Five tales from the rich history of Olympic football
1. George Raynor only accepted the role as Swedish national coach because he had been rejected at home. He didn’t want to go to Gothenburg in 1946 to start work for the 1948 Olympic football tournament; he would rather have worked with a club side in England. He was English and he was a good football coach. The problem was that no one in his home country was prepared to offer him a job. He was admired abroad, but viewed with suspicion at home. He was, in a sense, the Roy Hodgson of the 1940s (at least before the latter’s successful spells with Fulham and West Brom).
During the Second World War Raynor had organised physical training and sport with the British Military Mission and toured the Middle East with a football team from the Iraq Military College. When he returned home in 1945, he was told by Sir Stanley Rous, the Football Association secretary, that there would be plenty of jobs as a coach. But having played his last game for Aldershot in 1945, he quickly realised that there would be no offers. He was distraught.
“Nobody wanted any system. Coaches were regarded as cranks who would soon fade away from the scene so that the game could continue,” he wrote in his 1960 autobiography, Football Ambassador at Large. “I found people believing that it would take at least two years for football to get under way again [after the war], and until that time coaching was quite out of the question. It was the typical head-in-the-sand attitude that has kept the brakes on British football for so long… What a different history of football might have been written if Britain, like the continent, had realised in those early post-war days the true value of the right coaching.”
After finally giving up on Britain, Raynor accepted the invitation from the Swedish FA. He arrived in Gothenburg one rainy morning in 1946 at the age of 39. The chairman of the Swedish selection committee, Putte Kock, was initially taken aback by Raynor’s unassuming character but was soon won over by Englishman’s intelligence and enthusiasm. Raynor, for his part, quickly realised, to his delight, that there was “a tremendous thirst for football knowledge” in Sweden. “Everyone,” he wrote, “was willing to take advice, anxious to learn.” After a few months in his new country, Raynor accepted a two-year contract, turning the job into a one-man crusade to prove the British wrong at the 1948 London Olympic Games. He would show them what they had missed.
Sweden’s neutrality during the Second World War meant the country and its football were in good shape compared to the rest of Europe. Raynor did, however, have some Olympic baggage to deal with. At the previous Games, in Berlin in 1936, Sweden had suffered one of their most humiliating defeats by losing 3-2 to Japan. The Asian nation went on to lose their next game 8-0 against Italy and when the Swedish squad arrived back to their own country some players reportedly wore signs saying “I did not play against Japan” around their necks.
There was embarrassment too for Raynor when Birmingham City visited Sweden a month after his appointment. The Swedes, who had proudly put the new national coach at the head table, realised that no one from the visiting team recognised the Englishman. It was a blow to the Swedes’ (and Raynor’s) self-esteem and the papers in Sweden wrote that their FA had hired “a nobody”. Luckily, an RAF side came to Stockholm soon afterwards, with players such as Stanley Matthews and George Hardwick, who knew Raynor very well from his time at Aldershot. His pride was restored.
Raynor soon realised he had to make some tactical changes. He felt that some of the players were not “manly enough”. He wrote, “That isn’t to say that the Swedes were scared. Far from it. But while they were technically very good when they got the ball, the breakers-up, the men who could go into a fierce tackle and get the ball, were few and far between.” He also decided to change the formation to include a so-called “G-man”, something he had picked up at Bury. The G-man was a deep-lying centre-forward in the style of Hungary’s Nándor Hidegkuti.
Slowly, Raynor’s (and Kock’s) plan started to come together. He picked Knut Nordahl as his G-man for his first match, against Switzerland, who had beaten the Swedes 3-0 the previous year, and Nordahl roamed to great effect with Gunnar Gren1, who had been told to stay upfield, scoring four in a 7-2 win. There was much still to be done, however, and Raynor worked relentlessly with the Swedes to get them to mix the short game with the long. He also felt that the centre-half-back attacked far too much and consequently left huge gaps in defence.
Then, however, he spotted Bertil Nordahl play and immediately realised that Knut’s brother was the answer to the centre-half-back problem (the third brother, Gunnar, was in the team as an inside-forward). “I was told that his [Bertil’s] true role was that of a full-back,” he said. “But I wanted him at centre-half-back because he was a player with some bite and I knew he would be complementary to Sweden’s overload of delicate ball players.”
However, the national team met so infrequently that the only way Raynor could transform Bertil Nordahl into a defensive centre-half was to visit the player’s club, Degerfors, and work with him there. He did the same with several other players he felt he needed to work with. He travelled the country, staying for a fortnight or so in each part. There were only 12 clubs in the first division and they were not too far apart.
Importantly, Raynor had also won over the selectors, with whom he had what he termed a “give-and-take relationship”. They once rejected his suggestion of a player but he did not let irritation become bitterness. Equally, they realised that they could not push him around. Raynor wanted Sweden to play a more direct style — and so they did. In six internationals in 1947, Sweden scored 31 goals and conceded only eight, winning every game. But in November of that year they lost narrowly to a full-strength England side. The defeat signalled a change in form and the problems started to pile up. Time was running out before the Olympics.
The penultimate game before the tournament was a disaster, with Sweden losing 1-0 to Holland in Amsterdam and playing terribly. Jesper Högström writes in his excellent book Blågult — fotbollslandslagetgenom 100 år, that “Henry ‘Garvis’ Carlsson had lost his form and his place in the national team and the experiment to try him on the right wing in Amsterdam had been a failure. The sensitive Gunnar Gren had become embroiled in an argument with his club, IFK Göteborg, and developed gastric ulcers. Gunnar Nordahl, too, had lost his form and his teammate from IFK Norrköping, Nils Liedholm, had also been a disappointment.”
One problem seemed to have been solved, however. Gunnar Gren, who would later be nicknamed Il professore and play for AC Milan, Fiorentina and Genoa, had a tendency to showboat and Raynor struggled for a long time to make him play more responsibly. Gren, in the very first game Raynor had seen in Sweden, had “dribbled round three men, round the goalkeeper and then turned round, beat the goalkeeper again, and back-heeled the ball into the net,” making the English coach “hopping mad”. Raynor told Gren that every player had to play for the team, not show off for their own benefit, but the player continued with his crowd-pleasing tricks and was dropped. Gren responded by saying that Raynor “had his knife in him”. Eventually, the two reached a compromise and Gren was re-instated in time for the Olympics.
Given all the other problems, it was a concerned Raynor who took charge of the final warm-up game. He knew he needed a good send-off from the Swedish public in order to complete a successful return to Britain. Raynor still had to tell the players to tackle more and use physical contact, such as “fair shoulder-charges”. The Englishman also convinced the selectors to take a punt on Bian Rosengren — a man with “great drive” — and he had a wonderful game against the Austrians. Sweden won 3-2 and set off for their pre-Olympics get-together, meeting up at the beautiful spot of Hindås, near Gothenburg. There, Raynor had to “remove some of the cockiness” that had emerged during the unbeaten run in 1947. “They had got into their heads that they were world-beaters because they had not been beaten for some time,” he wrote.
During the Olympics, Sweden had their headquarters near Richmond Park in south-west London. There the players faced a rigorous training routine: even the players’ tournaments in badminton and head tennis were supervised by the coaching team. However, they were permitted shopping trips to Kingston upon Thames to sample the English culture and the players fell in love with the famous Bentalls store. When they ate, Raynor reflected that “it might surprise those of you who remember those days of shortage to learn that our players thought the portions ‘rather large’”.
Sweden, who were one of the favourites to win the Olympic tournament, faced Austria in the first round. The Austrians were beaten easily at White Hart Lane as the tactics — to start furiously and so shock the opponents — worked perfectly. Sweden were 2-0 up within nine minutes after two goals from Gunnar Nordahl. Kjell Rosén added a third to complete the victory. The next opponent, South Korea, were portrayed as a banana skin in the Swedish papers, considering what had happened against another Asian team, Japan, 12 years earlier. Korea, having been occupied by Japan between 1940 and 1945, even had a player who had been on the pitch in that famous upset in Berlin. But in the end Sweden crushed Korea 12-0 at Selhurst Park. Gunnar Nordahl got four, Carlsson three, Nils Liedholm and Rosén two each and Gren one. Afterwards, the Swedes were less than complimentary about the Koreans; Rosén saying, “They had put on some kind of shitty lotion, so they smelt bloody bad.”
There was disruption, though, before the semi-final, against their arch-rivals Denmark at Wembley. Agents from an Italian club had offered Raynor £500 to get Carlsson and Liedholm to sign for their club. He was horrified. “Here I was in charge of an amateur team in the Olympic Games and people thought that I would take money to break up my own side,” he wrote. “I told the Italians they could get away from my players … and stay away. But then, before the semi-final, the two Italians tried to get into our dressing-room, so I had to show them the door and tell the guard that on no account must anyone be allowed to come in without a pass or without reference to me.”
Against Denmark, Raynor had to play without the important Knut Nordahl, who was injured. After two minutes the Danes took the lead, running circles around Nordahl’s replacement, Börje Leander. The Danes continued to attack and seven minutes later John Hansen hit the crossbar with a tremendous effort. But then the Swedes started to show the mental courage with which Raynor had been trying to infuse them throughout his tenure. Carlsson equalised after 18 minutes and Sweden gradually began to wear the Danes down. Rosén scored twice and Bertil Nordahl was so forceful in breaking up the Danes’ attacks that the Danish radio commentator, Gunnar ‘Nu’ Hansen, said that the Swede should never be allowed to enter a football pitch again. The game ended 4-2 to the Swedes after another strike from Carlsson.
The opponents in the final, also at Wembley, were the physically strong and technically excellent Yugoslavs. And, predictably, the Swedes struggled early on. Gunnar Nordahl remembered afterwards how Sweden had been indebted to the brilliant Gren, who had been the only Swede who had dared to keep hold of the ball — who had, of course, nearly been dropped because of his showboating a few months earlier. Gren gave Sweden the lead, although Yugoslavia equalised just before half-time. Nordahl then made it 2-1 before his brother Bertil suffered a horrible-looking injury. He was white with pain and could hardly walk according to Raynor, but miraculously, when urged by the coach to get back on, he managed to do so. He soon broke up a Yugoslav attack and set up the third goal, from which the Balkan side never recovered.
The Swedish papers reported the next day that the Yugoslav players had called the Swedes “fascists” and “gangsters” on the pitch and that one of the Yugoslav officials spat Raynor in the face after the game and said, “Ah, English referee. English coach. Communist. It is bribery.” But Gunnar Nordahl also said that the Yugoslavs came into the Swedish dressing-room after the game and congratulated them.
The radio commentator Sven Jerring, who had become famous during the debacle against Japan in 1936, told his audience that “big, strong, Swedish men cried and kissed” after the final whistle. The Swedish king sent a congratulatory message and there was a party at the Harrow Tavern near Wembley on the night of the final. It was reportedly a calm affair but there have been suggestions that the papers chose to focus on the behaviour of the tee-totallers Torsten Lindberg and Erik Nilsson, rather than Rosengren and Rosén, who did not hold back when it came to alcohol.
The success in London is still Sweden’s only win in a major football tournament but whether the achievement outstrips finishing second at the 1958 World Cup and third in 1950 and 1994 is debatable. At the London Olympics, the opposition was far from the strongest possible. The IOC had let each participating country decide how to deal with the amateur rules. Sweden had found a compromise in their “half-amateur” status but the fact was that only Sweden, Austria, Denmark and Yugoslavia sent their best teams. The British teams did not have their best players, and neither did the south Europeans and South Americans. The Soviet Union and Hungary were not even there.
The repercussions of victory were, initially, very different for the coach and his players. The players finally gave in to the urge to play abroad while Raynor stayed at home. The English coach described how he picked up a newspaper in early 1949 to see that Gunnar Nordahl, arguably the best centre-forward in the world at the time, had signed for Milan, becoming a professional and thus ineligible for the national team. And so the exodus had started. Garvis Carlsson went to Bordeaux and then Atlético Madrid. Bertil Nordahl moved to Atalanta while Nils Liedholm and Gunnar Gren joined Gunnar Nordahl to form the fabled ‘Gre-No-Li’ forward line at Milan. Other, less famous, players moved too.
For Raynor this was problematic. Sweden could have been a force in world football, but Raynor was not able to use his best players in subsequent tournaments. Raynor turned down an offer of £10,000 from an Italian club in 1951, which led his wife to call him “foolish”, but, three years later, after Sweden had failed to qualify for the 1954 World Cup, he finally left his adopted country. He managed Lazio and Coventry City (for five months) before returning to Sweden to help the national side finish second when they hosted the World Cup in 1958. But the one thing he wanted, an offer from a big English club, never came his way.
“This story is not going to be overloaded with sour grapes,” Raynor wrote at the start of his autobiography. “It won’t even contain one, for I am not going to complain because football clubs at home have never been too anxious to engage me, even though I have spent my time looking after the leading sides on the Continent — not without success either. True, I am sorry that it has been impossible for me to get fixed up at home, even after the 1958 World Cup, when I managed the Swedish side to second place, because I have reached the age when I have had enough travelling and want only to settle down in my home country and live the life of a normal Englishman. The thought of combining that with a job whereby I could put my knowledge and ideas to work helping English and British football attracts me. Apparently, however, it does not attract English and British football.”
2. Great Britain at Rome 1960
“I remember the time I found out I was going to the Olympics,” recalled Brian Wakefield. “I was on the Tube with my wife and got hold of the Evening Standard. That’s how I heard. I probably got a letter later, but I knew the squad being named was imminent so I bought the paper.”
The nature of that call-up typifies Britain’s previous Olympic efforts. Wakefield and the other 18 British players that went to the 1960 Rome Olympics — Great Britain’s last appearance in the finals — were, like all their predecessors, amateurs. Today, the notion of an amateur footballer conjures up images of hung-over parks players kicking each other rather than a ball. To be amateurish now equates to being hopeless but the maximum wage of £20 a week was still in place in 1960 and so many gifted players preferred to earn a living by other means; with Britain rigorously enforcing the amateur ideal, the Olympics was their tournament. A handful of players like the late Jim Lewis, a First Division title winner with Chelsea in 1955, featured in the Football League, but for most players viewing a life outside the game, or those going to university, there was an alternative; a thriving amateur scene offering a higher standard than many today realise.
“Players like Jim who remained amateur... it was because they were financially better off,” explained Hugh Lindsay, who played in midfield in the Rome Olympics. “It was also difficult to break through as an amateur at a later age like 21 or 22 because you were not proven and had not been involved with a club since you were 16. My fear about turning pro was that I loved the game so much that if I turned pro and didn’t make it, there was nowhere I could get a game. Maybe Sunday football perhaps, but in those days Sunday football was frowned upon. A lot of the amateurs played Sunday football but it wasn’t even under the auspices of the FA then.”
In Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, the top level of the amateur game focused on single clubs playing in professional leagues, such as Queen’s Park or Cliftonville. In England, the showpiece Amateur Cup Final remained popular, while the Isthmian and Northern leagues were amateur competitions, though shamateurism — the practice of players taking secret payments — was rampant.
It was from this hinterland that the Great Britain manager Norman Creek sourced his players as he attempted to halt the slide in Britain’s Olympic fortunes. Since winning gold in 1912, Great Britain’s Olympic efforts had been hampered by rows over amateurism or between the Home Nations and typified by poor performances, a brave run to the semi-finals on home soil in 1948 under the young Matt Busby aside.
At Helsinki in 1952, Great Britain were humiliatingly eliminated before the start of the Games after a 5-3 thrashing in the preliminaries by Luxembourg. In 1956, Great Britain were forced to qualify and were knocked out by Bulgaria. After a swathe of withdrawals, a Great Britain squad comprised solely of Englishmen were invited back to Melbourne only to be hammered in the second round, again by Bulgaria.
Jim Lewis played and scored in that 6-1 defeat. Despite leaving Chelsea in 1958 and returning to his original club Walthamstow Avenue, he was very much part of the Olympic set-up. Lewis would be joined by another Melbourne teammate, the goalkeeper Mike Pinner, who also eschewed England’s amateur leagues. Pinner preferred to play for Pegasus, the side of Oxford and Cambridge University graduates that had won the Amateur Cup in 1951 and 1953. Pinner was too young for those finals and his glories came through ad hoc appearances for Football League clubs like Aston Villa, Manchester United and Sheffield Wednesday, who called up the Lincolnshire amateur when their first choice keepers were injured. Pinner, who was turning out occasionally for Queen’s Park Rangers as the 1960 Olympics came around, and Jim Lewis were certainties for Creek’s squad.
A member of the Flying Corps in World War One, when he was awarded the Military Cross, Creek had played for Corinthians during the 1920s, when the Oxbridge side’s FA Cup performances showed amateurs could still compete with professionals. A number of those Corinthians earned full England honours, including Creek, who nearly four decades later would have to achieve what no other British Olympic manager had ever done before or has ever done since: win a qualifying competition.
Throughout all the rows over the definition of amateurism in football, the Home Nations — led by England — were steadfast: no player who took money — for a cup of tea, for boots, for time off work — could ever be amateur, although the clubs frequently bent or simply ignored the rules.
In the communist bloc, however, there were no professionals. Top players were state functionaries or in the military, doing ‘jobs’ that meant they played football virtually full-time. Elsewhere, rules on amateurism varied widely. Italian footballers could not turn professional before the age of 21. So the 1960 hosts would be represented by Italy’s Under-21 team. But before Creek’s side could join the Italians in Rome, they had to overcome the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland in qualifying.
All four Home Nations had featured independently at the 1958 World Cup finals and when, in early 1959, committeemen from each met at the St George’s Hotel in Llandudno to discuss the Rome Olympics, the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish were initially reluctant to allow their players to compete under a united banner.
A request to the British Olympic Association to consider entering four teams had been dismissed; a joint side was the only option. But the main sticking point was an estimated £3,700 bill for sending a team to Rome. After some debate in north Wales, agreement was reached and Creek, who led England’s amateur side, was confirmed as manager.
The English held trials, while the other Home Nations nominated players. Before the first qualifier on November 21, the Great Britain XI played three warm-up games. A touring West Indies side were beaten 7-2 at Portman Road, then Creek’s side visited Turf Moor for a game with the reigning First Division champions Burnley. On the bench for that game was the Loughborough University undergraduate Bob Wilson.
“Burnley were champions, this was the time of [the infamous chairman] Bob Lord and they had players of the quality of John Connelly, Ray Pointer and Jimmy McIlroy, and Adam Blacklaw in goal,” said Wilson, who would go on to win the double with Arsenal. “OK, it finished 5-1 but there was a huge crowd and the amateurs competed against the best team in England. There was huge quality in the time I was associated with the Olympic squad.”
Great Britain then went down 4-1 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. That may have seemed unpromising, but in the first qualifier the Irish were beaten 3-2 at Brighton’s Goldstone Ground through a strike from a Scotsman, Hunter Devine of Queen’s Park, and a brace from Paddy Hasty, a Northern Irishman playing in the Isthmian League for Tooting & Mitcham. Hasty’s Welsh club mate Dave Roberts also featured, making the side representative of all four Home Nations.
Before the return in Dublin, the friendlies against top club teams continued. Brian Wakefield shone in a 5-2 defeat to a strong West Ham side at Upton Park. Mike Pinner returned for a routine 3-1 win over the Irish in Dublin, but Wakefield was now his number two.
One of the goals in Dublin came from the Streatham teenager Bobby Brown who was beginning an amazing journey that would take him from south London parks football to a glimpse of Serie A. Brown, whose trademark was playing with a handkerchief in the pocket of his shorts, had not been at Barnet long when he scored both his side’s goals in a 3-2 defeat to Crook in the 1959 Amateur Cup final, a performance that had caught Creek’s attention.
On 2 April 1960, Creek’s team sealed Olympic qualification with a 5-1 rout of the Dutch in Zwolle. Jim Lewis had missed the previous two matches after breaking his leg but returned in style, notching a hat-trick. Bobby Brown, by then the amateur game’s rising star, again found the net. Thoughts were already on Rome for the return and Great Britain were fortunate to draw 2-2 with the Dutch at White Hart Lane.
Before the squad was named, a Caribbean tour by Middlesex Wanderers, an amateur touring side of some repute, was used to look at potential Olympians but Lewis and Pinner were seemingly guaranteed places.“Mike Pinner seemed to have such possession that he never needed to turn up to training sessions,” Wilson recalled. “He seemed to be automatic choice and it should never be like that. It was the one thing that needled us.”
Lewis and Pinner did not need to take time off their day jobs — as a salesman for Thermos and trainee solicitor respectively — but there were still 17 other Olympic places up for grabs and the Caribbean was the place to make an impression. The only Welsh tourist, Llandudno’s Alan MacIntosh, had a poor trip and no Welsh players made the final squad.
Neither did the Great Britain captain. Barnet’s Alf D’Arcy put in some decidedly un-Corinthian challenges during the Wanderers’ only tour defeat, a 3-0 loss to Martinique. “Norman Creek started having a go at me afterwards, saying we can’t take players like you to the Olympics,” D’Arcy said. He was left out of the squad for Rome and dropped from the England amateur side.
Bob Wilson’s high-risk approach to goalkeeping involved diving at players’ feet, which did not go down well with the conservative Creek. Wilson was later capped by Scotland but missed out in 1960. So did another future full international. A teenage Terry Venables was on the bench in Zwolle and delayed signing professional forms at Chelsea in the hope of becoming an Olympian but his place went to the Barnet draughtsman Roy Sleap.
Before the Olympic squad was finalised, Great Britain were routed 5-1 by the Italians in Brescia. That result augured badly for Rome, where Creek’s side would again face the hosts, Brazil and Formosa.
They began on August 26 against Brazil. Their players were mostly amateur under-20s but included Gérson, who a decade later would score in the World Cup final against Italy, and Roberto Dias, one of the few players Pelé believed capable of marking him. For Paddy Hasty, there was only one way to win. “Play all 19 of us,” he joked to his fellow striker Hunter Devine.
The opposition were tough for Great Britain, but the game’s location was tougher still. The players had already been told that after being eliminated they must fly straight home. The opener was in Livorno, so far from Rome that Great Britain’s players would miss the opening ceremony. Unless they reached the final, Great Britain’s footballers would miss the closing ceremony as well. That dampened the mood. “I was only 21 years old,” said Bill Neil, a defender from the Scottish side Airdrie. “Not being at the opening or closing ceremony was disappointing. We weren’t even in the village that much at the start and had to watch the opening ceremony on the TV.”
A minute into the actual match, Roy Sleap fouled the winger Waldir and Gérson sent the resulting free kick past Pinner. Brazil dominated the opening stages but what Great Britain’s draughtsmen, carpenters and trainee solicitors lacked in Brazilian flair they offset with British resolve and superior fitness. Since 1959, the Great Britain squad had met regularly in London for weekends at RAF Uxbridge before playing friendlies with club sides. For players like Devine and his fellow Scotsman David Holt this involved lengthy weekend trips to the south, where they and the rest of the squad were put through exhausting fitness regimes by military instructors.
In Livorno, this paid off. Brazil knocked the ball around, but the closest they came to scoring was when Holt twice cleared off the line. After 22 minutes, Bobby Brown nipped between two defenders to equalise. Two minutes after the kick off, Jim Lewis astonished the Brazilians by putting Great Britain ahead. Moments later, Great Britain hit the bar. Suddenly seeing the closing ceremony was not such a crazy dream.
Then the defender Tommy Thompson was hammered by a Brazilian challenge so shocking that half a century later his surviving teammates are still convinced of its intent: to reduce Great Britain to 10 men. With Thompson’s leg broken and no substitutes allowed, Great Britain were a man down. Norman Creek’s Corinthians would have removed one of their own players rather than play on with a man advantage, but that world was gone. Despite outstanding work from Pinner, Holt and the Bishop Auckland joiner Laurie Brown, Great Britain were worn down, losing 4-3.
With only the group winners going through, Great Britain needed to beat Italy in Rome’s Olympic Stadium to have any chance of progress. On August 29, 45,000 fans — the biggest crowd for any sport at that stage of the Olympics — created an atmosphere that unnerved even the experienced Pinner. Their opponents were more used to such conditions. Players like Gianni Rivera, Giovanni Trapattoni, Tarcisio Burgnich and Giacomo Bulgarelli had big-match experience that belied their years, but team spirit can go a long way.
“We got a real hammering in Brescia but in the Olympics we were not over-awed,” said Hugh Lindsay. “We had a number of players who played in professional football or football at that level. They might have had slightly more skilful players, but our application was sufficient to make sure it was a pretty even match.”
In the opening stages, Bobby Brown had a shot blocked and the defender Sandro Salvadore produced a spectacular diving header to cut out a Hunter Devine cross. But after 11 minutes, the 18-year-old Rossano, who had just been signed by Juventus, scored. Italy dominated possession but brave tackling from the diminutive Lindsay and strong defending allowed Great Britain to regroup.
When Bill Neil won possession midway through the half, he was surprised to find Italy backing off. Advancing up the field unchallenged, he laid the ball off to Jim Lewis, whose deflection found Bobby Brown. He was under pressure, but managed to squeeze in an equaliser and it was still 1-1 at half-time. The BBC screened the second half live with commentary from Kenneth Wolstenholme. He was full of praise of Creek’s team, who soon received another refereeing set-back as Lindsay was hammered by a brutal Italian foul. His team-mates waited for the inevitable free-kick but were stunned when the Belgian referee gave the decision to Italy. Rossano took the kick quickly, sending a low hard shot past an unprepared Pinner.
With the crowd behind them, Rivera urged Italy forward, but there was no breaching a Great Britain defence heroically marshalled by Brown. As Great Britain began to counter, Wolstenholme’s pitch of excitement — which had already led him to refer to Great Britain as “England” and then apologise — surged as Hasty met a Devine corner to equalise from six yards.
Already restive, the Italian crowd hurled cushions onto the pitch but Great Britain were dominant. Sleap was clattered by another bad tackle that was ignored by the referee. There was no protest. Sleap limped back into position, ignoring the referee’s error as he helped Great Britain launch another attack. The future stars of Italian football had no answer to Great Britain’s joiners and students, who couldn’t quite find a winner. “A great British side” that “everyone back home can be mightily proud of” Wolstenholme said at the final whistle.
A dozen years earlier, after Great Britain had lost in the Olympic semi-finals to Yugoslavia, Busby gave those players yet to feature a start in the final match, a bronze medal play-off with Denmark. Norman Creek made some changes for the meaningless final game but Arnold Coates, Brian Wakefield, Les Brown and Hubert Barr remained on the bench. A crowd barely in three figures saw Great Britain labour to a 3-2 win over Formosa. Bobby Brown scored again, taking his total for the finals to five, but Creek’s team were on their way home.
Most players left immediately. On national service with the RAF, Mike Pinner stayed an extra couple of days but only the Scottish striker Hunter Devine remained in Rome. “We were told that you could stay on at your own expense, which was three guineas a day,” said Devine. The actuarial student saw Yugoslavia claim the football title, Don Thompson win gold in the 50-km walk and watched athletics with another gold-medal winner, the young Cassius Clay, but even Devine had to leave before the closing ceremony.
But that wasn’t quite the end of it. After returning home, Great Britain’s top scorer Bobby Brown was visited by envoys of the AC Milan manager Gipo Viani, who had managed Italy’s Olympic side. The Barnet teenager was offered a contract with Milan but had already committed to an FA tour of Australasia and so delayed making a decision. On his return, Brown discovered that Viani had suffered a heart attack while he was away. Brown’s chance of Serie A glory was gone; he never heard from Milan again. Brown briefly joined Fulham and later played in Europe with Cardiff City only for injury to bring a premature end to his career.
None of Bobby Brown’s 1960 team-mates emulated Jim Lewis in winning the title, but many demonstrated their prowess. David Holt and the Northern Irishman Hubert Barr joined Hearts and Coventry respectively and won full international honours. Laurie Brown played for Arsenal then won the FA Cup with Spurs, Paddy Hasty joined Aldershot and Tommy Thompson recovered to enjoy a long career with Blackpool.
Even Mike Pinner belatedly went semi-pro to help fund his solicitor’s training and played in the First Division for Leyton Orient. Hugh Lindsay was once on Arsenal’s books and made a handful of appearances for Southampton but, apart from playing for the Olympic side and the England amateur team, his career was restricted to what is today known as the non-league game.
Along with Jim Lewis and another Olympian, Bob Hardisty, Lindsay is probably the best post-World War Two player never to turn professional. He has no doubts about the quality of his Rome team-mates, saying: “Every single one could have been a professional and probably would have played in the Premier League today, but that was the way it was then.”
3. Brazil at Munich 1972
When Brazil’s footballers were knocked out of the 1972 Olympics after a draw against Hungary and defeats to Denmark and Iran, the players decided to make the best of it. For the goalkeeper Nielsen and the defender Fred, a few days of letting their hair down in Munich led to an unlikely involvement in the Black September terror plot that killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic squad.
“We’d been knocked out of the Olympics so the whole delegation had a week’s holiday,” Nielsen said. “Every night we went out drinking beer on Marienplatz. We went to the cabaret. The owner saw our jackets with Brazil badges and was very nice; he told us to come every day. So one night my friend Fred and I missed the last U-Bahn. We slept at the station while we waited for the first U-Bahn the next day. Maybe at five in the morning Fred wakes me up. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘the U-Bahn’s here.’”
When they got back to the Olympic village, though, they found it still locked up for the night. “Fred and I tried to get in the gate, but there’s nobody there. So we walked around the fence looking for a low place to climb over. We find one and we see three guys with beards already there — dark hair, dark skin, dark tops. I said, ‘Good morning,’ but they didn’t answer. One of them talks to another one — you could tell they were nervous and talking about us. They look at our jackets and realise we’re athletes. So they do nothing.
“They were already going over the fence when we got there. They clearly weren’t happy to be seen doing what they were doing and didn’t want to let us past, but when we got into the village we went a different route. It was a long way round to the Brazilian section and when we got there I heard a noise: pfft, pfft, pfft.
“When a new delegation arrived they would raise their national flag and let off fireworks and it sounded like that. But I knew there couldn’t be a team arriving at that time in the morning. But the night before an Italian fencer had won her third Olympic medal [Antonella Ragno-Lonzi, having won bronze in 1960 and 1964, took gold in the women’s foil]. They’d been celebrating with fireworks and champagne, so Fred said, ‘I can’t believe the Italians are still celebrating.’
“We were a bit tired and the worse for wear. Fred wanted to go to sleep, but I said, ‘Let’s take breakfast.’ He said, ‘No, no, after.’ So, OK, we go to sleep.”
When they woke up, the atmosphere in the Olympic village had changed completely. “It was about 11 when I woke up,” Nielsen said. “The camp was going crazy. There were helicopters overhead, guards with guns. Something was happening in another part of the Olympic village so we went to see what was going on. In the window of the Israeli section, we saw a man with a mask on and Fred and I realised it was the guy we’d seen before and we knew the noise we’d heard wasn’t fireworks at all but gunshots. They shut up the village — nobody in, nobody out.”
The three men Nielsen and Fred had seen were part of an eight-strong faction of the Black September terror movement, known as “Ikrit and Biram” after two Palestinian Christian villages whose inhabitants were killed or expelled during the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Carrying assault rifles, pistols and grenades in duffel bags, they scaled the chain-link fence and used stolen keys to break into one of the apartment blocks being used by the Israeli team.
The wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg and the weightlifter Yossef Romano were killed in initial scuffles and nine other members of the delegation were taken hostage: the wrestling referee Yossef Gutfreund, the shooting coach Kehat Shorr, the track and field coach Amitzur Shapira, the fencing coach Andre Spitzer, the weightlifting judge Yakov Springer, the wrestlers Eliezer Halfin and Mark Slavin and the weightlifters David Berger and Ze’ev Friedman.
The hostage takers demanded the release and safe passage to Egypt of 234 prisoners held in Israel, along with two German radicals held in Germany, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, the founders of the German Red Army Faction. The Israeli government refused to engage in any negotiation.
When attempts by the German authorities to buy the release of the hostages failed, it was decided to feign agreement to the Black September demands. A bus transported terrorists and hostages to two military helicopters which took them to the Nato airbase at Fürstenfeldbruck, where an ambush was planned. Five snipers were hidden around the airport with further armed police disguised as flight crew inside a Boeing 727 that was positioned on the runway.
The number of terrorists, though, had been underestimated and it was only as they transferred from bus to helicopter than the authorities realised there were eight of them. The German police inside the Boeing 727 voted to abandon the mission but didn’t consult with central command, leaving just the five snipers to combat better-trained and better-armed terrorists.
The result was a bloodbath. Two terrorists were killed by snipers and another hit in the thigh while a German policeman was killed in a firefight. As German armoured personal carriers arrived at the airport, the terrorists seem to have panicked. All nine remaining hostages were killed: at least four were shot by their captors; one died of smoke inhalation after being shot twice in the leg; whether the other four were gunned down by members of Black September or caught in friendly fire remains unclear. Five of the terrorists were killed at the airport; the other three were jailed but released after the hijacking of a Lufthansa jet the following October.
Nielsen, meanwhile, seemed remarkably unflustered by the whole affair. “When it was over,” he said, “all the players went to cabaret again.” He was never interviewed by police and, although the Steven Spielberg filmMunich shows two athletes jumping the fence with the terrorists, the goalkeeper’s part in the incident remained unknown until a chance remark in a TV programme earlier this year.
4. Nigeria at Atlanta 1996
Legends were made that year. Folklore was written. A fairy tale came to an inevitable happy, golden conclusion. And Africa stood proud, rallying behind 11 of their finest football warriors.
Few could believe that Nigeria had won Olympic gold. As a young man at university, I joined plenty of others in going totally, absolutely, bananas. We jumped onokadas (commercial motor bikes), waving flags, breaking bottles on the road, beating empty paint drums and generally raising an almighty din. All this, in the early hours.
The night went in a blur but it also seemed to carry on forever. I woke up in the morning, beer bottle in one hand, flag in the other, sprawled in front of my door, totally plastered. Hanging round my neck was a length of twine from which dangled a top from a beer bottle. How it was made or how it got there, I have not even a sketchy memory.
But that was my own gold medal. We ruled the world and I had my own little memento. Well, that was what I thought at the time.
We were Nigeria. We were champions. We were Olympic gold medallists. The world was at our feet. And we had done it by conquering two of the world’s greats, Brazil and Argentina.
To this day, the picture of Kanu on his knees, eyes closed, arms stretched high to the heavens, remains one of the most iconic images of Nigerian sport.
But, typical of Nigeria, this was a triumph born out of chaos.
Nigeria looked in danger of not qualifying for the Games after a 0-0 home draw against Kenya with a team made up of players from the domestic league and one or two journeymen from Europe and Asia. The Kenyans left Lagos celebrating their qualification and promising to hand a humiliating defeat to the Nigerians in Nairobi.
Neither fans nor administrators could countenance the prospect. National football was already at a crossroads.
Nigeria’s military dictator General Sani Abacha had stunned the nation by withdrawing the Super Eagles from the 1996 African Cup of Nations in protest at the hosts South Africa’s condemnation of the execution of the novelist Ken Saro-Wiwa. In response, the Confederation of African Football hit Nigeria with a two-tournament ban.
No African Cup of Nations for three consecutive tournaments had Nigerians writhing with the pain of football withdrawal. To miss out on the Olympic Games on top of that was beyond contemplation.
Drastic action needed to be taken. The bulk of the squad that had won the African Cup of Nations in 1994 were within the Under-23 age bracket. The likes of Jay-Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, Daniel Amokachi and Victor Ikpeba were available for selection. Added to that mix was a talented squad of young, gifted players who had conquered the world at U-17 level in 1993 and were now ripe for graduation to the next level: Nwankwo Kanu, Celestine Babayaro, Wilson Oruma, Mobi Oparaku and more.
They were all called up by the coach, Jo Bonfrere. The media took one look at the Nairobi-bound squad and dubbed them the Dream Team, after the 1992 US Olympic basketball team
They proved to be exactly that. Kenya were handed a masterclass in front of their home fans. A final score of 3-0 flattered the hosts, and such was Okocha’s magic on the day that a Kenyan commentator claimed that “by the time the Harambee Stars realised what was happening, Okocha had left the building.”
He was duly fired for such unpatriotic impertinence.
Next up were Zimbabwe, led by Nigeria’s 1994 African Cup of Nations-winning coach Clemens Westerhof. The Dream Team dispatched the southern Africans on the pitch, but an even bigger battle awaited. The Zimbabweans claimed they had documents proving that Nigeria’s goalkeeper Abiodun Baruwa was overage. Their claims looked genuine. It took months for the protest to be considered by Fifa. It decided in Nigeria’s favour, and a nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Anyone who thought the troubles were over at that point was either not a Nigerian or did not understand what it meant to be one. A final tune-up friendly against Togo in Lagos ended in an unbelievable 3-1 defeat, prompting panic. From Dream Team, the squad was rechristened the Dreaming Team.
To assuage a restive public, another friendly was hurriedly put together against the local club Shooting Stars. That finished 2-0 in favour of the Dream Team as they headed out to their training camp in Tallahassee.
The goalkeeper Joseph Dosu recalls how things went from bad to worse there. “We were first taken to a hostel where the Brazilian women’s team were lodged,” he said. “And then told we would have to take the rooms that they didn’t occupy. We said we were not staying there and they would have to find us better accommodation.”
The squad spent five hours outside before alternative lodgings were secured. But that was no better. “It was a motel,” Dosu said. “The type where people just come in, do their business for one hour or so and leave. The rooms were so dirty we had to clean up by ourselves before we could check in.”
Not exactly ideal preparation to win Olympic gold, but there was worse to come. After settling in, the players went on strike. “They owed us match bonuses and camping allowances and owed the coach about three-months salary,” Dosu said. “The players decided we would not train until it was all settled.”
Rather than settling, the federation decided to go behind Bonfrere’s back and ask his Nigerian assistants to appeal to the players to come out and train. They were met with an unyielding brick wall. “We were a strong, united group,” the striker Daniel Amokachi said. “If we took a decision, we all stood by it.”
And stand by it they did, until the FA was forced to ask the embassy for money to pay up and training resumed.
It was within this cauldron that the ultimate conquest was forged. “We were one. We had our fights, we had our quarrels and our disagreements. But we always sorted ourselves out and we knew it was all for the good of our team,” Amokachi said. “We had a good bond. The oneness in that team really won us the gold medal. We fought. Positive fighting. We get upset, and then we make you smile and keep going on.”
Within such unity there is often a need for an eccentric character; the right-back Oparaku provided light relief. One day, he disappeared for nearly an hour. Bonfere was livid. When Oparaku returned, though, he shook his head and smiled as the full-back hauled a juke box into the hotel. The party was on.
But there was no smile when the Dream Team were beaten by Brazil in their last game of the group stage. The Dutchman was incandescent. In the dressing-room, he lashed out, kicking out at everything in his path and ended up peeling the skin on his big toe. “He wanted us to beat Brazil and eliminate them, but we lost and allowed them back into the tournament,” Dosu said.
Brazil were the one team the squad agreed they would have to beat to win the gold and when they met again in the semi-final, Bonfrere’s “I told you so” rang all over the dressing-room.
Additional inspiration came at the stadium. The Nigerian team bus arrived just ahead of Brazil’s. But officials wanted the Nigerians to stand aside while Brazil drove in first. Amokachi and the others were having none of that. “Daniel was not the captain,” Dosu said. “But he was a real leader. He told them we were going nowhere and warned the driver that if he moved aside, he would never drive that bus again.”
Nigeria went in first. Amokachi believes the incident solidified their belief. “We knew we could beat them, but to be treated like that made us feel insulted and we were determined to prove them wrong on the field.”
They were 3-1 down at half-time. Spirits were flagging. Damage limitation was the major concern for the players. But not for their coach. Bonfrere tossed in the attacking midfielder Wilson Oruma, switched to three at the back and told the players to believe in themselves and attack.
The result was amazing. Amokachi looked like a man possessed by a thousand demons. He appeared to terrify his teammates nearly as much as he did the opponents and the match officials. His drive spurred the team to a stirring comeback. Ikpeba pulled one back with 12 minutes to go and Kanu, latching onto Teslim Fatusi’s mishit shot as Brazil failed to clear a long throw from Okocha, flicked the ball up to knock in a close-range finish to level in the final minute. Four minutes into extra time, reacting smartly as Oruma’s pass bounced off the back of Fatusi, he added the golden-goal winner. “We knew we could do it,” Amokachi said. “After that first game, we looked at their team and man for man, they were no better than us. We just needed to believe in ourselves and I tried to push the players on.”
Once the Brazil hurdle was cleared, belief was cemented. “Defeat was not an option,” Amokachi said. “You don’t get to the final expecting to be second best, especially not after beating Mexico and Brazil.”
The Argentina of Hernán Crespo, Ariel Ortega and Javier Zanetti awaited in the final. Again the Dream Team went behind — twice — but again they came storming back. “Amokachi was telling us that we didn’t come here to lose. Uche was pushing the players forward. Kanu was saying, ‘Come on boys,’ and we knew we had to do it,” Dosu said. Amokachi, chipping a superb finish after Kanu had missed his kick, made it 2-2 with 16 minutes to go before another last-minute goal, this time from the substitute Emmanuel Amuneke who hooked in the winner unopposed as Argentina’s defence went vainly looking for offside.
When the final whistle went and an entire nation realised that Amuneke’s goal had written African football history, goose bumps prickled across the continent. “It made me immensely proud,” said the Ghanaian journalist Michael Oti Adjei. “You know what that means as a Ghanaian. The manner of the victory against the likes of Brazil and Argentina was unbelievable.”
It felt like a coming of age for the entire continent, a rite of passage that put Africa among the ranks of the power players. “It meant a lot,” said the South African journalist Joe Maluleke. “Africa was now on the world map and there would be greater opportunities for players. The inferiority complex was gone.”
It was no surprise when, four years later, Cameroon provided an African encore.
The stars of that Nigerian squad became legends, recognised all around the mother continent and indeed the world. “I knew we had done something special,” Okocha said. “But we didn’t quite understand the full implication at the time. These days, so many years after, people still remember things that even you who played have forgotten. It is a blessing to have been part of that team.”
It was a blessing even to have watched it.
5. Argentina at Athens 2004
Scores of bubbly teenagers crammed into the small chapel at the Colegio Sagrado Corazón in Rosario to hear one of the school’s most esteemed former pupils speak. The only condition laid down by Marcelo Bielsa, on accepting the invitation to address the students, was that there be no press.
On taking over as Argentina national team coach in 1999, Bielsa had installed an egalitarian approach to media access — his experience in Mexico with Club América, owned by TV executives, had made him reflect on the relationship he wanted with journalists. Powerful television channels broadcasting across the continent would have the same opportunity to speak to him as reporters from a provincial newspaper. That opportunity would be in a press conference which, if need be (and as was often the case), lasted hours in order for him to respond to all questions. It was not an entirely popular measure.
Despite his request to the school, the content of his speech at the Colegio Sagrado Corazón was made public as La Nación acquired a transcript. The paper published his words two years after the event, just as Bielsa was at his lowest ebb after Argentina had been eliminated from the 2002 World Cup at the group phase.
In 2000, Bielsa had told the young students that success “distorts, relaxes and tricks us,” adding that failure is “formative and brings us closer to our convictions.” He said “the moments in my life when I have grown the most have been the failures; the moments in which I have become a worse person have been in success.”
Nowhere else is Bielsa more closely linked to success than in his hometown of Rosario. Having grown up six blocks from the Newell’s Old Boys stadium, which has now taken his name, he became the youngest coach to win the Argentinian first division when, aged 36, he led the club to the 1990 Apertura championship. 21 years later, a similar surge of Bielsamania erupted when he took over as coach of Athletic Club of Bilbao.
Bielsa in the Basque country was, after all, perhaps the perfect match. Newell’s mística is largely built on teams that were made up of players who graduated from the club’s youth system in the late 1980s. Bielsa carried that forward in the early 1990s. Athletic’s transfer policy needs no explanation here. Jorge Griffa, who oversaw the Newell’s youth system for over 20 years and essentially groomed Bielsa as a coach, inadvertently underlined why he is a perfect coach for Athletic. “He is a man who thinks like a youth team coach,” said Griffa, pointing to how Bielsa is constantly teaching his players. The admiration between the two is mutual. For Bielsa, Griffa ranks alongside Mahatma Gandhi and Che Guevara as a leader.
Decades before he had taken over at Athletic, Bielsa’s eccentric touchline personality had attracted attention. It almost verges on the caricature — the Catalan TV3 show Crackovia recently portrayed him replying to Pep Guardiola’s touchline greeting with a five-minute lecture in which he analysed and dissected Guardiola’s words.
The fixture between Athletic and Barcelona this season triggered a series of articles discussing the “Argentinian connection” in Guardiola’s formation as a coach. High on the list of influences on Guardiola, along with meetings with Ángel Cappa, Ricardo La Volpe and César Luis Menotti, was that of Bielsa. Falling just short of the first meeting between Freud and Jung, the asado at Bielsa’s home in Rosario lasted 11 hours.
Guardiola is the most successful coach to state his admiration for Bielsa, although his approach is clearly in line with the Barcelona tradition. Gerardo Martino, Jorge Sampaoli, Mauricio Pochettino, Eduardo Berizzo, and to a lesser extent Diego Simeone, are among those who openly revere El Loco.
His nickname is a subeditor’s quick fix. Indeed, the journalist Ariel Senosiain named his biography of Bielsa after the Charles Bukowski story, “Mad Enough.” His meticulous and exhaustive preparations are well known. It was widely reported that before taking over at Athletic, he watched 55 of their games from the previous season, 42 of those twice. On taking over Newell’s in the early 1990s, he was viewed as a pioneer when he asked the club to buy him a video recorder, a camera and large television. When Newell’s lost the return leg of the Copa Libertadores final against São Paulo in 1992, he watched the match back twice before even leaving Brazil.
For his first coaching job, at the age of 27, he watched 3,000 players before selecting his 20-man squad. The players at the University of Buenos Aires football team slowly adjusted to the coach, barely a few years their senior, appearing on the training pitch with a thesaurus in hand and speaking to them using the formal pronoun usted.
His commitment to attacking, and one formation in particular, is another trademark. The famed 3-3-1-3 dates back to the 1992 Copa Libertadores campaign, in which Newell’s lost the first match 6-0. The following weekend Bielsa tested his innovative formation and sent Newell’s on a 26-match unbeaten run, stretching up to the return leg against São Paulo.
Regularly sent off as coach in his first years at Newell’s, his temper is also legendary. On the day when Martín Palermo missed three penalties for Argentina against Colombia in the 1999 Copa América, Bielsa had been already been banished from the dugout. His message for Palermo not to take the third penalty — to protect the striker — did not arrive in time.
Beyond the eccentricities and his dedication to attacking football, he is naturally only judged on results. “I am only interested in winning,” he said in 1992 while at Newell’s, “although I understand there are thousands of formulas to achieve that.” Although he accepts other schools of thought exist, Bielsa’s vision is non-negotiable. Repetition on the training ground translates into constant pressure and attack in matches.
This intransigent philosophy transformed him into a deity at Newell’s and also won titles at Vélez Sarsfield. As national coach, he transformed Chilean football, but his six years as Argentina coach continue to divide opinion. His only tangible success came in the 2004 Olympic Games, while his teams fell short at the 1999 and 2004 Copas América and more spectacularly in the 2002 World Cup.
From the 2004 Copa América squad, Bielsa named Roberto Ayala as his captain for the Olympics and added Kily González and Gabriel Heinze to make up his quota of three over-age players. Much of that squad — including Carlos Tévez, Andrés D’Alessandro, Lucho González and Javier Mascherano — had played in the 2001 Under-20 World Cup winning side.
For a coach like Bielsa, who shuns so many aspects of the modern game, the Olympic arena was perhaps the perfect setting. As he told the students at Colegio Sagrado Corazón, “I am absolutely convinced that fame and money are insignificant values. I think that the amateur spirit, the love of the task at hand, is the only thing that makes work a satisfying task.”
For many of the players who travelled to Athens, the tournament was, precisely, a return to fútbol amateur, as youth team football is called in Argentina. At the Olympic village, they had no television, no computers, no air conditioning. They had to make their own beds and queue up alongside other athletes to use the facilities.
Out on the pitch, Argentina were clinical. 11 minutes into the opening match against Serbia and Montenegro, Cesar ‘Chelo’ Delgado skipped through the defence and fired past Nikola Milojević. Six minutes later, a driving run from Kily González followed by a one-two on the edge of the box with D’Alessandro created the second. Tévez added two, and Mauro Rosales and Heinze finished the 6-0 rout; the result was repeated when the sides met again at the World Cup in Germany two years later.
Tévez and Saviola scored the goals that defeated Tunisia 2-0 and D’Alessandro finished a swift attack against Australia to win 1-0 and take Argentina into the quarterfinals. With Tévez, still making his name at Boca Juniors, in imperious form, Argentina breezed past Costa Rica — the Apache hit a hat-trick after Delgado’s opener - setting up a semi-final clash with Italy.
Ahead of the match, as Román Iucht writes in his biography of Bielsa, La vida por el fútbol, the coach gave specific instructions to Mascherano, who had made his debut for Argentina under Bielsa before even making his first division debut at River Plate. Ordering the midfielder to police Andrea Pirlo, Bielsa told Mascherano that if he performed, they’d make the final. If not, they would be playing for bronze.
An acrobatic volleyed finish by Tévez put Argentina in front and, with Pirlo effectively neutralised, two breakaway second-half goals from the Gonzálezes — Lucho and Mariano — finished off an impressive 3-0 win.
Argentina faced Paraguay in an anticlimactic finale, winning 1-0. Tévez scored the winner — his eighth of the tournament, leaving him the competition’s top scorer. With 17 goals, Argentina were the highest-scoring team and did not concede a single goal. Bielsa’s side had gone a step further than the 1928 and 1996 teams that lost in the final and delivered Argentina’s first gold medal in 52 years. It was the only piece of silverware lacking at AFA’s headquarters, and they brought home the Fair Play award to boot.
Bielsa accepted the Olympics lacked the same tension as other competitions, but he was content with the win for what it meant back home, he said. Two weeks later, he stepped down as Argentina coach.