LONDON CALLING: There may not have been any medals for the British teams at the 2012 Olympics, but the football tournament has been seen as a success. There was much more controversy at the 1936 Olympic football, writes ANTON RIPPON
Although football had been played at the Olympics since 1900, the official tournament dated back to the 1908 London Games when Great Britain defeated Denmark to claim the first soccer gold medal. Since that time football had been part of every Olympics, with the exception of the 1932 Games.
The event had always been diluted by the fact that the world’s best players were professionals and thus ineligible for the Olympics. Great Britain had not taken part in 1924 or 1928 after the home football associations withdrew from the game’s ruling body, FIFA, over rows about “broken time” payments to amateurs; the British regarded the foreigners as “shamateurs” anyway. But football was back for 1936, largely because the organisers coveted the money generated by the attendances at such a popular sport.
In Berlin, however, the tournament was marred by some ugly incidents.
In one of the early games, between Italy and the United States, a German referee, Herr Weingartner, ordered off Achille Piccini, but the Italian refused to leave the pitch. The full professional Italian team had won the World Cup in 1934, leaving Olympic representation to the Italian universities team, themselves regular winners of the World Student Games.
The Italians, regarding themselves as giants of the game, were affronted by one of their players being dismissed against such an upstart football nation as America. Several Italians surrounded Weingartner, pinned his arms to his sides, and covered his mouth with their hands. Remarkably, instead of a mass sending-off, Piccini was allowed to remain on the pitch and Italy won 1-0.
That, however, was nothing compared to what happened five days later, when Austria and Peru met in the quarter-finals. Austria took a two-goal lead but Peru drew level with goals in the final 15 minutes of normal time. The game had progressed to the second period of 15 minutes extra time when it too erupted into violence. There are conflicting versions, but what is certain is that there was a pitch invasion.
Peruvian supporters rushed on to the field and, according to the Austrians, attacked one of their players. The Peruvian players took advantage of the uproar that followed, scoring two goals in quick succession to win 4-2. Austria appealed and an all-European jury ordered the game to be replayed with no spectators present.
The entire Peruvian Olympic contingent promptly packed their suitcases and went home; the Colombians followed suit and also withdrew from the Games in support of their South American colleagues. In Lima, the German consulate was stoned and the Peruvian president, Oscar Benavides, was incandescent with rage over “the crafty Berlin decision”. When it was pointed out that FIFA had made the ruling, not Germany, Benavides blamed the Communists instead.
Football was hugely popular in Germany, and the hosts desperately wanted to do well. They got off to an excellent start, beating Luxembourg 9-0 in the Post Stadium and then met Norway at the same venue.
The large crowd included Hitler, Hess, Goering and Goebbels, who wrote: “The Fuehrer is very excited, I can barely contain myself. A real bag of nerves.”
But Norway scored after only six minutes, and then again six minutes from the end. Germany failed to find the net and Hitler left early in a huff.
The British, meanwhile, laid themselves open to accusations that their preparations had been sloppy to say the least. This was the first time that the Olympic football team had been truly British rather than an England amateur line-up. They had received no coaching or fitness training; the players had simply met up ready to travel on the eve of the Games.
According to an interview in The Observer in 2000, Sir Daniel Pettit, Liverpool industrialist and a member of the British team in 1936, had recently told a University College London academic, Rachel Cutler, that the letter he received from the FA about the Olympics dealt mostly with the uniform he would wear. There was a handwritten PS that said: “As there is a month to go before we leave for Berlin, kindly take some exercise.” The obedient Pettit promptly ran around his local park.
Pettit told his interviewer that “there was not quite the excitement that there might be today” about the honour of being selected to play for his country.
It was no surprise, then, that Great Britain struggled to beat China 2-0 in the Mommsen Stadium, and then lost 5-4 to Poland in the Post Stadium. The British scored first but then went 5-1 down, a spirited fightback coming too late to save the day.
It was Mussolini’s student team that took the gold, beating Austria 2-1 in the 1936 Olympic final, watched by a crowd of 90,000. Italy’s Annibale Frossi, who wore a headband and spectacles, scored the first goal of the game in the 70th minute, and although Karl Kainberger equalised on the stroke of full-time, Frossi scored again in extra time. It was a hard-fought match, but considering what had gone on in the teams’ earlier games, the Olympic football final was surprisingly free of controversy.
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