Olympic football? Women yes, men no.

In a spectacular U-turn that even Nick Clegg would be proud of the English FA has decided that they want Team GB to field both men’s and women’s football teams at next year’s Olympic Games. Having spent the last three years since London 2012 saying that they would not send teams to Rio why have the FA suddenly changed their minds?
One suspects they are trying to put pressure on Premier League clubs to let England field their best players at this summer’s European Under-21 Championships. For the FA have jumped a fence here. Unlike 2012 when Team GB qualified as hosts, both the men and the women have to go through qualifying to get to the Olympics. And for the men the qualifying event is the European Under-21 Championships which are played in the Czech Republic from June 17-30. In the past the FA have found it very difficult to get England’s best under-21 players to play in this event as Premier League clubs (understandably) want their best young players rested. Already there are rumours that Tottenham Hotspur would rather like their wonder kid Harry Kane to spend the summer resting in preparation for next season rather than playing three (at least) tough games in the Czech Republic. The FA might hope that the carrot of Rio might persuade Spurs to let Kane play and thus help under-21 coach Gareth Southgate to do well at the event. For England to book Team GB’s place at Rio (if they want to take it up) they would have to finish in the top two of a group that also contains Italy, Portugal and Sweden.
But should men’s football be in the Olympics anyway? The simple answer is no. The men’s event is an Under-23 tournament with three over age players allowed (which is why there are rumours that Steve Gerrard, Frank Lampard and – oh please no – racist scumbag John Terry might appear as over age players if Team GB qualify). Why FIFA is allowed to get away with this is a mystery. Every other sport at the Olympics has its best players taking part. Men’s football is the only exception. We know why – FIFA don’t want the Olympics to be a second World Cup which it would be with full national teams – since FIFA don’t run the Olympics. FIFA’s approach to football is rather like Mr Burns’ approach to Springfield’s energy supply in the Simpsons – both are determined to maintain their monopoly regardless of what other people think. But until FIFA allows full national teams men’s football should not be in the Olympics.
It shows how seriously FIFA takes women’s football that the women’s event does have full national teams. As the women do not make the money men do they are quite happy for the Olympics to be a second World Cup. The England women have a far harder task to get to Rio. For reasons best known to UEFA this year’s Women’s World Cup is also the Olympic qualifying event for Europe. That means England have to be one of the three best European teams in Canada in order to qualify for Rio. The problem here is that on current form Germany and France are way ahead of the other European teams leaving six teams chasing one spot. That scenario means England would have to finish above two traditional powers of the women’s game – Sweden and Norway. A glance at the top three scorers in France’s Division I Feminine shows how tough that will be. Apart from France’s Eugenie Le Sommer the other two names are Sweden’s Lotta Schelin and Norway’s Ada Hegerberg. If that is not hard enough they also have to finish above three emerging teams in Holland Spain and Switzerland. It will not be easy.
However the FA should only have entered the women and not the men. Women’s football needs the Olympics. The men do not. In fact because of the historical discrimination women have suffered in sport there should be a rule brought in that all Olympic sports should have women’s events but don’t have to have men’s. This way sports whose male versions do not need the Olympics – basketball springs to mind as well as football – would just be represented by women. it would also mean that softball – which needs the Olympics – could be reintroduced at Tokyo 2020 while baseball – which does not need the Olympics – could be left out. We keep saying we want to encourage women’s sport. Allowing sports whose women’s events need the Olympics but their men’s events do not to just have women’s events would help women in those sports while at the same time reducing the number of participants at future Olympics – an aim the IOC has in order to stop the Olympics getting too big. As far as football in the Olympics goes, it should be a case of women yes – and men no.

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