For South America, the Olympics mean football | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 25.07.2012
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Sports

For South America, the Olympics mean football

Olympic football carries special meaning for South Americans. An extra emphasis on youth teams and historical success makes it one of the most important sports for the continent at this summer's games in London.

Uruguay's Luis Suarez celebrates his third goal against Chile during a 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer game in Montevideo, Uruguay, Friday, Nov. 11, 2011. (Foto:Matilde Campodonico/AP/dapd)

Fußball Uruguay Luis Suarez

Historically, South America has been one of the less successful regions in terms of medals won, but several important factors have turned football into one the most important and successful Olympic sports for the continent in recent years.

"If you look at the all time medal table, South America's contribution to the Olympics is quite frankly pathetic," said Tim Vickery, a Rio-based journalist for World Football Magazine.

South America has won just 1.5 percent of all medals awarded since the modern games first began in 1896. Outside of Brazil with 91 in total, the medal count is poor, particularly with gold medals.

Jefferson Perez (R) of Ecuador is congratulated by Argentinian Juan Manuel Cano after he placed second in the 20km Walk at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing, 16 August 2008.

Race walker Jefferson Perez, right, won Ecuador's only two medals in 1996 and 2008.

Bolivia have never won any medal while Ecuador and Peru have won two and three respectively.  Paraguay's only medal (silver) was in football at the 2004 Olympics, while the only two gold medals Uruguay have ever won were in football in the 1920's.

"Argentina were a force at Olympic sports until [former President Juan] Peron was deposed in the mid 1950's, at which point they stopped investing in sports," said Vickery. Since the 1950's, Argentina have only won four gold medals, two of which have been in football at the last two Olympics.

That dearth of medals may have been a factor in South America's interest in hosting the games. To date, only two South American cities have ever bid for the Olympics - Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. After three previous unsuccessful bids, Rio will be the first South American city to host the games in 2016. 

Eastern Bloc dominance

While many countries see events like swimming, track and field, and gymnastics as the marquee Olympic sports, for South Americans the focus is on the football. That has been particularly true since the mid 1980's.

1 OCT 1988: THE SOCCER TEAM FROM THE SOVIET UNION POSE WITH THEIR MEDALS AFTER WINNING THE SOCCER TOURNAMENT AT THE 1988 SEOUL OLYMPICS. THE USSR DEFEATED BRAZIL 2-1 IN THE FINAL TO TAKE THE GOLD.

The Soviet football team won their second gold at the 1988 games in Seoul

Up until then, said Vickery, "it was really only the Eastern Bloc countries … monopolizing the Olympic tournament because they were still officially amateurs."

Outside of that region, football leagues in most countries had turned fully professional by the first half of the twentieth century. That switch meant that many countries' best players were barred from competing at the Olympics.

From 1948 until 1988, the last fully amateur games, Eastern Bloc teams won gold at all but two Olympics in football, and collected 25 out of 33 total medals. During that same time, Brazil was the only South American team to medal, winning silver in 1984 and 1988.

South America emerges

Carlos Tevez from Argentina jubilates after scoring the first goal for his team during the Men's Medal GoldMatch Argentina vs Paraguay at the Olympic Stadium in Athens, Saturday 28 August 2004. Left Argentina's Fabricio Coloccini.

Argentina have won the last two Olympic football tournaments

Brazil's success in the 1980's was a precursor to South America's renewed interest and success in Olympic football beginning in the 1990's. Since the 1992 games, professionals have been allowed to compete. In that time, South American teams have won seven out of 15 total medals in football, more than any other region.

"Football is the thing that South America does well, and because of that, there is an emphasis on it," said Vickery.

"On free-to-air TV you hardly ever saw the track and field - the thing that I thought was the centerpiece of the Olympics," said Vickery, describing his first experience watching the Olympics in South America in 1996. "The centerpiece of the Olympics for them was the football tournament."

Added pressure

Unlike in Europe, South American countries have their footballers playing all over the world. That dispersion means tracking young talent is done through youth national teams more so than at the club level. As a result, South Americans follow their youth sides much more closely.

Germany's Christian Traesch (L) and Brazil's Neymar Santos Junior fight for the ball during their international friendly soccer match Germany vs Brazil at Mercedes-Benz Arena in Stuttgart, Germany, 10 August 2011.

Neymar, the star player for Brazil's Olympic team, will hope to secure his country's first gold

"We are looking here at the future of the national teams of Brazil and Uruguay, and the one thing you can guarantee is that when the full story of the 2014 World Cup is written, in terms of Brazil and Uruguay, that story will involve what happens in England this summer," said Vickery.

South America's two participants at the football tournament this summer are both considered favorites to medal. Uruguay are playing in their first Olympics since winning gold in 1928, and their success at the senior level over the past two years means medaling is expected.

For Brazil, there is extra pressure because the Olympic football tournament is the only major international title Brazil has never won. "If Brazil fail in this Olympic campaign, it is difficult to see how [Manager Mano Menezes] stays in his position," said Vickery.

Author: David Raish
Editor: Matt Zuvela

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