As we have seen, the relationship of the FA in the home nations with the Olympics has been a twitchy affair. This was touched upon briefly during the discussion on GN5’s fantastic post on the first Football World Cup in 1930, and subsequently in my posts.
Football was played at the Olympics for the first time in the 1900 Summer Olympics. Two demonstration matches were held between the three club sides. Upton F.C. represented team GB and won. Likewise, the competition in the 1904 Games was also between club sides.
National teams competed for the first time in 1908, though France had two teams. Great Britain won in 1908 and in the following Olympic Games in 1912 as well. We have revisited this part of the Olympics football history earlier.
When the Olympics returned after the war in 1920, Norway defeated Great Britain in the first round. There was great disquiet with the FA and the IOC falling out with each other over the participation of professionals. Ironically, even if Norway were not a professional side, there were good grounds for complaint.
In 1921, the Belgium Football Association first allowed for payments to players for time lost from work, followed by Switzerland and Italy amongst others. In 1923, the Football Association requested FIFA to consider their statement of 1884 as a criterion for selection: “Any player registered with this Association … receiving remuneration … of any sort above … necessary expenses actually paid, shall be considered to be a professional.” FIFA refused, and consequently, Great Britain and Denmark withdrew their participation in football at the 1924 Olympic Games.
Subsequently a rift between FIFA and the IOC developed, and in turn led to the establishment of the Football World Cup. After clarification of amateur status, team GB participated in Olympics football again in 1936, and after the war, in 1948, 1952, 1956 and 1960. Great Britain did not participate in the football competition for 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games. In fact, after the FA abolished the distinction between amateur and professional players in 1974, it stopped entering a team.
Prior to 1984, men’s Olympic football was only played by amateur players. By the 1992 Games teams could use professionals, but were restricted to players under 23 years old, with only three over-age players allowed per squad. This is the setting for this final part of the story of Arsenal Olympians.
Sadly, however, a new crisis emerged. Since 1992, the UEFA U21 Championship has acted as the qualifying tournament for the UEFA nations, which each of the Home Nations enter. On three occasions, teams from Great Britain have finished in the qualifying positions: Scotland (1992 and 1996) and England (2008). However, the Scottish FA refused to field a team in 1992 and 1996 because such a team would have to participate as Great Britain, which they considered as detrimental to the independent status of Scottish national teams. Likewise, the English FA refused to field a team in 2008.
A century from the start of this story, Great Britain qualified for the 2012 Games and fielded an Olympics football team at home. This team had a substantial Welsh presence, prominently featuring our very own Welshman Aaron Ramsey. Ramsey scored a penalty during normal play and another during the penalty shootout in the quarter-finals, but the British team went out in penalties to South Korea, which also featured another Gooner.
Together with the 5 (and a half) Gooners featured in the previous edition, Ramsey completes the story and celebration of Arsenal players’ contributions towards the Great Britain Olympics team. But what about our foreign players?
There are two stars of this show, the first being one Nwankwo Kanu, (born 1 August 1976), or simply Kanu, who became Arsenal’s third Olympic gold medallist in the 1996 Games. He was a member of and later captained the Nigerian national team for 16 years from 1994 until 2010. He is one of few players to have won the Premier League, FA Cup, Champions League, UEFA Cup and an Olympic Gold Medal.
Kanu joined Arsenal from Inter in 1999. His debut for Arsenal, against Sheffield United in the FA Cup, was a highly unusual match. With the score 1–1 and ten minutes to go, the United goalkeeper, Alan Kelly, kicked the ball out of touch so that treatment could be given to an injured player. When the ball was thrown back into play by Ray Parlour, although it was intended for Kelly, Kanu was unaware of the circumstances. Thinking it to be an attacking move, he chased the throw-in down the right wing unchallenged, and centred the ball for Marc Overmars, who promptly scored to make the match 2–1. Immediately after the match Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger offered to right the error and replay the match; in the end, Arsenal won that match 2–1 as well.
Kanu quickly became known for his goalscoring prowess from the bench, and became very popular among the fans for his two-fingered salute – something that he later explained was based on the team’s nickname, The Gunners – which started in 1999 against Middlesbrough. Kanu was named African Footballer of the Year for the second time in 1999, and in 1999–2000 he scored 17 times in 50 matches for the Gunners, including a hatrick in fifteen minutes against Chelsea to turn a 2–0 deficit to a 3–2 victory. Kanu won the Double with Arsenal in 2002, an FA Cup in 2003 and the Premier League title in 2004. In all he played 197 games for Arsenal (nearly half of them as a substitute), scoring 44 goals. In the summer of 2004, he moved to West Bromwich Albion on a free transfer.
In 2008, Kanu was voted 13th in the “Gunners’ Greatest 50 Players” poll. As well as winning the Olympic gold in the football event at 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Kanu participated in the 1998 and 2002 FIFA World Cups.
The 5th and final Gooner to win an Olympics gold medal was Lauren (Etame Mayer). Commonly known as Lauren, he was one of the ‘Invincibles’. He also won an Olympic Gold Medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics with Cameroon. Earlier the same year, he also played for the Cameroon team that won the Africa Cup of Nations.
Lauren joined Arsenal in the summer of 2000, just after his gold medal honour for Cameroon. Lauren’s first season with Arsenal was blighted by injuries. He eventually ended up becoming the club’s first-choice right back, replacing Lee Dixon. By the time Arsenal had won the Double in 2001–02, Lauren was an integral part of the Arsenal defence.
In 2002–03, Lauren suffered a calf injury and again missed part of the season, but nevertheless recovered in time and won an FA Cup winners medal. He was a consistent member of the Arsenal first team during 2003–04 and a became known as one of the ‘Invincibles’ after the club went the whole season unbeaten. Lauren made his 150th appearance for Arsenal during the record breaking run and Arsenal won the Premier League title, giving Lauren his second League winners’ medal.
Lauren won a third FA Cup winners’ medal in 2005, as Arsenal beat Manchester United on penalties after a 0–0 draw in the final; Lauren scored the first of Arsenal’s spot-kicks. However, during 2005–06, Lauren suffered a knee injury and spent nearly a year out of the game. He never played for Arsenal again. In January 2007, Lauren joined Portsmouth.
Better times were ahead though, playing in the Cameroon team that won the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations. He also played in the gold winning team at the 2000 Olympics, ironically against Spain, who could have selected him were it not for his choice of Cameroon.
And finally, here are Arsenal’s other Olympians. In the 1996 Olympic Games, the same year as Kanu won Olympic gold, two other future Arsenal players played for the French team: Robert Pirès and Sylvain Wiltord. Subsequently, 5 Gooners played for their respective countries in the 2008 Olympic Games: Alex Song for Cameroon, Thomas Vermaelen for Belgium, Gervinho for Côte d’Ivoire, Emiliano Viviano for Italy and
Park Chu-Young for South Korea. Park also represented South Korea in the 2012 Olympic Games, this time as one of the three over-age players in the team.
So, finally, here is the score sheet. 15 Olympians (6 from Great Britain) and 4 Olympic gold medallists (2 of them British). Could be better? Perhaps, if the FA wee to consider Olympic football as a means to develop young players.
This seems unlikely. As of Great Britain’s elimination from the 2012 Olympics, there are currently no public plans to reform the team for future Olympic Games. In fact, Alex Horne, in his role as chief-executive of the FA, has stated that the FA would not support a future men’s football team at the Olympics.
However, since other footballing nations, particularly non-European nations appear to consider the Olympics as important for youth development, perhaps this is a good space to watch for and spot future stars. Perhaps this is where some Gooners were watched as well. Where are the scouts?
Written by Arnie.