Football as the world knows it dates from 1863. That’s when The Football Association was formed in London for the purpose of framing a set of rules by which all the clubs and schools playing their own versions of ‘football’ could play the game. Uniformity was the aim.
The first international match was played between England and Scotland nine years later, the teams drawing 0-0 before a crowd of around 4,000 in Glasgow. Football was first introduced into the Olympic Games in 1900 in Paris but this was only an exhibition match between the Upton Park Club and a French side which the Londoners won 4-0.
The first official Olympic football tournament, i.e. the first to come under the auspices of FIFA, was held during the London Games of 1908. Great Britain won gold after beating Denmark 2-0 in the Final and then repeated their success in Stockholm four years later, this time defeating the Danes 4-2. When London next hosted the Games, in 1948, GB only reached the semi-finals and it was Sweden who won gold in front of 60,000 fans at Wembley.
A GB team last qualified for the tournament in Rome in 1960. They were eliminated at the Group stage after a 4-3 defeat to Brazil, a 2-2 draw with their Italian hosts and a 3-2 win against Formosa. GB last entered the qualifying competition for the 1972 tournament in West Germany, when a team managed by Charles Hughes beat Bulgaria 1-0 in the first leg of the First Qualifying Round at Wembley (24 March 1971) but lost the second leg 5-0 in Sofia (5 May 1971).
GB lined up at Wembley with this team: John Swannell (Hendon), Paul Fuschillo (Wycombe), Bill Currie (Albion), Ted Powell (Wycombe), Derek Gamblin (Leatherhead), John Payne (Enfield), Roger Day (Slough), Rod Haider (Hendon), Peter Hardcastle (Skelmersdale), Ken Gray (Enfield) and Joe Adams (Slough).
In 1974, The FA Council abolished the official distinction between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ footballers in England. This put an end to the practice of players claiming to be amateur but still being paid by their clubs. At that time the Olympics were only open to amateur sportsmen and women, so the British Associations were no longer able to enter a football team.
The criteria for the eligibility of players, established by FIFA, have changed several times over the years. Professional footballers are now allowed to take part and Olympic teams are now essentially ‘Under-23’ teams but with three overage players permitted. Argentina won the last men’s tournament, beating Nigeria 1-0 in the 2008 Final in Beijing.
Now, as one of the sports of the 2012 Games, Olympic football will be played on British soil for the first time in more than 40 years.
The women’s tournament is contested by full national teams and there are no age restrictions. USA were the first to win gold at the Atlanta Games of 1996, edging China 2-1 in a Final watched by more than 76,000. They picked up silver after losing to Norway four years later and then came back to win in 2004 and 2008, both times against the Brazilians. This year’s 12 Finalists include Great Britain, participating in their first Olympic tournament.