It was 1994 when I really started paying attention to national team soccer, thanks to the ’94 World Cup, so the first Olympic soccer tournament I paid attention to was the 1996 Atlanta Gamez. The US won the women’s gold but I wasn’t really paying attention to ladiez soccer yet. The big highlight for me was Nigeria winning the men’s gold. Wow! An African nation won the tournament! Take that, Europe and South America! And then I checked the FIFA World Rankings to see how high Nigeria was now ranked and it was something like: #50. WTF?
That’s when I learned that the Olympix soccer tournament is not, and never has been, a truly premier soccer tournament because of IOC and FIFA rules that have ALWAYS prevented the world from sending it’s true men’s national teams. There were 3 phases in these rules:
Phase 1- Amateurism (inception to 1970s) For the first 80 years or so of the Olympics, only amateur footballers could participate in the competition, a rule that that was fully exploited by the Soviet Union, whose athletes, even though they were really pros, could qualify as amateurs under communism.
Phase 2 – Leveling the playing field (1980s) Finally, professionals were allowed to compete but FIFA was afraid the Olympics soccer tournament would compete with the World Cup for prestige so they came up with a solution: nations from North America, Africa, Asia and Oceania could send their full-strength national teams but nations from soccer-powerful Europe and South America could only send teams made up of players that had never played for the national teams before. This ensured that the big stars didn’t appear.
Phase 3 – Under-23 (1990s-present) The current policy is somewhat goofy – nations send their best players that are 23 or under, plus 3 “overage” players. This means that a few big stars can compete but the real national teams are nowhere to be seen. This explains why Nigeria didn’t move up in the rankings after the 96 Olympics, the Olympix tournament has no bearing whatsoever on the actual national team.
The future: A few weeks ago, the Court for Arbritation in Sport ruled that, due to the strange, half-assed nature of the Olympic soccer teams, professional clubs have no obligation to release their players for the tournament. This means that in the future, teams will be made up strictly of players whose clubs voluntarily release their players, which will result in a diluted playing level, OR perhaps FIFA will finally upgrade the tournament to a full national team tournament.