The origin of the Olympic Goal

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
November 19, 2018
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The most famous meeting between Argentina and Uruguay remains the final of the inaugural World Cup in 1930. Uruguay would reverse a 2-1 half-time deficit in Montevideo to win the game 4-2 in front of nearly 70,000 supporters. They became the first side to lift (what would, in 1949, become known as) the Jules Rimet trophy) and after nearly a decade of South American one-upmanship, Uruguay were the sport’s first anointed World Champions.

While the sport had had to wait until 1930 for its first truly international tournament, football had an Olympic history which dated back to 1900. The first two competitions were hardly global. Three teams competed and the matches were contested between clubs representing their nation rather by players drawn from a national pool. Upton Park FC, under the banner of Great Britain, took gold in 1900, while Canada’s Galt FC finished top of the podium four years later.

By 1924, three teams had risen to twelve and the tournament was a truly international affair. The game remained at different stages of evolution (and professionalism) around the world, though, and the first round in Paris captured those disparities: of the six matches played, half were decided by margins of five goals or more. Hungary gave Poland a 5-0 whipping, Uruguay schooled Yugoslavia 7-0, and Switzerland humbled Lithuania with nine unanswered goals.

The Uruguayans would triumph. They began with that demolition of the Yugoslavs, with an audience of just 1,000 spectators, knocked out the United States, France and Holland, and then defeated the Swiss 3-0 in the final in front of 41,000. In itself it was a remarkable story, the prelude to which involved the South Americans travelling to Europe in dingy, third-class conditions, taking a day-long train journey from Spain to France, and paying for the trip by playing nine different friendlies against Spanish club sides.

At first, Uruguay’s success was embraced in their home continent. They had won their Olympic gold with an evolved style of play and their superiority reflected well on Argentina, too, whose game was built upon shared tenets of expression and fluidity, and which had by that time forked away from English fundamentalism.

Football images: Manchester United in Belgrade, 1958.

Argentina hadn’t competed in 1924. In fact, in six of the previous seven South American championships they’d finished behind Uruguay on points. Nevertheless, the native assumption became that had they travelled to the Olympics, they and not the Uruguayans would have taken home the gold. It’s the kind of reductive argument that supporters are still blindly making today, but then – in 1924 – it created the conditions for a friendly: Argentina against Uruguay over two legs. As Jonathan Wilson notes in Angels With Dirty Faces, Uruguay’s motivation for accepting the challenge was likely financial, they were Olympic champions and a big public draw, while Argentina – of course – saw it as an opportunity to unofficially prise away their title.

The tie itself was too controversial to carry proper weight; it was marred by violence off the field and roughhousing on it, and resulted in a dramatic deterioration in inter-country relations. The two sides drew 1-1 in Montevideo and, a fortnight later on October 2nd and after a rescheduling because crowd trouble, Argentina won the second leg 2-1 – albeit after the match had been abandoned with four minutes left to play. Argentina had seen a strong penalty appeal turned down and the crowd had, in irritation, pelted the pitch with stones. At first the Uruguayan players returned fire with interest, then they left the field for good, with their opponents awarded the win and an aggregate victory.

A messy encounter, then, and as a result a game which hasn’t quite endured properly. Its first goal has done, though. It was the Olympic Goal. Following the IFAB rule change of June 1924, Huracan’s Cesareo Onzari became the first player to legally score directly from a corner. It wasn’t the moment which settled the tie, but its description has stuck in South America and is still used to describe such goals today. It’s laboured, clearly, and derived from a rather forced attempt to bestow gravitas on a game which carried no real significance (and no connection to the Olympics), but it has nevertheless remained.

The goal directly from a corner: el gol olimpico.

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