Spain’s exit from the 2012 Olympic football tournament was as early as it was ignominious. Two matches; no goals scored; nine bookings and one ejection—the final moments of Sunday’s 1-0 loss to Honduras spent in a rage after referee Juan Soto’s decision not to award a penalty to the world and European champions near the end of normal time. La Furia, indeed.
Perhaps they underestimated their opposition. Perhaps, given their recent success on the international stage (they arrived at the Games having already won two titles in July—Euro 2012 and the UEFA U-19 crown) they figured they could get results just by showing up. Perhaps they merely had a poor week.
But to say they didn’t care would be to devalue the importance Olympic football has had on the sport in this country over the past 92 years. It was at the 1920 Games in Antwerp, after all, that Spanish football carved out a place for itself in the national psyche; it was in 1992 in Barcelona that a star-studded team including the likes of Santiago Canizares, Luis Enrique and Pep Guardiola finally conquered the world.
Olympic football has generally been of as much importance in Spain as anywhere else in Europe (and probably more), and none of that will have been lost on the players who will be going home early from the current instalment. That silver medal from 1920, for example, remains an indelible part of Spanish football culture.
A glance at the squad from the Antwerp competition reveals why that is. Football had yet to really establish itself in Spain, and the players who went off to the Olympics and returned with a medal became the country’s original football superstars. José Samitier, one of four Barcelona players on the team, was a Catalan icon; Belauste, one of a large Basque contingent, is still lionized for a goal he scored against Sweden.
Then there is Ricardo Zamora and Rafael Moreno. Zamora’s heroics in goal made him a hero back home, and to this day the goalkeeper in La Liga with the best goal-to-games ratio is presented with a trophy in his name. Victor Valdes has won it each of the past four seasons.
Moreno, meanwhile, continues to be honoured with an award given annually to La Liga’s top goalscorer. Of course, most fans will know the legendary Athletic Bilbao marksman by his nickname, “Pichichi”. Lionel Messi won the Pichichi for the second time last campaign, and in each of the last four seasons the Pichichi winner has also taken home the European Golden Boot.
Perhaps it’s because success on the international stage was so rare for so long that Spanish football placed significant importance on the Olympics, and celebrated the achievements when they came. And while the World Cup and successive European championships have turned Spain into the biggest juggernaut world football has ever known, it wasn’t until four years ago that success at the Olympic level stopped being the predominant touchstone in the country’s football legacy.
Olympic football is easily, sometimes conveniently, disregarded in some nations, but very few of them have been as shaped by the Games as Spain. In the tower that is modern Spanish football, the Olympics are the foundation upon which the entire structure rests.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer