This seems a somewhat strange topic to write on, given that Great Britain has had an arm’s length relationship with Olympic football. Hence some comments are in order. A couple of weeks back, GN5 wrote a fantastic post on the first World Cup in 1930, which Uruguay won. Before that date, national football was the domain of the Olympic Games. Uruguay had won both the 1924 and 1928 Olympics gold medals in football.
Encouraged by GN5’s post, I did a bit of background research on the Olympics. This turned into a Gargantuan project, and in the process I unearthed a lot of interesting insights that were largely new to me. This information I plan to organise into a series of 3 posts to fill in part of the lean “transfer” (😛 ) season. My general argument is that staying away from the Olympics has been to the detriment of England team’s World Cup prospects. You AAers are the best judge as to how persuasive this argument is.
Today is the first of the three, focusing on youth development. The second will focus on Arsenal stars in Olympics football. The third will be on the controversies behind, and future prospects for, British involvement in Olympics football.
What does Olympic football have to do with youth development in football? Quite a bit, I would argue. Indeed, Olympics football is now the equivalent of youth World Cup in national football. Since the 1992 Barcelona Games, men’s Olympic football has changed from an amateur tournament to an under-23 competition, with three over-age players allowed per squad. Qualification for the main draw is based on under-21 competitions.
With England’s failure to progress beyond the group stage this year, the focus is firmly back on youth development. Olympics, anyone? FA? Dyke, Pearce, Hodgson?
At the outset, let us have an Arsenal focused perspective. In the 1912 Olympic Games, as host nation, Great Britain entered the men’s football competition after a long break. Opinions on whether professional players should participate in Olympic football varied, but the mainstream view is that Olympic football is for amateurs not professional footballers.
In April 2012, David Seaman said: “[As a player] if you get the option it’s a big decision. … Obviously representing Great Britain would be a massive honour, but I was a professional for 22 years and I don’t think I would have done it. I don’t think it’s for professional footballers – I’ve always felt it should be left to the amateurs.”
A year before, Wenger in March 2011 said: “In the professional game we see the Olympics football as an obstacle rather than as a motivation. … I think the Olympic Games is not about football, it is about track and field. Football for me never looked to be a highlight of the Olympic Games.”
That may well be a valuable perspective, particularly when it relates to senior professional footballers. However, two issues remain. First, the above mainstream view is not inconsistent with a youth developmental perspective. Do major footballing nations use Olympics football for grooming young players and providing them experience at the world stage?
Second, what about scouting? Can the Olympics be used to identify young footballers who would be future world stars?
To explore these issues further, I report the uptake from Olympic squads for some leading footballing nations in the 2014 World Cup, focussing on members from the corresponding Olympics teams from the 2012, 2008 and even 2004 Olympic Games.
Argentina men’s football team participated in the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games, but not 2012. 7 out of the 37 players in those 2 squads were included in the 23 in Brazil 2014. Mascherano 30, Zabaleta 29, Gago 28, Lavezzi 29, Di María 26, Messi 26 and Agüero 26. Let us not forget some other prominent names from 2004 as well who were probably too old by 2014: Ayala, Coloccini, Tevez, Heinze and Figueroa.
Indeed, what a remarkable collection of stars? I have included current ages in the list above so that one can have a sense of how the Olympics were used for youth development.
Ah, well, the sceptic among you may say, maybe Argentina were a bit different. Not in the slightest. Here are some other national sides.
Brazil participated in the 2008 and 2012 Games. 7 of the 35 players in those two squads are included in the current World Cup team. Thiago Silva 29, Fernandinho 29, Marcelo 28, Hulk 27, Neymar 22, Ramires 27 and Jô 27. Similar pattern to Argentina.
Mexico. Of the 36 players in the Olympic squads for 2004 and 2012, 7 are included in the 2014 World Cup squad. Ochoa 28, Herrera 24, Peralta 30, dos Santos 25, Jiménez 23, Reyes 21 and Ponce 25.
Italy. 2004 and 2008 Games. 7 out of 38 players in the 2014 World Cup squad. Chiellini 29, Candreva 27, Abate 27, Marchisio 28, Barzagli 33, De Rossi 30 and Pirlo 35. Similar pattern, but note the difference in the ages. Is there a transatlantic divide? Perhaps not, just the fact that the current Italy side is getting on a bit.
Belgium, only the 2008 Olympic Games. 7 out of 20 in the current squad. Kompany 28, Vermaelen 28, Fellaini 26, Mirallas 26, Vertonghen 27, Ciman 28 and Dembélé 26. Yet again, youth development in focus.
Uruguay. 7 out of the 18 in the 2012 Olympic Games squad. Coates 23, Cavani 27, Suárez 27, Ramírez 23, Hernández 23, Lodeiro 25 and Ríos 32.
For Switzerland, the current World Cup squad has 5 members out of the 18 in their 2012 Olympic Games. Benaglio 30, Mehmedi 23, Drmic 21, Rodríguez 21 and Schär 22.
Portugal. Only 2004 Games. 5 out of 18. Meireles 31, Alves 32, Costa 33, Ronaldo 29 and Almeida 30.
Spain participated in the 2012 Games. 4 out of 18: de Gea 23, Azpilicueta 24, Alba 25 and Martínez 25.
Costa Rica, only the 2004 Games. 3 out of 18. Umaña 31, Myrie 26 and Díaz 30.
At the other end, the Dutch under-23 team competed in the 2008 Games. However, none of the players are included in the current 2014 World Cup squad.
What about England? Great Britain does not usually participate in the Olympic men’s football event. But they did so at home in 2012. Here is the squad.
Great Britain 2012 Olympic men’s football squad (starred players over-age): Jack Butland 19, Neil Taylor 23 (Wales), Ryan Bertrand 22, Danny Rose 22, Steven Caulker 20, Craig Dawson 22, Tom Cleverley 22, Joe Allen 22 (Wales), Daniel Sturridge 22, Craig Bellamy* 33 (Wales), Ryan Giggs* (c) 38 (Wales), James Tomkins 23, Jack Cork 23, Micah Richards* 24, Aaron Ramsey 21 (Wales), Scott Sinclair 23, Marvin Sordell 21, Jason Steele 21
Only one of the above 13 eligible players (5 players in the Olympics squad were Welsh) were included in England’s 2014 World Cup squad. Daniel Sturridge 24. Most importantly, several players who would have been eligible were not included in the Olympics squad: Wilshere, Welbeck, Smalling, Henderson, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jones, Sterling, Barkley and Shaw.
Why was the Olympics competition not used to groom young English players for the World Cup? Was this a missed opportunity? It seems so. Stars of the 2012 tournament included, among others, Peralta and dos Santos for Mexico and Neymar and Oscar for Brazil. Likewise, the stars of the 2008 Beijing Olympics men’s football included Aguerro, di Maria, Lavezzi and Messi (Argentina), Ronaldinho and Jo (Brazil), Dembele and Mirallas (Belgium) and Kalou (Ivory Coast). Whither youth development, FA?
Finally, here is a question for Arsene. We know you are having a gala time in Brazil. We also recognise that you take pride in developing young players. The World Cup has largely established stars, and hence is perhaps not particularly suitable for scouting. But, what about the London Olympics in 2012? Where were you at the time Arsene? Did you watch football in the Games? Who did you see and admire? Which of those young stars are we signing?
Written by Arnie