by Richard Brook
With the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London just a week away, the organisers have announced that the capacities of the stadia to be used for Olympic Football have been slashed. This action has been the inevitable consequence of a, perhaps surprising, lack of appetite on the part of the paying public to purchase tickets for the event.
Lord Sebastian Coe has tried put a gloss over the issue by comparing the sales of football tickets to both other events, and of football at previous Olympics and while it must be said that these comparisons are indeed favourable, with England’s undying love affair with the sport of Association Football, ticket sales must surely be regarded as disappointing.
The hard facts in all of this is that half a million Olympic football tickets have been withdrawn from sale altogether, presumably by the closure of stands, tiers, or other areas of the stadia. In addition to this another 250,000 tickets remain on sale, with a further 200,000 still to be released before the tournament and 150,000 ear-marked for free distribution to school children.
By comparison only 50,000 tickets remain, of those currently on sale, for other Olympic events, again there is another allocation of 200,000 still to be released.
So why should it be that our national game, the staple of so many people’s weekends for three quarters of the year, is being met with such apathy, when it comes to, quite possibly, a once in a life time opportunity to see the sport, in the Olympics, on home soil?
We spent the summer of 1996, not to mention many others since, singing about ‘Football coming home’, that was for a European Championship being held in England. The first European Championships was held in France in 1960. The first World Cup was in Uruguay in 1930. Neither of these tournament’s give any credence to the idea of our hosting them being football coming home. Presumably the idea behind the lyric was that football itself is an English sport, it is worth noting that this assumption is not uncontested. While the oldest club in the world is Sheffield F.C., and they held what is believed to be the oldest copy of the rules of the sport, the modern game bears little resemblance to the kicking of offal from village to village so often put forward as the roots of the game.
If you want to look for an incontestable example of football “coming home” to our shores, the best one out there is the 2012 Olympics. Great Britain not only hosted the first ever Olympic football tournament, they won it as well. This occurred at the 1908 London Olympics and more precisely it was England who won, with all four home nations having been invited to take part, England were the sole British representatives in the tournament. At the time, to be amongst an Olympic football team the players had to be amateur. The interpretation of this word, amateur, has been a long standing bone of contention in the history of Olympic football. The English F.A., however, applied the term strictly but despite this were able to call upon some players from the full national side such as Tottenham centre forward Vivian Woodward. The side won Olympic gold, beating Denmark 2-0 in the final. So why, with “football coming home” at London 2012, is the man on the street so disinterested?
Maybe it is because we have just been treated to a wonderful European Championships, without a bad match, showcasing some of the top stars of world football. We have just seen the Spain team, fast approaching legendary status, become the first side to win three major international tournaments. Or have we? Uruguay might dispute it having won the two Olympic tournaments that preceded their victory in the inaugural World Cup in 1930. Possibly on the back of, what is likely to be the last great European Championships with UEFA’s plans to alter the format, and around the corner from our domestic season, British sports fans would just rather go and see a sport, that they wouldn’t normally go to see, or is more intrinsically associated with the Olympics.
Alternatively it could be down to the absence of some of football’s biggest stars. The tournament, after all, is no longer for amateurs only, however, it is now effectively an under-23’s tournament, albeit with three overage players in each squad. This could be brilliant news for the likes of Spain and Brazil, who both have a raft of young talent coming through. Indeed if some quarters are to believed Brazil should be treating this tournament as just shy of a rehearsal for the 2014 World Cup, that is to take place on their own soil. Indeed Mano Menezes, manager of Brazil’s full international side and their Olympic team, is rumoured to need to win gold to ensure his continued tenure in his main role. It could also be down to the lack of some of the top footballing nations. With no disrespect intended, UAE, Gabon, Belarus and Honduras are amongst the sixteen Olympic competitors, but are from being considered traditional forces in international football. Our own team, Great Britain, has not fielded a team under that name since 1971 in qualifying and since 1960 at the games itself.
Therein lies the most likely reason that British people are not snapping up the tickets for Olympic football. As a 31-year-old man I can say Great Britain has not had a team at the Olympic games since my parents were ten years old. How is some one my age supposed to know whether we care for Team GB, the same way we do for England at the Euro’s and World Cups? We might find that when it comes to it, Olympic football fever sweeps the nation, especially if Team GB do well. I hope this wave of national enthusiasm does materialise.
London 2012 is a great opportunity for the true football fan to see some of the young stars of the future, and to see teams that we would never usually see. Beyond that Olympic football truly and indisputably is coming home, to its first host, and to it first winners. The British people owe it to those amateur heroes of 1908, and indeed those who retained the Olympic title in 1912, to have some pride in that. Had the fragile politics of the home nations regarding Team GB allowed for more participation in Olympic football, they might have been approached, if not attained the iconic status of the Lions of 1966.