A men’s game? Not at the Olympics

Every athlete in the world would tell you that the Olympics are the pinnacle of their careers, the zenith of their sporting lives, as they earn the chance of representing their countries in front of the biggest global audience bar none.

For competing at the Games is every athlete’s dream, their six-night-in-a-row sell out at the Madison Square Garden, their Academy Award, their Pulitzer Prize – an unforgettable two weeks that some are lucky to experience more than once in their (sporting) lives.

Various athletes of non-Olympic disciplines, such as rugby or cricket for example, have voiced their envy over the years at not being able to compete on the stage lit by Olympia’s sacred fire.

So it is perhaps strange that for the most popular sport of them all, the Olympics are received as a bit of a mixed bag, prompting responses ranging from once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to a thanks-but-no-thanks attitude that leaves non-football fans around the world perplexed.

How can a sport with such a massive worldwide following that accompanies it fanatically for 12 months a year become an almost unwanted entity for two weeks once every four years?

Well, the truth is it simply can’t and a smug attitude can’t hide the fact that for football, just like for any other Olympic sport, the Games are the pinnacle.

Or at least, the ladies seem to think so.

Despite being a relatively young sport in Olympic terms, having made its debut at the Atlanta 1996 Games, the women’s football tournament has swiftly risen to the level where it can now be arguably considered the biggest event of the calendar in women’s football.

While the men’s tournament is considered nothing more than a distraction – or an excellent reason to dig up football politics belonging to a by-gone era, in Great Britain’s case – from the Phelps and Bolts of this world, the women’s tournament is the ones that grabs the headline even in countries where men’s football features prominently, no doubt to the scorn of misogynists around the world.

While the men’s tournament sees teams forced to field U23 players – which, admittedly, in Spain’s and Brazil’s case at London 2012 isn’t too bad – and with three over 23 players allowed for each team, the women’s tournament is contested between full national sides, with no age restrictions and the teams are selected from the best of the previous year’s World Cup, rather than through a machiavellian qualification process.

Since the World Cup was introduced in 1991 and with the subsequent inclusion of women’s football as part of the Olympic programme five years later, the process effectively guarantees back-to-back World Cups as the world’s top teams face each other in consecutive summers.

Neymar, Juan Mata, Edinson Cavani and Ryan Giggs might light up the men’s tournament but they’re stars in the making – or approaching the winter of a stellar career, in the Welshman’s case – while Jordi Alba, Javi Martinez, Hulk, Rafael and Tom Cleverly are all very good players who will, some of them have already, cement their spots in the starting eleven of some of the top European clubs.

But compare the paucity of stars of the men’s tournament with what the women’s tournament has to offer, boasting five times World Player of the Year Winner Marta, Homare Sawa, the current World Player of the Year, who led Japan to World Cup glory last year, Sweden’s Johanna Almgren – whose accomplished passing and beauty caught the eye of Ronaldinho four years ago in Bejing – and 31-year-old US striker Abby Wambach who has scored 134 goals in 178 games.

So, while the men negotiate their way through a tournament which ultimately can’t be considered as important as the World Cup or the European Championships for simply it doesn’t include the best players available, the women compete in their biggest tournament of their careers.

That is not to say that the men’s tournament can’t and won’t provide excitement and talking points but it will always be a B-side to the World Cup’s single, rather than a hit in its own right.

Would loosening the rules on players quota allow the coaches to choose from a bigger pool of talent? Absolutely. Would the respective clubs be happy to see some of their players take part in two grueling tournaments within eight weeks? Most certainly not.

Football might be a men’s game but, for two weeks every four years, it is definitely women’s territory and not thanks to players wearing tighter shorts, as once diabolically suggested by Sepp Blatter.

Women controlling football for two weeks? Andy Gray and Richard Keys must be flabbergasted…

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