The Iraqi soccer team’s 4-2 triumph over Portugal in the preliminary rounds of the Olympics makes for an inspiring feature story. It might even merit exploration in the A section—the victory could conceivably help develop a sense of Iraqi nationalism, at least providing a hint of unity that will help keep the Shiites, Sunni, and Kurds from each other’s throats. But if you caught a glimpse of today’s game, you would have noticed a near empty stadium. There’s a reason for this: Olympic men’s soccer is a boring non-event, barely worthy of a mention in the sports pages.
Olympic gold may represent the mother lode in many sports, but it has almost no prestige in soccer. This summer has already seen the European Championship and the Copa America, tournaments waged for continental supremacy that feature the world’s best professional players, genuine rivalries, and a rich history. They both matter far more than the Olympics. With the calendar so jammed, the soccer world simply has no need for another major tournament. And the game’s elite can’t afford the physical toll of another long event. Consequently, the rules of the Olympics have been rigged to ensure the tourney’s non-importance—squads can only bring three players older than 23.
A little over a month ago, Iraq’s vanquished opponent, Portugal, lost to Greece in the finals of the European Championship. The Portuguese have treated this tournament with such low regard that they sent only one player from that superb team, Christiano Ronaldo, to the Olympics. Even he received significant pressure from his club, Manchester United, to skip the tournament.
That pressure highlights the fundamental difference between soccer and almost all other Olympic sports. As Daniel Gross has pointed out, soccer is an incredibly capitalist enterprise. The game couldn’t be more disdainful of the ethos of amateurism the Olympics still pretends to embrace. In the end, the games just don’t matter because they don’t yield massive sponsorship deals or television contracts for national soccer federations.
Because so much of the world cares so little, the Olympics represent an excellent opportunity for countries like Iraq and Ghana—which tied Italy today—to acquire a small slice of soccer glory. While the traditional powers play like laggards, the smaller countries evince cohesion and heart. The result is a charming inversion of the game’s power structure: Brazil has never won a gold; Hungary has three.
But as a consequence of globalization, even lesser countries can’t field their best teams. According to the Financial Times’ Simon Kuper, the players on this year’s entry from Mali “mostly play for tiny clubs such as Djoliba AC and AS Bamako, and earn less than European street cleaners.” That’s because the country’s best players are based in Europe, and their rich clubs have prevented them from making the trek to Athens.
How little do the games matter? This afternoon, when I logged on to Soccernet, a heavily trafficked source for news on the game, there wasn’t a mention of the Iraqi victory. Instead, the top story was about Real Madrid’s plan to purchase Liverpool striker Michael Owen. In focusing on speculation over the possible sale of an English forward rather than the inspirational triumph of the Iraqi team, there’s no doubt that Soccernet has its priorities straight.