I routinely follow soccer through sites like The Guardian, FoxSoccer, GiveMeFootball, as well as the Telegraph. Most of the writers I follow are English. I have found a general disinterest in the football tournament at the Games – a sort of apathy about the games that seems wholly out of context for the English writers. Writers criticize the organization of the football, the quality of the football, officiating, etc. I think it is interesting to know that soccer and the Olympics go way back…
Soccer was played as an Exhibition sport in the first Olympic games in 1896 in Athens. While the standard bearers of the day, the English, did not participate in full (or at all), an unbalanced exhibition was at least a part of the Games. That is more than you can say for many other sports.
Soccer continued in that role and, beginning in Paris in 1924, started attracted more competitive teams (just not the Brits – who, just as they turn their nose to it today, turned their nose to it (and any international or continental (Europe)) back then — at least they are consistent). To be fair, some British Amateurs did participate in the 1908 & 1912 games (winning) and participating in 1920.
The shock of the Paris 1924 tournament was an outfit from a tiny country in South America – Uruguay. While they were unheard of, they walked through the event winning 7-0 against Yugoslavia, 3-0 against the USA (their first international tournament), and beating France 5-1 to qualify for the Final against the Swiss (where 60,000 people attended). They defeated the Swiss 3-0 to win the title. Because the Germans, English, and the team that perceived itself the best in South America at the time (Argentina) did not play in 1924, the 1928 Games would prove the true test.
But, in the 1924 games, consider how the Uruguayans style of play was described:
“The principle quality of the victors was marvellous virtuosity in receiving the ball, controlling it and using it. They have such a complete technique that they also have the necessary leisure to note the position of the partners and team-mates. The do not stand still waiting for a pass. They are on the move, away from the markers, to make it easy for their team-mates…They have pushed towards the perfection the art of the feint and swerve and the dodge, but they also know how to play directly and quickly. They are not only ball jugglers. They created a beautiful football, elegant but at the same time varied, rapid, powerful, effective.
Quoted in The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer, by David Goldblatt (page 245). He researched the material from a french writer, Gabriel Hanot, an editor of L’Equipe (a french sporting publication at the time).
The interesting thing about that quote is that it seems to describe the Spanish team today. On to 1928…
Uruguay repeated their success in the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. This time, more teams participated, including Argentina. Goldblatt refers to the 1928 Olympic Games triumph, where they defeated Argentina in the final, the first true World Championship. (page 247). Over 60,000 people watched the final. Olympic organizers understood that football was the main attraction of the games. FIFA figured it out too.
Because of the popularity of the Games, FIFA met and decided on a World Cup model, to be played every four years. The first World Cup was played in 1930 and Uruguay was chosen as the host country, where they won it as well (again over Argentina and this time in front of 80,000). The World Cup has continued ever four years, with some suspensions because of World War II, until the present. What happened to Uruguay? Well, when the market collapsed in 1930, they (along with many other South American countries) traded in their democratic-socialist style regime for military dictatorship. They lost everything. And, for soccer, this country of 3 million did not make another appearance until the 1950 World Cup, hosted by Brazil. The Brazilians, by then, were the heavy favorites. Uruguay made it to the final and upset Brazil 2-1 — a heartbreaking loss for Brazil.
So…when you consider Olympic football today, set aside the marketing power of EPL and Serie A and La Liga and enjoy the show. Know that what you are watching has a deeper history and, in fact, an original history of hosting international soccer tournaments. If you are an English fan, enjoy rooting for Aaron Ramsey, Giggs, and other players not usually on the Three Lions. That is another story — Great Britain competed in the games, not just England!