While not revered as highly as the World Cup or continental championships, Olympic football is still considered to be an important tournament for the sport. Football has been played at every modern Olympics Games except 1896 and 1932. Women’s football was introduced as an event at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Most European leagues look down on Olympic football as an unnecessary national duty, and because of this, the majority of managers refuse to release their best players to compete at the Games as they feel their preseason training will be more beneficial to the players. To curb this pressure put on to many under-strength national squads, FIFA announced that all preselected national players under 23-years-old would compete at the Olympics, as well as three senior players. This compromise allowed younger players – who may not have had a prominent role at their clubs anyway – the opportunity to play at the Olympics. Additionally, three overage players were allowed to join each squad.
16 men’s and 12 women’s national teams competed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In the men’s competition, 15 of the countries were selected through each continent’s respective football confederation, with China automatically qualifying as the host nation.
From the outset of the group stage it was obvious to see which countries regarded the Olympics as an important event. Strong national teams such as Australia and the United States played youth players in most games and ultimately failed to qualify for the knockout phase of the tournament. Teams like Brazil and Argentina, however, boasted players of considerable calibre. The Brazilian selectors included A.C. Milan’s Ronaldinho as one of their mature players, and Argentina called up Mascherano (Liverpool) and Riquelme (Boca Juniors) to help them win their second consecutive gold medal in football.
Some criticism was directed towards the Beijing Olympic football committee for allowing powerhouses Argentina and Brazil to meet in the semi-finals – even though both had finished 1st in their groups – while lesser-known national teams Nigeria and Belgium faced-off in the second semi-final. Regardless, Argentina and Nigeria both won through to the final in which nearly ninety thousand football fans turned out to watch Argentina claim the gold.
Olympic football is one of the toughest events in which to call a winner, especially as most of the squads are made up of inexperienced youth players who have yet to prove themselves at a national level. It is this reason alone, however, that makes Olympic football betting such an exciting competition to wager on. Although Argentina has won the gold two Games in a row, Cameroon and Nigeria have both won finals in previous Olympics, and Ghana, Bulgaria, and Japan have all picked up medals.
Olympic football – like the World Cup and UEFA Euro – only comes around once every four years. It may not be as popular as those competitions, but it is certainly an exciting time for young footballers emerging as talented national players. Online sportsbooks will post odds on every Olympic matchup, so keep a lookout at club level for young players on the rise who may be competing at the 2012 London Games.