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Olympic football kicks off… but who will be watching?

The Olympic countdown has been a long and tedious one but mercifully for football fans like ourselves it reaches zero a day earlier – the men’s Olympic Football tournament kicks off tomorrow evening. And fans of the ladies game need wait no longer – the action commences tonight in Tianjin. Regardless of the merits of women’s football, the focus in China will be on the men and specifically of course, the home team. You can read a great many opinion pieces, blog entries, and all manner of football punditry endlessly dissecting the reasons for China’s miserable failure to find 11 players from their massive population good enough to make a respectable mark on the world game. But there is a question one will seldom see asked amongst all this pontificating. Does Olympic football matter and does anyone really care about it? The answer in the eyes of this columnist is a resounding no.

Olympic football has always been the black sheep of international football competition, with a long and awkward relationship with the governing body of football, FIFA. The tournament itself is basically a glorified youth world cup, with each side able to field three players over the age of 23. Whilst that allows a few super-stars, including Brazil’s Ronaldinho, to appear at this year’s Olympics, it prevents full national sides from appearing – this is something FIFA does not want to see hence its insistence on the under-23 rule to stop the Olympics overshadowing the premier world football event, the World Cup. If you ask any football fan, “who won the last world cup?” most would be able to say Italy. If you were to ask who were the gold medalists at football in Sydney 2004, the chances are few would be able to come up with the winner. Frankly, I can’t even remember myself and I have been a football aficionado as long as I can remember.

Whilst the tournament is a useful pointer towards emerging young talents, there is an increasing tendency amongst the big European clubs to refuse to release their players for any tournament without considerable arm-twisting. With the Olympic football tournament well down the pecking order in terms of footballing prestige, its been no surprise to see several club sides reluctant to release their players for this tourney. Fixture congestion is a hot topic in football these days, and with utterly disgusting money-grabbing schemes like the EPL’s game-39 being put forward recently, this all adds more pressure on clubs to avoid the ignominy of their young stars getting injured at the Olympics.

In short, the Olympics is the pinnacle for all sports—except football, so why bother? Tim Vickery, the BBC’s South America’s football reporter, points out that the Olympics is serious business for the South Americans. It’s certainly taken more seriously in that most roasting of football hotbeds. However, Brazil have never won an Olympic gold. How can a team win five world cups but not one Olympic gold? Perhaps it’s not so important after all.

For the Chinese, the argument that Olympic football is of little consequence in the grand scheme of world soccer will fall on deaf ears. One can only imagine the entire Chinese football world being torn between diametrically opposed emotions – the burning desire to make a decent account of themselves at their own party, with the cold, paralyzing fear of losing yet more footballing face and making an undignified early exit. Shanghai Shenhua’s Li Weifeng, Shandong Luneng’s Han Peng and Charlton Athletic’s Zheng Zhi are the three over-age players in China’s squad who will have hopes of Olympian proportions placed on their shoulders in an effort to get past New Zealand, Belgium and (gasp) Brazil and meet their coaches’ goal. With almost casual disregard for his own sanity, Chinese Olympic football coach Yin Tiesheng has stated that he believes a top-four finish should be achievable for his team. Such foolish aims will only serve to compound the team’s inevitable failure. China kick off their campaign against New Zealand in Shenyang tomorrow night.

This post was originally published on China Sports Today

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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