By Keir Radnedge
The origins of Olympic football are hidden in the mists of Games time. But at least those mists serve to suggest that football may have featured at the modern Games ever since Pierre de Coubertin first got his act together in Athens in 1896.
Whether a match between an Athens XI and a Danish club did take place remains an issue of dispute. Football certainly was present next time around, in Paris in 1900, when Great Britain took gold, France silver and Belgium bronze.
Fifa does not recognise those matches as official but the IOC does, which is good enough for Olympic historians. Britain were represented by the all-amateur Upton Park club then won gold again with a ‘real’ representative team in 1908 and 1912.
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Britain’s 1912 winners also included future music-hall favourite Harold Walden. He finished the tournament with nine goals and is Britain’s all-time Olympic top scorer. Yet he was out-shot in 1912 by Germany’s Gottfried Fuchs. Remarkably, Fuchs scored 10 goals in one game, a 16-0 thrashing of Tsarist Russia.
After the first world war, the balance of Olympic football power changed and widened. Antwerp in 1920 also saw one of the greatest scandals in the history of Olympic football. Belgium played Czechoslovakia in the final but the Czechoslovaks walked off at 2-0 down, accusing 65-year-old English referee John Lewis of being biased.
They were disqualified and Spain, who had beaten Holland 3-1 in the bronze medal game, were promoted to silver.
In 1924 the Games returned to Paris. A South American nation – Uruguay – not only appeared for the first time but took gold. They did so again in 1928 and skipper Jose Nasazzi, Jose Andrade, Hector Scarone and Pedro Petrone made history by playing not only in those Olympic triumphs but in the Celeste’s 1930 World Cup victory.
Uruguay’s 1924 winners are generally credited with inventing the lap of honour. Petrone scored Uruguay’s opening goal in the 1924 final, a 3-0 triumph over Switzerland. At the age of only 18 years and 363 days that day, he remains the youngest player to win Olympics footballing gold.
Remarkably, Uruguay’s appearance at London 2012 will be their first appearance in the finals since 1928, all of 84 years ago.
Messi's presence in 2008 was a perfect answer to critics who say the greatest footballers do not honour the Olympic Charter as they should
Instead Italy grabbed the glory in a real golden era for the Azzurri; their Games victory was sandwiched between World Cup wins in 1934 and 1938. Under their great manager, Vittorio Pozzo, Italy thus achieved a top-titles hat-trick 74 years before Spain’s modern achievement.
Sweden won in London in 1948 with a team starring the Gre-No-Li trio – Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm – who were soon enhancing their legend status in Italy with Milan. But that was the last time a western European nation took gold until France in 1984. In between the so-called ‘state amateurs’ of eastern Europe took all the honours.
First to do so were Ferenc Puskas’s Magical Magyars from Hungary in 1952. They scored a 2-0 win in the final over a Yugoslav team still suffering he hangover from a remarkable game against the Soviet Union. The Slavs led 5-1, were pulled back to 5-5 and needed a replay to progress.
Barcelona in 1992 saw the restriction to players aged under 23, an attempt by Fifa to counter the Iron Curtain cheating of the Games’ amateur regulations. The option of the three over-age players was part of the bargain which saw women’s football introduced to the Games ahead of Atlanta in 1996.
That was the year a stoppage-time winner by Emmanuel Amuneke brought Nigeria victory over Argentina and thus secured Africa’s first Olympics football gold.
Argentina made amends in 2004 when defensive discipline took them through the entire tournament without conceding a single goal in their six games. Star striker Carlos Tevez was the key man at the other end of the pitch – he scored eight of his country’s 17 goals, including the only strike of the final against Paraguay.
Four years later, in Beijing, Argentina won gold again. Angel Di Maria scored the goal which turned the historical tables on Nigeria but Lionel Messi was their inspiration, his presence a perfect answer to those critics who say the greatest footballers do not honour the Olympic Charter as they should.