The London Olympics are scheduled to start in the next few weeks and amidst all the hype and media buzz, the attention being given to football is considerably diminished as compared to the recently concluded EURO championships. What are the reasons that football players don’t exactly look upon the Olympics as an opportunity like the FIFA World Cup? Are the Olympics really a liability?
The format for football in the Olympics is that every nation that has qualified needs to have a squad of 18 players, all under 23 years of age, but for three players who can be older. These players get the chance to play at the most glamorous and publicized sports extravaganza on the planet.
The players selected for the Olympics would have mostly represented their respective national squads at the U-21 and U-19 levels. However, the Olympics is a far more prestigious event as compared to the U-21 and U-19 tournaments and attracts a much larger audience. The Games give a chance for these budding stars to prove their worth against the best players in their age group. It is seen as a stepping stone for these young players, heralding them as future stars and idols, giving them a share of footballing immortality. The tournament has seen the Messi’s, the Romario’s, the Tevez’s shine through. The pride, the temperament and leadership that these stars expressed in their budding years, catapulted them as stars, legends that evolved as transcendental figures, and mesmerized the global football fraternity with their repertoire of dazzling skills and breath-taking ability.
The Olympics allows these players to express their talents and prove their worth on a stage where all major clubs would have their scouts deployed. The biggest gainers of these events are players from Africa and Asia who get to play against the best youth talents from elite clubs in Europe and South America. The standard for club football in Asia and Africa is pretty poor as compared to the illustrious clubs of Europe. These players can follow in the footsteps of Drogba and Park Ji Sung and make a name for themselves in the elite leagues of Europe and make their country proud, inspire youngsters and overall act as great ambassadors for their nation’s sporting fraternity.
The Olympics open a huge window of opportunity for young players from Europe and South America as well. These players are honed by youth academies of their respective nations and thus represent the footballing ideologies of their respective academies. This might help them to catch the attention of illustrious clubs, and look for a possible transfer. It could also be seen as an opportunity for the youngsters to prove their mettle on a big-pressure stage and thus warrant greater opportunities with their respective clubs. These players would thus prove themselves worthy of the transition from youth and reserve squads to their respective first teams and also a call-up to their respective International teams. In short, the Games open a window for every player to conquer the football world and fulfil all his ambitions.
Anyone would easily conclude that playing in the Olympics would be a dream for any young football player. However, the above conclusion can’t be generalized to every U-23 player in the world. This is where the club vs country debate steps in. Most of the players are products of youth academies, talents who were signed by clubs after being scouted and identified as future stars. The clubs invest a lot of time, money and effort in nurturing the talents of these players. The clubs educate them, train them and enable them both physically and mentally. Thus, considering that the clubs play such a huge role in moulding the potentially talented players into enterprising professionals, they should get a say in whether a player should play for events that lie outside the domain of the club.
Most prominent club managers such as Sir Alex Fergusson and Arsene Wenger have always dissuaded their players from being involved in tournaments like the Olympics. They are of the view that the Olympics is majorly, an exhibition of the best track and field talents in the globe, and with 26 sports and 39 disciplines being contested in the Games, it doesn’t exactly prioritize soccer. A clear evidence of this is the still unsold 1.5 million tickets of soccer events.
The Olympics doesn’t find a place in the FIFA official calendar of events, and the regulating body never tried to create a window for the same. The football schedule at the Games is such that all teams would finish their group stage matches latest by the 1st of August, with the final scheduled on the 11th of August. The EPL and other leagues in Europe start on or around the 18th of August, and thus any player participating in this tournament can’t possibly be a part of their respective league teams.
Thus, the player loses on the pre-season training, is devoid of adequate amount of rest, and risks an injury that he would carry into the start of the league campaign. It is extremely vital that every team starts its league campaign on a high, and being devoid of their stars could severely jeopardize their chances. The lack of continuity, and the exhaustion built up from the high pressure games in the Olympics would severely drain out the players, and the club’s fitness and trainers would have to work extra hard to rejuvenate these young stars.
This is where the prerogative of the player comes into the picture. Every soccer player dreams and aspires to play and win for his nation, but he also needs to keep his club into perspective. The Clubs spend millions of dollars on his salary, training, and would also be incurring the costs of his rehabilitation and treatments if he gets injured in such games. The player also wouldn’t be a part of the pre-season tours of the team, and would disappoint fans who would turn up to watch their favorite stars in action, indirectly affecting the turn-outs and monetary returns for the club.
Footballers have a very short career span and they have to make the most of it. The players, who would miss the starting of the season risk losing their place in the squad, as their absence from the team would open up a chance for another squad player. Thus, this would jeopardize their club career as they would no longer be guaranteed first team football. The most vital thing for any football player is an opportunity to play week in and week out with the best talents in the league. The amount of first-team football also dictates his chances with the national team, his immediate fan-following, possibility of moving on to a bigger and better club, and his chances of latching onto lucrative sponsorship deals.
A great example of this would be selection of David De Gea into the Spanish Olympic squad. De Gea, in his first season with Manchester United, struggled for most of the initial part of the season, before mounting a brilliant return to form and starring for the Red Devils at the business end of the season. After having made his transition from Spain to England, this season is expected to be the year when De Gea establishes himself as one of the best goal-keepers in Europe. However, De Gea is scheduled to play for Spain in the Olympics and would most probably miss out on the start of the premier league campaign. It is expected that Anders Lindegaard would step in, and if he puts up a fine run of form, it would be difficult for De Gea to replace him.
Money can never be compared to the pride of playing for one’s nation, but overlooking the interests of his club in his eagerness to perform for his nation isn’t correct on the part of the athlete. The athlete has a responsibility towards the club and he needs to understand and respect that.
Thus, any youngster needs to act smartly and in his eagerness, shouldn’t overexert himself and jeopardize his future. If a player feels that he is drained out after a tiring league campaign and needs to rest, he should declare himself unavailable and let some other willing and fitter player take his place. This would allow an inexperienced promising player to garner some big-match experience at the highest level. The argument about a player picking up an injury in an Olympics and thus being wary of the same, is obnoxious as possibility of him getting injured in training or in a pre-season friendly is the same. However, footballers need to understand that they to need their physical condition at an optimum level to ensure consistent performance and thus they need to take adequate care of the same. An elite footballer plays around 50 games in a season, and thus they need to take a break and let their body rejuvenate.
Therefore, Wenger being skeptical about Jack Wilshere coming out from such a huge injury lay-off to play for the GB side in the Olympics is purely rational. Wilshere missed out on the EURO due to his injury and would see the Olympics as an opportunity to perform in the International stage. A dream that he harbored ever since his childhood would be fulfilled, and everyone hopes that he leads the GB squad to Olympic glory. But, the risks of injury still remain and how his body would react to the transition from such a huge injury lay-off to being billed as the most vital cog in the team, remains to be seen. The verdict will be out in a few weeks from now and one can hope that he returns back rejuvenated and with greater confidence and belief. However, it is equally possible that he may lack match fitness, and pick up an injury and that would be something that Arsenal fans all over the globe would be wary about. His story in short sums up the entire debate about whether the Olympic Games are an opportunity or a liability.
One can argue for both sides, but finally the prerogative lies with the player, and it is up to him to make a choice that is the best for him and his future. A jaded and drained player on the pitch would not be able to inspire confidence in his teammates and this can’t be taken as an act of heroism but rather one of pure idiocy. However, if a player chooses to play, there should be no undue pressure on him and the club should understand and respect his choice. A bite at International success is what every player aspires to, and the clubs also would love to have such players and stars wearing their colors.