The Olympic Tournament, the bastard child of intercontinental football competitions. A tournament often stripped of any real build up and with a tendency to slink into the sporting abyss once complete. Much of the apathy towards the tournament originates not from a historical lack of quality, far from it, a simple roll call of famous alumni quickly dispels such an assertion.
This apathy stems from the compromise between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and FIFA which effectively makes the Olympics football tournament a U-23 World Championship in all but name. For the IOC this ensures that other sports aren’t overshadowed and in FIFA’s case protects the supremacy of the World Cup -their show-piece and by extension – cash cow.
Yet, despite this long-standing compromise Olympic football maintains a special relationship with African football. To provide some perspective, the first African team to participate in the World Cup was Egypt in 1934. In the case of the Olympics, Egypt were there eight years earlier in 1926. The first sub-Saharan African side at the Olympics was Ghana in the 1964, a full 18 years before Cameroon appeared at the World Cup in 1982.
This relationship is further strengthened by the progress made by African sides in the Olympic Tournament since 1964, success which is even more striking when compared to the progress of African sides at the World Cup. African football’s Olympic honours run deep, from Egypt’s initial 4th place at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, Ghana winning African football’s 1st Olympic medal at Barcelona 1992, to more recent successes of Nigeria and Cameroon at the turn of the millennia.
This divergence between success on the Olympic front and the World Cup is remarkable. Since 1934 there are only three occasions when any African side has gone beyond the round of 16 – Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010). In Olympic terms, there have been two winners, Nigeria (1996) and Cameroon (2000), one runner-up in Nigeria (2008) and one 3rd place finisher in Ghana (1992). Add these to an array of quarter-final finishes from Egypt, Morocco, Senegal and Algeria, the picture is very much one of African advancement.
Yet, for all this talk of advancement, why hasn’t this Olympic progress amount to a more substantial impact on the world stage? Ghana claimed bronze 1992 and didn’t appear at a World Cup until 2006. Nigeria won Gold in 1996 yet were eliminated by Denmark in the last 16 at France 1998, never to appear again in the World Cup knockout stages again until 2014 in Brazil. Cameroon’s own Gold in 2000, despite being sandwiched between two AFCON titles, seemingly contributed nothing towards them matching the heroics of their 1990 quarter-final finish at Italia 90.
One of my enduring memories of childhood is from the 1996 Olympics and the quarter-final meeting between Brazil and Ghana. The Brazilian side contained a whole host of names of which we’re now familiar with – Dida, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo and Rivaldo – arguably the core of which their world conquering 2002 side was formed. The Ghanaians included a young Richard Kingson and Samuel Kuffour.
Early in the second half Ghana raced into a 2-1 lead, courtesy of a powerful header from Felix Aboagye. Despite matching the Brazilians for most of the game the eventual gulf in quality shone through and Brazil responded with 3 goals, two from Ronaldo and one from Bebeto, running out eventual 4-2 winners. Perhaps this match provides the best metaphor for the participation of African sides during the Olympics as a whole. Offering early promise, yet somehow failing to develop that promise into anything more beyond the tournament end.
Looking forward, we’re now only a year out from Rio 2016. African qualifiers have started in earnest, the final qualifying tournament taking place in Senegal during January of next year. There are several nations who’ll look to use the Olympic qualifying platform as an opportunity to fine tune a new generation of players.
From the East both Rwanda and Uganda have been proactive, as well their southern neighbours Zambia who’ve clearly set one of their objectives as a place in Brazil next year. As for the heavyweights – Ghana, Nigeria, Algeria and Cote d’Ivoire, – they’ll all hold realistic ambitions of both qualifying and making a real impact at Rio 2016. With AFCON following on 6 months from the end of the Olympic Tournament and Russia 2018 18 months later, perhaps what we could see is the fast-tracking of certain players from the junior sides into the senior’s, much in same style as Ghana U-20 (2009) formed the core of the AFCON 2010 squad.
Rio’s on the horizon, start your engines.