• Rewind to 1908

Great Britain's first home Olympic football adventure

Jon Carter
July 26, 2012
Members of Great Britain's 1908 football team © Getty Images

The beginning of the 20th century heralded the start of sport's global domination. Indeed, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which had been founded in 1892 by French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin, began to organise the desires of many for a sporting event that would have worldwide appeal. The result was the very first Olympic Games in 1896, although it took another 12 years before football began to take root.

Drawing very much on the history of ancient Greeks for their choice of activities in the Games, the International Olympic Committee prioritised the track-and-field events over anything else and football was regarded as an exhibition sport that would have little impact. Early records from 1896 indicate that, while the competition was not viewed highly, there were still teams from Denmark, Athens and the Turkish city of Izmir - with the only recorded result a 15-0 victory for the Danish XI against the Izmir XI.

The Games in Paris in 1900 did not fare that much better in pushing the game forward. Historian David Goldblatt wrote in The Ball Is Round: "The matches were a haplessly organised and almost invisible side show to the Universal Exhibition to which they had been attached." Great Britain's representative, amateur side Upton Park FC, headed to the Vélodrome de Vincennes and joined two others: France's Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques (founded by de Coubertin) and Belgian university side Université Libre de Bruxelles.

Despite the fact that only two demonstration matches were held between the three sides, and no medals were awarded, the IOC was keen to reconcile the early Olympic Games with the modern award scheme and therefore credited Upton Park FC with the gold medal as they beat the USFSA XI 4-0; in the other game, the defeated French won 6-2 against the Belgians.

Four years later, football had not yet taken hold of the public consciousness and Europe's involvement was hindered by the fact that the 1904 Games were to be held in St Louis. Deterred by 3,000 miles of ocean and a further long-haul railway trip to Missouri, the only teams to enter were Canada's Galt Football Club and American duo St. Rose Parish and Christian Brothers College. The winners, and subsequent gold medallists, were Galt.

The arrival of the 1908 Games in London signalled a sea-change in both organisation and competitors. Football was given the boost of being included as a full Olympic sport instead of being put on merely for a few spectators, and amateur teams from England, France, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands participated.

Originally, eight teams had put themselves forward to play in the competition, but Hungary and Bohemia (now located in the Czech Republic) withdrew - the former for financial reasons and the latter because they lost their FIFA membership - while France were allowed to compete with both an A and B team.

FIFA's history of the tournament reveals: "In the very first official Olympic football match before an estimated 2,000 spectators at White City Stadium on 19 October 1908, Denmark rolled to a 9-0 win over France B as forward Vilhelm Wolfhagen scored four times."

John Cameron, a former player who wrote the 1908 book Association Football and How to Play It, noted in his report on the tournament: "France sent two teams, and one of these met Denmark on Monday; but the result only served to demonstrate that our French friends are never likely to do much at our winter game (...) What struck one about the French side was that they were too polite, and too fond of smoking the eternal cigarette. They puffed away right up to the start of the match, and in the interval had another smoke, finishing up the day by repeating the practice. How different with our sides! Why, when I had an important match on, I did not smoke for a day or two before or a day after; but our friends do not believe in this. It was impossible from their two displays to believe that the game will ever make much headway in France."

In the other preliminary round game, Great Britain registered a 12-1 triumph over Sweden, but the Scandinavians responded gracefully, as Cameron describes: "One of the most delightful episodes of the week was the way in which, after their defeat, the Swedes turned round and gave three hearty cheers for the English side, who appeared quite taken by surprise, and responded in a very half-hearted manner."

Without playing a game, Netherlands advanced to the semi-finals to face the British. The dark days of the amateur game in the country at that time belied the prestige that would come from Johan Cruyff et al sixty years later, but Cameron was impressed even if though they lost 4-0 thanks to a Hubert Stapley hat-trick.

"What surprised everybody was the excellent form shown by the Dutchmen against the United Kingdom, and it came as a distinct surprise," he wrote. "During the first half it looked a very open matter. The visitors had a splendid goalkeeper, and a very good half-back division, and had the Holland side been as good in front of goal as in the mid-field they would probably have won... It must be remembered that for forty minutes the Dutchmen kept out their opponents, and this in itself was an excellent performance. Hague, Rotterdam, Dordrecht, and Delft have all excellent clubs, and there appears to be a very bright future in store for the game."

France A had also qualified for the semi-finals without kicking a ball in anger, but they had rather a tough time losing 17-1 to the Danes in the highest scoring Olympic match of all time. FIFA's history of the game reads: "Wolfhagen scored four goals for the second consecutive match, but his performance was dwarfed by Sophus Nielsen, who found the back of the net on ten occasions." That was a record, albeit one that was equalled by Germany's Gottfried Fuchs in 1912, but it has yet to be surpassed and probably never will be.

Netherlands beat Sweden 2-0 in the Bronze Medal match after the French had declined to participate following their previous round's humiliation, and 8,000 fans turned up at the White City Stadium to watch Great Britain record a 2-0 victory over Denmark in the final.

The official report on the game read: "It was the general opinion that though the United Kingdom won by two goals to none, even this slight difference in score rather flattered the winners, who did not often show real international form. Denmark, on the other hand, displayed the greatest vigour and determination, with far more pace and dash than they had against France, and they played much better together than our own men.

"K. Middelboe, at centre-half, fed his forwards with persistent accuracy. The first English goal was scored when Drescher slipped in the Danish net and was unable to attempt to stop Chapman, not long after the start. After this the Danish halves continually spoilt the English attacks and prevented them getting anything like a combined movement. Lindgreen had got past everyone but Bailey when Hawkes just stopped him in time. Soon after, Drescher made a clever save from Stapley. Purnell's goal was disallowed for offside play. Woodward was too carefully watched to be able to shoot.

The stadium at White City © Getty Images

"After half-time Denmark started with a vigorous rush, and for some time had the best of the game, though their forwards did not shoot well when they had a chance. Bailey was equal to his work, and had more of it than he liked. After twenty minutes, Woodward scored for England with a magnificent shot quite out of Drescher's reach.

"The Danes seemed only inspired to even greater efforts by their second reverse, and Lindgreen was loudly cheered for a long run which was only ended without a score when Bailey threw himself full-length at the ball. The game went up and down the field, and Denmark was doing more than her share of pressing when the whistle sounded, and the United Kingdom won a hard-fought game by two to love."

Thanks to Frederick Chapman and Vivian Woodward's goals, the hosts picked up the gold. The tournament was not a complete success, though. Attendances were shockingly low compared to the gate numbers normally registered at matches in the top two English divisions and Cameron wrote: "All through the week the attendances have been so bad that it was almost like looking for the needle in a haystack to find out where the people were."

However, it was the start of something, and the 1908 Games in London blazed the trail for football to become the global phenomenon that it is today: football was here to stay.

What happened next? Great Britain retained their title in 1912 and the football tournament of the Olympic Games reached its peak in the 1920s when it was regarded as the world championship of that time. The introduction of the World Cup in 1930 saw its status diminished, as it remained an amateur game, but by the 1980s professional players were introduced, although still subject to various restrictions - most notably the current insistence that only three players over the age of 23 are allowed to be in a nation's squad.

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