In the long shadow of the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship this summer, that nuisance of an association football tournament – the Olympics – will buzz around soccer clubs’ ears begging for them to release their players for the competition. Just another age-specific tournament that FIFA can’t stand because it threatens their monopoly by daring to stand up against that monolith of global commerce – the World Cup.
How dare the International Olympic Committee compete with that juggernaut of sporting wisdom and gentility – FIFA. How dare the IOC pretend that football belongs in a global tournament such as theirs – a tournament that should remain the sole bastion of ancient sport like pole-vaulting and synchronized swimming. How dare they be so presumptuous as to challenge FIFA’s sovereignty in all matters soccer.
How dare they.
Of course, for heathens like me, I love the Olympic tournament. If basketball can have its NCAA March Madness, where new and exciting talent gets its first real run across the stage, then soccer can certainly have the Olympics.
The Olympic tournament for soccer, which restricts its roster to U-23 players (save three senior players that can be added to the roster to augment the squad), often offers us a glimpse into what the future of the talent pool could look like in the coming years.
The thing I love most about the competition is the unpredictability of it. The World Cup consistently has its favorites. Brazil’s national squad won the World Cup five times. The number of gold medals Brazil has won: zero.
One senses that this competition is anyone’s to take. Africa, a continent that has yet to win the World Cup, has won two gold medals at the Olympics. Cameroon, hardly a world-beater in the top echelon of the international game, beat Spain in 2000. Nigeria bested Argentina four years earlier.
Oh, the drama.
The CONCACAF region’s qualifying tournament kicks off tonight with Canada battling El Salvador, followed by the United States taking on Cuba. The US is favored to top the group. However, history has shown us that there are no givens in this qualifying contest. The US was booted out of the 2004 Olympics by long-standing rival Mexico.
The worldwide profile of US Soccer has arguably never been better than it is at the moment. If the US is not quite the powerhouse that Brazil or Spain or Germany are, it is certainly the most competitive it has ever been. Beating Italy in Genoa for the first time last month was no small feat, despite how some have minimized this victory due to the fact that the match-up was only a scrimmage. Beating Italy in any competition is a good stride forward for the US National Team.
As the sport continues to flourish domestically, a deep and successful run in the Olympics could be monumental for the program. At the center of the campaign is head-coach Caleb Porter. Personally for this writer, he is proving to be the most interesting story to watch in US Soccer for 2012. A successful college coach at Akron, he now has an opportunity to prove his mettle at an international level. Global perception of the US program is that college players and coaches cannot compete with club academies that thrive throughout the rest of the world. Porter has the opportunity to prove all the naysayers wrong and take his squad of young, fiery, attacking players to London for this summer’s Olympic dogfight.
Is this long-time American hopeful Freddy Adu’s chance to finally step up to the proverbial plate and prove he’s the world-class player the media built him up to be. Can he finally become the American Pele? Can Adu finally give US soccer fans their superstar?
It all kicks off tonight against Cuba. If these narrative morsels don’t get your March-Madness juices flowing, I don’t what will.