Olympic soccer, a tournament that does not value precedents

We know about the strange relationship between the IOC and FIFA. Historical anomalies continue on the way to Paris with a distribution of continental seats that does not respect the history of this sport within the games themselves.

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Paris 2024 Olympic Games - Olympic Football Tournament Draw - Le Pulse, Saint-Denis, France - March 20, 2024 Overview during the REUTERS/Stephanie Lecocq drawing
Paris 2024 Olympic Games - Olympic Football Tournament Draw - Le Pulse, Saint-Denis, France - March 20, 2024 Overview during the REUTERS/Stephanie Lecocq drawing

The IOC and FIFA have such a particular bond that there are times when it would seem that a certain soccer leadership feels that the presence of their sport in the games represents a minor issue.

There are ancient signs. For example, the one at the time of the Cold War, clearly displayed also in sports —few matches generated greater audiences and expectations than a confrontation between the United States and the then Soviet Union—in which the countries behind the so-called Iron Curtain won 9 out of 10 titles, considering the period between Helsinki 1952 and Seoul 1988. Hungary, Yugoslavia, Democratic Germany, Poland, Bulgaria and the Soviet Union itself claimed a total of 22 medals out of a total of 30 contested in this sport during that period.

Nothing relevant except for a detail that explains that, even then, anomalies were of very little concern and the world of rings did not seem to worry too much about such anomalies, such as that, while the regulations limited the presence of unrented players, which forced all delegations to use youth players, those teams used a large part of their main figures since, within communist logic, no athlete considered himself a professional. There were many medalists in the FIFA world cups who, in the same period, climbed to Olympic podiums.

Many years later, the anomalies are still in effect.

For example, the distribution of seats for a tournament that will have 16 teams instead of the 12 that are allowed in most of the other team sports that we will enjoy in Paris.

This distribution only respects sporting history in the case of Europe, which has 3 places more than the usual as well as the host country’s team.

The players of the Argentine under-23 team celebrate qualifying for the Paris Olympic Games. EFE/ Rayner Peña R
The players of the Argentine under-23 team celebrate qualifying for the Paris Olympic Games. EFE/ Rayner Peña R

The biggest loser is South America, a continent that, despite having fifteen Olympic podiums distributed between Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile, will have only two places in France. This is one less than North and Central America, which only have a couple of podiums. And one or two fewer than Asia and Africa, which have three fixed places and one more for whoever wins the playoff between the quarterfinals of the regional tournaments of the aforementioned continents.

The remaining ticket is from Oceania. More precisely, from New Zealand, whose semifinal victories against Vanuatu 8-0 and Fiji 9-0 give an eloquent demonstration of the low competitive level of a competition that, in addition, dispensed with Australia, a country that geographically forms part of that continent but that, in the context of FIFA, plays with Asians.

Considering that, due to the unfair distribution of spaces on a continental level, teams such as Brazil or Uruguay were left out of Paris, sporting excellence does not seem to be the priority in those desks. By the way, a situation that would never be accepted in other sports that are played in the same games. Without going any further, in men’s handball, 9 of the 12 qualified are European, a continent that won 41 medals out of 42 possible in the Olympic history of this sport. Important clarification: in this sport, as in others, there are continental classifications but half of the places are contested in pre-Olympic games in which teams from different regions compete. In this way, it is guaranteed that, if the historical order were altered, it would be because of sporting results and not because of bureaucratic negotiations.

But there is something else to highlight about the licenses that FIFA takes with Olympic soccer. And it refers to the very same continental qualifying stages.

While South America, Asia, Africa and Oceania compete in the category under 23 years of age, the same as in the games themselves, in Europe they compete under-21 and in North and Central America in under-20. An absurdity that has an added bonus: the African tournament was played a year ago. In this way, it is likely that many of the players who qualified for their national teams will be over the age allowed when the Parisian event arrives.

It is true that all this is a fait accompli and that the mere speculation that Lionel Messi and Killian Mbappe may become members of their chosen ones overshadows all criticism of the procedures mentioned.

However, before and after, some soccer and Olympic fans will continue to wonder if there’s no chance that this marriage will discuss their disagreements and we’ll all be happier.

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