The Finals – 1896: A Disputed Beginning

A long time ago…

To read the previous entry in this series, please click here.

It can be easy to forget that there was a time before wall-to-wall TV coverage, a time before radio, a time before all-encompassing reporting in newspapers, a place when football was still more of a curious pastime of rising popularity than the cultural behemoth that it was today. From its codification to the end of the 19th century the sport was in a state of near constant evolution in terms of its accepted ruleset, its geographical spread and in the formation of those competitions that would, in some cases, come to define it. It would take over half-a-century from that codification for the World Cup as we understand it to come into view, and even a few decades for something even vaguely resembling an international football Final to be played. And here’s the rub: in the case of the very first one, the first instance of an organised competition that could be dubbed a distant precursor to a true world-wide footballing tournament, it isn’t really clear if it ever really took place at all. It’s something stuck in the nether world of fact and myth, football’s very own ancient legend.

International football truly began on the 30th November 1872, when sides representative of Scotland and England met in Hamilton Crescent, Partick, Scotland. Before then sides named “Scotland” and “England” had faced each other in challenge matches, but as the Scots tended to all be recruited from London based clubs, they are not taken as truly representative affairs. The November 1872 game, where Queen’s Park of Glasgow provided the Scottish players, was different. The game was, by the accounts of the day, an entertaining stalemate “…in every sense a signal success, as the play was throughout as spirited and a pleasant as can possibly be imagined.”1 International football did not start with a bang, the final score a 0-0 draw, but a start was a start. The enticing new sport that was becoming something of a phenomena in England, with new clubs popping up everywhere for the rich and poor alike, had now fully transcended the local dimension. In the coming years, representative sides for all of the “home nations” would appear to take part in what we would recognise as friendlies today, even as football continued its march into the rest of Europe and then the rest of the world.

Of course we must remember that what you would have seen then in terms of what football was, especially compared to the game as it is today, would have been unrecognisable in many key areas. Yes there was a ball, and eleven men on either side, and a goal, but after that things were different: players played in clothing that would seem laughably unsuitable in the current day age, with long-sleeved shirts and shorts that would have done little to aid aero-dynamism or heat exhaustion. Boots were hard things, with studs of metal if they were there at all. The ball would have been of a much thicker, harder variety as well. Games still operated in many respects on something approximating “jumpers for goalposts” with crossbars not a commonly seen facet of the sport for some time. And the minutia of accepted rules tended to change from area to area and competition to competition.

Most important to note is that the proceedings of a late 19th century football match would have seemed rather savage to an observer transported from 2022. Though the birth of association football came in tandem with efforts to eliminate the “hacking” of earlier rugby football, tackles were still hard, reflecting the nature of the game as being something of a spin-off from rugby, and what we would call violent action – from players and from the crowds of spectators who very often had free access to the playing area – a fairly standard part of the game. Clear outs and leg-breakers that would see players vilified a century later were part-and-parcel of proceedings, and of course so was the expectation that you would just get up and get on with it if the victim: there was no substitutes in those days, so if a player could not continue his team were simply down a man. Codification had created a structure to the game, but it was still decades away from achieving the kind of civility, for lack of a better term, that would make it familiar to the people reading these words. The actual play was rudimentary: only by the late 1870s were their efforts to move away from a dribbling-focused sport, where whoever had the ball essentially always tried to do it on their own, in favour of “combination play”, i.e., actually passing it around. Formations were rudimentary and rigid, with a heavy emphasis on lop-sidedly heavy attacking structures.2

From 1876 a competition that has sometimes been described as the “Football World Championship” started to take place in the United Kingdom, but this was, not unlike the modern-day “World Series” of American baseball, a localised club affair, more akin to a Super Cup contested by the best teams from Scotland and England. The first proper international football competition, whose early years coincided with the birth of the professional game, can be considered to be the British Home Championship, a curiously under-studied part of footballing history in that part of the world, wherein the teams of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales formalised a by-then regular series of friendly internationals into a small league. Scotland won the first iteration in 1883/84, and for the first decade and change of the competitions existence it was dominated by them and England. Unlike rugby union, the organisers of the “BHC” never really seemed to understand that expansion was required to stave off stagnation and apathy, and where the Six Nations is one of the premiere sporting competitions of this day and age, the BHC slowly died off, getting as far as the 1980s before obsolescence became extinction.3

While the winners of the BHC had cause to declare themselves the best in the world, the competition cannot really be considered a true progenitor of the World Cup or the other, more global, entities that came in-between, as it was inherently localised to the United Kingdom, with no room for anyone else to ever get a look in. As a league, it also didn’t have a Final, so will not be looked at much more closely by this series. But it is important to note, as it was an example for others to follow, proving by the year 1896 that it was possible for such a competition to be organised, to be regularly played and to attract consistent interest. At a time when the codification of old games had become rampant, and where there was an obvious hunger from the public for such codification to lead to regular competition, the creation of a larger scale version of the idea was inevitable. It just needed the right set of circumstances to come into being.

The latter half of the 19th century was full of efforts to hold larger-scale sporting events, with several regionalised affairs taking the “Olympic” name: one, held in the Shropshire market town of Much Wenlock in 1850, was especially influential. There was an enormous appetite for sporting showcases, and when French pedagogue Pierre de Cubertain advanced plans for a multi-nation multi-sports event to take place in Europe, he found a lot of takers willing to send athletes. After some behind-the-scenes wrangling that would give modern-day FIFA a run for its money, Athens was chosen as the first host.4 Over a week and a half in April of 1896, nine different disciplines would be officially contested across a variety of categories. Some of the hallmarks of the modern games, like a relatively flashy opening ceremony and a main stadium built (or rather, refurbished in this case) at huge expense, were present, but in this early stage of the modern Olympics’ existence there was also an unmistakable sense of ramshackleness: many of the competing athletes were only doing so because they happened to be in Athens at the time on other business, the rowing competition was cancelled at least partially because the right boats were not available and the wrestling final was postponed because it was held outdoors and had gone on too long: there was insufficient artificial light to keep going, so the competitors finished the match the following day.5 But regardless of any of this the Olympics, which attracted large crowds and worldwide interest, could not be called anything other than a success, kick-starting a tradition that continues to do this day.

But how does football come into it? The sport was either already the most popular in the world at the time in terms of the number of people who played it regularly, or was at least very much on the way to such an accolade, so there is no doubt that consideration was taken at the time for football to be one of the competitive affairs of the First Olympiad. But in the end there is no official record of football being such a thing in 1896. Instead, this opening aspect of football’s Olympic history has to be looked at through the guise of the so-called “demonstration sports”.

While not formally introduced to the Olympic make-up until the 1912 edition in Stockholm, there are records of demonstration sports being part-and-parcel of many of the proceeding Olympiads. This might be one of the strangest incongruities with the polished and highly scheduled Olympics that occurs today, where debate about what sports should gain Olympic status a key part of the International Olympic Committee’s remit. But back then, in the more relaxed environment of a time when the Olympics were almost a world’s fair of sport as opposed to a deadly serious paragon of athletic competition, there was scope for various sports and pastimes to be included in programmes on a purely friendly and uncompetitive manner. All the way up to 1992, the Olympics included demonstrations of sports that lacked formal competition, many of them regional games close to the heart of that years particular host: glima in 1912 in Stockholm; baseball in 1964 in Tokyo; Basque pelota in Barcelona in 1992. There were at times elements of actual structured competition in such things, and evidence that medals, though they did not count towards the actual Olympic total, being awarded on some occasions.6 It was in such an environment that we come to what we could, with some admitted stretching of the term, be the first major international football Final.

According to research undertaken in Denmark, football was very much a part of the first Olympics, with initial plans calling for games to take place between four clubs that had expressed an interest in travelling. In the end none of those teams, not identified, would end up going and instead a single game would be played, by sides representing Greece and Denmark. The Greeks came from the Sports Club Podilatikos Syllogos Athinon, whose members were also representing their nation in cycling events, while the Danes appear to have been a mix of members of established Danish clubs and Danish sailors who just happened to be in Athens at the time (sailors, merchant or military, were a key avenue for the worldwide exportation of football in those days). From what we can tell, only two “proper” footballers played for Denmark that day, Eugen Schmidt and Holger Nielsen of Københavns Roklub. They had not travelled to Athens just for football though, with Schmidt also representing his country in athletics and shooting, while Nielsen did the same in discus, shooting and fencing.

Played on the 12th April on the Padilatodromio, then used for Olympic cycling events but also the future home of Olympiacos, the match was a resounding victory for the Danes, with maybe 6’000 people in attendance, the contest attracting such interest as it was essentially being the first time a Greek national team in the sport had taken to the field. The exact score is in dispute, with victories of 9-0 or even 15-0 recorded for the visitors. It has been claimed that the game was refereed by Greek Prince George, son of the monarch who was a patron of the larger Olympics, and that the Danes received bronze medals for their achievement.7 Yet the whole thing is curiously under-reported, with it claimed by those Danish researchers that the demonstration games of the First Olympiad was consciously left out of official accounts because of their demonstration status.8

At least, that’s what some people think. Others disagree, and claim that no football of any kind took place at the first Olympics. Research undertaken by Bill Mallon and Voker Kruge of the International Society of Olympic Historians have claimed as such, basing their logic in the fact that most accounts of the Olympic Games of that year make no mention of football, not even local newspapers. They further posit that, as the scoreline of the alleged Denmark/Greece game is the same as another game that took place at a later tournament, in 1906, that it might be possible that some have mistakenly believed that the 1906 game took place earlier (it wouldn’t be the only time this occurred: the 1906 marathon medals have also been claimed to be for 1896.9 10) Placed against this is first-hand accounts from a Greek footballer and later referee, Malonis Isaias, who claimed the match in 1896 took place and a reference in a history of Ukrainian football from the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences, published in 1999, by a Russian representative attending the same game.11 12

It’s difficult to know. Isaias was talking about events that had happened 74 years before, and an almost throwaway reference to such a game in a document with a very different focus may be potentially guilty of the same mistakes of others. Things aren’t helped by the flip-flopping nature of FIFA’s later opinion: in 1976 a newssheet published by the governing body lists Denmark as the first in their Olympic “Roll of Honour”, stated as having prevailed in a two-team event in 1896, but subsequent documentation issued by the organisation doesn’t back this up. Their modern day opinion lists winners as far back only as 1908, when FIFA took over organising the Olympic tournament.13 14 For the years before that, the IOC insist football only appeared on the docket from 1900.15 Additional bits of information add to the confusion, with David Goldblatt’s exhaustive history of the game, The Ball Is Round, going even further than the two team demonstration match, claiming that a side representing Izmir, a region of the then Ottoman Empire, was also involved, and were soundly thrashed by the Danes 15-0, but this claim is made without source.16

It is frustrating to say, for both writer and I’m sure reader, but it seems as this must be chalked down to the dreaded “We may never know”. There is reasonable claim for both sides of the argument: enough sources that mention, even if only obliquely, that football happened in this semi-official capacity in 1896, and enough reasonable conjecture to cast some doubts. Future research and the discovery of new sources of evidence are always possible, and it may be that in time we might get a clearer answer.

Of course, even if this particular game of football took place I know that it stretching the bounds of credibility to really refer to it as a “Final”, let alone the first Final of an international footballing tournament. But, for the three decades and change that followed 1896, the Olympics was going to have that role, of providing to the planet the closest approximation of a footballing world champion that could be found. 1896 may or may not have been the start of that process, but whatever the reality, I find that it is a fairly interesting niche topic in the history of football, one that was worth the exploration. It’s quite the image at the end of the day: a random assortment of professionals, sailors and businessmen playing a team of cyclists, and with a Prince of all people officiating in the middle. It’s just too good of a story really, and that’s what all of us members of the football-mad horde are really after. Maybe the events of 1896 cannot be considered history, at least just yet, but there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of legend now and then.

Edit (12/05/2023): As noted by others in the comments since this article was posted, I feel it is only fair to acknowledge more directly the existence of sources in the Danish language that provide additional evidence that the 1896 demonstration of football took place. More information on them can be found at, via Footnote #7.

To read the next entry in this series, please click here.

To go the index, please click here.


  1. Charles W Alcock, The Scotsman newspaper, 28 November 1870, page 7.
  2. For an excellent summation of the early years of football, from rules to tactics to its frequent brutality, please see the early chapters of David Goldblatt’s The Ball Is Round: A Global History Of Football (2008)
  3. The British Home Championship” Exhibition at National Football Museum (Accessed 23/03/2023)
  4. David C. Young, The Modern Olympics: A Struggle for Revival (1998), pp 100-105
  5. For details on this and other aspects of the First Olympics, see The Olympic Games: BC 776 – AD 1896, a combined history/report from Pierre De Coubertin, Philemon Timoleon, N.G. Politis and Charalambos Anninos (1897) (Accessed 23/03/2023)
  6. Caig Reedie, Delivering London’s Olympic Dream: A Long Life in Sport (2022) “The IBF” p. 4
  7. Nitzan Zilburg, “Games of the I. Olympiad – Football Tournament” from The Rec.Sport.Soccer Statistics Foundation (Accessed 24/02/2023)
  8. Ibid (Accessed 23/02/2023)
  9. Bill Mallon and Victor Kruge, “The Rumoured Football Matches at the 1896 Olympics” from the Journal of Olympic History (JOH) (1 2017) (Accessed 24/02/2023)
  10. Karl Lennartz “The 2nd International Olympic Games in Athens 1906” from the JOH (December 2001/January 2002, p. 10) (Accessed 24/02/2023)
  11. ERT Historical Archive 0000021501 “Interview of the Journalist ANDREA BOMI with the veteran Footballer and Referee M. ISAIA” (in Greek)” (Accessed via 24/02/2023)
  12. Ukrainian State University of Telecommunications “Organisation and Implementation of Mini Football Competition” (in Ukrainian) p. 18 (Accessed via 24/02/2023)
  13. FIFA News April 1976 p. 206 (Accessed via 24/02/2023)
  14. “Men’s Olympic Football Tournament” (Accessed 24/02/2023)
  15. “International Association Football Federation” (Accessed 24/02/2023)
  16. Goldblatt, p. 243

Photo Credit

The Podilatodromio Velodrome in 1896. Photo in the public domain.

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4 Responses to The Finals – 1896: A Disputed Beginning

  1. Pingback: The Finals – 1900: The Amateurs, The Indigenous And The Students | Never Felt Better

  2. Nitzan Zilburg says:

    Yes, this is the post I meant to comment on. Olympic historians Fritz Wasner (Germany), Erik Bergvall (Sweden) and Peder Christian Andersen (Norway) (all primary sources) include the Danish football win in the total amount of points earned by the Danish athletes during the 1896 Olympic Games. They give 3 points for 1st place, 2 points for 2nd place and 1 point for 3rd place. For football Denmark got 1 point since it was an unofficial game (unofficially part of the 1896 Olympic programme). In total, according to these historians, Denmark earned 11 points during the 1896 Games: 10 points at the official competitions (Denmark had 1 1st place, 2 2nd place and 3 3rd place. If you calculate the points according to the mentioned above, it’s 10 points) plus 1 point at the unofficial (Football) competitions. Today’s statistical works give 10 points for Denmark at the 1896 Games. They don’t include 1 point for football. That football match did indeed take place!

  3. Nitzan Zilburg says:

    I would like to add also that the three Olympic historians mentioned in my previous comment also mention the football tournament which Denmark won at the 1906 (Olympic) Intercalated Games, so there was NO confusion made between the 1896 Olympic Games and the 1906 (Olympic) Intercalated Games!

  4. Pingback: The Finals: Index | Never Felt Better

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