By Aris Barkas/ [email protected]
For many basketball players, the prestige of the Olympics can’t be compared with the FIBA World Cup. However, the games of the first two days of action proved already that the Olympic tournament remains a much more relaxed affair for the top teams compared to the World Cup.
Why is that you ask? In total, just 12 national teams will play in next year’s Tokyo Games. The format cuts the chances of top contenders to be part of the event. That would make early games a mere formality, as is the case so far in this World Cup.
FIBA World Cup has expanded to 32 teams, giving a chance for more nations to expose their talent and help the growth of the sport. There were high hopes for teams like Nigeria which failed miserably to make the most of their chance against a depleted Russian squad.
After two games of action in China, one gets the notion that the “real” World Cup will start in the next round when we would know the 16 best teams of the tournament. So it’s easy to get what’s wrong with the Olympics. With only 12 teams in the tournament and the obligatory spot allocated to all five continents, the level of play by default is not as high as in the FIBA World Cup.
The best team from Africa, Asia and Oceania will get an Olympic birth and Japan, as the host, has already secured a spot. Two spots will go to America, two to Europe and four more will be decided in four pre-Olympic tournaments, usually won by European teams. In the FIBA World Cup, there are ten European teams, and nine of them have an excellent chance to be part of the second round.
To be exact so far all European teams have won their respective games with the only exceptions being Germany and Montenegro. However, they lost to two other European squads, France and Greece, respectively.
Teams from other continents have made progress, but at this point, the only genuine non-European contenders remain Australia and the USA.
Veteran coach Mario Palma put it bluntly after the defeat of his team, Tunisia, to Spain: “Spain has the target to win the World Cup, they have a great team, and we will try to qualify for the Olympics as the best African team in the tournament. Those are two very different situations. This game was not in “our” championship.”
A team from Africa, from Asia or Oceania, might get the ticket to Tokyo just by making it to the second round. And some of the quarterfinalists may end up losing the chance to be there. Those are the rules, and you can debate about changes, but that’s not the point.
With the IOC firmly denying for decades to expand the Olympic Basketball Tournament, this expanded version of the FIBA World Cup should be considered the prime basketball event of the planet. And in due time the players – especially those who missed the chance to be present this year in China – will get it.