Soccer is now officially a year-round sport. After years of hinting at it the game has officially found a way to make things interesting pretty much day, week, or month on the calendar. At any point time a fan can pull open their laptop or turn on their television and watch a captivating league game, tournament, or friendly from across the world.
The governing bodies seem to be catching on to this providing quality coverage and insight even at times on modest budgets. Yet there is one organization that still seems to be behind the times and it is a bit of shocker: The Summer Olympics. Despite being one of the top sporting events in the world soccer at the Olympic Games is often an afterthought, something that gets sandwiched in between multiple other sports and crammed on tape delay at 2am. With the Olympics set to take place next year in Tokyo can they bring soccer back to the top of the Summer Games?
There are a couple of reasons that seem to point to soccer’s lack of importance in the Olympic pecking order. The first reason is that the working relationship between FIFA and the International Olympic Committee has been at best poor. At the center of the disharmony seems to be FIFAs desire to have more control over soccer’s portion of the Olympic Games while the IOC doesn’t really want any third party influence. That FIFA President Gianni Infantino was denied a seat on the IOC’s Board of Director says a lot about their current relationship.
Second while the women’s side does feature full international teams, on the men’s side it still operates by and large as an amateur tournament. Teams are mostly comprised of players under the age of 23 with youth academy players playing a prominent role in the tournament. Teams are allowed to carry three senior players but those are mostly reserved for players well past their prime. National Teams that often struggle as it is to get players called up for full international matches are often denied the top youth players by clubs thanks in large part to minimal intervention by FIFA.
There are also smaller issues as well that hinder the quality of play. For example, while England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland play as separate countries in UEFA and World Cup Qualifying in the Olympics they are required to play under the umbrella of Great Britain. That of course has raised all sorts of political issues with the affected countries generally opting to skip the soccer portion of the Games (there will be a women’s Great Britain team at this year’s Games).
The make-up of the women’s tournament is also puzzling. Just twelve teams will be playing in Tokyo with only three from Europe and one representative from South America and Asia. That is in comparison to the men’s side which will feature 15 teams. Again, considering the rise in popularity women’s game and that it will be all senior level players it is odd that the IOC are shortchanging women’s soccer.
So how can the Summer Olympics improve? The answer seems simple: The IOC and FIFA have to work together. The IOC cannot put on a world class soccer tournament without FIFA and FIFA cannot sit out the Olympics. FIFA has to see what the National Basketball Association is able to do in marketing their game through the Olympics and how that has boosted interest in basketball globally. Professionalizing men’s and women’s Olympic basketball has benefited all parties and made it one of the most important parts of the summer games. FIFA can also see the benefits of allowing senior players to play on the Women’s side. Those who watched Canada versus the United States in London know how incredible these games can be if they are given the chance.
The object of putting on any tournament of any size is to put on a world class competition that is also profitable. Both sides seem capable of doing that on their own but need to figure out a way in which they can do it together. The Summer Olympics could be an incredible opportunity to grow the game of soccer if FIFA and the IOC can figure out a way to work together.
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