The ‘arrival’ of Olympic football back in Britain with the Oman-Senegal play-off and the draw for the London 2012 finals has sparked a sense of wonder that the sport is part of the Games at all. In fact, football should be proud of its anchor role in the Olympics – and the Olympic movement should acknowledge it more openly.
It’s almost as if the long-time rivalry between FIFA and the International Olympic Committee has spoiled the perception of what each offers the other. That is an unfortunate state of affairs at a time when sport, more than ever, needs to present a united front against corruption, doping, etc.
Football was there at the first modern Games in Athens in 1896, when a scratch tournament involved select teams from Denmark, Athens and Izmir (The only recorded result was a 15–0 victory for the Danish XI against the Izmir XI).
In Paris in 1900, football was again included as a demonstration sport, with Upton Park FC, representing England, beating France 4–0 in the only game played. In 1904 in St Louis, three North American teams entered a demonstration event which was won by Galt FC from Ontario representing Canada.
Football was finally accepted into the main programme for 1908, the first time London played host. The England amateur team (not a Great Britain team), but still boasting many of the country’s best players, beat Denmark 2–0 in the Final at White City.
Vivian Woodward, one of the outstanding players of the day and who scored the second goal, led England four years later in Stockholm. Denmark, the best amateur side on the continent, were again Britain’s final opponents, and again they ended up with the silver medal. The Danish side included Nils Middelboe, later to play for Chelsea – one of Woodward’s clubs.
In 1924 the Games returned to Paris and a South American nation, Uruguay, appeared for the first time. The Uruguayans brought with them dazzling ball skills which amazed the Europeans. They fielded some of the all-time greats of Uruguayan football: Nasazzi, Andrade, Vidal, Scarone, Petrone, Cea and Romano. No wonder Switzerland lost 3–0 in the final.
Four years later the Uruguayans returned, along with their great rivals Argentina, to take part in the 1928 Amsterdam Games. They met in the Final and Uruguay won 2-1 after a replay 2–1 to retain the title.
Uruguay’s success and the spreading of professionalism were the two decisive factors which prompted Jules Rimet to press on with his dream of a World Cup – and began the relegation in status of the Olympic football tournament.
In London in 1948 Sweden were surprise winners. The Swedes, featuring Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm (later nicknamed the Gre-No-Li trio when they later all joined Milan), beat Yugoslavia 3–1 at Wembley. Gren scored twice.
Yugoslavia reached the Final again in Helsinki in 1952 – and lost again – this time to Hungary’s Magical Magyars. Ferenc Puskas and Zoltan Czibor scored in Hungary’s 2–0 win which launched a 24-year era of Communist control of the Olympic football tournament. That was ended only in 1984, when France won gold in Los Angeles.
FIFA, bending further, turned the Olympic Games into an under-23 competition in time for Barcelona in 1992 as part of a deal which included the option of three over-age players and the creation of a women’s tournament. The bonus was African success for Nigeria in 1996 and Cameroon in 2000.
Argentina, winners in 2004 and 2008, wanted to go for a first-ever hat-trick in London but they did not make it. Uruguay did – for the first time since they last won gold in 1928. Brazil will be seeking a first-ever gold medal – and, if they do not achieve it, Mano Menezes will be looking for a new job.
So do not let anyone say that Olympic football has no relevance. If anything, with its place in world football’s youth progression, it is more obviously relevant than ever before.