SHENYANG, China — I love the Olympics. And I love soccer.
But I don’t love Olympic soccer—not the way it’s shaping up for the 2012 Games, at least—and if you ask me it’s time to remove the world’s most popular sport from the Olympics entirely.
Olympic men’s soccer was already hurting for star power heading into last week, the result of FIFA’s long-ago decision to make it an under-23 tournament with each team allowed no more than three over-age players (so that the Olympics wouldn’t compete for prestige with the World Cup). The 2008 Olympics actually has more stars than some previous editions—Argentina's Lionel Messi and Juan Román Riquelme, Brazil’s Ronaldinho, Cote d’Ivoire’s Salomon Kalou—but future Olympic tournaments will likely be gutted of big-name players.
That’s because the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled last week that clubs will not be obligated to release players of any age for the Olympics in the future. The decision means that Olympic men’s soccer will become a lot less like a World Cup and a lot more like the lame-duck baseball competition in this year’s Olympics—in other words, an event that’s a shadow of the sport’s highest levels and, in the end, more trouble than it’s worth in an already-overloaded soccer calendar.
The case for dropping women’s Olympic soccer is even stronger—but only if FIFA were to turn the Women’s World Cup into an event held once every two years instead of once every four.
Women’s soccer is still in a fragile state. Five years have passed without the existence of a top-level women’s pro league since the demise of the WUSA, and the long-term viability of the start-up WPS league in 2009 is by no means guaranteed. If FIFA is truly concerned about the good of the women’s game, then it could give the sport a huge boost by holding a World Cup in odd-numbered years (with no competition from the men’s World Cup or European championship) and preferably in early July, a la the 1999 World Cup, which captured the imagination of the U.S. public during the slowest stretch of the American sports calendar.
As it stands right now, women’s Olympic soccer creates an unbalanced calendar that hurts the sport. After holding major tournaments in 2007 (the Women’s World Cup) and 2008 (the Olympics), the women’s game will go three years without the sort of signature event that can draw global attention and stand alone from other sports (which doesn’t happen in the Olympics anyway).
What’s more, the chance to hold the Women’s World Cup every two years would greatly accelerate the popular acceptance of women’s soccer in countries that already have an established culture for the men’s game. Could you imagine what would happen if the WWC were held in Brazil or England? I can: those soccer-mad countries would be overcome with nationalism and galvanize around their fast-improving women’s teams.
Nor would it be a bad thing for the U.S. to host another Women’s World Cup. I’m always surprised when Europeans tell me they think U.S. women’s soccer is far ahead of the American men’s game. That might have been true in the year 2000, but it’s certainly not the case anymore. The U.S. men’s league, Major League Soccer, won’t be threatening Europe’s Big Four anytime soon, but at least it’s a growing enterprise whose stability is only increasing with the addition of new stadiums, new teams and new television contracts.
The best thing that could happen to the fledgling WPS (Women’s Professional Soccer) league would be for the U.S. to host another Women’s World Cup. And the best thing that could happen for women’s soccer in America would be for young girls to see not just the U.S. players but also the creative genius of a player like Brazil’s Marta. (Maybe that exposure would help the U.S. start producing more players with a soccer imagination.)
Granted, the Women’s World Cup is hardly a money-making machine like the men’s World Cup. But with the right planning it’s possible to make money on the WWC (witness the stadium-filling event of 1999). And besides, isn’t it the responsibility of a governing body like FIFA to grow the game and do what’s best for the future of the sport even if megaprofits aren't part of the equation?
When you think about it in those terms, dropping Olympic soccer is a no-brainer. Who’s with me? Who's not? Post your own thoughts below.