Faster, Higher, Stronger. An Olympic motto that embodies the raw majesty of sporting endeavour, but one which poorly captures the artistry and tactical nuance of The Beautiful Game.
Indeed, the Olympic Games and football have long been uneasy bedfellows. For many years, FIFA refused to acknowledge the Olympic football competition, which they viewed as a threat to their own showpiece World Cup. In recent decades, an awkward compromise has been struck in the form of an under-23 competition; a format that curiously allows a handful of over-23 players. It is a niche that exists far from the pinnacle of international football.
Things first began to get complicated in the 1950s. The rising tide of professionalism in football stoked a direct conflict with the amateur ideals upon which the Olympic Games were founded. The result was an eclectic football competition featuring state-sponsored powerhouses, aspiring youngsters and plucky amateurs drawn from all corners of the globe.
Eastern bloc countries had dominated proceedings in both the Helsinki (1952) and Melbourne (1956) Games. The employment of key players within state and military occupations technically satisfied the amateur criterion, even if those players were professional footballers in all but name. The likes of Yugoslavia, Hungary and Poland went into the 1960 tournament fielding their strongest teams, although the reigning gold medalists, Soviet Union, failed to qualify from a ‘group of death’ featuring Bulgaria and Romania.
Despite this inherently uneven playing field, Italy went into their home Olympics with high hopes of emerging with a medal. Their squad was effectively an under-21 team, comprised of the brightest talents from across Serie A. Domestic rules prevented players from signing a full professional contract until they reached the age of 21 and several had delayed doing so to remain eligible for the Games that summer.
The Azzurri employed the dual coaching axis of AC Milan’s Gipo Viani and Padova’s Nereo Rocco to steer the young squad. Young starlet Gianni Rivera was the fulcrum of the team and had just marked his 17th birthday by transferring from Alessandria to AC Milan. Tarcisio Burgnich (Juventus) and Giovanni Trapattoni (AC Milan) provided stability at the back, whilst Giacomo Bulgarelli (Bologna) spear-headed the attack.
The Great Britain team that touched down in Rome was comprised of amateurs drawn from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland; a diplomatic balance that spoke to the combustible politics of home nations football. Although Great Britain’s players were largely drawn from non-league clubs, their amateur status was often a reflection of personal choice rather than footballing ability.
The controversial Football League pay cap of £20 per week was seen as an unfair restraint on trade and was understandably detested by the players. It put an entirely different veneer on the concept of amateurism, with many players finding they were financially better off combining a non-league career with a more conventional day job. A case in point was goalkeeper Mike Pinner, an Oxbridge educated solicitor on amateur terms with QPR, or Jim Lewis playing as an amateur for Walthamstow Avenue (423 goals in 522 appearances) on a Saturday, whilst selling Thermos flasks in the week.
Amongst the other tournament hopefuls were the South American trio of Peru, Argentina and reigning World Cup-holders Brazil, all of whom were in a similar position to Italy in fielding youthful teams. Several less-developed footballing nations made up the numbers, primarily those emerging from the African, Asian and Middle-Eastern qualifiers.
Two brand new stadia were constructed in preparation for the Games. The blue-ribbon matches were held within the elegant contours of Pierluigi Nervi’s concrete masterpiece, Stadio Flaminio in Rome. Meanwhile, a 90,000 capacity venue was constructed in Naples’ Fuorigrotto district, later christened Stadio San Paolo. Existing stadia in Florence, Pescara and Livorno were employed for the tournament, as were smaller venues in Grosseto and L’Aquila.
A group stage was introduced to the Olympic football tournament for the first time in 1960, guaranteeing a minimum of three matches for each of the 16 participating nations. The highest placed team from each group would then progress to the knock-out semi-finals. The competition got underway on 26th August, with around 60,000 descending upon Stadio San Paolo for Italy’s opener against Formosa (Taiwan). Attendances elsewhere were more modest, ranging from a few thousand to barely a hundred hardy souls turning out for Great Britain’s final group game.
The early rounds provided few surprises with Denmark and Hungary emerging from their respective groups at a canter. Group A offered greater drama with favourites Yugoslavia, silver medalists in three consecutive Games, fortunate to edge out neighbours Bulgaria on goal difference after the two sides played out an exhilarating 3-3 draw.
But it was Group B that really captured the imagination. Italy trailed Brazil for over an hour in the group decider, before a triple salvo from the hosts in the final 20 minutes turned the tables. Great Britain stoically finished third in that group having slipped to a narrow defeat against Brazil (in stifling conditions and finishing the game with ten men due to an injury) and then drawing with Italy in front of a partisan Roman crowd.Embed from Getty Images
AC Milan’s Sandro Salvadore battles with Barnet’s Bobby Brown during a 2-2 draw in Rome
The hosts Italy met Yugoslavia in Naples in the semi-final. A tense match finished goalless after 90 minutes, having been delayed twice due to floodlight failure. The Yugoslavs pulled ahead in extra time only to be pegged back by a goal from Bologna’s Paride Tumburus. With nothing between the two sides on the pitch, Italy were cruelly eliminated by the toss of a coin. Meanwhile, Denmark unexpectedly overcame Hungary in the other semi-final in Rome.
The stage was set for the final at Stadio Flaminio between Yugoslavia and Denmark. After riding their luck in the group stages and semi-final, Yugoslavia came out all guns blazing in the denouement. Milan Galic opened the scoring in the first minute with an unstoppable 30-yard drive. The Balkan side eased into a three-goal lead before Galic was dismissed for insulting Italian referee Concetto Lo Bello. Denmark pulled back a consolation goal, but it was too little too late as the favourites eased their way to the gold medal.
The Rome Olympics are best remembered for the graceful brilliance of Cassius Clay in the boxing ring, or perhaps the bare-foot heroics of Abebe Bikila, which marked the beginning of East African dominance in marathon running. The legacy for football, and Italian football in particular, was more subtle; coming 8 years later when the Azzurri’s senior team were victorious in the 1968 European Championship. In that squad was Rivera, Burgnich, Bulgarelli, Sandro Salvatore, Giorgio Ferrini – all players who had cut their teeth in the home Olympics.Embed from Getty Images
L-R: Denmark’s Jenson, whose team won the silver medal, Yugoslavia’s Kostic (gold) and Hungary’s Varhidi (bronze).
On a personal level, there was a greater triumph still for Giovanni Trapattoni. During Italy’s pre-tournament Olympic retreat in the town of Grottaferatta, Il Trap met a young lady by the name of Paola Miceli. Although he returned to Milan straight after the Olympics, his military service posting in the capital allowed him to sustain the relationship, which eventually flourished into marriage. Last year, the couple celebrated their emerald anniversary.
And what became of those plucky Great Britain players? Barnet forward Bobby Brown was courted by AC Milan in the aftermath of the tournament, having caught the eye of Gipo Viani. The details of a draft contract were being finalised when Viani tragically suffered a heart attack. That was the last Brown heard from the Milanese giants and he had to settle instead for a move to Fulham.
Several Great Britain players graduated into the professional ranks when the PFA successfully lobbied for the pay cap to be lifted in 1961. Left-back Davy Holt spent nearly a decade with Hearts, winning full Scotland caps. Laurie Brown left Bishop Auckland and the world of joinery for a professional career which spanned both sides of the north London divide. Defender Tommy Thompson, the player who had suffered a leg break in the Brazil match forged a successful career with Blackpool.
As for Olympic football, it was 1984 before a medal of any hue was awarded to a country outside the Eastern bloc. Even then, the French triumph in Los Angeles was aided by the widespread boycotting of the Games by Socialist states. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the admission of professional players and the gravitation towards an under-23 format, a more diverse set of victors have emerged from Europe, South America and Africa.
Still regarded as a curiosity in western Europe, the Olympic football gold medal remains a coveted title in most parts of the world.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this you may be interested in our articles about the plans to build a Pier Luigi Nervi masterpiece in Swindon or the story of Great Britain’s Laurie Brown.Embed from Getty Images
The 1960 Great Britain Olympic football team depart London Airport for Rome