Football was a part of the Olympic Games more than two decades before FIFA organised the first World Cup. After desultory attempts in Paris in 1900 and St Louis four years later, the 1908 London Games included the first modern international football tournament.

All four Home Nations were invited to take part in 1908, but only England – who were the sole British members of FIFA, itself formed just four years earlier – sent a team. But while the English FA would not tolerate payments to amateurs, in other parts of the world players were compensated for missing work to play.

Non-professionals such as centre-forward Vivian Woodward of Tottenham Hotspur and goalkeeper Horace Bailey of Leicester Fosse were good enough to also represent the full international side and, led by the dashing Woodward, England swept to the 1908 Final, where they beat Denmark – who included the outstanding Nils Middelboe – 2-0 to win the gold medal.

FIFA laid down clear rules on amateurism in Sweden four years later  and, although the number of entrants rose to 11, England were still too strong for the rest of the field. In their semi-final they even purposely missed what Woodward felt was an unjust penalty in a 4-0 win over Finland. The Final was a re-match for Woodward and Middelboe, with England winning 4-2.

The unprepared, arrogant holders were easily beaten 3-1 by Norway in the first round of the next Games, in Antwerp in 1920, where the 14 competitors included the first non-European side, Egypt. In the Final, Czechoslovakia walked off the pitch late on in the game after disagreeing with English referee John Lewis over the goal that made it 2-0 to Belgium.

Scarone the star

Twenty two countries entered the 1924 tournament in Paris, including the United States and Uruguay – who thrashed Yugoslavia 7-0 in the first round. Featuring the brilliant Hector Scarone, Uruguay beat Switzerland 3-0 to win gold in front of a 41,000 crowd at the Stade Olympique in Colombes, just outside the French capital.

In Amsterdam four years later, another fine South American attacking force emerged in the shape of Argentina, who lost 2-1 to Uruguay in a replayed Final after the first match was drawn 1-1.

Despite the continuing rows over amateurism and countries who paid players “expenses”, the popularity of football at the Olympics made the need for a separate world championship obvious.

As a result, the Olympic tournament suffered when Uruguay staged and won the first World Cup – which was open to all players, amateur and professional, – in 1930. The sport was dropped from the Los Angeles Olympiad in 1932, but reintroduced four years later in Berlin, where Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime needed big attendances to bankroll investment in new facilities.

Having withdrawn from the previous three Olympic football tournaments, the British returned in 1936 with a combined squad of 13 Englishmen, five Scots and two players apiece from Wales and Northern Ireland. The 16-team competition included China, Japan, Egypt and Peru. Germany were surprisingly beaten in the quarter-finals by Norway, prompting Hitler to storm out.

In a thrilling Final, Italy won 2-1 against Austria, who were coached by an Englishman, Jimmy Hogan. Led by Arsenal’s Bernard Joy – the last amateur to win a full cap for England – Great Britain were beaten 5-4 in the quarter-finals by Poland.

At London in 1948, a GB side managed by Manchester United’s Matt Busby shocked a strong Holland side 4-3. They then beat France 1-0 before losing 3-1 to Yugoslavia in the semi-finals. Although a Sweden team comprising Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm beat the Yugoslavs 3-1 in the Final, the tournament had signalled the rise of the Communist bloc, where players were nominally amateur with state jobs but played football full-time.

Magical Magyars

This approach helped to create the “Magical Magyars” of Hungary. A year before shattering England at Wembley in 1953, Hungary took gold in Helsinki, where a GB side under the sway of England manager Walter Winterbottom were humiliated 5-3 by Luxembourg in a preliminary game.

A long trip to Melbourne and political tension in Europe reduced the entries in 1956 to 11 sides, and the Eastern Bloc provided three semi-finalists and the winners in the Soviet Union.

Interest was stronger for Rome, where a combined GB team lost their opening group game 4-3 to a Brazil side featuring Gerson, before forcing a 2-2 draw with an Italy side that included Giovanni Trapattoni and Gianni Rivera. Yugoslavia won gold, beating Denmark 3-1 in the Final. Hungary took gold in 1964, when decolonisation produced a surge in entrants and 62 nations entered the qualifying competition. Four years later, when 81 countries entered the Mexico Olympics, they retained their title.

British efforts petered out in the qualifiers for Munich, which featured unlikely finalists Burma and Sudan, and was won by Poland, who reached the Final again four years later in Montreal only to lose to East Germany.

In 1974, the FA had finally accepted the amateur credo was an anachronism. All footballers in Britain were now simply players, and with no amateurs the Home Nations could not enter. Just 2,200 fans watched GB’s last game – a shock 1-0 qualifying win over 1970 World Cup finalists Bulgaria in 1971 – and their withdrawal barely registered.

By the time of the 1980 Games, the Eastern Bloc had won six golds in a row. This did not change in Moscow, which was blighted by a United States-led boycott over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

After Czechoslovakia beat East Germany, FIFA and the International Olympic Committee laid down new rules, starting with the 1984 competition. Professionals could now play, but not ones from Europe or South America who had played at a World Cup finals. In one of the better tournaments, Canada were surprise quarter-finalists and unfortunate not to beat a Brazil side who lost in the Final to France and were watched by 101,000 fans in the Pasadena Rose Bowl.

After the Soviet Union triumphed in Seoul, FIFA tweaked the rules to create a world under-23 championship. fNow only players of that age could feature, along with three over-age players. At Spain 1992, a host side featuring Pep Guardiola beat Poland 3-2 in front of 95,000 in the Final at Camp Nou.

Nigeria triumph

Four years later, the Nigeria became the first African side to win a major world tournament. After shocking Brazil in
the semi-finals, they downed Hernan Crespo’s Argentina in the Final. Four years later, a Cameroon side including Samuel Eto’o beat a Spain team featuring Xavi and Carles Puyol to keep the gold in Africa.

In 2004 Carlos Tevez scored eight times for Argentina, who beat Paraguay to the gold medal as South America became the dominant force. Four years later, Lionel Messi insisted that Barcelona release him for the Beijing Olympics, where Argentina retained the title in front of nearly 90,000 fans.

That players of such stature would want to play in the Olympics is inconceivable in Britain – although David Beckham was keen for a last hurrah in London – but across the rest of the globe the world’s oldest international football tournament retains its allure.

By Steve Menary

Steve Menary is the author of GB United? British Olympic Football  and the End of the Amateur Dream