Brent Latham: Make no mistake, the Olympics matter

Though many will decry its irrelevance, winning a gold medal is an accomplishment that is among the highest in world football.
It’s a funny thing about soccer. It may be the only sport in which you’ll find plenty of people who argue that games don’t matter.
You won’t find this attitude in too many other sports (aside from exhibition games, but we’re not talking friendlies here). But in soccer, there are plenty of fans and managers alike who will argue that entire tournaments really don’t count.
The Olympics are great example. It’s amazing how many people will actually sit back and make the argument that “no one cares about Olympic soccer,” and so forth.
That sounds like loser talk to me.
Of course many of you will now skip to the comments section to pound out something akin to the following: “Latham thinks the Olympics are an important soccer tournament. He obviously doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Everyone knows the World Cup - and sometimes the Euros and to a lesser extent the Copa America - are the only football tournaments anyone cares about. Plus, he sometimes calls it ‘soccer.’ What a moron.”
How wrong you are, my friend. About the Olympics, at least.
The argument that the Olympics (or youth World Cups for that matter) don’t matter is conventional wisdom that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny in the real world of actual international soccer. Those who argue this way are either Euro snobs or FIFA lapdogs.
FIFA is a main purveyor of the anti-Olympic sentiment, as it doesn’t totally control the Olympic tournament and therefore would love to see it undermined. European nations do tend to take the Olympics less seriously, largely because their representation is nowhere near as unjustly oversized as it is at the World Cup.
But let’s get something straight: the teams that do actually qualify for the Olympics care deeply about this tournament. For most, especially outside of Europe, the ambition of a gold medal is second only to lifting the World Cup.
Argentina has gone to great lengths to win two straight Olympic golds, a feat which has calmed the irritation of winning virtually nothing for decades at the senior level.
This time out, Brazil has set the Olympic gold as a referendum on the senior team’s progress towards recovering national glory. Nothing short of a top-of-the-podium finish will do.
Uruguay is taking its best team possible, including overage stars. Even Spain - which doesn’t suffer from the Eurocentric lack of perspective of its inferior continental peers - is dead set on gold to go with its two recent European trophies and World Cup.
Argentina. Brazil. Spain. We’re talking about World Cup winners and universally recognized champions here. So, who exactly doesn’t take this thing seriously?
Primarily, nations that aren’t in it.
The feeble argument that the Olympics don’t matter revolves around the fact that, unlike the 32-deep World Cup field, the Olympics don’t have space for all the world’s soccer powers. Just this year, Argentina, Germany, Italy, France and Nigeria will all watch from home. In the meantime Gabon and Belarus will take up space in England.
It’s undeniable that the Olympic tournament’s egalitarian approach to invites creates a more diluted field than the World Cup with just half the teams - an issue that should probably be addressed. But that won’t diminish the ecstasy for the team that puts that gold medal around its collective neck in August.
Which brings us to Mexico. El Tri obviously cares as well. And well it should. A promising generation of young footballers will be tested in London at the highest level. Whether there’s some fluff in the group stage will be irrelevant when it comes to the medal rounds, and El Tri faces off against the likes of Brazil and Spain.
For Mexico, the Olympics are a very real referendum on the ceiling for this generation of talented young players. A gold medal would prove a feat never to be erased from the history books, and verify Mexico among the world’s most elite soccer powers.
Victory in London would be remembered decades from now. A gold medal, just like a World Cup win, is an accomplishment to remember for generations.
Admit it or not, the Olympics mean something to everyone involved. Those screaming about their meaninglessness tend to be either hopeless Euro snobs who will never change their point of view or sour-grapes fans of traditional powers that have failed to qualify, who find it convenient to denigrate the integrity of the competition.
For the rest of us, the Olympics are, simply, huge.