the final of the Copa America in 1995, when Brazil lost on penalties to Uruguay. Dunga had looked very heavy in the legs and well off the pace. There was no way that he would have enough gas in the tank to get through another World Cup.
In one of the great sporting examples of Orwellian doublethink, the Brazil camp was simultaneously aware of this and also able to forget it. Come France 98, with huge difficulties against every European team it met, Brazil struggled its way through to the final. All this did, though, was postpone the day of reckoning.
Ronaldo broke down under the strain of carrying such an ordinary team, while in central midfield Dunga could not get close enough to Zinedine Zidane to throw sand at his backside. It was the most one sided World Cup final of them all.
Most people seemed to be amazed. But anyone who had paid attention to the 1996 Olympic tournament had been forewarned, because it was there that Brazil’s World Cup defence went off the rails.
And this is the most fascinating element of the Olympic football tournament. More important than the quest for the gold medal is the opportunity it presents to groom a team for the next World Cup. Some of the narrative lines of Brazil 2014 start being written over the next few weeks in Great Britain, whether or not the local public are aware of it.
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