Sepp Blatter must have been delighted. For all of FIFA’s bumbling incompetence, even they could not have stretched as far the wretched ineptitude of Hampden Park’s scoreboard operator in displaying the South Korean flag in place of the North Korean. The only consolation for the organisers of the Olympic football was the shocking swathes of empty seats which witnessed the diplomatic cock-up. Worryingly for the future prospects of football at the Games, the feeling lingers that this is only the first in a string of embarrassments at London 2012.
When North Korea qualified for the 2010 World Cup, ethical questions were raised as to their participation and the way FIFA would approach the world’s pariah nation. They took a soft line so as not to upset their dear leader. In line with Blatter’s insistence that football and politics must remain separate, every attempt was made to mollycoddle the North Koreans. An questionable strategy, but one that is significantly more preferable than the one chosen last night. Mistake or not, someone has shaken a volatile hornet’s nest and weakened the credibility of a tournament already struggling to capture a nation’s imagination.
Just one day into the Olympic football tournament, many have questioned the salience and feasibility of the competition which sits in the darker nether regions of the football agenda. Eerily empty stadiums, erroneous diplomacy and a stinging lack of interest: does football have a place in the Olympics?
Gareth Bale certainly seems to think it does not. The Tottenham winger perhaps best highlighted the general mood with regards to the Great Britain Olympic football squad when appearing for over 70 minutes of a pre-season friendly for Spurs after pulling out of the GB squad through injury. Himself and Andre Villas-Boas can concoct as many half-truths and fabricated mitigations as possible; the fact remains that Bale would much rather be in action for his club as opposed to a half-hearted runout for a ‘national team’ he feels little affiliation with. He is not alone in this sentiment. Compare the attendances of Premier League club’s pre-season fixtures with those of Great Britain’s Olympic group games in the coming week or so. The likelihood is that there will be little difference, with club encounters even attracting greater interest in some cases. So is Olympic football apathy a confined British problem?
In football terms, and to an extent, politically, Great Britain is an imagined nation. We all have to put ourselves down as ‘British’ on official documents, yet internally we affiliate ourselves as English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish. Despite all our interconnecting similarities, each nation has its own distinctive cultural appeal which makes collective support for a Great British team hard to accumulate. Different histories, different customs and traditions; diversities which do not cause significant tension yet still prevent us from uniting entirely. Ultimately, the Great Britain football team seems forced. Imposed. It has been created artificially and thrown out into the open, whilst we are expected to embrace it with little to no explanation as to why.
The desperation of the Olympic organisers in trying to flog unsold tickets speaks volumes. Around 30,000 free tickets were distributed for last night’s games at Hampden Park – estimates of the true attendance vary between 10-15,000, though coverage on the matches suggested much lower. The men’s competition is expected to bring in more a crowd, yet still sections of stadiums are being sealed off in a anticipation of a low turnout. It is fairly safe to assume that you could not even pay some people to attend. In a room booked to accommodate over 100, just 7 journalists arrived for Stuart Pearce’s first press conference. We just do not care.
This may be a wider phenomenon, however. When looking at attendance figures for the past five Olympic games, it becomes apparent that European nations are generally disinterested, whilst further afield enthusiasm for Olympic football is notably more fervent, in both the Men’s and Women’s disciplines. Take Barcelona in 1992 and Athens in 2004, for example. Crowds often struggled to reach five figures whilst a select few group games barely stretched to four. In 1992, each of the games in Group C held at Valencia’s vast Mestalla Stadium recorded an attendance of 2,000. Whilst Morocco vs South Korea would understandably have been low on local interest, in comparison with the 2000 games in Sydney and Beijing in 2008, it is a pitiful and damning indicator of Olympic apathy in Europe. In the same fixture in Australia in 2000, the attendance was six times as much. Not a single game in the men’s tournament in 2008 saw a crowd of below 20,000, whilst 2000 saw similar figures. The commitment and and dedication of teams such as Brazil and Argentina to the Olympic cause also suggests a continental trend – a wider European impassivity.
For all we know, Great Britain may well take the Olympic football tournament to their hearts, yet the startling lack of response so far indicates otherwise. A GB victory on home soil would quell questions over the team’s future for perhaps another tournament, but a prolonged involvement in coming games seems unlikely. For all the bluster and vitriol in the promotion of London 2012, the fact that Olympic football is at the very bottom rung of priorities for many seems to have been dismissed. The presumption was that the prestige of the games would bring people swarming to be a part of history; the reality is simply that not enough people care.
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