Soccer: Record crowds silence critics
LONDON (Reuters) - If London 2012 proved one thing it is that the debate about whether soccer should be part of the Olympic Games is over for good.
Record crowds of more than two million people around Britain voted overwhelmingly in favor and, with the next Olympic Games in soccer-obsessed Brazil in 2016, the thorny old question is simply no longer on the agenda.
An outstanding men's competition, played in a great Olympian spirit, ended with a 2-1 upset win for Mexico over Brazil in Saturday's final at Wembley, while a hugely supported women's tournament resulted in a third successive gold for the United States, who beat Japan by the same score in their final.
The two tournaments captivated fans in six venues across the country, smashing attendance records set in Beijing four years ago.
Purists argue that as the Olympics is all about sport at the highest level, then soccer, and particularly the men's event, has no place as it is essentially an under-23 competition with three overage players allowed.
The point they miss, however, is that the Olympics are not simply about having the best competing, but about striving to be the fastest, highest or strongest, which is what young players from unlikely soccer outposts such as Gabon, Honduras and North Korea are doing.
Soccer also brings millions into the coffers of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the local organizing committee (LOCOG).
A total of 2.18 million people attended the 58 games across the two tournaments, compared to the previous record of 2.13 million in 2008 - with the men's final crowd of 86,162 the biggest for any event at the London Games.
The crowd for the women's final was 80,203, the largest ever to watch a women's Olympic match and a record for a women's match in Europe. The women's teams have no age restrictions.
The moment that suggested something special was afoot was when the crowd number was announced for the relatively low-key men's group-stage match between Gabon and South Korea at Wembley. It was 76,927.
Brazil were hot favorites to finally end their 60-year search for Olympic gold, boasting a wonderfully talented young team including their poster boy Neymar, Oscar, who has just moved to Chelsea, Rafael of Manchester United and Leandro Damiao of Internacional in Brazil, the tournament's top scorer with six goals.
Mexico, who have made huge advances in youth and age-group soccer in recent years, proved too strong in the final, however.
With most of their squad still playing at home, Mexico came though the group stage without conceding a goal, beat Senegal 4-2 after extra time in a thrilling quarter-final, then saw off Japan 3-1 with another fine display in the semi-finals.
Their victory over Brazil prompted huge celebrations back home and showed they could be a real threat in the World Cup in Brazil in two years' time.
For the first time in 52 years, overcoming long and complicated political infighting between its constituent parts, Britain took part in the men's competition and reached the quarter-finals where the team lost to South Korea on penalties, the same stage at which the women's team went out to Canada.
The Canadian women then faced the United States in the best match of either competition, losing 4-3 in extra time to the U.S. in their semi-final in Manchester.
The two competitions were played in great sporting spirit. If these Olympics could leave a legacy it would be that players adopt those same values in domestic games.
(Editing by Kate Kelland)
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