It isn’t the pinnacle of achievement in the sport. It takes attention away from those smaller events that desperately need it. It’s an unnecessary mish-mash of youngsters and random stars. The case against the inclusion of soccer in the Olympics may be compelling. But since officially debuting at the Games way back in 1908, the beautiful game has enjoyed a history as rich and varied as any of the more traditional Olympic pastimes.
Omitted entirely from the inaugural 1896 Games in Athens, soccer made its way into Paris 1900 as an exhibition event involving just three nations, and then St. Louis 1904 in a round robin format featuring a handful of North American club sides. The first Olympic soccer tournament recognized by FIFA arrived at London 1908 where the host nation emerged victorious against a Danish side which had recorded a record-breaking 17-1 semi-final win over France, a result that humiliated Les Bleus so much they subsequently refused to play for the bronze medal.
Stockholm 1912 also witnessed an equally embarrassing margin of defeat when Germany beat Russia 16-0, a thrashing which angered the Russian Czar so much that he refused to pay for the players’ travel home. Still, despite FIFA imposing new rules on the non-eligibility of professionals, it was the second consecutive 1-2-3 of Great Britain, Denmark and Netherlands that ended up on the podium.
After the outbreak of the First World War forced the cancellation of the 1916 Games, Olympic soccer returned in 1920 in dramatic fashion. Host nation Belgium were awarded gold by default in the final after Czechoslovakia stormed off the pitch just before half-time in protest at John Lewis, the “biased” English referee who had previously been attacked by Czechoslovakian supporters at a pre-Olympic match in Prague.
Four years after Egypt became the first non-European side to compete in the Games, Paris 1924 welcomed the first South American team, Uruguay. The competition consisted of 22-teams (making it the largest international soccer competition until the 1982 World Cup), and the newcomers topped them all. Uruguay put on a staggeringly skillful display, culminating in a 3-0 victory against Switzerland in the final.
Uruguay continued to assert their dominance at Amsterdam 1928 in the last Olympic soccer tournament to be staged before the formation of the World Cup eroded its significance. But they were pushed all the way by a firing-on-all-cylinders Argentina who had put eleven past USA, six past Belgium, and six past Egypt in a sign of just how powerful South America would become.
The inception of the Jules Rimet trophy, which allowed both professionals and amateurs to compete, resulted in soccer being dropped from the 1932 Games. But its increasing commercial popularity saw the sport reintroduced at Berlin 1936 by a Nazi regime desperate for huge attendances to bankroll their hosting duties. Even Hitler himself showed up to watch his first ever soccer game, although Germany’s quarter-final defeat to Norway ensured it would also be his last. In a problematic tournament which reflected the political unrest off the field, Italy brought Olympic Gold back to Europe with a 2-1 win over Austria.
Interrupted by World War II, the Olympics returned with London 1948. Although the host nation was thwarted by Yugoslavia in the semi-final, a Brit did end up with a gold medal. English-born George Raynor managed a Sweden team that featured three brothers (Gunnar, Bertil and Knut Nordahl) to a tournament victory.
Guided by the legendary Ferenc Puskás, the Hungarian side nicknamed the Magic Magyars announced their arrival on the world stage in 1952 with a gold medal winning run which included a remarkable 5-5 draw against the Soviet Union. Elsewhere, Great Britain suffered one of the all-time Olympic shocks with a 5-3 defeat against minnows Luxembourg and Yugoslavia ran out 10-1 winners against an Indian side who for the second consecutive Games played entirely barefoot.
Hosts Australia entered the soccer fray in 1956 and acquitted themselves well with a 2-0 win against Japan and a narrow defeat to a this-time boot-clad India. But with the reigning champions and numerous other countries pulling out over the Soviet Union’s response to the Hungarian Revolution, the smallest tournament since 1912 was perhaps inevitably won by the Red Army.
In the final at Rome 1960, Yugoslavia (who had earned silver medals in each of the three previous Olympics) finally got the chance to belt out their national anthem when they beat Denmark 3-1. They then had to settle for sixth place at Tokyo 1964 in a tournament marred by the tragedy at a qualifying match between Peru and Argentina in which 328 fans lost their lives.
After beating Czechoslovakia in the 1964 final, Hungary became only the third team to successfully defend their Olympic title with a convincing 4-1 victory over Bulgaria at Mexico City 1968. The two-time champions were given a helping hand by their reckless opponents, who finished the game with just eight men. But the Bulgarians – whose fans also threw cushions onto the pitch in protest – weren’t the only team to lose their cool during a rowdy tournament. Two Ghanaians were banned from the game for 12 months after physically attacking the French referee during the African side’s 5-3 defeat to Israel, while Guatemala and Thailand both had a man dismissed following a brawl on the pitch during their group stage encounter.
Hungary very nearly made it three on the trot in 1972, but were foiled in the final (famously played in gale force winds) by first-time winners Poland. Host nation East Germany, who had beaten their Western neighbors in the quarter final, shared the bronze with the Soviets in an Olympic first, but picked up the gold four years later at the first of three consecutive Games blighted by political boycotts.
The most famous no-show was, of course, USA in 1980, and alongside the likes of fellow Olympic soccer regulars Argentina, Norway and Egypt, their absence was felt at a depleted tournament featuring just nine teams. But the Soviet Union (the host nation), whose invasion of Afghanistan forced two dozen nations to withdraw in protest, failed to capitalize on the weakened field. Instead, it was Czechoslovakia who emerged victorious with a 1-0 win over East Germany.
Along with the previous two winners, the Soviets then pulled out of Los Angeles 1984 over security fears, leaving Yugoslavia as the sole representative from an Eastern Bloc that had monopolized the gold since 1952. France finally ended this domination by beating Yugoslavia in the semis and then Brazil in front of a record-breaking crowd at the Rose Bowl in the final. But the tournament was perhaps most notable for allowing professionals into the fold for the first time, albeit only those with five or less international caps and specifically in the case of South Americans and Europeans, no World Cup experience.
There was another major revision to the laws following the Soviets’ triumphant return at Seoul 1988. When Italy kicked off against the USA in the opening game at Barcelona 1992, the Olympic soccer event had largely transformed into a youth tournament, with only three players over the age of 23 allowed in each team. Boasting a youthful Pep Guardiola, Spain worked the rule change to their advantage and became the first hosts since Belgium in 1920 to win gold.
Atlanta 1996 proved to be historic in more ways than one. Living up to their Super Eagles nickname, Nigeria became the first African side to win gold after overcoming Brazil with a sensational 4-3 semi-final victory and then Argentina in a nearly-as-thrilling 3-2 final. Even more significantly, women’s soccer was finally introduced into the Games, with USA beating PR China to the gold in a repeat of the 1995 World Cup’s third-place play off.
In Sydney 2000, Cameroon ensured the gold remained in Africa by knocking off Spain in a gripping final that was ultimately decided by penalty shootout. The women’s final proved to be almost as eventful, with the USA snatching a last-minute equalizer only for Norway to run out 3-2 winners with an extra-time golden goal.
Six members of USA’s losing side made up for their heartbreak four years later when they beat Brazil 2-1 in the final, while Kate Markgraf played her third consecutive final and second gold medal-winning match when the same two sides met once again in Beijing. In the men’s game, a young Carlos Tevez scored eight goals to help Argentina secure their first gold medal in any sport since Athens 1952, while Lionel Messi, who had to fight Barcelona to allow him to compete, was part of the side which retained the medal in 2008.
Team GB, controversially minus London Olympics advocate David Beckham, returned to the Games in 2012. But it was Mexico who took the glory in the men’s tournament. Following an astonishing 4-3 victory over Canada in the semis, a dominant USA side grabbed their fourth gold medal in five Olympics.