Diego Forlan on Rio 2016: Olympic football still a big deal, especially in Neymar’s case

I hope the Olympics go well, and that Rio is ready. I hope that Latin America shows the world that they can stage a successful Olympic games.

EPA photo; Illustration: Kevin Jeffers/The National
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Diego Forlan writes a weekly column for The National, appearing each Friday. The former Manchester United, Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid striker has been the top scorer in Europe twice and won the Golden Boot at the 2010 World Cup. Forlan's column is written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten.

I played in World Cups and European Cups, Copa Americas and Copa Libertadores. I’ve been in the Confederations Cup and played club football in six countries – and maybe soon it will be seven – but I’ve never played in the Olympic games.

I hoped to represent Uruguay in 2012 in London. My country did well to qualify and I realised that I stood a chance as one of the three players aged over 23. Sadly, my manager did not agree and chose Luis Suarez as captain, Edinson Cavani and Egidio Arévalo Ríos. That’s football – I understand that and they’re all great players.

Uruguay narrowly lost to Great Britain and they didn’t get out of the group stage. But the players enjoyed it. They didn’t go for the money – I don’t even think players got paid – but to represent their country and to win an Olympic gold medal that would have looked good in any collection.

Uruguay didn’t qualify for the games in Rio, but I’ll still pay close attention to what goes on, despite it being the third major international football tournament in two months following Copa America and the European Championship.

My wife says that’s because I’m a football addict, but there will also be plenty of big clubs watching what goes on in Brazil.

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The tournament takes place while the transfer window is still open. If a player shines in Rio then he’ll be putting himself in the shop window for clubs to buy him.

All the big clubs will have scouts there. Of course they’ll know the players they’re looking for – though they’ll welcome some surprises – and there are always some unpredictable teams emerging.

Some players will not be for sale, like Neymar, the biggest star there. I understand why. He’s Brazilian, they’ve never won Olympic gold – though they’ve been beaten finalists several times – and the tournament is among his people. They want to win it after failing to win the World Cup there two years ago, when Brazil conceded seven goals to Germany in the semi-final.

Barcelona won’t be happy to lose Neymar at a crucial stage of the season, when league matches start and players are still working hard on developing the core fitness that will carry them through the season.

No matter what they say, clubs are never happy to lose their players to their countries. They pay the wages and risk them getting injured. But Barca couldn’t stop Neymar playing for Brazil in Brazil, and it wouldn’t have been fair after Messi played for Argentina in 2004.

The Olympics have already been surrounded with enough negativity and bad publicity. There has been a nervousness that things won’t go right, that the construction has not been finished.

But I hope they go well, and that Rio is ready – for the great people of the city, for Brazil, for South America. I hope that Latin America shows the world that they can stage a successful Olympic Games.

Rio is a truly magnificent city, so beautiful with the mountains and the beaches. To not have Neymar there would be more bad publicity. Plus, Barca will benefit if he becomes more of a star and his profile goes even higher. Neymar needed a rest, so Barca reached a deal where he didn’t play in Copa America. That’s fair.

Although Olympic football isn’t anywhere as important as the World Cup or Copa America or the European Championship, it does attract the best young players and some of the best senior players. It also has cheaper tickets for fans who cannot maybe afford or get tickets for the men’s 100-metre final.

Countries take it seriously, too. Brazil is not a country so renown for cycling or track and field. Football is different – they can win it.

Look at the previous winners. Brazil were runners up to Mexico – who were a surprise – in London in 2012. Neymar played then, as did Thiago Silva, Lucas Moura, Hulk, Marcelo and Pato. All top players. South Korea came third, an example of the surprises you can get when all but three of the players are under 23.

Argentina won in Beijing, with Messi, Aguero, Mascherano, Zabaleta, Di Maria and my old teammate Juan Roman Riquelme.

Their team would probably have been good enough to win the World Cup – though that brilliant generation of Argentinian footballers have only won the Olympic gold in international football. That’s the only competition where they’ve done their reputation justice. Nigeria made the final, which may have seemed like another surprise, but they won gold in Atlanta in 1996.

Argentina also won gold in Athens four years earlier. Ayala, Tevez, Mascherano and my old teammate Andres D’Alessandro all played. Great players, great team, gold medal. Paraguay came second, Italy third with Pirlo and De Rossi.

I’ve spoken to players who’ve played in the Olympics and they really enjoyed living among the other athletes in the village, people at the top of their sports.

Sometimes footballers can live in a bubble where they travel as a team and rarely see other top-level athletes, so that’s part of the Olympic spirit that they meet and mix with other athletes.

It’s a shame I never experienced it myself, but I didn’t need to be involved to see it’s a good thing.

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