Soccer and water polo were the first team sports to be included in the Olympics in 1900. Unofficial soccer matches were played in Athens in 1896, but men’s soccer has been included on every Olympic program since 1900, except 1932. Women’s soccer was included for the first time in 1996. The United States and Brazil are tied for the most Olympic soccer medals, with seven apiece. The U.S. men haven’t won a soccer medal in more than 100 years, while the U.S. women have won five straight, including three straight golds.
The U.S. women are frequently the favorites at most tournaments, but the Americans have required a bit of drama in order to retain their reputation. Abby Wambach’s late equalizer in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Women’s World Cup against Brazil kept the U.S. title hopes alive, and captured the attention of the nation. Although Japan ended the dream run in the final by defeating the Americans in penalties, the women had a chance for revenge a year later at the London Olympics. After winning their first four games with relative ease, the Americans faced a stingy opponent in the semifinals: neighbor and rival Canada. A hat trick from Christine Sinclair had put the Canadians ahead 3-2 late in the second half, but Wambach gave the Americans hope when she converted a penalty in the 80th minute. Extra time had nearly expired and the game seemed destined for penalty kicks, when Heather O’Reilly served a last-second serve into the box that Alex Morgan headed home for the 4-3 win. The U.S. was rewarded for its late heroics with another meeting with Japan in the gold medal final. There, the Americans required a little less theatrics, as two goals from Carli Lloyd proved to be enough for the team’s third straight gold medal.
While the World Cup typically features the world’s best soccer players, the Olympics have showcased many future stars since the implementation of the under-23 rule at the 1992 Olympics. Here is a list of some notable stars who were under the age limit when they competed at the Olympics. What future stars will we see in Rio?
- Gianluigi Buffon (ITA) – 1996 Atlanta Games
- Ronaldo (BRA) – 1996 Atlanta Games
- Roberto Carlos (BRA) – 1996 Atlanta Games
- Samuel Eto’o (CAM) – 2000 Sydney Games
- Andrea Pirlo (ITA) – 2000 Sydney Games*
- Xavi (ESP) – 2000 Sydney Games
- Cristiano Ronaldo (POR) – 2004 Athens Games
- Carlos Tevez (ARG) – 2004 Athens Games
- Sergio Aguero (ARG) – 2008 Beijing Games
- Michael Bradley (USA) – 2008 Beijing Games
- Lionel Messi (ARG) – 2008 Beijing Games
- Neymar (BRA) – 2012 London Games
- Giovani dos Santos (MEX) – 2012 London Games
- Daniel Sturridge (GBR) – 2012 London Games
* Pirlo also competed in 2004 as one of the overage players