Olympic soccer struggles for credibility

PARIS – The Olympic soccer tournament is an awkward guest at the Olympic Games party. The world’s most popular sport was also one of the first to turn professional and it sits uneasily on the program of a movement founded on the amateur ethos. Soccer is one of the longest-established Olympic sports, although there is some dispute over whether it was part of the first modern Games in Athens in 1896. Records of the time have been lost, although some references are made to a 15-0 victory by Denmark over an Izmir XI. Since then, apart from between 1908 and 1928 when it could reasonably be considered the world championship, Olympic soccer has struggled for credibility. The advent of the World Cup in 1930, partly in response to the Olympic ban on professional soccer players, permanently ended the Games tournament’s claim to be the world’s pre-eminent soccer competition and it was even excluded from the 1932 Olympics. Professional soccer’s all-powerful ruling body FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have constantly tinkered with the eligibility rules and today the Olympic tournament is effectively the world Under-23 championship. Professionals were first allowed to participate in the Olympics in 1984, but only provided that they had not played in a World Cup match or qualifier. The proviso excluded the best players from Europe and South America. FIFA relaxed that rule for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, in return for imposing the under-23 age limit – although each team is allowed three overage players. Soccer’s place in Athens was thrown into jeopardy earlier this month over FIFA’s refusal to sign up to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code, an IOC requirement. But differences were resolved in a meeting between FIFA President Sepp Blatter and WADA Chairman Dick Pound last week and soccer lined up behind the code along with the other Olympic sports. The 1908 tournament in London was notable for the 10 goals scored by Denmark striker Sophus Nielsen against the lesser of two French teams taking part. Germany’s Gottfried Fuchs equaled the feat four years later in Sweden, against Russia. Belgium won the 1920 competition after the Czechoslovakia team walked off the field before halftime in the final in protest at the refereeing. Uruguay lifted the 1924 and 1928 Olympic titles and proved themselves worthy champions by subsequently winning the first World Cup in 1930. The 1936 tournament in Berlin was chaotic. Italian players in a match against the United States prevented the German referee from sending off a teammate by holding down the official’s arms and covering his mouth. A diplomatic incident was provoked by the quarterfinal between Austria and Peru after the Peruvians were disqualified, despite winning 4-2, because some of their fans ran on to the pitch and attacked an Austrian player. Between 1950 and 1976, the amateur players of Eastern Europe dominated. However, only the «Magic Magyars» Hungary team, featuring the great Ferenc Puskas, that won the 1952 Olympic title could claim to be the best team in the world. Virtually the same side famously thrashed England 6-3 at Wembley the following year and reached the 1954 World Cup final, only to lose unexpectedly, to West Germany. Today the Olympic tournament is an entertaining and better-ordered showcase of some of the most exciting new talent in the world. Britain, the country that invented the game and provided the champions in 1900, 1908 and 1912, does not enter a team for fear of undermining the independence of the England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland teams within FIFA. None of the recent winners – Spain in 1992, Nigeria in 1996 and Cameroon in 2000 – impressed greatly in the World Cup two years later but their victories were exhilarating affairs nonetheless. In Barcelona, Spain’s Kiko grabbed a last-minute winner in a 3-2 victory over Poland. Four years later in Atlanta, Nigeria thrillingly recovered from 2-1 down to defeat Argentina by the same score. In Sydney in 2000, Cameroon recovered from 2-0 down to win a penalty shootout against Spain. With Greece established as a soccer-loving nation, the Athens 2004 tournaments are likely to be just as enjoyable, even though the men’s teams of Cameroon, Nigeria and five-time World Cup winners Brazil have failed to qualify.

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