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100 Years Of Olympic Football

The Men’s Olympic Football Tournament begins in China PR on 7 August. FIFA’s oldest competition is celebrating its centenary in 2008 with renewed vigour as more and more stars set their sights on a medal.
Even before the Olympic Football Tournaments Beijing 2008 have kicked off, the game itself is already a winner. Football has long been a crowd-puller at the Olympic Games and regularly outstrips traditional sports such as athletics, basketball or swimming in terms of attendance figures. Perhaps these games will even set new records for a modern Olympics. A total of 1.4 million spectators – more than 40,000 per match or matchday – flocked to the stadiums at the games in Los Angeles in 1984 and Atlanta in 1996, while in excess of 1.8 million packed the giant arenas of the former Soviet Union in 1980.
Things -were much different in the early days. Only 2,000 spectators witnessed the opening match of the first official Olympic Football Tournament to be held under the aegis of FIFA, in London’s Shepherd’s Bush Stadium in 1908. On 19 October 1908, more than two decades before the launch of the FIFA World Cup™ in Uruguay in 1930, a French B team conceded nine goals to Denmark. The balance of power between The Football Association and FIFA at the time is starkly evident from the Rules and Regulations of Competition: “The Competition shall be under the control and management of the Council of The Football Association (England) … [and] shall be played according to the Laws of the Game as promulgated by the Football Association (England) and accepted by the Federation Internationale de Football Association.”
Football had featured in the games as an exhibition sport in 1900 and 1904 before becoming the first team sport to be included in the Olympic programme. The 1908 tournament was viewed with suspicion by some, not least because according to the regulations, participating countries were allowed to register four teams each. Only France made use of this unusual provision, which was abolished after 1912. Not that it did them much good: after the French B team had gone out to Denmark without so much as a whimper, the Danes beat their A team 17-1, to this day the heaviest loss in Olympic football history.
Great Britain romped to victory as hosts in 1908 and repeated the feat in Stockholm in 1912, with both tournaments mainly contested by European teams. Two-time gold-medal winner Vivian Woodward of Tottenham Hotspur, an architect by trade and a passionate tennis player -and thus strictly an amateur footballer – was the star of the first tournament. The Olympic Football Tournament quickly evolved into a global tournament in the 1920s, a decade dominated by the great Uruguayan team in Paris in 1924 and Amsterdam in 1928. Global interest and the dispute over amateurism culminated in the launch of the FIFA World Cup™, first staged in Uruguay in 1930, where Scarone, Cea, Andrade and co. shone once again, this time as hosts and inaugural world champions.
The Olympic Football Tournament of 1928 marked a turning point in the game after two decades of continuous growth and rapidly increasing popularity. Turbulent years were to follow, not least because of the unstable political situation. The tournament was abandoned due to the ongoing dispute about amateur status, while the 1936 tournament in Berlin, like the Games in general, was overshadowed by the national-socialist agenda in the host country. Austria benefited from a questionable decision by FIFA to replay the quarter-final it had originally lost to Peru and went on to reach the final, where it was defeated only in extra time by an Italian team featuring many winners of the 1934 FIFA World Cup™. In an ironic twist of fate, Austria began a 12-year absence from the international scene within a year of winning the silver medal, as its football association and national team also lost their independence following the “Anschluss” with Germany.
The history of the Olympic Football Tournament resumes in 1948, once again in London. Sweden, another of the leading contenders in the pre-war years, claimed victory in a team featuring well-known names such as Gunnar Gren, Niels Liedholm and Gunnar Nordahl and his two brothers. However, there was to be no stopping teams from Eastern Europe in the eight Olympic tournaments that followed, a period spanning more than 30 years.
Between 1952 and 1980, all the gold medallists and another eight medal winners came from behind the Iron Curtain. Only Sweden (bronze, 1952), Denmark (silver, 1960) and rank outsiders Japan (bronze, 1968) were able to break the Eastern European teams’ stranglehold. Yet the list of winners during this period was anything but monotonous. As well as three-time champions Hungary (whose first victory was with the “Golden Team” starring Ferenc Puskas), the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Poland, the German DR and Czechoslovakia also managed to top the podium during this period.
Since most of the players taking part also formed the backbone of their respective national teams, the Olympic Football Tournaments have long been graced with the world’s star players. Lev Yashin, Oleg Blokhin and Rinat Dasayev were as integral to the Soviet team as Bene and Faszekas to the Hungarian team or Tomaszewski, Deyna, Lato and Lubanski to the great Polish generation.
World football’s governing body and the International Olympic Committee launched a new era in Olympic football in the early 1980s by changing the Eligibility Code to allow teams from all continents except South America and Europe to field players with FIFA World Cup™ experience. However, it was two teams unable to benefit from this new regulation, France and Brazil, who went on to reach the final in Los Angeles in 1984 (in the absence of three previous Eastern European finalists), albeit with players of the quality of Guy Lacombe and Carlos Dunga in their ranks.
Four years later, the Soviet Union won another gold medal, its last, before the Olympic Football Tournament adopted FIFA’s age group strategy in 1992 and became an U-23 competition. Spain won gold – and remain the last European team to do so, despite the Old Continent’s previous domination of the competition. The decision to allow three older players to take part as of 1996 boosted the tournament’s appeal still further and restored the glory it had enjoyed 75 years before as a highly prestigious global gathering. This is evident as much in the names of the winners – Nigeria, Cameroon, Argentina – and their stars as in the silver and bronze medallists. The failure of perennial favourites Brazil to add Olympic gold to their prodigious collection of titles to date lends added interest to the tournament and leads us on nicely to what will surely be one of the biggest talking points of the 2008 tournament in Beijing.
In the men’s tournament, Argentina will meet the same Group A opponents in Serbia and Cote d’lvoire as their full international counterparts did at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™. These three teams will be joined by Australia, who were grouped with the defending champions in Athens in 2004. The “Socceroos” have once again qualified for the finals, this time via the Asian preliminary competition. All in all, no easy challenge for Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and co.
The first match in Group B will be contested between European U-21 champions the Netherlands, competing in an Olympic Football Tournament for the first time since 1952, and Nigeria, Olympic champions in 1996. Japan and in particular the USA will provide stiff opposition in this group.
In Group C, hosts China would appear to have negotiable opponents in Belgium (Olympic champions in Antwerp in 1920) and New Zealand. The big question is whether Brazil, who claimed silver in 1984 and 1988 and bronze in 1996, can finally get their hands on gold and augment their impressive trophy collection. The weight of expectation on coach Dunga and his team is huge, and will be even greater following the triumph of arch rivals Argentina.
Finally, in Group D, Cameroon, Olympic champions in 2000, are seen as the main challengers to Italy, who will be looking to add another medal to the bronze they won in Athens in 2004. Korea DPR and in particular Honduras, surprise conquerors of the USA in the final of the CONCACAF preliminary competition, have realistic chances of causing an upset.