Despite putting up a brave front, Japan bowed to the inevitable in the face of the Coronavirus crisis and postponed the Tokyo Olympics including the football tournament.
The major global football event for both men and women due to start on 24th July is now postponed until 23 July 2021.
European football is hardly concerned, but the rest of the world and especially South America are deeply disappointed.
It’s especially a blow to the women’s game as it sought to build on the glowing success of the World Cup in 2019.
The Poor Relation
Football has been a major part of the Olympics and has a longer history than the World Cup, but it has always been viewed as something of lesser prestige.
Professionals were only openly admitted at the Los Angeles Games in 1984 and currently it’s a U-23 tournament with a few over-age players allowed.
The professional game in Europe (where the money is) has always had a problem with the timing of the Olympics and making players available.
Despite its problems, the Olympics provided global superstars like Messi, Neymar and Aguero with a showcase for their talents and an early taste for success at the highest level.
The Disappointed 16
African football is desperate to make a global impact again after Nigeria won gold in 1996 and Cameroon in 2020. They had Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt and South Africa ready to compete.
Asia lined up Australia, Korean Republic, Saudi Arabia and the hosts Japan, with Oceania represented by New Zealand.
Europe, with almost a sense of obligation rather than enthusiasm, presented World Cup holder’s France, Germany, Romania and Spain.
North, Central America and Caribbean were yet to finalise their representatives with Mexico and Honduras installed as favourites.
Japan with almost an entire squad of home-based players was hoping to make an impact on home soil.
Success on the global stage has proved elusive for Japan. They usually qualify for the Olympics and the World Cup but seldom make it past the opening stages. A 4th place finish at London 2012 has been their best so far.
Last time in Rio de Janeiro
Redemption was the name of the game in 2016 as Neymar scored a penalty for Brazil to win gold against Germany.
Only 2 years previously Brazil were crushed 7-1 by Germany in the 2014 World Cup in Belo Horizonte. Circumstances and the teams were different, but Brazil badly needed that win to restore their pride.
A wide-open tournament
The 2020 Olympic tournament offered any number of possible winners and that was a major part of its attraction. Of the 26 tournaments played, there have been 19 different winners.
Brazil (being Brazil) were obviously the favourites after winning 4 years ago. Spain qualified as European U-21 champions and France with full international star Mbappe in their preliminary squad were also fancied.
The Great British problem
Once again ‘Team GB’ is notable for its absence. The problem is when it comes to football, the United Kingdom is divided and mostly wants to stay that way.
While the English FA is affiliated to the Olympic movement, the associations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are not. The smaller nations view a combined team as the beginning of the end to their participation in international football.
It seems England would happily become ‘Team GB’ at the Olympics as it did in 2012 with a few Welsh players. For the moment they play a political game and keep the peace.
It’s understandable why Japan held off cancelling the Olympics. It will add further billions to an already huge budget as years of planning are torn up.
From a football perspective the Olympics will again be set to clash with the European Championships and the Copa America which have also been postponed to 2021. Qualifiers for the World Cup 2022 have already been hit.
Players will be a year older and possibly no longer eligible. Australia among others have already lobbied for the U-23 rule to be waived for the rearranged tournament.
Other sports see the Olympics as the pinnacle of success. Football is different and always looks towards the World Cup. Losing the Tokyo 2020 tournament is a disappointment, but it’s not the end of the world.