The 1908 Summer Olympic squad.

by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

The London Olympics and the excitement of a British team entering for the first time since 1972 is almost upon us and giving us something different from idle transfer gossip and the John Terry trial to fill the football-less void between the end of the Euros and the beginning of the new season.

The first time the Olympics were held in London was in 1908 also saw the first time that a football tournament was also an official part of the Olympics.  The previous two Olympics had seen football as a demonstration sport but with only club teams taking part.  In Paris, 1900 the long defunct East London team Upton Park took first place, although there were only three teams competing, and they only had one game to play, in which they beat a French representative side 4-0.

This first tournament proper in 1908 saw eight teams entering the competition — two from France and one each from Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Great Britain (who in reality were the English amateur team), Hungary and Bohemia, although the latter two later withdrew, which meant that Netherlands and France (A) were able to reach the semi-finals without playing a game.

The tournament was going to be notable for the number of goals scored, there being an average of 8 per game in the 6 games played.  In the first game, Denmark, who were coached by Englishman Charles Williams who had played in goal for Brentford, Norwich, Woolwich (Arsenal), Tottenham and Manchester City strolled to a 9-0 win over France B with forward Vilhelm Wolfhagen scoring four times. In the other preliminary round game, Great Britain registered a 12-1 triumph over Sweden, a game in which the official Olympic result reported the result could have been greater except for a superb display from the Swedish keeper.  The British player Clyde Purnell of Clapton F.C. scored 4 goals in this game.

Harold Stapley of Glossop North End scored all four for Great Britain in their next game, with the first being a speculative back heeler that was described as trickling over the line, in what was a comparatively low scoring 4-0 win over the Netherlands in the first semi-final. In the other semi the goals were flying in again, as the Danes trounced France A 17-1, still the most goals ever scored in an Olympic match.  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, a record for an international match until that stood until the Australian Archie Thompson scored 13 in 31-0 drubbing of American Samoa in 2001.

France were so humiliated by this result that they went home, refusing to stay to contest the play-off match for the bronze medal, which saw the Netherlands beating their replacements Sweden 2-0.  John Cameron, ex-footballer and journalist, later described the French team as being seriously underprepared for international football, noting 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”.   He doubted if the game himself would ever make headway in the country.

The final match saw 8,000 fans at White City Stadium, which had been built specially for the Olympics, watch Great Britain record a 2-0 victory over Denmark. Frederick Chapman scored in the 20th minute and captain Vivian Woodward of Tottenham Hotspur tallied in the opening minute of the second half, in a game that was reported as being largely dominated by the Danes.  Woodward went onto achieve much fame in the game.  His goalscoring record for the full England team of 29 goals in 23 games lasted until 1958 when Tom Finney netted his 30th, (and last) goal for England.

The British team pulled off the feat of winning the tournament again in 1912, beating Denmark again (with the Netherlands finishing third again).  What are the odds of a third Olympic title this time?