A U.S. national team featuring 15 players off European megaclubs such as Barcelona, Manchester City, Chelsea and Roma beat Northern Ireland on Sunday in a friendly, the soccer equivalent of an exhibition game. Teenager Gio Reyna scored the first goal and Christian Pulisic, the youngest player to ever captain the men’s national team, scored the second as the U.S. beat a European team at home for the first time in six years.
Four hours after that game ended, another U.S. national team kicked off in Mexico needing a win to qualify for the Tokyo Games. That team featured only three players from outside MLS, including a goalkeeper who has made just one MLS start. That team lost to Honduras and the U.S. failed to make the Olympic cut for the fourth time in five tries.
Which begs a simple question: Why was the A team in Europe playing a relatively meaningless friendly while a lesser team was in Mexico losing to Honduras in a game that meant everything? The answer isn’t as simple, but it has a lot to do with FIFA, the governing body for global soccer.
For starters FIFA required those big clubs to release their players to their senior national teams because Sunday’s game took place during an official match window set aside for international competition. But they weren’t required to release their players to events such as Olympic qualifying, which FIFA classifies as an age-group tournament. Even Atlanta United, an MLS club with close ties to U.S. Soccer, declined to let three of its age-eligible players go to the Olympic qualifying event.
While the women’s Olympic tournament, which debuted in 1996, has always been considered a major championship open to the best players in the world, that is more a product of FIFA’s long-held disdain for the women’s game than it is an attempt to raise the profile of the tournament. FIFA has long conspired to make sure the men’s Olympic event pales in importance to the World Cup, although the two competitions have a common beginning.
FIFA actually managed the 1920, ’24 and ’28 Olympic tournaments, which were amateur events that proved so successful the winners were considered “world champions.” But the International Olympic Committee opposed opening the competition to professionals, so FIFA took the sport out of the 1932 Games in Los Angeles to create and promote its own tournament, the World Cup.
Soccer returned to the IOC’s calendar in 1936, under FIFA’s direction, yet by then the World Cup had eclipsed the amateur tournament and the Olympics have never regained the prestige it once had — and both the IOC and FIFA share the blame for that.
By clinging to strict rules banning professionals into the 1980s, the IOC effectively kept the best players in the world out of its event, allowing the World Cup to become the globe’s largest and most important sporting competition. And FIFA intended to keep it that way, so when the IOC voted to allow professional players for the 1984 L.A. Games, FIFA watered down the competition by placing restrictions on who could participate.
It codified that in 1992 by turning the Olympic tournament into an age-group competition, limiting rosters to players aged 23 and younger, with three over-age exemptions. The IOC, it should be noted, didn’t protest, fearing that a World Cup-level event during the Games would overshadow traditional Olympic sports such as track and field, gymnastics and swimming.
But while some nations have figured out how to make that work — Argentina won back-to-back gold medals in 2004 and 2008, and Mexico has made the knockout round in seven straight World Cups while qualifying for six of the eight Olympic tournaments in the U-23 era — the U.S. has not.
Not only did the Americans miss the 2018 World Cup, but they’ve played in the Olympics just once since 2000 and have won just four matches in the Summer Games since 1992. Not exactly the kind of resume that cries out “soccer nation.”
However, Sunday’s loss to Honduras — a country that qualified for four straight Olympics and two of the last three World Cups — will sting more than the rest.
With the likes of Pulisic, Reyna, Sergiño Dest, Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie and Tim Weah all age-eligible for Tokyo — provided they were able to secure release from their clubs, the final FIFA-constructed hurdle — the Americans would have entered the Games as medal favorites.
Now they’ll be watching on TV instead. And that will leave a mark, said World Cup veteran Stuart Holden, who, in 2008, scored the game-winning goal in the last Olympic match the U.S. won.
“You think about the opportunities we have to play in a tournament that replicates the World Cup, but also where we actually get to play in games that mean something against top teams from all around the world. That doesn't happen other than the World Cup,” said Holden, now a Fox Soccer commentator. “The Olympics is that other opportunity that is a truly global tournament.”
Lionel Messi’s only international title came in the 2008 Olympics. Neymar delivered a gold medal for Brazil eight years later.
“Some of the best players to ever have played the game have played in the Olympics,” Holden said. “It actually kind of infuriates me that people just write it off as 'Well, the Olympics doesn't really matter.’ It definitely matters because of that opportunity. Imagine we could roll out a team with our best under-23s. We'd be up there for the first time ever, when it comes to a global tournament, with one of the best five teams going to the Olympics. That's putting yourself in a conversation with Germany and Spain and Brazil, Argentina.”
On Sunday, expecting a U.S. victory, Holden broke out the Olympic jacket he wore during the Beijing Games, hoping to feature it during the Fox broadcast. Instead, he put it back in storage after the loss to Honduras. But the experience of those Games remains fresh, and Holden is sorry this year’s team won’t get the chance to make memories of its own.
“That stacks up with my best lifetime achievements,” said Holden, who won two MLS Cups, a Gold Cup and played in a World Cup match. “I remember walking out representing the United States in the opening ceremony, and you're walking with the best athletes from all other sports, and it's really such a unique opportunity, where sports collide.
“You feel like you're representing Team USA. It was just such a special moment. I had a wave of emotions, anger, frustration, disappointment [that] these guys will miss out on that opportunity. It means so much to go to the Olympics.”
Apparently not to FIFA.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.