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Has the women’s football tournament outgrown the Olympics?

And if so, what are the alternatives?

Sweden v Germany: Women’s Football - Olympics: Day 14 Photo by Stuart Franklin - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

The COVID-19 outbreak has put the breaks on almost all sport everywhere. One of the more obvious sporting casualties is the 2020 Olympics due to take place in Tokyo from July to August. With the postponement of the Games (including the football tournaments), we’ve found ourselves asking if there’s still a place for them at the Olympics and what the possible alternatives could be.

Know your history

By the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, football had become the major draw of the games, leaving traditional Hellenic-influenced sports to cool in its shadow. By the next Olympiad, the number of spectators for the football tournament reached 300,000. Professionalism was on the rise around the world and FIFA knew the Olympic tournament – an all-amateur affair – would no longer suffice and so began on their journey to creating the first Men’s World Cup.

In the interim, the footballing power ruled that the 1924 and 1928 editions of the tournament would be classed as full World Championships (hence the additional two stars above Uruguay’s badge).

The early days of the World Cup were not without their issues, but in little to no time, the landmark tournament had superseded the Olympic one. Teams would still convene every four years under the Olympic banner but nations were forced to send amateur teams – something not every nation completely adhered to. In time the men’s football tournament would be tweaked, taking the unfair upper-hand from state-sponsored Eastern European programmes. However, it wasn’t a complete overhaul from amateur to professional as only teams outside of UEFA and CONMEBOL could send professional players – the measures put in place by FIFA. The new rules lasted just two games before the Olympics invoked an age-limit which was altered the following games to allow for three over-age players.

Germany-Uruguay Football Match Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images

The most recent changes on the men’s side occurred ahead of the first Games that featured a women’s football tournament, Atlanta in 1996. Unlike on the men’s side, by the time they were added to the Olympic schedule, women already had a World Cup tournament (albeit one in its infancy), and unlike their male counterparts, there would be no age limit.

Given the scope of the Olympics, there is clearly something very special about participating at the Games. As several of Team GB’s 2012 squad have remarked, playing at the 2012 Games will go down as the highlight and proudest moment of their careers. But is there still an absolute need for a women’s football tournament at the Olympics, at least in its current shape and form?

The be all and end all

Going back to its roots, as we’ve seen, FIFA have always been mindful that the Olympics not supplant the World Cup – even if it was the original catalyst for the quadrennial football tournament. From the amateurism to the age restrictions, even though both are technically FIFA tournaments, it’s clear that to FIFA, the World Cup must reign supreme.

As we’ve often said in women’s football (and more generally in some women’s sports), the women’s game doesn’t have to run parallel to the men’s. It can forge its own path. Which, in theory, opens the door for the Olympic football tournament to supersede the World Cup. Yet, given its format, it’s a closed tournament.

In the case of the first two women’s football tournaments at the Olympics; the host nation and seven highest finishers from the previous year’s World Cup were the nations picked to participate. And although this is no longer the case, qualification is still linked to the World Cup, be it UEFA’s berths being awarded to the three highest European finishers from the showpiece event, or the qualification tournaments for the World Cup for OFC and CONMEBOL nations deciding the Olympic participants two years ahead of time. It is indeed only Asia, North America and Africa that currently run specific qualification tournaments for the Olympics – and in the case of CAF nations, the ones that have created the biggest surprises.

Australia v Zimbabwe: Women’s Football - Olympics: Day 4 Photo by Chung Sung-Jun - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

This, coupled with the reduced squad size and gruelling schedule, opens up the argument that the Olympics is the elite tournament, the cream of the crop. Which once again brings us to the question of whether or not the Olympics could ever transcend the World Cup.

With notable exceptions like baseball, golf and tennis, the Games are [generally speaking] the summit for most sports on the schedule with Olympic gold as the highest honour possible. There is yet a chance for golf and tennis to grow on the Olympic stage and, certainly for women’s golf and tennis to get more airtime. Even if that seems like a stretch, given the scope of both sports, ask yourself how many times, during an Olympic Games, you’ve plopped down in front of a television or computer screen and surfed between sports looking for something to entertain you and settled for something you’ve never had much interest in.

We know the interest in women’s football has been on the rise, not least since the World Cup, and there’s plenty of reason to suggest that keeping the women’s tournament in its full senior team format at the Olympics would continue to raise the profile of the game and convert a few more fans along the way. Which would be no bad thing.

But again, we swing around to the argument that medalling at the Olympics should be one of the greatest achievements an athlete can have. Even in tennis, you can achieve a Golden Slam if you win Olympic gold in addition to all the Slams. In football there is no equivalent, and due to the stages the Men’s Olympic football tournament has gone through, it’s far from being widely recognised as a major tournament in non-women’s football circles.

So, if the women’s Olympic football tournament can’t usurp the Women’s World Cup, what do we do with it? We could adapt it to run parallel to the men’s tournament to make it an under-23 affair (with three overage players). We do already have Women’s under-17 and under-20 World Cups, so there’s the argument it would be an acceptable age group and opens the door for younger senior players who are on the periphery of their national teams. Or should the tournament be scraped altogether?

A regional, quadrennial alternative

The bigger question is, if you were to interfere with the current format, what happens to the senior teams who lose out on getting to play a big international tournament? Logically, when we look at the development of women’s football across the world and the varying levels of investment, the argument becomes we need more confederation-based tournaments. We need to take the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations, Copa América Femenina and Asian Cups and make them their own showpiece tournaments rather than qualification tournaments.

FBL-WOMEN-AMERICA CUP-ARG-CHI Photo credit should read CLAUDIO REYES/AFP via Getty Images

There is no greater argument for the enduring relevance of such tournaments then the sub-confederational COSAFA Women’s Championship that has seen significant progress made by southern African nations. Admittedly, not every CAF sub-confederation is putting in equal investment, but what is happening in the global south is making for a richer pool of talent coming out of Africa and more exciting qualification tournaments. If more emphasis was put on the Women’s AFCON, we might yet see more African nations starting to put more into their women’s teams. (Although, and it does need to be stated, more have started to take an interest and we have seen nations come out of dormancy during Olympic qualification.)

Looking to South America where Brazil unequivocally rules the roost and gobbles up the CONMEBOL Olympic berth, we can cite more interest than usual in their World Cup qualification tournament in 2018. Chile’s hosting of the Copa América Femenina unquestionable gave La Roja an extra push in making their World Cup debut and the roaming tournament might yet have more gravitas. Although opinion is split on the importance of the men’s Copa América, there’s no denying South American countries get caught up in the tournament if their nation is doing well. And, suitably run and marketed, a standalone Copa América Femenina could yet catalyse the growth of women’s football in South America and finally see a CONMEBOL team rival Brazil.

There is a similar case to be made for the Asian Cup. With interest waning in the men’s tournament, the women could yet breathe new life into the tournament that keeps competition fresh amongst the prominent AFC teams.

FBL-ASIA-WOMEN-JPN-CHN Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

For CONCACAF, which is so heavily dominated by the USA with Canada and Mexico also often too strong for underdeveloped North American nations, further subdividing the confederation down (to remove NAFU nations) might be the path to a stronger continent. With Costa Rica the main representative from the Central American’s UNCAF, Panama has still managed to grow as a nation in women’s football. Maybe with a more focused regional tournament we could yet see El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and even lowly Belize develop their women’s football programmes.

So too in busy Caribbean Football Union, where a third of the nations are classed as overseas territories who whilst recognised by FIFA, aren’t by the IOC. Whilst it would be fair to not expect Bonaire to suddenly have a women’s football boom, more competition (and competitions) and less drubbings by teams like the USA could see more Caribbean teams take a step up as Jamaica have in recent times. Even accepting for the diminutive population size of a number of the CFU members.

Like with CONMEBOL, there is even a faint hope that OFC teams could grow in strength with a more open tournament (despite the presence of all-dominant New Zealand). Although for the markedly weak confederation, it’s likely that women’s football will, unfortunately never fully take the next step.

The biggest issue with this proposal is money, which there never seems to be enough for in women’s football. But if the investment can be made, perhaps going region by region to start, the women’s game could yet reach new heights in countries with minimal women’s football history.

So, what would you do, scrap the whole thing? Convert the Olympic football tournament into an under-age one? Promote it as something bigger than the World Cup or something completely different?