The Forgotten Story of Great Britain at the 1908 Olympic Football Tournament

There is exactly two weeks to go until we see the rather novel sight of Team GB step out onto the pitch to the take their London 2012 bow against Senegal We will finally get to see Ryan Giggs in an international tournament as he captains a handful of fellow Welshmen and young Englishmen in their Union Jack inspired blue strip, hoping to beat more fancied teams to the coveted gold medal.

The rebirth of Team GB at the Olympic football tournament has been a long and torturous process. Since the announcement that Team GB would this year be participating in the football we have seen accusations, recriminations and controversy. The FAs of Scotland, Wales and Ireland threatened a boycott over a perceived threat to their FIFA-sanctioned footballing sovereignty. In the end while the Scots and the Northern Irish stuck by their guns, the FAW relented, albeit reluctantly (admitting they had no powers to actually prevent any Welshman from playing) and it is the smattering of lilting Welsh accents in the squad that prevents Team GB being an all English affair. On the controversy side we’ve seen Micah Richards accept a call up despite turning down Roy Hodgson’s request to be a back up for England’s Euro 2012 squad, while London 2012 poster boy David Beckham has been overlooked for the squad entirely.

One of the reason’s cited by Beckham supporters for his inclusion in the squad was that he would bring a bit of glamour to a tournament that is otherwise overlooked, certainly in Great Britain. While I doubt the “Beckham factor” will have much of an impact either way, it’s a reasonable point that Olympic football has rarely piqued any interest on these isles. My colleague Jack Heaney has argued that the tournament, while not holding the prestige of a World Cup, European Championships or Copa America, is deserving of our time. Certainly it deserve not to be ignored, a gold medal carries cache no matter what the sport, and plenty of other countries – better, more successful footballing nations than ours – take it seriously. In Brazil, for example, they yearn for a gold medal, the only footballing trophy to elude the Selecao. In Nigeria, the great gold medal winning team of 1996 remain national heroes, while in Argentina the recent successes of 2004 and 2008 are not forgotten despite their illustrious history.

It seems strange that while Argentina savour their two golds, Britain’s two gold medals in football are forgotten footnotes in football’s long history. Yes, Team GB have participated in the Olympic football tournament before, and yes they twice grasped the gold (I’m not really counting 1900 where Britain won the gold but it was actually a club team, Upton Park FC, that participated in their stead). And if you’re looking for omens, it happened for the first time in London.

Granted, the London of 1908 was in many ways a different city to the London of 2012, and the 1908 games were very different from the 2012 games. The 1908 games featured a combined Australian and New Zealand team dubbed Australasia and an independent team from Bohemia (then merely a small part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, these days a region of the Czech Republic). Though in actual fact Bohemia did not take part in the football tournament, its withdrawal, and that of Hungary, forced by the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria, an event which would lead the world down the path to World War I. But I digress. The reason I namecheck Bohemia is to prove that if the past is a foreign country, 1908 is almost a different world. Yet there are some parallels to be drawn with the modern Team GB’s football bow in the upcoming games – 1908 the other FAs of the home nations – at this stage not FIFA members – had no interest and so the team was Great Britain in name only, it was entirely English.

The old-timey gents of Great British team, circa 1908. What what.

The English FA organised the tournament and hosted all the games at the now demolished White City Stadium, the 93,000 seater arena that would be the home of QPR for some of the 1930s and for one season again in the 60s. The tournament was a small affair and not every country at the Olympics entered a team. Oddly, though possibly due to the unforeseen withdrawal of the two Balkan nations, France entered two! So alongside the hosts, France “A” and France “B” were the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark. Great Britain were the favourites and not just due to home advantage. The team was, in all but name, the England national amateur team, a team unbeaten since 1906 and who would stretch it to 1910. They won all their matches at the tournament, though there were only three.

They started out with a 12-1 hammering of the Swedes in which Cylde Purnell grabbed 4 goals – he still didn’t end up as the tournament’s top scorer, for reasons that will soon become apparent – and it was followed up with a less eye-catching 4-0 win over the Netherlands, all 4 goals scored by Harry Stapley, to add to the two he got in the first game. Those two games won, Great Britain were in the final. Their opponents: Denmark, who had beaten both of France’s teams. France “B” suffered a 9-0 humiliation, but if anyone thought the “A” team would be superior, they were wrong. The Danes evicerated France “A” as they showed no mercy in a 17-1 win. In the latter game Danish forward Sophus Neilsen plundered 10 of the goals including a hattrick in the first six minutes, becoming the first player ever to score ten goals in an international match. It may not surprise you to learn he was the tournament’s top scorer, it may surprise you to learn his final tally was 11. The final goal in the 9-0 drubbing of France “B” being the only other time he found the net. Clearly, he was saving them for that one game.

After being shocked by the scale of their defeats the French dropped out, forfeiting the chance of a bronze medal (which to be honest they would have not deserved, and probably not won) which went to the Dutch after beating Sweden in what amounted to the 3rd place playoff game.

The final was contested by the tournament’s two unbeaten, free scoring teams. 8,000 souls rattled around the cavernous White City Stadium to see it – the highest attendance of the tournament – as Great Britain stifled the Danish attack to run out 2-0 winners, though Britain’s top scorers Purnell and Stapley could not get amongst the goals in the final. It did not matter though, they had won and were gold medalists.

In a home Olympic games the British football team had beaten out the best of the rest to win gold. They would do it again in 1912 but have since struggled to get anywhere near the medals with a spotty participation record. The modern Team GB have a chance to follow in the footsteps of the amateurs from another age. Maybe they will reignite Britain’s passion for Olympic football.

One thought on “The Forgotten Story of Great Britain at the 1908 Olympic Football Tournament

  1. This is a good read, Dave, and a refreshing antidote to the general anti-Olympics musings seen in the football press. Although I subscribe to the viewpoint up to a point that sports should not be in the Olympics unless they are the pinnacle of their sport (the inclusion of golf from 2016 is frankly absurd for example) anyone would think football had only been in the Olympics in recent times, and yet it has featured in every Olympics since the second one in 1900, pre-dating the first World Cup finals tournament by 30 years, a tournament lest we forget that England did not compete in until 1950.

    While we as a nation may have a superiority complex about Olympic football, it is taken very seriously in other countries, as witnessed by the squads Brazil and Spain have picked for this year’s tournament and also how a number of the players from previous Argentinian gold winning squads went on to become pivotal players for their country. I think Jurgen Klinsmann played in the West German Olympic team in 1988 having represented his country in the European Championships earlier that summer. Instead, we treat it like some kind of glorified testimonial and get all up in arms when a 37 year old player with 115 caps for England and who has been playing League One level football for the past 3 years gets overlooked and instead the manager chooses to call up a defender who can play in more than one position at a time that he was short of defensive cover when he only has a squad of 18 players to choose from.

    My only criticism of the Olympic football is perhaps the inclusion of overaged players at all is unnecessary. If it was an under-21s or an under-20s tournament, that then gives the tournament its raison d’etre as it is then the pinnacle of international football for that age group. Still, in the meantime it means that one of the greats of the Premier League era can finally play in an international tournament at the age of 38, having been deprived of the opportunity by now simply because he was a born in a country with not enough good players in all positions to play in a World Cup or European Championships.

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