Summer Olympics Football
The sport of football has had a long and complicated history at the Summer Olympics. Prior to 1930, the Olympics football tournament was considered the premier football competition in the world. With the creation of the World Cup, however, the Olympics began to lose their luster. Though the tournament has seen several major changes since then -- such as allowing professionals into the fray -- its status remained relatively unchanged.
Winners and medalists
All the winners and silver and bronze medalist through the years of the men's Summer Olympics Football.
|1964||Hungary||Czechoslovakia||United Team of Germany*|
|1944||The Olympic Games were cancelled due to the WWII|
|1940||The Olympic Games were cancelled due to the WWII|
|1932||No football competition was held|
|1916||The Olympic Games were cancelled due to the WWI|
|1904||Canada||USA (I)‡||USA (II)‡|
|1896||No football competition was held|
The inaugural Olympic Games in 1896 didn’t include a football competition. However, several sources claimed that the Olympics did contain an unofficial football tournament that saw a team representing Athens lose to a team representing Smyrna (Izmir). Another source states that this was an error that was later repeated in other texts and that no such tournament took place.
The first football tournament took place four years later, in 1900. The contestants included three club sides: Club Français from Paris, Upton Park from Great Britain, and Université de Bruxelles representing students from the Free University of Brussels. In the first of two games held, Upton Park had little trouble defeating Club Français and earning the gold medal. In the second-place match, Club Français came back from behind to defeat Université de Bruxelles 6-2.
The 1904 edition of the tournament also featured three sides: Christian Brothers College and St. Rose Parish from the host city St. Louis and Galt F.C. representing Canada. The tournament was stretched to several months, with Galt F.C. earning a gold medal by defeating both American teams with an aggregate score of 11-0. Though the 1900 and 1904 tournaments are recognized by the IOC, FIFA doesn’t consider them official events.
In 1908, the tournament included national sides for the first time. The six official contestants were Great Britain (as the host nation), France A, France B, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands. In the final match, Great Britain defeated Denmark 2-0. The Danish team included Sophus Nielsen, who set an Olympic record by scoring 10 goals in a 17-1 victory over France in the first round, as well as the famous mathematician Harald Bohr.
At the next tournament, the number of participants jumped to 11. The competition adopted a cup format, with the better-ranked teams getting a bye in the round of 16. The seven teams that were eliminated in the first two rounds participated in a consolation tournament, which saw Hungary emerge victorious. In the main bracket, the final saw a rematch between Great Britain and Denmark, with the British players claiming another gold medal.
A field of controversy
Following a break due to World War I, the Olympics returned in 1920. This time around, the football tournament consisted of 14 nations, including Egypt as the first non-European country to take part. Two-time defending champions Great Britain also featured, despite withdrawing from FIFA in protest of Germany, Austria, and Hungary not being rejected from the competition. In a shocking outcome, they were defeated by Norway 1-3 in the first round.
The 1920 tournament is best remembered for being the only time that an international final match was abandoned. This came to pass in the 40th minute, when Czechoslovakian players walked off the field after several perceived slights by the 65-year-old referee John Lewis and his linesmen. They were subsequently disqualified from the tournament. Spain and the Netherlands went on to claim the silver and bronze medals, respectively.
The South American dream
In 1924, the tournament expanded even further to reach a total of 24 nations from four confederations. Uruguay became the first nation to represent South America in the competition, and went on to cruise to its first gold medal with a total goal difference of 20-2. They were led by the 18-year-old Pedro Petrone, who was the tournament’s top goalscorer with 7 goals and remains the youngest football player to win an Olympic gold medal.
By 1928, it became clear that the football tournament had grown too popular for the Olympics. Up to this point, the Olympics only allowed amateur players to register for the tournament, which became an issue as professional football associations became commonplace. This led to FIFA planning out a new international tournament known as the World Cup. A few days before the Olympic tournament started, it was decided that the first World Cup will take place in 1930.
As a result of this chain of events, the 1928 tournament was the last time that the Olympics hosted a premier football competition. The tournament itself was very competitive, with two South American countries -- Uruguay and Argentina -- reaching the finals. Following a 1-1 draw in the first match, the tie went to a replay three days later, which Uruguay won 2-1. These two gold medals played a big role in Uruguay being chosen to host the first World Cup.
After the World Cup
Following the relative success of the 1930 World Cup, FIFA decided to ramp up interest for the new competition by excluding football from the 1932 Olympics. The football tournament returned in 1936 at the insistence of German organizers, with Italy winning the gold medal by defeating Austria 2-1. The tournament was fraught with controversy, such as Peru refusing to replay their quarter-finals match against Austria and withdrawing from the tournament.
With professionalism continuing to spread throughout the world, the gap between the Olympic tournament and the World Cup widened further. This situation favored Eastern European countries, where most top athletes retained their amateur status while being sponsored by their states. Out of 28 Olympic football medals given out during the following four decades, Eastern European nations claimed 23.
This streak ended at the 1984 Olympics, with the IOC finally allowing professional players to take part in the tournament. However, FIFA continued to insist on the World Cup having priority over the Olympics. The IOC and FIFA eventually agreed on a compromise: nations that were part of FIFA and CONMEBOL could only field players that hadn’t played in a World Cup, whereas the other nations could field their strongest sides.
In 1992, the ruleset was updated by stating that all players must be under 23 years old. Four years later, the IOC allowed all nations to add three over-23 year old players to their teams. This unusual format led to the emergence of African nations, with Nigeria and Cameroon winning gold medals in 1996 and 2000. Since 1996, the Olympics are also hosting the women’s tournament, which has no age restrictions and is on equal footing with the women’s World Cup.
As the Olympic tournament became less relevant over the years, many traditionally strong national teams failed to appear in it. For example, Uruguay’s two titles in 1924 and 1928 were followed by an 84-year absence from the tournament before they returned in 2012. Brazil hadn’t won a gold medal until 2016, having failed to qualify for the tournament several times. Italy has the most appearances (15), but has also won Olympic gold just once.
Great Britain featured at the tournament until 1972, at which point the English FA abolished the distinction between amateurs and professionals. Though professionals were finally allowed in 1984, the four Home Nations (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) didn’t want to create a precedent by sending a united British team. In 2012, the British team was supposed to field only English players, but several Welsh players were eventually included as well.
These are the nations, based on the men's tournaments, with the most olympic titles and medals in total (1900-2020):
Only nations with gold medals are included in the list. Worth mention as well is Netherlands with three bronze medals.