The Olympic Football Tournament features top soccer players, especially in the under-23 age bracket. The success of the Olympics inspired Federation Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, to launch the much bigger quadrennial World Cup in 1930. FIFA provides technical direction and control for Olympic football, which in the modern era requires winning qualifying games to receive a spot.
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The first Olympics, held in Athens in 1896, did not feature football, which is known as soccer in the United States. While the sport at the time was spreading like wildfire from its birthplace in England to garner huge popularity in the rest of the British Isles, continental Europe and the Americas, football still was not organized at the international level. In 1900, football appeared as an Olympic exhibition sport--and the first team sport ever--at the second Olympiad in Paris. Football continued as an exhibition sport at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. That year also saw the founding of FIFA by seven nations, giving an essential boost to the future of football as part of the Olympics.
In 1908, football debuted at the Olympic Games as a medal sport for men. That year, host nation Britain won the gold medal over Denmark; the Netherlands came in third and Sweden, fourth. Seven countries entered the Olympics, and two dropped out--leaving six teams, including two from France and one each from Hungary and Bohemia. Britain and Denmark rolled through their first-round matches, with the Danes besting France’s B team 9-0 and Britain walloping Sweden 12-1. Denmark next recorded a historically high score line of 17-1 over France A. Denmark’s Sophus Erhard Nielson scored three goals in the opening 6 minutes, toward a game total of six. England repeated in 1912 as the gold medalist.
The Olympic Football Tournament debuted as a women’s sport in 1996, with eight teams. Team USA, packed with stars including Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain and Briana Scurry, put on a gold-medal show to packed stadiums in Atlanta. Norway won in 2000 in Sydney. The field expanded to 10 teams at the Athens Games in 2004 and 12 in Beijing in 2008; the U.S. team won both competitions.
Football was part of each Olympiad except the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, due to a dispute over allowing professionals to play. The issue of professional player participation arose again after World War II, as professional football grew and meant that the best players were not eligible to compete in the Olympics. The policy loosened in 1984, once again in Los Angeles, where professionals who had not been in the World Cup could play. In 1992 in Barcelona, the policy opened up so that male professionals were allowed if they were under the age of 23, with the exception of three over-age players. For women, the Olympics allows professional players without age restrictions.