Soccer and the Olympics have been together for more than 100 years but still aren’t really talking to each other.
Thanks to FIFA’s failure to include the tournament in its official calendar, Argentina’s Lionel Messi was almost sent home the day before Olympic debut because his club, Barcelona, wanted him back for a European Champions League qualifier.
Thankfully for the record 2.14 million Olympic soccer fans, Barcelona allowed Messi to stay. He dazzled fans with his footwork, goals and passes, justifying his appearance by setting up Argentina’s goal in a 1-0 victory over Nigeria in Saturday’s final.
But he had to sweat to get it.
The two teams sweltered in midday temperatures of 107 degrees, and match officials took the rare step of stopping play twice to allow players to drink water and cool down.
When the game kicked off, it was 6 a.m. in Europe and midnight in most parts of North and South America, hardly prime time. But it was the only time available at the spectacular Bird’s Nest stadium, which had to be reconfigured for that evening’s track and field competition. At the 2004 Athens Games, the men’s final kicked off even earlier.
“No team has actually played at noon since we started this tournament,” Nigeria coach Samson Siasia said. “It affected both countries, and most players didn’t perform to their level because of the heat. But we didn’t make the rules. They said play the game at 12 o’clock, which I don’t think was a good idea.”
The embarrassing start and finish to the competition overshadowed what was a well-played tournament in which the young stars of the 16 teams gave a glimpse of World Cups to come. Although many of the women’s games were played in front of half empty stadiums, the record crowds underlined how popular soccer is in China.
But there is so much missing with soccer at the games that it never will achieve the same impact as athletics, swimming or gymnastics, which all rate the Olympics as far more important than their own world championships.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter announced toward the end of the competition there would be no moves to sharpen up the image of Olympic soccer by allowing full-strength lineups — the current rules limit teams to players under 23 plus three wild-card selections over the limit. He saw the competition as a sort of “university” where the top graduates would move on to the World Cup.
FIFA likely will add the competition to its calendar for the 2012 London Games, forcing clubs to release players under 23, and the tournament will be played at some of the sport’s most famous grounds — Wembley Stadium, Old Trafford in Manchester, Villa Park in Birmingham, St. James Park in Newcastle, Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, and Hampden Park, in Glasgow, Scotland.
But at an event that features the world’s best, soccer still doesn’t send most of its premier players. And Britain may not even be able to send a team because England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland complete separately in soccer.