The elephant in the room when it comes to Olympic football is that fans of the beautiful game have never truly taken to the event. The reason isn’t definitive but we suspect it’s something to do with the timing, in so much that even passionate football fans need a summer break to recover from the pain and/or glory from the previous season (read this piece from my colleague Tony Karon on the heartache that can come at both ends of the standings). And if football fans do take an interest in the Olympics, the so-called “Greatest Show on Earth,” chances are it’s to cheer on athletes in individual pursuits, rather than team ones.
Still, Tuesday’s draw for this year’s Olympic tournament was worth watching. From a U.S. perspective, only the women will make it to Britain this summer, as their male counterparts failed to get past an always competitive Mexico recently. They will be missed, especially as Clint Dempsey has lit up the Premier League (yet again) this season for Fulham, and was harshly denied a top three spot in the writers’ footballer of the year voting by Manchester United’s Paul Scholes, who only came out of retirement a few months ago.
The women will visit cities other than London, as the sport travels the length and breadth of Great Britain, giving fans in Wales and Scotland (as well as locations in England) a chance to take in the Games. And the U.S. should feel pretty good about getting out of their group. Their opponents are France (without a doubt the toughest test the U.S. will face early on), North Korea and Colombia (presumably no Secret Service agents will be required to attend).
Pithy political jibes aside, what’s astounding about America’s draw is that it pits them against exactly the same sides they met during the 2011 World Cup (in fact, the U.S. have played North Korea in the last four World Cups). Last year, Team USA started their campaign with 2-0 and 3-0 wins against North Korea and Colombia in the group stages before beating France 3-1 in the semi-final. And if they do make it to the final, where the U.S. is aiming to win their third gold medal in a row, they could have a rematch with World Cup winners Japan (provided both teams win their groups).
On the men’s side, an even more notable absentee than the Americans are reigning champs Argentina. Most interest surrounded the host nation, with Great Britain surely pleased with its opponents Senegal, United Arab Emirates and less so with a strong Uruguay side. GB hasn’t competed in the Olympics since 1960 (the reasons are so deeply-rooted in politics that to explain them would take up the rest of your day) but that novelty factor, nor the sport in general, nor being hosts, hasn’t helped shift soccer tickets. There are 2.3 million of them (which is a fairly hefty proportion of the 8.8 million across all sports) and, currently, more than 1.5 million remain unsold but frustratingly, the exact dates of when they will next be available to purchase isn’t yet known. Organizers are hoping that offering double-headers during the group stages will help put bums on seats but, thus far, even the footballing heartlands of Newcastle and Manchester have yet to register much interest. And with all the will in the world, it’s hard to see the likes of Honduras vs. Morocco selling out Hampden Park in Scotland.
(VIDEO: Olympic Game Changer Seb Coe)
And away from the politics of Great Britain entering a team, there’s the politics of who makes the team. The current long list of 80 players must be cut to 35 by June 8, with the final squad of 18 (plus four reserves) submitted to FIFA by July 6. The biggest name still in the frame (and bear in mind that England’s Football Association won’t include any players taking part in EURO 2012 this summer) is David Beckham. The 36-year-old (he’ll be 37 next week) can be one of three over-23-year old picks and boss Stuart Pearce is set to watch him play for the LA Galaxy in the near future. London 2012 chairman Lord Coe was asked Tuesday whether Beckham should be selected to help with ticket sales: “This is absolutely for Stuart Pearce [to decide]. He must pick the team on merit and whatever team Stuart picks will attract a lot of attention.”
When asked if the squad ought to feature players from all four home nations, Coe noted, “If possible that’s important, but again [it must be] on merit. You don’t select your teams on a quota basis, you select on merit.” There’s a reason Coe got the job as chairman: his resume isn’t just filled with gold medals and world records but he used to be a politician. When it comes to the Olympics, it’s sometimes harder to see which is the more important job.
PHOTOS: A Brief History of David Beckham