Football at the summer Olympic Games has long been undervalued by many across the globe. But since the competition turned professional in 1984 it has played host to some of the first international steps of future greats of the game. But since then, has it ever really served as a forum for any nation to put in place the building blocks for glory on the full international stage?
Early signs suggested the Olympics were just another tournament for nations already experiencing success to further their prestige. France won the first professional tournament just weeks after lifting the 1984 European Championship. The Soviet Union almost managed the same feat as they won Euro 1988 but fell in the Olympic final to Netherlands soon after.
Brazil were runners up on both occasions but in 1989 they won their first major international tournament after a barren 19 years since Pele lifted the World Cup in 1970 with the Copa America. Of the squad that won the continental tournament, 11 had been involved in the previous Olympic defeats, though four (Ricardo Gomes, Ze Carlos, Valdo Filho and Mazinho) did not make an appearance but are still named as medallists.
Furthermore, six players who had previously featured in the Olympics were part of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup-winning squad. Claudio Taffarel, Jorginho, Bebeto, Romario and Mazinho were all runners-up in 1988 whilst Gilmar Rinaldi was part of the defeated 1984 finalists. In this case it could be argued that the Games brought these players together in a competitive environment to eventually shape them into a World Cup-winning side, but it was not a gold medal that provided this.
Spain, Nigeria and Cameroon won the three following tournaments. Spain had to wait until 2008 to win their next major title while the two African nations became continental powerhouses soon after. Following their 1996 triumph that included the likes of Daniel Amokachi, Tijani Babangida, Celestine Babayaro, Nwankwo Kanu, Jay-Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh and Taribo West, Nigeria went on to finish as runners-up in the 2000 African Cup of Nations which was followed by three consecutive third-place finishes. The final they lost out in came at the hands of Cameroon who were led to Olympic glory by Samuel Eto’o and Geremi later that year before defending their African trophy successfully once more in 2002.
But perhaps most poignantly, since the Games became professional, the most successful team have failed to replicate such glory on the senior international stage. That nation is Argentina.
They finished as runners-up in 1996 before winning back-to-back gold medals in the 2004 and 2008 games, yet the Abliceleste have not won a trophy since the 1993 Copa America. They reached successive finals in the 2004 and 2007 editions of the South American tournament but were beaten on both occasions by Brazil.
In these cases the difference between the success of the aforementioned Brazil team and the shortcomings of Argentina is that a fewer number of Olympians made it through to the Copa America squads. Only four of the ’96 squad made it to the 2004 Copa America, two of whom (Javier Zanetti and Hernan Crespo) added to another six (two of which were over-age members Roberto Ayala and Gabriel Heinze) from the 2004 Olympic squad that progressed to the Copa America in 2007.
Such records suggest that the Olympic Games rarely act as a springboard for success. On the occasions that it has, it is largely due to a greater number of a successful squad sticking together across the years and forming a strong team unit, and even then it is not always the gold medallists who benefit most. Success at the Olympics by no means translates to major honours on the full international stage.
Brazil, Uruguay and Spain can boast the strongest squads but their senior sides are at different stages in their international cycles. Brazil travel to London with a squad that is largely expected to form the majority of the side that will line up when they host the World Cup in 2014. Uruguay and Spain however are looking to add just a few young players to replace ageing names in their senior squads that have achieved greatly in the past few years.
The Olympics provide a fantastic foundation for these sides to lay down an assault for the world title in two years. For the Selecao it could be the start of the building of a strong collective unit possessing a number of phenomenal individuals. The 1994 World Cup winners proved that winning the Olympics is not important as long as the team has largely developed together (though this not was the case with the Brazilian ‘golden generation’ that finished fourth at the Olympics in 1996 and as runners-up in France 1998).
But there is one key difference. In 1994 Brazil had to qualify for the World Cup, that was not the case four years later as they automatically entered as champions. Ahead of the next edition Brazil will not endure the qualification process, this time due to acting as hosts for the tournament. This lack of competitive fixtures could end up proving any success in the Olympics as ineffectual in the greater scheme of things.
Spain and Uruguay may possess slightly weaker teams than the favourites, but their aim is to use the tournament to pick out replacements for ageing members of their squad whose influence may have waned by the time 2014 comes around. Any medals picked up in the meantime are a bonus.
While the Olympics may be viewed as an important tournament in certain parts of the globe, it is ultimately a means to an end. How many Brazilian fans will care about their first gold medal if the team should fail in the World Cup next year. Success in the competition is not everything, and this is proven in its history, but integrating the stand-out players and moulding them into part of a strong senior team is where its true benefits lie.
Who do you think will be victorious at London 2012 and will it stand them in good stead for the next World Cup? Let me know on Twitter @thwebber