By Paul Gardner
The Brits, evidently, are not greatly impressed with the idea of Olympic soccer. Last week the Olympic Games organizers announced that they were withdrawing 500,000 soccer tickets. Half a million tickets taken off the market -- because they're not selling in this soccer-devoted country. The move also involved a massive downsizing of the stadiums -- i.e. closing off whole tiers -- where soccer is to be played.
There are six such stadiums, and their locations are part of the problem.The Olympic Games are allocated to a city -- in this case, London. These games will always be known as the London Olympics -- yet here are soccer games being played hundreds of miles away in Glasgow, in Newcastle, in Cardiff. While London bubbles with Olympic excitement, Glasgow faces up to the fact that the Great Britain soccer team selected by Coach Stuart Pearce does not include a single Scottish player.
Quite aside from nationalistic concerns, it is difficult to imagine Glaswegians getting too excited about Honduras vs. Morocco or Egypt vs. Belarus, two of the first-round games to be played at the city’s Hampden Park stadium.
In selecting his team, Pearce clearly ignored the political correctness of including at least one Scottish and one Northern Irish player. He simply made it clear that he couldn’t find any players from those “countries” who were good enough. There is no reason to doubt his judgment.
We got a look at Pearce’s Anglo-Welsh GB team on Friday, taking on Brazil’s Olympic team. For GB fans -- if such beings exist -- it was a depressing occasion. During a comfortable 2-0 win for Brazil, Team GB managed just one shot on goal. OK -- this is a very good Brazil team, probably the favorite for the gold medal, but the gap in skills between the two teams was pretty alarming.
The GB player who drew most attention was the second-half goalkeeper Jack Butland -- and it’s never a good sign when the goalkeeper is singled out for praise. Sure, Butland’s saves late in the game prevented Brazil from at least doubling its score, but by then Team GB had completely run out of steam, while the Brazilians were hardly exerting themselves at all.
But the thought occurs: Maybe Olympic soccer, an ill-defined tournament with teams of under-23 players each with three over-age players (and whatever kind of a team is that?) will, on this one occasion, be of some significance to the soccer world.
In two ways: Firstly, by signaling the return of Brazil. I mean the real Brazil, the Brazil of flowing skillful soccer, the Brazil of artistry and trickery, the goal-scoring Brazil. The Brazil that brings sunshine and smiles to a game that too frequently has a grey defensive pall to it.
And secondly by making it devastatingly clear to the Brits -- the English in particular -- that their brand of soccer, the way they have been playing it for decades, unwilling (because it surely cannot be unable) to change, is not good enough. By demonstrating, on British soil, that they have to take a look at what Spain and Brazil are doing, and to be willing to learn.
Will that happen? How can one be optimistic, given that we’ve been waiting for at least 40 years for a sign from the Brits that they are aware of their own shortcomings? This satisfaction with the inadequate goes deep into the Brit soccer culture. The reaction of fans in Middlesbrough during Brazil’s outclassing of Team GB was not encouraging. The same old things that have always drawn applause continue to do so -- the long balls for players to chase (usually in vain), the meaningless long cross-field passes, the hard tackles, and, of course, the crosses. Those damn crosses that neatly symbolize the lack of variety in the Brit game.
Of course, there was always the goalkeeper to cheer. And there was also the opportunity to belittle Brazil’s vastly superior skill. Neymar was found guilty by the fans (though not by the referee) of having dived early in the game, so he was duly booed from then on. Neymar, one of the brightest young talents in the game, booed in England. Rather like being banned in Boston. An honor more than a disgrace.
The outlook for any updating of Brit soccer is bleak. The cherished “traditional” values continue to be cherished in a soccer world that has long overtaken them. The recent appointment of Roy Hodgson as the national team coach is a look not forward, but backward. Hodgson, an honorable man who seems mired in the 1950s, back in the days when, maybe, crosses really did make the difference, when you always had a burly center forward to head them in. Andy Carroll, anyone?
As for Brazil, things look much brighter. The irony here is that Brazil, like England, is looking back to its traditional values. But these are not the sort of threadbare values that England seeks, these are the values that made Brazil for so long the undisputed leader of the world game. They have gone somewhat astray lately, as Brazil has adopted a more physical, more tactical -- really, a more European -- approach to the game.
The change has been of doubtful use. The two most recent World Cups have seen an uninspiring Brazil eliminated in the quarterfinals. But the cry -- from Brazil’s own fans, from the soccer world in general, really -- for the return of the real Brazil seems to have been heard.
Coach Mano Menezes’s Olympic team looks much closer to the real thing. We got a good look at this team earlier this year when it beat the USA 4-1, and then, in New Jersey, lost 3-4 to the full Argentine team. The seven goals that it scored in those two games tell the story of a lively attacking team and, given the under-23 restriction, a young team. Plenty of Brazilian skills on offer, too -- from Neymar, Oscar, Hulk, Pato and Lucas.
If this is the future of Brazilian soccer, if this young group can survive the ordeal of playing in Europe (where they will be pressured into being more European and less Brazilian), then that will be reason enough to offer thanks to the ungainly, irrational beast that is Olympic soccer.