On the face of it, men's Olympic football doesn't sound like a particularly bad idea. Get the brightest young prospects from around the world, add a few overage stars, and have them compete in a 16-team tournament? Yes please! You could have Brazil's dizzying array of attacking talent, Spain's midfield control factory, Germany's newest generation of young stars, Belgium's sneaky-good maturing side... wait, what?
Ok. Brazil are in the final. Spain disappointed and were knocked out in the group stages, taking one point from three matches. Germany? Belgium? Nowhere to be seen. Instead, we got this list:
That's not an inspiring list. Heck, the first name on it isn't even a FIFA-recognised nation. There are some good teams on there, even if Spain didn't show it, but if you were looking for a collection of the world's best young footballers, this isn't it. Argentina, Brazil and perhaps Uruguay aside, the top end of the sport is comprised of European countries. And European countries simply aren't taking this competition seriously.
Look at the hosts. Great Britain cobbled a team together out of England's Euro 2012 leftovers and bits of the Welsh team. The uncapped Jack Butland aside, not a single player who saw time at Euro 2012 was considered for selection in the Olympics. That meant no Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, no Danny Welbeck, no Andy Carroll, no Theo Walcott, no Jordan Henderson and no Martin Kelly. It certainly meant none of Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard would be showing up. Instead, we got the remains of Ryan Giggs' career, Craig Bellamy and Micah Richards as a center back.
This competition was taken so un-seriously that Stuart Pearce went into the tournament with Daniel Sturridge and Marvin Sordell as his available centre forwards. Neither has played as a lone forward in a Premier League match. Ever. Barely an eyelash was batted when Tottenham Hotspur winger Gareth Bale pulled out of the Olympics with a mildly controversial injury. The British people didn't even send Sturridge death threats for missing the key penalty in the quarterfinal loss to South Korea. Nobody cared!
The complete antipathy toward the Olympics that Britain showed was mirrored by Switzerland. Switzerland are a very good young term -- they came second in the European under-21 Championships last summer, but neither of their two best players even showed up in London. Apparently, Xherdan Shaqiri, 19, and Granit Xhaka, 20, both of whom you may recall from the very good Basel team which knocked Manchester United out of the Champions League last season, figured that preseason training with their new clubs trumped playing in the Olympics.
And as for Belarus ... well, their inclusion is a pretty strong sign that the qualification system is broken. How does that system work? To qualify for the Olympics, a country must normally finish in the top four of the previous year's U-21 European Championship. The problem is that nobody really takes particularly seriously the U-21 qualification, which runs concurrently with qualification for the senior tournaments, Spain aside*.
*And that's only because they don't need their best young players for the first team.
Instead, the U-21 system is a repository for mid-level prospects across Europe. That's fine, but when it's the filter for a tournament we're then supposed to take seriously, it becomes a bit of a problem. The Olympics simply aren't a credible tournament as far as European football is concerned. Here's a by-no-means exhaustive list of the talent that could have been fielded in this competition by European sides but wasn't:
Wojciech Szczesny, Alan Dzagoev, Kevin Strootman, Simon Kjaer, Ilkay Gundogan, Andre Schurrle, Thomas Muller, Holger Badstuber, Lars Bender, Toni Kroos, Mario Gotze, Jerome Boateng, Marco Reus, Mario Balotelli, Ivan Perisic, Yann M'Vila, Eden Hazard, Nuri Sahin.
Granted, a lot of that is because the European Championships are held in the same summer as the Olympics, but missing out on those sorts of players -- not to mention the overage guys who could have participated -- diminishes the competition as a whole. Take Brazil's great run to the final. Guess how many players from the top four European leagues they've faced? Four. In five games. South Korea started Sunderland's Ji Dong-Won and Augsberg's Koo Ja-Cheol. Honduras used Maynor Figueroa. And Egypt have Ahmed Hegazy, who's recently signed with Fiorentina.
And that's it. With Giovani dos Santos out injured, they won't be playing anyone from outside the FMF in the gold medal game. Brazil have won all five games they've played, and the likes of Neymar and Oscar have been incredibly impressive, but the level of competition has been far worse than what you might expect from an international under-23 tournament.
The Olympics simply aren't good enough to put much stock in. That's a real shame.
For news and features ahead of our live coverage of the final, follow along with our Mexico vs. Brazil, 2012 Olympics men's soccer final StoryStream. For more on Mexican football, head over to FMF State of Mind.