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The 1908 Olympics: When organised international football first kicked-off

Conor Patric Heffernan takes us back to the 1908 Olympics, the first Olympics where football gained popularity among the masses. While previous attempts in 1900 and 1904 failed to attract attention, the 1908 Olympics proved to be otherwise.


In 1896, the Modern Olympic games officially kicked off in Athens, Greece. It was a seminal moment in international sporting history and one that still affects us today. What if Pierre de Coubertin and his cohort of idealistic supporters had given up on the Olympic dream? What if stars such as Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali and Usain Bolt were never given the opportunity to showcase their skills in front of the world? It’s a thought too unsettling to hold for too long. Yes the 1896 Olympics were a landmark moment in more ways than one…there is just one problem however. There was no football in 1896. In fact, football was most likely unheard of by many people in Greece in 1896. The beautiful game was still in its infancy in England and had not yet become the global phenomena it is today. By 1896 it had hardly become a regional phenomena.

It took nearly a decade and a half for an officially sanctioned football event to be held at the Olympic Games. At the behest of football organisers, informal football matches had been held at the 1900 and 1904 games, but few fans or journalists paid attention to them. In Paris 1900, a long defunct English team from East London, Upton Park, played alongside two other teams and won the gold medal with a four-nil win over a French representative side. It was a humble beginning for football at the Olympics as few had bothered to turn up for the matches. 1904 was hardly much better with only three sides competing with two sides coming from the US and one from Canada. Very few people cared when F.C. Galt won the gold in football that year.

Just as it looked like football was going to die a slow death at the Olympics, an opportunity presented itself. 1908 saw London host the event for the first time and England was the home of football, organisers made a push for European teams to enter an amateur football team. Their efforts were not in vain when it became apparent that eight teams would enter the competition. Two came from France and the rest from Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Hungary, Bohemia and lastly the hosts, Great Britain. Closer to the games Hungary and Bohemia withdrew but it hardly mattered to the organisers. Six teams was a 100% increase from the previous games. Even better, the British public got behind the games. For the first time at the Olympics, there was interest in football.

It didn’t hurt either when the games became goal-fests.

Across six matches, there was an average of eight goals per game, which was not a bad way to endear yourself to the locals. The most dangerous team of the tournament was neither Great Britain, nor France as one might expect. In fact, the most dangerous team of the tournament was none other than the high flying Danes. Denmark had won the gold medal at an unofficial Olympic tournament held in 1906 in Athens and were highly tipped to win the games in London that year. Coached by Englishman Charles Williams, a former goalkeeper for Arsenal, Manchester City and Spurs, the Danes didn’t disappoint. Their opening match saw Denmark despatch one of the two French sides in a comfortable 9-0 win. The hero that day was Danish forward Vilhelm Wolfhagen who managed to notch a respectable four goals. The gauntlet had been thrown down to the hosts Great Britain but the English were unperturbed by the Danes. They responded to the Danish victory with their own thumping victory over Sweden in which the hosts put 12 past the Swedes. Remarkably, local newspaper reports suggest that the scoreline should have been higher if not for the heroics of the Swedish goalkeeper. These goal-fests meant that unlike in previous Olympic tournaments, a buzz was beginning to emerge around football.

In the semi-finals of the tournament, Great Britain despatched the Netherlands in a relatively low-scoring 4-0 victory. And indeed, a four goal victory was something of a come down following the scoreline of the previous rounds. Luckily fans were in for a treat in the other semi-final, which saw Denmark meet the other French side of the tournament. Few expected the Danes to notch another nine goals against their Gallic opponents as the French side who made it to the semi-final were generally regarded as the better of the two from their country at the 1908 games. You will still see them referred to as France A in historical accounts of the game. 1,000 fans from every corner of the world jammed into London’s Shepard’s Bush Stadium expecting a closely fought match.

The reality was anything but.

3 minutes into the game and Denmark were one nil up thanks to Sophus Nielsen. Nicknamed Krølben by his team mates on account of his Garrincha-esque knees, Nielsen was to be a thorn in France’s side all game. Less than a minute later, Sophus had put the Danes two nil up. The French were shell shocked and matters only got worse. By half-time, the scoreline was Denmark 6, France 1. When the teams lined out for the second half, Charles Williams’ side sensed blood. The French were there for the taking and Denmark were only too happy to oblige.

When the referee blew his whistle to signal the end of the game, few could believe what they had witnessed. Denmark had put 17 goals past France, with Sophus Nielsen scoring ten goals, the first player ever to do so in an international game and thereby setting a record that would stand until 2001 when Australia’s Archie Thompson put 13 goals past American Samoa in the infamous 31-0 game. It was the highest ever defeat for Les Bleus and one even more embarrassing than their 15-0 defeat to an England Amateur side in 1906. This time the defeat had been showcased in front of the eyes of the sporting world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the French weren’t too happy about the matter.

Due to play Sweden in a play-off for the bronze medal, France instead took the decision to return home as fast as possible. It was an incredible decision to pull out of a third place play off and one that earned the criticism of several local journalists. John Cameroon, himself an ex-English footballer and at the time a journalist at the 1908 tournament, wrote of the French in the aftermath of their retreat.

“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.”

Cameroon ended his article by speculating about the future of French football and writing that he doubted France would go anywhere in the game. Two European Championships and one World Cup later, you could criticize Cameroon for being too quick to write of the French. But really, off the back of a 17-1 defeat to Denmark, would anyone expect a team to bounce back?

What happened then to the resilient and free-flowing Danish team?

Loved by the English public thanks to their incredible record of 26 goals in only two matches, many expected and even hoped that Denmark would go on and win their second gold medal in two years. Unfortunately for Charles William’s side, the goals dried up when it came to the final. Denmark lost 2-0 to the hosts Great Britain in front of 8,000 ecstatic home fans at Shepard’s Bush Park.

The high scoring Danes travelled home with the silver medal but to Danish fans it mattered little. Denmark had made footballing history at the games. Granted it wasn’t the type of history that would be taught in France but a type of history that would remain a fond memory in the hearts of the 1,000 fans who saw Denmark put 17 goals past an opponent.

Written by Conor Patric Heffernan


Conor Heffernan

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