It is fair to say that, historically, South America has not made a huge impact on the Olympics. While it is true Brazil is working hard to broaden its sporting base, of the 20 gold medals the country has won, over half have come in the last four Games.
Argentina has picked up 17 golds, but its glory days are long gone. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Peron government invested heavily in a wide range of sports and leading athletes were closely identified with the regime, but all that ended when Peron was deposed in 1955. Since then, Argentina has claimed just four gold medals –
two of them in the last two football tournaments.
The rest of the continent combined has won just eight golds, while Bolivia has never won a medal of any kind. The only time Paraguay has been on the podium was for the silver it won in the football tournament in 2004, and Uruguay’s two golds were both for football, in 1924 and 1928.
This, then, is a convincing explanation for the importance attached in South America to the Olympic football tournament; after all, it is the activity in which it does best and therefore cares about most. However, there are other reasons.
One is to be found in South American football’s sense of the grandeur of its own history. The introduction of the Copa America in 1916, and its staging almost annually in the early years, gave a huge impulse to the development of the game in the continent. Uruguay arrived in Paris as unknowns for the 1924 Games, but not only did they sweep all comers aside on the way to the gold they also introduced Europe to an artistic, balletic style of play that set off a fever for the game.
South American prominence was confirmed four years later when Uruguay retained their title by beating Argentina 2-1, after a replay, in the Final of the Amsterdam Games.
These twin triumphs suggested that football had outgrown the Olympics and there was a need for a tournament where professionals could compete with amateurs to find out who was the best.
And thus the World Cup was born, first staged (and won) by Uruguay in 1930. Hurriedly built for the occasion, Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario pays homage to the heroes of 1924 and 1928 with the stands behind the goals named Colombes and Amsterdam after the venues of the two victories. The main stand is the Tribuna Olimpica and, even today, if a player scores directly from a corner it is called an “Olympic goal” – a reference to Argentina’s winner when they beat Uruguay 2-1 in Buenos Aires shortly after La Celeste had won gold in 1924.
So Olympic football is part of the continent’s folklore. But it is not just about the past. For South American teams, the Olympic tournament is also an important aid in building for the future.
When the major European nations select senior international squads the overwhelming criteria used is performances at club level. In South America it is more complicated as many of a country’s players will be dotted around Europe or perhaps Mexico. More weight, therefore, is given to performances with the national team at junior level, and those who do well playing for their nation’s under-20 side are frequently fast-tracked straight into the senior squad.
The two countries that qualify for the Olympics have a chance to extend that process. With three over-age players to provide guidance, coaches can get an under-23 squad together and work with them tactically, while observing their performances under pressure. Some of the players might already be in the senior squad so they can consolidate their position and prepare for a role of leadership. Others will play themselves into contention, while some may play themselves out of it.
One thing is certain. When the full history is written about the campaigns of Brazil and Uruguay in the 2014 World Cup, what happens this summer in England will surely be part of the narrative.
By Tim Vickery