90min
World News

The best male footballers to have won an Olympic gold medal

Jamie Spencer
Lionel Messi & Sergio Aguero won gold for Argentina in 2008
Lionel Messi & Sergio Aguero won gold for Argentina in 2008 / Koji Watanabe/Getty Images
facebooktwitterreddit

Football made its debut at the Olympics in 1900 and has featured in virtually every edition of the Games ever since, ditched only briefly in 1932 when it was hosted in Los Angeles.

For decades, the Olympics was exclusively for amateur competitors and football was no exception. Great Britain were dominant in the early years, while Uruguay won back-to-back tournaments in the 1920s the run-up to hosting the first ever World Cup in 1930.

But with domestic football turning professional in more and more countries, eastern European countries soon came to dominate the medals. Players from the Soviet Union and other eastern bloc nations were often state-sponsored, allowing them to keep their amateur status, making them eligible for the Olympics but still with the benefits of being full-time players.

It wasn’t until 1984 that professional footballers were allowed to enter the Olympics for the first time and, even then, an agreement with FIFA ensured that European or South American players could only be selected if they hadn’t already played at a World Cup.

By 1992, Olympic football started to take shape as what we would recognise today, when it was transformed into an Under-23 tournament and all other restrictions removed. The over-age rule, allowing each country to select up to three players outside the age limit, was created in 1996.

Over the decades, in both the amateur era and professional era, the men’s Olympic football tournament has seen some of the world’s best players compete.

Stretching back more than a century, here’s a look at the best players to have won gold.


1. Vivian Woodward (1908, 1912)

An architect by trade, Vivian Woodward retained amateur status during the boom or professionalism in the early 20th century, despite playing for Tottenham and Chelsea, and playing internationally for England.

That allowed him to go the Olympics in 1908 and 1912 as Great Britain captain, winning a gold medal on both occasions. His 29 goals for England was a national record until 1958 and he remains 10th on the all-time list.

2. Gunnar Nordahl (1948)

Sweden's Gunnar Nordahl went on to become an AC Milan legend
Sweden's Gunnar Nordahl went on to become an AC Milan legend / Central Press/Getty Images

Prior to joining AC Milan and becoming one of the Rossoneri’s greatest players of all time, Swedish forward Gunnar Nordahl was joint top scorer at the 1948 Olympics. He joined Milan only a few months later and went on to be Serie A top scorer on five occasions, still a league record.

3. Nils Liedholm (1948)

Nils Liedholm was one of three Swedish stars to join Milan in the late 1940s
Nils Liedholm was one of three Swedish stars to join Milan in the late 1940s / STAFF/Getty Images

Nils Liedholm also made the switch from Swedish football to Milan in the wake of the 1948 Olympics, joining Nordahl and fellow international teammate Gunnar Gren. He stayed at Milan for 17 years as a player, assistant coach and eventually as manager.

4. Ferenc Puskas (1952)

Ferenc Puskas helped make Hungary the best team in the world in the 1950s
Ferenc Puskas helped make Hungary the best team in the world in the 1950s / STAFF/Getty Images

Hungary were the best international team in the world in the 1950s and their success started with victory at the Olympics in 1952. Ferenc Puskas was the leading star of that team and went on to become an international legend of the game in the years that followed.

5. Sandor Kocsis (1952)

Sandor Kocsis went on to excel at the 1954 World Cup
Sandor Kocsis went on to excel at the 1954 World Cup / Keystone/Getty Images

Sandor Kocsis was the other great 1950s Hungarian forward, a teammate of Puskas at club and international level. Two years after Olympic glory in 1952, he finished top scorer at the 1954 World Cup and would end an illustrious career at Barcelona after fleeing his homeland.

6. Lev Yashin (1956)

Lev Yashin
Lev Yashin is revered as one of the all-time great goalkeepers / Central Press/Getty Images

Lev Yashin is still remembered as one of the all-time great goalkeepers and won an Olympic gold medal for the Soviet Union in 1956. Despite the quality of the Soviet team of that era, it was one of only two international honours he won alongside the inaugural European Championship in 1960.

7. Luis Enrique (1992)

Luis Enrique was part of Spain's young squad in 1992
Luis Enrique was part of Spain's young squad in 1992 / VINCENT ALMAVY/Getty Images

At 22, Luis Enrique had just finished his first season as a Real Madrid player when he helped Spain win an Olympic gold at the Barcelona Games in 1992. Four years later, he completed a controversial transfer to Barca and went on to become a legend of the club.

8. Pep Guardiola (1992)

Pep Guardiola won the European Cup and the Olympics in the same year
Pep Guardiola won the European Cup and the Olympics in the same year / Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

In one magical summer in 1992, Pep Guardiola played a crucial role in helping Barcelona winning a first ever European Cup and then Spain winning an Olympic gold medal for the first time. His experience was only heightened by the Games being hosted in his home city.

9. Nwankwo Kanu (1996)

Kanu played a major role as Nigeria shocked the world in 1996
Kanu played a major role as Nigeria shocked the world in 1996 / Ben Radford/Getty Images

Nigeria shocked the world in 1996 to beat talented Brazil and Argentina sides, both packed with future legends, to Olympic gold. Nwankwo Kanu, already a Champions League winner with Ajax, scored a late equaliser in the semi-final against Brazil and then a golden goal extra-time winner.

10. Jay-Jay Okocha (1996)

Jay-Jay Okocha was a key part of Nigeria's golden generation
Jay-Jay Okocha was a key part of Nigeria's golden generation / Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Jay-Jay Okocha was probably the most widely popular member of Nigeria's famed 1990s golden generation. He and a handful of the Olympic champions of 1996 had already been to the 1994 World Cup.

11. Samuel Eto’o (2000)

Samuel Eto'o was a superstar in the making when he won an Olympic gold medal in Sydney
Samuel Eto'o was a superstar in the making when he won an Olympic gold medal in Sydney / PATRICK HERTZOG/Getty Images

Samuel Eto'o was only 19 and had recently left Real Madrid to kickstart his club career at Real Mallorca when Cameroon won Olympic gold in 2000, becoming the second successive African winners.

12. Carlos Tevez (2004)

Carlos Tevez was top scorer at the 2004 Olympics
Carlos Tevez was top scorer at the 2004 Olympics / JACQUES DEMARTHON/Getty Images

Carlos Tevez was yet to become a household name in Europe when he won an Olympic gold medal with Argentina in 2004, but he was already a rising superstar in South America and scored eight goals in six games in Athens.

13. Roberto Ayala (2004)

Roberto Ayala
Roberto Ayala captained Argentina as an over-age player in 2004 / Stu Forster/Getty Images

A 31-year-old Roberto Ayala was Argentina captain in 2004. He had previously played in a Champions League final for Valencia and was widely recognised as one of the best centre-backs in Europe at the time.

14. Javier Mascherano (2004, 2008)

Javier Mascherano won Olympics golds in 2004 & 2008
Javier Mascherano won Olympics golds in 2004 & 2008 / Stu Forster/Getty Images

Footballers very rarely win more than one Olympic gold medal, but Javier Mascherano has two from the 2004 and 2008 tournaments. He had only recently turned 20 for the first and was later a designated over-age player.

15. Lionel Messi (2008)

Argentinian forward Lionel Messi kisses
Argentinian forward Lionel Messi kisses his Olympic gold / JEWEL SAMAD/Getty Images

Barcelona didn't want to release Lionel Messi for the 2008 Olympics as it meant him missing the start of the 2008/09 club season. They refused to give permission to Argentina to call him up until Pep Guardiola personally intervened to convince the club to let him go.

16. Angel Di Maria (2008)

Angel Di Maria was a Benfica player in 2008
Angel Di Maria was a Benfica player in 2008 / Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Angel Di Maria scored the winning goal in the 2008 gold medal match between Argentina and Nigeria, having earlier netted an extra-time winner in the quarter-final against Netherlands

17. Sergio Aguero (2008)

Sergio Aguero
Sergio Aguero scored twice the 2008 semi-final / Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Sergio Aguero only scored two goals at the 2008 Olympics as Argentina retained their title, but they were absolutely crucial. He netted a brace in a 3-0 semi-final win over South American rivals Brazil.

18. Juan Roman Riquelme (2008)

Juan Roman Riquelme was Argentina captain in 2008
Juan Roman Riquelme was Argentina captain in 2008 / MARTIN BERNETTI/Getty Images

Juan Roman Riquelme was already 30 in 2008 but got his chance to go to the Olympics that summer as one of Argentina's designated over-age players, captaining the team to gold medal success.

19. Marquinhos (2016)

Marquinhos
Marquinhos scored a penalty the 2016 gold medal shootout / Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Marquinhos has developed into one of the best centre-backs in the world in recent years, hitting his peak. He was part of the Brazil generation that finally delivered an Olympic gold medal in football after years of waiting.

20. Neymar (2016)

Neymar
Neymar was the star attraction in the 2016 football tournament / Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Neymar was chosen as an over-age player in 2016 as Brazil aimed to win gold on home soil. Then with Barcelona, he scored four times en-route to glory, including in the gold medal match against Germany, while it was he who later converted the decisive penalty in the shootout win.


For more from Jamie Spencer, follow him on Twitter and Facebook!

facebooktwitterreddit