Nine years ago, I had a front-row seat at the Olympic Stadium in London for what would become known as Super Saturday. The ley lines of that evening are now firmly etched into the sporting lore of the UK: the triumphant last-lap surge of Jess Ennis, Mo Farah being physically roared over the line, that chirpy bloke who won the long jump. And yet my strongest and clearest memory of Super Saturday is none of these things.
It came about half an hour after Farah crossed the line, with the stadium still wreathed in a shimmering glow somewhere between heat and love. At which point, a member of the crowd shouted out to nobody in particular that 150 miles away in Cardiff, Team GB had just lost to South Korea on penalties in the quarter-finals of the men’s football. As the news filtered around, everybody – from the crowd to the press box to the journalist from L’Equipe sitting next to me – spontaneously burst into laughter.
Somehow it was just perfect: the perfect end to the perfect day of British sport. You didn’t need to be British or even English to grasp the incongruity of it all: the national team in the national game relegated to a comic afterthought, never (in all likelihood) to be seen again. At this moment of collective triumph, the Olympics was the Olympics and football was football, and the divide between the two had never been expressed more clearly.
Similarly, you don’t necessarily need to view events in Tokyo through a narrow Team GB filter to appreciate the basic dispensability of Olympic men’s football these days. There have been a few interesting moments: Richarlison’s hat-trick for Brazil against Germany, the utterly unhinged spectacle that was France 4-3 Mexico (0-0 after 52 minutes), the commitment and passion of the few countries (Honduras, South Korea, the host nation) for whom this genuinely seems to matter.
For all the undoubted apathy out there, let’s not pretend there isn’t an audience for this stuff. Four years after London, I sat in the top deck of the Maracanã to watch Neymar’s Brazil claim gold against Germany: arguably, the only one of the host nation’s 19 medals it truly cared about. But even this moment of cathartic grace came at the end of a painfully forgettable tournament defined by half-bothered teams and the sight of Serge Gnabry running at a terrified Fiji defence on the way to a 10-0 Germany win.
This, perhaps, is the biggest problem with Olympic football: a problem that feels specific to men’s football, but may in time come to subsume the women’s game too. Nobody really seems to know what it is: a development competition, a star vehicle, a sideshow knockabout.
And so it simply unfolds largely at random, starting long before the actual Olympics has started, ending long after other sports have taken centre stage, populated by an eclectic cast list (Dani Alves! Maya Yoshida! Khalid al-Ghannam!) and played at wildly varying levels of seriousness.
So Spain, with Pedri, Marco Asensio, Pau Torres and Dani Olmo, have sent pretty much an international-strength squad. France have a bunch of academy prospects captained by the 51-year-old Tigres striker André-Pierre Gignac. New Zealand have called up Chris Wood and Winston Reid. Manchester United seem quite happy to relinquish control of Eric Bailly to Ivory Coast for several weeks.
What is the meaning of all this? What does football add to the Olympics other than swelling an already packed programme in a variety of distant satellite venues? What does the Olympics add to football other than stuffing a few more fixtures into an already packed calendar?
All sport thrives on context and Olympic men’s football has existed for more than a century in a curious vacuum, largely devoid of narratives, storylines, defining moments or teams. Italy haven’t taken part since 2008. Belgium and the Netherlands have featured once between them in the past 70 years. Cameroon won gold in 2000 and nonsensically weren’t allowed to defend their title in 2004. The great Uruguayan team of the 1920s won consecutive gold medals in Paris and Amsterdam and then didn’t come back for 84 years.
I don’t quite subscribe to the maxim that the Olympics need to be the pinnacle of a sport for it to be worth its place: tennis and road cycling offer two arresting counterarguments. But it does have to feel like a meaningful part of the whole, an enterprise into which the sport itself is invested, where the value of a medal is broadly accepted by fans, governing bodies and above all the players. Through the postwar amateur era, the years of Soviet-bloc dominance and the current unsatisfactory compromise by which squads are staffed by whoever picks up the phone, this has probably never been the case.
Naturally, whenever anyone suggests scrapping any longstanding event or convention you get the usual howls of protest. And perhaps there are ways of reforming Olympic football: a dedicated slot in the calendar, a more intelligible qualification process, doing away with over-age players.
But the acid test of its worth is this: if, somehow, the rest of the Olympic men’s football tournament were quietly shelved, the medals put back in a drawer, the players discreetly spirited back on an overnight plane, would anyone really notice? Exactly.