This article titled “Only pettiness makes us sneer at Olympic football” was written by Richard Williams, for The Guardian on Monday 27th June 2011 23.06 UTC
The modern pentathlon is a sell-out. There will be touts outside the Greco-Roman wrestling. To watch the kayaking you will need to shop in the grey market. In just over a year’s time, the one stadium-based Olympic event you may still be able to walk into is also the world’s most popular sport.
Football’s place in the Games has been the subject of lively debate in recent days, provoked by the dispute between the English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish associations over the creation of a Great Britain team in order to fulfil the host’s requirement to compete in every discipline. Despite Fifa’s assurances to the contrary, the three smaller home nations fear that even a single instance of amalgamation would threaten their right to an individual existence on the world stage.
Some commentators believe that football should not be an Olympic sport at all, given the standing of the World Cup as the unassailable pinnacle of the international game. They claim to feel the same way about tennis, with its grand slam events, and golf (which will rejoin the Olympic programme in 2016, after an absence of 112 years), with its majors. Those commentators tend to come mostly, although not exclusively, from the ranks of English football writers, who have never been required to attend an Olympics and are insensible to the rich satisfaction it can bring to players and spectators.
The enjoyment of the players comes first, of course, as it always should, and I doubt that Pep Guardiola would like to be deprived of the gold medal he won in front of King Juan Carlos at the Camp Nou in 1992, on the famous day when the Spanish monarch was also on hand to witness his compatriots win the men’s 1500m, in the person of Fermín Cacho, and the men’s team archery.
Jennifer Capriati would probably feel the same, since it was the tennis tournament in Barcelona that allowed her to demonstrate what the Olympics can do even for a sportswoman already wealthy beyond dreams. Three years earlier, at the behest of her sponsors, the rules had been shamelessly bent to allow Capriati to join the women’s tour at the age of 13. She arrived at the Olympics as a prematurely disillusioned 16-year-old, only to discover that there was a whole world outside the tennis bubble. She loved the relative normality and openness of life in the athletes’ village and her rekindled zest propelled her to victory over Steffi Graf in the final. Then, of course, it was back into the bubble.
In 1996 Nigeria’s progress to the football gold medal offered indelible memories to the crowds filling the University of Georgia’s giant concrete bowl. The Super Eagles recovered from 3-1 down in the semi-final to beat the Brazil of Ronaldo, Bebeto, Roberto Carlos and Juninho with an extra-time golden goal by Nwankwo Kanu, and lived on a similar knife-edge in the final, again coming from behind to beat the Argentina of Hernán Crespo, Roberto Ayala and Claudio López 3-2 with a goal by Emmanuel Amunike 90 seconds from the end of normal time and in front of 86,000 spectators.
Four years later, in the final in Sydney, there was an early glimpse of the 19-year-old Samuel Eto’o, who scored one of Cameroon’s two goals against the Spain of Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernández, a 2-2 draw preceding African success in the shoot-out. All the goals had been scored by the time two red cards reduced Spain to nine men, a fate that also overtook Paraguay in the 2004 final in Athens after Carlos Tevez had scored the goal that enabled Marcelo Bielsa’s Argentina to win the gold medal for the first time. They repeated the achievement in Beijing, Lionel Messi’s pass providing Angel Di María with the chance to score the only goal against Nigeria.
The celebrations of that squad – which also included Juan Román Riquelme, Javier Mascherano and Sergio Agüero, coached by Sergio Batista – were unconfined. Other countries really do takethe Olympic footballtournament seriously.
Politics may prevent Britain from fielding a representative squad, but there is no reason not to seize the chance of enjoying the efforts of those who are not unfortunate enough to be hamstrung by such pettiness.
Racing green no guarantee for Team Sky’s ambitions
We all want to save the rainforests, even if we might not entrust the task to an offshoot of the Rupert Murdoch empire. On an ecological level, Team Sky’s decision to switch their kit colour from black and blue to black and green for the Tour de France, to coincide with their chief sponsor’s campaign, is beyond reproach. From a sporting perspective, however, it just seems ill-conceived. Anything that diverts effort away from the job at hand – that of winning – is to be distrusted.
Fans of racing on four wheels will remember that back in the middle of the last decade Jenson Button and the Honda team were starting to challenge the hegemony of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari. In 2007, however, no longer able to call on sponsorship from Lucky Strike and unable to find replacement backing, they decided to paint the car with a picture of the earth as seen from space and cover its rear wing with the address of a sustainability website.
The result was the worst couple of years of Button’s career. Only when the team were sold, and the cars were renamed and painted in proper racing colours, did they fulfil their ambitions.
It’s not quite English cricket
Kieswetter, Pietersen, Dernbach: the England XI for the Twenty20 defeat against Sri Lanka sounded like it had been issued under the wrong heading. Yes, I know that Jade Dernbach has lived in England since the age of 14 and that the others – plus Jonathan Trott – are fully qualified to play. But how long before an England captain leads out a complete team of South African emigres, full of names such as Du Plessis, De Klerk, Botha and Van der Westhuizen? The rules are being followed, but something is wrong.
Serena’s man goes missing
Serena Williams got her serve back last week, and it was interesting to hear the terms in which she welcomed its return. She said: “I was like, ‘Where have you been?’ He was at a party or something. But he’s back.” In some university or other, the department of gender studies will be having fun with that piece of objective masculinisation. And yesterday, of course, he deserted her again …
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