September 28, 2021

How the Olympic Games played an underappreciated role in world football’s development

The opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics takes place on July 23, but the sporting action begins two days earlier. As well as softball, the football competition gets under way on July 21 with a women’s match between Great Britain and Chile. The following day, the men kick their tournament off with Egypt vs Spain in Sapporo.

Football is the most popular sport in the world, but it tends to be overshadowed by the likes of athletics, gymnastics and swimming at the Summer Olympics. That is understandable. Football has its own major events such as the World Cup, the European Championship and the Copa America. Winning Olympic gold is a fine achievement, but it is not the pinnacle of the sport.

Still, the Olympics played an oft-underappreciated role in the development of global football, particularly in the men’s game. It was launched in 1900, the second edition of the modern games, but only properly got going in London eight years later. Six teams competed in the 1908 Olympics, with Great Britain taking gold, Denmark scooping silver and the Netherlands claiming bronze. All players were amateurs, but that was not a huge issue as football had not yet been professionalised in the vast majority of countries.

There was no Olympics in 1916 due to the outbreak of the First World War, and when it returned in 1920 football really took off. Fourteen teams took part in Antwerp, all of them European with the exception of Egypt, and host nation Belgium won gold. 

Unbeknownst to many on one side of the Atlantic, South American football had made great strides over the previous decade or so. The charge was not led by Brazil or Argentina, but by the relatively small neighbouring country of Uruguay. La Celeste won gold in 1924 and 1928, beating Yugoslavia (7-0), the United States (3-0), France (5-1), the Netherlands (2-1 and 2-0), Switzerland (3-0), Germany (4-1), Italy (3-2) and Argentina (2-1) along the way.

Uruguay did just defeat many European powers; in some cases they demolished them. The gold medal match in 1928 pitted them against Argentina, and was only settled after a replay. Uruguay’s dazzling, art-like style of play was unlike anything that had been seen in Europe at that time. The likes of Pedro Petrone, Jose Leandro Andrade and Hector Scarone were hailed as the stars of their time.

By the late 1920s, more and more countries were professionalising football. Austria and Hungary did so in 1924, Italy and Spain followed suit in 1926, and Mexico clambered aboard in 1927. FIFA began to realise that the Olympics, with its amateur-only policy, was potentially hindering world football. In 1929 FIFA member Henri Delaunay proposed a new competition for the sport. The inaugural edition of the World Cup was held in – and won by – Uruguay the following year.

The World Cup has long outstripped the Olympics in terms of importance, but football is still an intriguing event alongside athletics, swimming, gymnastics and the rest. The squads are now made up primarily of players under the age of 23, with three exceptions permitted per nation. Football will not dominate Olympic headlines at Tokyo, but the summer games played a huge role in the sport’s development.

Greg Lea

Greg Lea

Greg Lea is a freelance football journalist who specialises in the Premier League. The former editor of The Set Pieces, he's been published by FourFourTwo, ESPN and the Guardian.

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