Outstanding Games ensures soccer success
FIFA and the IOC may discuss the finer points of Olympic soccer but there is no debate about its future in the Games after a superb competition on and off the pitch.
Saturday's final in which Cameroon beat Spain 5-3 on penalties after a 2-2 draw, was full of wonderful soccer played mostly in a great spirit of sportsmanship.
Off the pitch more than one million fans poured through the turnstiles in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Canberra -- and saw first-hand some of the stars of the not-too-distant future.
As the only sport staged outside Sydney, soccer brought the Olympic experience to tens of thousands who otherwise would not have seen any action.
Not even the disappointing first round exit of Australia dampened the enthusiasm of the home crowds. More than 98,000 people watched the final at Stadium Australia.
The women's competition gained some new admirers and also culminated in an excellent final in which Norway, the bronze medallists four years ago, stunned reigning Olympic and World champions United States 3-2 with a golden goal victory.
Senior FIFA officials, upset by the way Atlanta organisers banished soccer to the outer reaches of Georgia four years ago, could not praise the local organisers enough. FIFA president Sepp Blatter was so impressed with the facilities he said Australia were possible candidates for a future World Cup.
Despite the successes, there are still issues to be resolved.
The Olympics is not soccer's world championship.
It is essentially an Under-23 competition with a maximum of three over-age players allowed per squad.
IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch would like the age restrictions lifted and for the competition to go open but FIFA are unlikely to agree to that, although there have been hints they might consider five over-age players per squad.
FIFA's Communications Director Keith Cooper explains the problem.
"The Olympic tournament fits perfectly in the pyramid that reaches all the way up from the Under-17 World Cup, through the Under-20s and to the World Cup itself.
"It simply is not possible to throw the competition open to every player because then you would effectively have a 16-team World Cup in between the 32-team World Cup.
"With the universal appeal soccer has, how could such an event be televised live around the world as part of a 28-sport Olympic Games -- it simply could not be done.
"FIFA believes the competition is a fantastic showcase for younger players. It also plays a major part in the Olympics without dominating it and FIFA feels the balance is just right.
"The one detail that needs clarifying is the over-age player rule and FIFA and the IOC will take a closer look at that in due course. But overall (the Sydney Games) have excelled. The competition has been a resounding success."
No team were more successful than Cameroon who emulated Nigeria's gold medal of four years ago when they became the first African nation to win a global soccer competition.
The Olympics began inauspiciously for Cameroon who turned up for their first training session and realised they had forgotten their practice balls.
But they grew in confidence and stature through the competition, qualifying in second place behind the United States from their group before overcoming Brazil 2-1 in the quarterfinals with a golden goal winner despite having had two men sent off.
They then stunned Chile 2-1 in the semifinals with two goals in the last six minutes -- and surpassed that fightback in the final when they overturned a 0-2 halftime deficit to finish the match all-square before winning 5-3 on penalties and securing Cameroon's first ever Olympic gold medal.
Brazil started as favourites, but always seemed to be playing at half-pace and after being beaten 3-1 by South Africa in the opening phase, were knocked out by Cameroon.
Their failure to win their first-ever Olympic soccer gold is considered a major disaster and is likely to cost coach Wanderley Luxemburgo his job.
Chile surpassed Brazil's achievements and although they failed to win their first ever-Olympic gold medal they had the consolation of the bronze with Ivan Zamorano finishing top scorer with six goals.
The United States also went home buoyed by their best ever Olympic finish of fourth -- even if they did only manage one win in the competition, a 3-1 victory over the amateurs of Kuwait.
Nigeria's title defence ended when they were crushed 4-1 by Chile in the quarterfinals, the legacy of too many of their top players being absent.
Among the stars of the competition were Cameroon's goalkeeper Carlos Idriss Kameni, a 16-year-old trainee with Le Havre of the French second division; Honduran David Suazo of Serie B side Cagliari who scored four goals and 18-year-old American Landon Donovan who always galvanised his team when called on as a substitute.
Their future look assured, as does that of Olympic soccer itself.
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