By Novy Kapadia
From Berlin 1936 to Barcelona 1992, the Olympic football gold medal had always been won by a European nation. However since then no European nation has won the football gold medal. The last European nation to reach the Olympic final was Spain (which included a young Xavi Hernandez in midfield) in 2000 in Sydney when they lost 3-5 to Cameroon in the penalty shoot-out after the final ended in a 2-2 draw.
Italy are the last European nation to win any medal in Olympic football. In Athens 2004 they beat Iraq 1-0 in the play-off for the bronze medal. In the 1996 Atlanta, 2000 Sydney, 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics, no European country won a medal in Olympic football. In London 2012, not a single European nation qualified for the semi finals, the first time this has happened in Olympic history.
Olympic football results cannot be seen as an indication that European football is on the decline. For in the 2006 World Cup all four-semi finalists were from Europe and in the 2010 World Cup, except for Uruguay, the remaining three champions Spain, runners up Holland third placed Germany were all from Europe.
Many experts feel that due to the excessive demands of their domestic leagues, European clubs are reluctant to release players for the Olympics, which invariably take place in July-August, as it clashes with the start of new professional season. Clubs that have qualified for the lucrative UEFA Champions league are even more hesitant to release players for fear of injury and loss of revenue in case of defeat in the group stage. After all Chelsea’s success in the 2012 UEFA Champions league earned the club an estimated £50 million pounds.
So in the nineties and first decade of the 20th century it was felt that European countries did not perform well in Olympic football as many players opted out of the competition since clubs preferred that they concentrate on pre-season training. But it was felt that this would change in London 2012, as weather conditions were conducive for attacking football. Also, two of the four European qualifiers – Spain and Great Britain – were very ambitious. As World Cup and Euro champions, Spain desperately wanted to win the Olympic football gold medal and showcase the quality and depth in their football and also claim to be the greatest nation ever to have played the game. As hosts, Great Britain, with several Premiership stars in their squad, were also hopeful of a medal. Many football experts had predicted a Spain vs Brazil final.
However instead of a grand performance, London 2012 was the worst ever performance by European nations at the Olympics. Mighty Spain, Belarus and Switzerland were eliminated in the group phase itself. Great Britain won group A with seven points from three matches but lost on penalties to South Korea in the quarter finals. Britain’s penalty shoot-out jinx continues in international football. No wonder England’s former international striker Gary Lineker, now a TV presenter, commenting on this result, said, “some things never change.”
As hosts Great Britain had taken the Olympic football tournament seriously. They were playing in the Olympics for the first time since 1960 and had intensive training camps. Even though Great Britain’s inspirational coach Stuart Pearce had dropped the iconic David Beckham, the three over-age players selected were all capable performers in the Premiership, the legendary 38-year-old Welsh international Ryan Giggs (Manchester United), Micah Richards (Manchester City) and Welsh international forward Craig Bellamy. Chelsea’s Daniel Sturridge, Josh McEachran and Ryan Bertrand, Manchester United’s Tom Cleverley, Swansea City’s Joe Allen (has now joined Liverpool), Arsenal‘s Aaron Ramsey, Blackburn Rovers’ Jason Lowe and Birmingham City’s Jack Butland were some of the other well-known Premiership players in the Great Britain squad.
Spain finished bottom of group D with one point from three matches, losing 0-1 to both Japan and Honduras and drew 0-0 with Morocco. It seems Spanish football is having a crisis in finding strikers. Despite fielding promising strikers like Cristian Tello (Barcelona), Adrian Lopez (Atletico Madrid) and Iker Muniain (Athletic Bilbao) they could not score a single goal in three matches.
World and Euro 2008 and 2012 champions Spain had hoped to win the Olympic football gold medal and become the only country to be continental, World and Olympic champions simultaneously. They thus selected Euro 2012 winners Juan Mata, left back Jordi Alba and defensive midfielder Javi Martinez in their 22-man squad for the Olympic games in London. Chelsea midfielder Mata and Barcelona-bound fullback Alba both scored in the Euro 2012 4-0 final win over Italy. Mata’s club-mate Oriol Romeu, Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea and Barcelona pair Martin Montoya and Cristian Tello were also selected. However, despite dominating games they failed to create enough chances or score goals and thus were eliminated at the group stage.
Switzerland also named a number of senior internationals for the 2012 Olympics. Wolfsburg goalkeeper Diego Benaglio, Fiorentina’s former West Ham midfielder Valon Behrami and Nuremburg defender Timm Klose were all picked in the 18-man squad as over-aged players. Fulham’s Pajtim Kasami and Aston Villa goalkeeper Benjamin Siegrist were also selected. Yet the Swiss flopped, losing 0-1 to Korea, 0-1 to Mexico and drew 1-1 with African U-23 champions Gabon. So the Swiss made no headway in-group B and came last. Belarus fared slightly better in Group C at least securing a win (beat New Zealand 1-0) but also made an early exit as they lost 1-3 to both Brazil and Egypt.
Despite big names, the European nations under-performed in 2012 Olympic football, as the players were obviously not motivated enough to give their best. The club vs country issue, a perennial problem in world football is taking its toll. In years to come Olympic football will lose its lustre if the most dominant continent in world football takes this competition lightly.