The Weird and Wonderful History of Football at the Olympics, From 17-0s and 72-year-old Refs to 78,000 at the Maracanã

history of soccer at the olympic games

It’s a widely held view – and one that is almost always expressed with an undercurrent of bitterness – that football and the Olympics simply don’t mix. Like oil and water, you can keep them in the same vessel, but they will never coalesce.

It’s a position taken by those who like football, and those who don’t. In the former’s case, it seems to be driven by some sort of misguided superiority complex. “We’re not going to waste our time with this half-arsed imitation of the game,” they sneer before turning their attention back to adjusting their scouting budget on Football Manager. 

For those of us who love it, it’s easy to forget that there are billions of people with absolutely no interest in the beautiful game. And for many of them, the Olympics would be better off without its brash presence. It’s the bombastic main event for ten, sometimes 11 months a year – can’t it relinquish the spotlight for two weeks out of every 208?

Sitting comfortably between the two tribes are the ambivalent and the enthused. The most recent Olympic football the latter witnessed was the gold medal match between Brazil and Germany in 2016. From first whistle to last, nothing about this match felt second rate. It finished 1-1 and – after extra-time, eight good penalties and one bad – Neymar had the chance to win the match from 12 yards.

He kissed the ball, placed it on the spot, and out came the ritualistic stuttering run-up. The ball had barely hit the back of the net before Neymar’s tears began to flow. Overcome with joy, he sunk to his knees as 78,000 yellow-clad fans in the stands started a carnival in miniature. We are used to seeing performative emotion from footballers, but Neymar’s ecstasy was true.

A little carried away in the spirit of the occasion, the official Olympic commentator proclaimed: “[Neymar] gives Brazil their first-ever World Cu— err, Olympic gold medal.” It wasn’t the World Cup, but in the midst of such unbridled joy, you can forgive the man with the microphone’s momentary lapse in awareness of his setting. Brazil’s first gold medal in their national sport did by no means neutralise the pain of the biblical 7-1 defeat in the same stadium two years earlier, but it did begin to turn the page on that excruciating chapter in their history.

Such is the mythos and prestige surrounding the Games, football at the Olympics is positively brimming with these moments of gravity. They aren’t as great in number or significance as the World Cup, the Champions League or any of the other top-tier competitions in football, but then again not many things in the arena of sport are. Across the 26 Olympic games to have featured football, there have been great teams validated, reputations forged and political feuds played out on grass – not to mention some of the maddest scorelines in the history of the game.

The very first Games to include football in its arrangements was the 1900 event held in Paris. Besides the British Home Championship – contested between England, Wales, Scotland and a united Ireland – it was the very first international football competition, 30 years before the inaugural World Cup in Uruguay.

It was one of three successive Olympics to feature just three teams – though these mini-tournaments were only considered “demonstrations” at the time. No medals were handed out at the 1900 Games, but the International Olympic Committee has since retroactively awarded Great Britain, France and Belgium with gold, silver and bronze.

It was an odd affair. Just two matches were played and, as would be the case for the first three incarnations of football at the Olympics, nations were not represented by a national team but rather by elected club sides. Great Britain’s matches, for instance, would be played by Upton Park FC (no affiliation to West Ham), France’s by Parisian side Club Français and Belgium by the University of Brussels.

In 1904 – the St. Louis-hosted games which were the first in which medals were handed out to footballers – three teams entered: one from Canada (Gait FC) and two from the United States (Christian Brothers College and St. Rose Parish). Canada won their two matches 7-0 and 4-0, meaning they won gold.

This was the first of two Olympic football tournaments where one country won two medals. By virtue of simply turning up, the Christian Brothers and St. Rose Parish won silver and bronze respectively for the United States. This was emblematic of the first few instalments of Olympic football which were characterised by sketch show-like absurdity.

This trend continued in the 1906 Intercalated Games. The Athens-based Games were, at the time, considered an official Olympics though their status has since been revoked by the IOC. Once again, one country managed 2nd and 3rd place finishes. This time it was Greece, represented by teams from Athens and Thessaloniki. Athens XI put five past Thessaloniki, a team comprised of members of a music club, without reply on the way to the final. There they would lose 9-0 to Denmark, though the demolition was completed in just 45 minutes as Athens would storm off at half-time.

While the format became slightly more sensible at the 1908 Olympic Games in London – the first tournament recognised by FIFA – the scorelines did not follow suit. Eight teams from seven countries entered (France posted a first team and a “B” team), though this was later reduced to six after Hungary withdrew following the First Balkan Crisis and Bohemia did the same after FIFA revoked their membership. Their withdrawal meant that the Netherlands and France automatically progressed to the semi-finals.

In the first round, Denmark recorded another 9-0 victory, this time against France’s “B” team. Their Scandinavian cousins didn’t fare so well, losing 12-1 to Great Britain in a match which, remarkably, was not the highest scoring at the tournament. Denmark took that honour, recording a rip-roaring 17-1 victory over France in their semi-final – Sophus Nielsen netted ten goals, a one-match goal haul that would have seen him awarded the golden boot in 22 of the 27 Olympic football tournaments.  

Apart from the fact that the Danes had scored eight more goals against France’s senior team than they had against the “B” team, the most remarkable aspect of this result was perhaps the fact that France actually managed to score a goal. Great Britain beat the Netherlands 4-0 to ensure they would challenge Denmark for the gold medal in the final.

Great Britain would win 2-0 at White City, the 93,000-capacity stadium constructed especially for the London Olympics. On the scoresheet that day was Vivian Woodward, the England legend whose 29 goals in 23 caps make him the player with the best ever goals-to-games ratio in the nation’s history. On the opposing side was Harald Bohr, esteemed mathematician and brother of Niels Bohr, the philosopher and Nobel Prize-winning physicist. This juxtaposition was symbolic of the early days of Olympic football; the fact that professionals could not participate until 1984 brought about many charming peculiarities.

Though a record 11 teams entered, the medals table was identical in 1912. Great Britain stood atop the podium once again, with Denmark and the Netherlands coming 2nd and 3rd respectively. The tournament saw two 7-0s, a 9-0 and a 16-0. The last of these came for Germany against Russia in the consolation tournament contested between the seven teams to have lost in the first couple of rounds of the main event – it was the first and only time this secondary event was held. A penny for Sophus Nielsen’s thoughts as, with a silver medal hanging around his neck, he cast an eye over the sports pages in the following morning’s paper only to find that Gottfried Fuchs had equalled his record of ten goals in a single match. Nielsen’s reaction presumably sounded strikingly similar to his contemporary’s surname.

Besides it spelling the end of a British footballing dominance which is yet to be recaptured, the most remarkable aspect of the 1920 tournament was that its gold medal match remains the only FIFA-recognised international final to have been abandoned. Czechoslovakia flounced off before half time after 72-year-old referee John Lewis – not that one – awarded Belgium an early penalty and sent off left-back Karel Steiner for scrapping with Robert Coppée. The Balkans accused Lewis of an anti-Czech bias dating back to a match he refereed in Prague earlier that year, one which ended in him being attacked en mass by the crowd. Needless to say, this was before the FA’s #RESPECT campaign had begun to bear fruit.

Uruguay emerged as the dominant force in the Olympics and indeed in world football over the next decade. Sixty-thousand watched at Stade Olympique in Paris as the South Americans beat Switzerland 3-0 to claim gold. The 1924 final was the first to be caught – in remarkable clarity – on film. The black and white pictures exhibit a technicolour team, always on the front foot and always looking hungrily towards goal. They were astonishingly clever and nimble with the ball at their feet.

In the 1928 tournament, the Uruguayans helped themselves to 1st place once again. After a 1-1 draw, they needed a replay to beat Argentina 2-1 in the gold medal match. It was the first truly global tournament (17 teams from five confederations) and Uruguay were global football’s first globe-trotting superstars. As the competitions were recognised by FIFA as official world championships, the two Olympic victories are the reason that Uruguay are allowed to sport four stars above the crest on their shirts – the other two for their World Cup victories in 1930 and 1950.

After the first World Cup, Olympic football waned in terms of its prestige. There was no football at all played at the 1932 games, but it made a hideous comeback at 1936 Games in Berlin. Hitler, who had never seen a football match before, watched Germany lost 2-0 to Norway in the quarter-finals. In the same round, Peru beat Austria 4-2 after extra-time and Peru fans flooded onto the grass in celebration.

But the result was overturned after Austria claimed that the pitch invasion had taken place with scores still at 2-2. After an all-European committee ordered a replay, every member of Peru’s Olympic team went home in protest. So too did Colombia in solidarity for their South American cousins. Austria would reach the final where they would be beaten by Italy. Across the board, Berlin was the most infamous Olympics and the football was suitably on-brand.

After Italy’s triumph, a period of Eastern European dominance ensued. Eleven out of 12 of the finals between 1936 and 1992 had at least one Eastern Bloc representative. Between them, Hungary, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Poland, East Germany and Czechoslovakia won 23 of the available 28 medals between 1948 and 1980. Nine out of ten gold medals between 1952 and 1988 hung around Eastern European necks. The amateurs-only rule was easier to bend for Communist Bloc teams whose players were state-sponsored and therefore technically not privately employed – this gave them a huge advantage over part-time Westerners.

Besides bronze medals for Germany and Japan in 1964 and 1968 respectively, the only non-Eastern European sides to win medals between 1948 and 1980 were Scandinavian: Denmark and Sweden. The latter – under the management of George Raynor, an Englishman whose career stop-offs included Iraq, Juventus and Skegness – enjoyed a prosperous stretch that saw them win the Olympics in 1948, claim bronze in 1952, finish 3rd at the 1950 World Cup and reach the final of the same competition in 1958.

With the Calcio-conquering Gunnar Nordahl, Johan Gunnar Gren, Nils Liedholm and the like, they were a brilliant team that flourished in spite of their FA’s reluctance to accept professionalism until the late 50s. On the way to claiming bronze in 1952, however, they were pieced apart by an even better one. Hungary, the great standard-bearers of Olympic football, beat them 6-0 in the semi-finals – they’d already recorded a 3-0 victory over Italy and a 7-1 over Turkey before the penultimate fixture in the Helsinki games. In the final they beat Yugoslavia, finalists in four successive Olympics between 1948 and 1960.

The Olympics have made a habit of validating great teams that couldn’t quite finish the job at the World Cup. For Hungary and Sweden, a pair of vanquished World Cup finalists, the games in ’48 and ’52 were their zenith. Modern parallels can be drawn with contemporary nearly-men, Argentina.

Knuckle-dragging Messi sceptics will gleefully tell you that La Albiceleste have not won an international tournament since 1993. But this isn’t quite true. They were gold medallists in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. A young Carlos Tevez fired them to glory in Athens, scoring eight goals for a team that included Javier Mascherano, Gabriel Heinze, Kily Gonzalez, Javier Saviola and Roberto Ayala.

Four years later, their squad was even more star-studded as they were triumphant in Beijing. Juan Román Riquelme and Mascherano came as over-aged players (teams were allowed three after 1992) while manager Sergio Batista brought along a crop of youngsters that would form the backbone of the nation’s squad for a decade. Messi, Aguero, Banega, Lavezzi, Zabaleta, Gago, Di Maria and Garay all featured.

Nigeria were the beaten finalists in 2008, but 12 years earlier in Atlanta they were victorious against the same opposition at the same stage. It was the first African triumph on the world stage, and it was completed in style with a good old last-minute winner. In the semi-final against Brazil in the 90th minute, Kanu scored to level the game at 3-3. The Ajax forward scored the golden goal in extra-time too, sending the Nigerians into the final of the tournament.

With a bevvy of thrill-a-minute matches like this, the tournament earned a reputation as one of the most compelling of all time. With Ronaldo Nazario, Herman Crespo and Jay-Jay Okocha all in full flow and all powered by the unthinking brilliance of youth, how could it have been any different?

Eighty-six thousand watched the Super Eagles triumph that night. Four years later, 114,000 would witness another African victory, this time for Cameroon over Spain in Sydney. That’s more than have watched 19 of the 21 World Cup finals.

There will always be a certain level of snootiness surrounding football at the Olympics, from those who believe that it is a juggernaut too large to be steered along with the rest of the convoy and those who would be happy if a ball was never kicked again. But a little digging uncovers a history as rich and quirky as any other Olympic discipline. While it has effectively become a glorified Under-23 World Cup over the past three decades, it continues to provide football addicts with their fix of romance and quadrennial sporting drama.