Lionel Messi looks for a shot against the defense Nigeria’s Victor Obinna in the 2008 gold medal match (Scott Bales/YCJ Photo).

By Michael Lewis

FrontSoccer.com Editor

A coin toss that decided a semifinal. A 10-goal performance in one game. An abandoned championship game. And a goal scored with a teammate already in the net.

It may not have the prestige or have received the world-wide recognition of the World Cup, but the Olympic soccer tournament certainly has carved out its nice and had more than its share of memorable moments and controversies through the years.

Michel Platini, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Hugo Sanchez, Juergen Klinsmann, Romario, both Ronaldos and Carlos Tevez are just some of the modern-day stars who started their international careers in the Summer Games, while Lev Yashin, Jose Lenardo Andrade and Kaz Deyna cemented theirs.

In the fifties and sixties and seventies, questions over who was an amateur and the dominance of the Soviet bloc dominated the headlines. In fact, for most of the post-World War II era, from 1952 to 1980, Eastern European countries won 22 out of a possible 25 medals, with Sweden (1952), Italy (1960) and Japan (1968) as the only aberrations from the rule, each earning a bronze.

In recent years, the Olympic soccer tournament has emerged as a stepping stone for the players to greater glory, many times to their national team and the World Cup. It has become essentially an Under-23 tournament, although each qualifying country is allowed three over-age players.

But it wasn’t always this way. At the turn of the century, soccer was one of the least organized and under-publicized events at the Olympics. In fact, it took three appearances as an exhibition sport before it received the official stamp of approval.

London, 1908

After tries in Athens (1896), Paris (1900) and St. Louis (1904), the first official Olympic soccer tournament was held as host England won the first of two consecutive gold medals.

Not very much is known about these games, as the English defeated Denmark for the gold, 2-0, with the Netherlands taking third. Before succumbing to England, the Danes had some great moments as well, vanquishing France, 17-1, in the semifinals. Midfielder Sophus Neilsen scored a record 10 goals in that match.

Stockholm, 1912

The 1-2-3 finish was duplicated four years later. The Danes never had an opportunity to duplicate their 17-1 romp because the French dropped out of the competition before it began. But Germany and Gottfried Fuchs matched the feats of a 16-goal margin of victory and a 10-goal individual performance in a 16-0 triumph over Russia in the consolation bracket.

England downed Denmark in the final, 4-2.

Antwerp, 1920

After an eight-year hiatus due to World War I, soccer returned to the global arena in Belgium as the Olympic flag and its famous five rings was hoisted for the first time.

Playing in its very first international competition, Czechoslovakia proved it could take on the world and then some, outscoring its opposition, 15-1, en route to the final. But the Czechs never finished what they started against Belgium in the championship game, walking off the field to protest a disputed goal in the 31st minute. Belgium, which led, 2-0, was declared champion.

But who would take home the silver? A playoff was required, but France refused to play because a good portion of its squad had returned home. So Italy, Norway, Spain and Sweden played off for the right to meet the Netherlands for second place. Spain earned the berth, defeating the Dutch, 3-1.

Paris, 1924

The confusion, chaos and weird happenings that reigned at these Games — also known as the Chariots of Fire Olympics — was set in the opening match, when Spanish captain Pedro Vallana accidentally scored an own goal to lift Italy to a 1-0 victory.

Meanwhile, Uruguay, basically an unknown quantity internationally, turned into the sensation of the tournament, rolling over Yugoslavia in its first game, 7-0, behind legendary midfielder Jose Leandro Andrade. Andrade, nicknamed the Black Pearl (the incomparable Pele was the second one with the nickname), used his superior playmaking skills to propel the Uruguayans into the final against Switzerland.

Of course, getting there was half the fun.

In the semifinals, Uruguay defeated the Netherlands, but the losers protested the ruling of a penalty kick that turned out to be the winning goal. The Netherlands lost that round, but Uruguay protested the Olympic Committee’s selection of a Dutch referee for the final. To appease the South Americans, the committee pulled the name of a final referee out of a hat and picked out an Englishman.

In the other semifinal, Switzerland turned back Sweden, 2-1, behind two goals by Xam Abegglen, but was almost knocked out of the competition because of its lack of finances. The Swiss’ train ticket was valid only 10 days and their money had run out. An appeal by a newspaper, Sport, brought in the needed funds. But the money could not buy happiness or a title, as the fabulous Uruguayans rolled to a 3-0 triumph and the gold as 30,000 fans watched and another 10,000 were turned away.

Amsterdam, 1928

If there was any doubt of Uruguay’s prowess, it was all but dispelled four years later, winning a second successive gold medal, led by eight returnees from the 1924 squad, including Andrade, Jose Naszzi and Hector Scarone.

In the only all-South American final in Olympic history, Argentina and Uruguay played to a 1-1 tie. Three days later, in a game officiated by a Dutchman (remember 1924?), Uruguay, using five fresh players, prevailed, 2-1, on a counterattack goal by Scarone.

Only two years later, these two teams met in the finals of another international competition — the very first World Cup — in Montevideo, Uruguay, with the home team winning to cap off an amazing hat-trick of prestigious soccer titles.

Berlin, 1936

Because of the growing professional influence and of the presence of a World Cup, there were difficulties defining what an amateur was. With no solution at the time, the International Olympic Committee decided not to have soccer at the 1932 Summer Games in Los Angeles. But the sport returned as strong as ever in Germany in 1936 because organizers needed the money generated by soccer.

There might have been times, however, when the organizers might have had a second thought or two because of several unruly incidents.

In Italy’s 1-0 victory over the United States, for instance, two American players were injured when the referee ordered Achille Piccini of Italy off the field. The player refused. Several teammates surrounded the official and covered his mouth with their hands. Piccini remained in the game.

That turned out to be the warm-up for the quarterfinal confrontation between Peru and Austria. Peru rallied from a two-goal deficit in the final 15 minutes of regulation. During overtime, Peruvian fans ran onto the field and attacked an Austrian player. Thanks to the chaos, Peru scored twice and won, 4-2.

Or so the South Americans thought. Austria protested and the International Olympic Committee ordered a replay without any spectators. Peru refused and its entire Olympic squad left in protest.

Austria eventually earned the right to face Italy in the final. Right wing Annibale Frossi, who wore a headband and glasses, scored seven goals in the tournament, including one in overtime for a 2-1 Italian win for the gold.

London, 1948

Because of World War II, there were 12 years between Olympics. In the while, the professional game flourished and became stronger. As a result, the Eastern European bloc began its dominance, but not before Sweden became champion of these Summer Games. The Swedes were spectacular, scoring 22 goals in only four games, including a 12-0 rout of Korea and a 5-3 win over Yugoslavia in the final.

It was in Sweden’s 4-1 semifinal victory over Denmark that one of the most unusual goals ever was scored by Henry Carlsson. His teammate, Gunnar Nordahl, found himself caught offside after several quick possession changes. He took himself off the field by running into the back of the Danish goal. Seconds later, Nordahl caught a header from Carlsson. It was ruled a goal.

Helsinki, 1952

This tournament saw the birth of one of the greatest soccer teams — Hungary, which was soon to become known as the Magic Magyars. And magic did the Hungarians perform, rolling to a 5-0 record, scoring 20 goals and allowing only two.

The 2-0 gold-medal game win over Yugoslavia might have been anti-climatic, considering the events leading up to the final.

In fact, Yugoslavia almost did not make it to the championship match. In an early-round encounter, Yugoslavia led the Soviet Union, 5-1, at one juncture before the Soviets rallied from a 5-2 deficit with 14 minutes left to force a 5-5 tie. It was one of the greatest comebacks in international soccer. Two days later, Yugoslavia won the rematch, 3-1.

But it was Hungary’s tournament. Led by goalkeeper Gyula Grocsis, Fernec Puskas and Nandor Hidegkuti’s two goals, Hungary produced a 2-0 final win.

This Hungarian side virtually would be the same team that stunned England at Wembley, 6-3, suffering its first home defeat, and the same team that entered the 1954 World Cup as the favorite before succumbing to West Germany in the title match, 3-2.

Melbourne, 1956

In Australia, the Soviet Union finally won its first Olympic soccer medal — a gold one. Though the Soviets had traditionally downplayed the star system, these Games marked the emergence of goalkeeper Lev Yashin, who surrendered but two goals in five games and who eventually would achieve even more international greatness, including participating in three World Cups, stopping more than 100 penalty kicks and playing for his country 78 times.

On the way to the final — a 1-0 victory over Yugoslavia, which captured its third successive silver medal — the Soviets almost did not get past a tough Indonesian squad. Indonesia unveiled an iron curtain of its own, keeping 10 players in the penalty area on many occasions and one striker up field when the Soviets had the ball. The ploy worked, because they played the favorites to a scoreless tie. In the replay, however, the Soviets prevailed, 4-0.

Rome, 1960

Three times the bridesmaid, Yugoslavia’s patience and soccer ability finally paid off this time round as it took home the gold.

This time a little luck was on the Yugoslavians’ side as qualified for the semifinals by winning a coin toss after tying Bulgaria in the preliminary pool. They made sure the flip was no mistake in the final as captain Milan Galic scored on a 30-yard yard blast in the opening minute en route to a 3-1 win over Denmark.

Tokyo, 1964

Even before the opening kickoff, the 1964 event was marred because 328 people were killed during rioting at a qualifying match between Peru and Argentina in Lima. The riot turned out to be the start of one headache after another as North Korea dropped out after some of its track and swimming athletes were suspended for competing in some unsanctioned games. Italy also called it quits after it was accused of housing several professional players. There were members of the Italian Olympic team who also played for Inter, which defeated Real Madrid in the European Cup final.

In a rather undistinguished Olympic final, Hungary won its second gold medal, edging Czechoslovakia, 2-1, on defender Josef Vojta’s own goal and Fernec Bene’s score.

Mexico City, 1968

More confusion followed soccer four years later. Morocco, which had qualified for the tournament, refused to play Israel. Morocco’s replacement, Ghana, lost to Israel, 5-3, in a fight-filled match that reportedly continued at the Olympic Village (although former Israeli Olympian and Adelphi soccer star Roby Young said it didn’t happen). Czechoslovakia and Guatemala also fought, setting the stage for two forgettable medal games.

During Mexico’s 2-0 loss to Japan in the bronze-medal game, irate fans at Azteca Stadium threw cushions onto the field to protest a call. They repeated their actions in the final.

Bulgaria, which gained the semifinals only after a coin flip, scored first, but the Hungarians took control with two goals within a 60-second span late in the first half.

The game quickly deteriorated as referee Diego DeLeo red-carded Bulgarian forward Yancho Dimitrov for rough play. Atabas Hrisou kicked the ball at DeLeo and also was ejected. Another player was thrown out and Bulgaria was forced to play with eight players as fans again threw cushions onto the field in what turned into a 4-1 Hungarian triumph.

Munich, 1972

Hungary tried to make it three straight in West Germany, but fell to Kaz Deyna (who eventually joined and star for the San Diego Sockers of the Major Indoor Soccer League) and Poland in the final, 2-1. Trailing 1-0 at the half, Poland took advantage of near gale-force winds at its backs to pull out the win.

Deyna, who scored both goals in the final and who finished with nine goals, was far from a one-man show. He had some help from Gregorz Lato, who would later shine in the World Cup, and Robert Gadocha.

In an Olympic first, two countries took home bronze medals as East Germany and the Soviet Union played to a 2-2 tie in the third-place match.

Even the games were played in a soccer-rich country such as West Germany, big crowds sometimes were hard to come by. For example, an estimated 500 spectators turned out to watch Poland and Morocco, and Sudan and Mexico play in Nuremburg.

Montreal, 1976

Poland was forced to settle for a silver this time as East Germany captured the gold with a 3-1 victory. The winners scored early and late, striking twice in the opening 15 minutes and again with six minutes left.

Polish striker Andrzez Szarmach led all scorers with six goals.

The Montreal Games also will be remembered as the springboard of the international careers of several big-name players, a 21-year-old French midfielder named Michel Platini (he wore No. 11, not 10 at the time), Spanish goalkeeper Luis Arconada and Mexico’s 18-year-old midfielder Hugo Sanchez, a former Dallas Burn player who was fired as Mexican National Team not too long ago.

Platini, incidentally, scored three goals in the tournament, including both in a 2-1 win over Guatemala.

Moscow, 1980

The Communist countries held their own Soviet bloc party this time because many of the Western nations boycotted the Olympics. Remember U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s boycott, due to the Soviets’ Afghanistan invasion? Because of the many no-shows, many soccer observers did not view these Games as a true Olympics.

But tell that to Czechoslovakia, which defeated East Germany, 1-0, on a goal by substitute midfielder Jindrich Svoboda, to capture its first gold. For the third consecutive Olympics, the defending champion took home a silver and the final was played in the rain.

The Soviets finished with a bronze, but that wasn’t good enough for their fans, who whistled their displeasure at their heroes during the medal ceremonies.

Los Angeles, 1984

The Eastern European countries returned the favor — as in boycott — 12 years ago, citing possible security problems. So, only weeks before the start of the Summer Games, favored East Germany, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union pulled out, and West Germany, Italy and Norway were in.

Despite the 11th-hour call, Italy did quite well, losing to Yugoslavia, a communist country that decided to show up after all, in the bronze-medal match, 2-1.

In the final, the French capped a memorable year (they had won the European Championship only weeks before), by beating Brazil, 2-0. Francois Brisson and Daniel Xuereb collected second-half goals for the winners.

As big a story was the overflow crowds at the four sites — Palo Alto, Calif., Annapolis, Md., Cambridge, Mass. and particularly Pasadena, Calif., where a U.S.-record crowd of 101,799 watched the final.

In fact, 1,421,627 spectators watched soccer over 32 games, the most attended Olympic event, laying the groundwork for the U.S. bid for the 1994 World Cup. FIFA awarded the bid to the United States in 1988.

Seoul, 1988

Ironically, the Soviet Union, which utilized season professionals for many years, won the first Olympic soccer tournament that featured players under 23 years of age.

The Soviets recorded a 5-0-1 mark, defeating Brazil, 2-1, in overtime for the gold. Romario, who would go on to World Cup stardom two years ago and who was the tournament’s top scorer (seven goals), lifted the Brazilians into a 1-0 advantage in the 29th minute. But Igor Dobrovolsky equalized with a penalty kick in the 63rd. The score remained that way until extratime, when substitute Yuri Savichev struck in the 103rd minute.

The tournament was not without surprises. Zambia, for example, stunned Italy, 4-0, in the opening round behind the hat-trick of Kalusha Bwalya (many players on this team died in a plane crash near Gambia en route to a World Cup qualifying match in 1993). Italy went on to lose to West Germany in the bronze-medal match, 3-0. Zambia? The Africans lost to the Germans in the quarterfinals, 4-0, as a striker by the name of Juergen Klinsmann registered a hat-trick.

In the semifinals, the Germans could not get past Brazil, which prevailed, 3-2, on penalty kicks after a 1-1 tie in regulation and extratime. In the other match, the Soviets proved they were specialists in overtime victories, surviving a wild, 3-2 affair with Italy that was tied 1-1 after 90 minutes. Arminas Narbekovas (92nd minute) and Alexi Mikhailchenko (106th minute) struck first for the winners before Andrea Carnevale, who later would be suspended from AS Roma (Italian Serie A) for a year because of drug usage, scored with two minutes remaining in the extra period.

So, the Olympic soccer tournament took its place in FIFA’s four major tournaments — the Under-17, Under-20, Under-23 (Olympics) and the World Cup.

Barcelona, 1992

It’s not often the hosts win Olympic gold in soccer, but the Spanish did just and in dramatic fashion, to boot.

Before there was a golden goal to decide overtime matches, Spain put its own twist on it, rallying from a 1-0 deficit in the second half to defeat Poland at Nou Camp Stadium on Aug. 8, 1992.

Francisco “Kiko” Narvaez scored 25 seconds into injury or added time, chipping a loose ball over goalkeeper Aleksander Klak before a crowd of 95,000 that included King Juan Charles, Queen Sofia and IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch.

Wojciech Kowalczyk opened the scoring for Poland six seconds into first-half injury time. Ten minutes after King Carlos had entered the stadium — after the track and field competition was completed across the street — Spain tied it on Abelardo Fernandez’s header in the 65th minute. Narvaez lifted the hosts into the lead in the 70th minute, but Poland tied it on a Ryszard Staniek goal six minutes later.

Spain rolled through the first round, blanking Colombia, 4-0, Egypt, 2-0, and Qatar, 2-0. The Spanish edged pre-tourney favorite Italy in the quarterfinals, 1-0, before shutting down Ghana, 2-0, in the semifinals.

Ghana was a surprise bronze medalist, becoming the first African nation to earn a medal, in a 1-0 triumph over yet another pleasant surprise, Australia, finishing the match with its back-up goalkeeper, Simon Addo, in the nets. Ghana won on a free-kick goal by Isaac Asare and having goalkeeper Ibrahim Dossey stop a penalty kick 15 minutes into the match.

As for the United States, it was more Olympic frustration as the Americans missed out qualifying for the second round by a goal. Perhaps that goal could have come from the high-scoring but controversial striker Steve Snow, who was benched by coach Lothar Osiander for a feud between the two men. The U.S. finished respectable 1-1-1, but it wasn’t enough to reach the next level.

Atlanta, 1996

Nigeria made Olympic football history by becoming the first African and non-European and South American team to win the gold medal. While the soccer tournament remained primarily an Under-23 competition, each of the 16 competing countries were allowed to use as many as three overage players in a compromise between FIFA and the International Olympic Committee.

The Nigerians, whom many observers predicted would be the first African side to win a World Cup, showed so much promise and expectations over the previous decade. They won the 1985 Under-16 World Tournament and finished second in 1987. They took third and second, respectively, at the 1985 and 1989 World Youth Championships. But they could never break the final barrier at the higher levels.

Nigeria, coached by Dutchman Johannes Bonfrere, started their path to the final with a 1-0 victory over Hungary and a 2-0 win over Japan before completing the first round with a 1-0 loss to Brazil. The Africans then shut down Mexico and goalkeeper Jorge Campos, 2-0, in the quarterfinals to set up a pair of amazing matches.

Losing in the semifinals to a favored Brazilian side that boasted Bebeto, Ronaldo and Rivaldo, 3-1, Nigeria finally woke up in the 78th minute as Victor Ikpeba scored from 20 meters. As time was running out, captain Nwankwo Kanu took center stage, scoring in a scramble in front of the goal in the final minute to equalize. With extra-time barely three minutes out, Kanu fired home the game-winner from 16 meters to complete one of the great comebacks of international soccer history and in what many observers felt was the greatest Olympic match ever played.

As if trying to top themselves, the Nigerians then staged another miraculous comeback against Argentina in the gold-medal match in front of 86,117 spectators in the Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga.

The Argentines held a 2-1 advantage on goals by Claudio Lopez (third minute) and Hernan Crespo (tournament-best sixth goal on a penalty kick in the 50th minute) before the Nigerians equalized on Daniel Amokachi’s shot in the 74th minute. With a minute remaining, Emmanuel Amunike pulled off some 11th-hour heroics as he took advantage of a botched offside trap and beat goalkeeper Pablo Cavallero from point-blank range for the winning goal in a 3-2 triumph. “I guarantee you that as I talk to you now, everyone in Africa is celebrating,” forward Sunday Oliseh said. “There is no sleeping tonight. Everyone will be happy. This is for all the African countries.”

Besides Nigeria, this competition had a number of surprises. Italy, coached by Cesare Maldini, crashed out of the tournament after a disastrous first round. Those results and disappointing performances eventually cost Maldini his job.

Unfancied Japan stunned Brazil in the opening round, 1-0. During a span of several minutes after their 1-1 draw with Mexico, Ghana went through agony and ecstasy. They left the field with sullen faces, thinking they had failed to qualify for the quarter-finals. But their faces turned to smiles when Mexican coach Bora Milutinovic told them they had made it.

Brazil, which had never the Olympic gold, was forced to settle for a bronze medal. The South Americans, spurred by Bebeto’s three goals, strolled to a 5-0 win over Portugal in the third-place match.

Only two years after a successful World Cup, the Olympic Football Tournament proved to be popular in the USA, as it was during the 1984 Summer Games. A total attendance of 1,364,142 witnessed the 32 matches, most games paired as double-headers with the first Women’s Olympic Tournament.

Sydney, 2000

Judging by its performance in the first-round, you never would have guessed Cameroon would be taking the final victory lap after the gold-medal match.

Cameroon won but a game in the group stage — a 3-2 victory over Kuwait before playing the United States and the Czech Republic to a pair of 1-1 draws. That was good enough for a second-place finish to the surprising Americans and a spot in the quarterfinals.

From there, the Africans defeated Brazil, 2-1, in extratime. They got past Chile by the same score in the semifinals before taking on Spain in the gold-medal match.

Cameroon overcame a two-goal deficit in the second half and some questionable officiating decisions against Spain. The Africans prevailed in the penalty-kick tie-breaker, 5-3, after playing to a 2-2 draw after 120 minutes of a game that will be remembered for its end-to-end attacking soccer by both teams.

Pierre Wome, a 21-year-old defender who played for Bologna in Italy’s Serie A, converted the winning kick past goalkeeper Aranzubia. Patrick Mboma, Samuel Eto’O, Geremi Njitap Fotso and Lauren Etame Mayer also made theirs attempts.

Xavi, Capdevila and Albelda put away theirs for Spanish side. Spain’s lone miss came when Amaya’s attempt, his team’s third try, hit the crossbar.

After Wome fired his shot to the lower left corner, he raced to the stands, ripped off his red jersey and threw it into the crowd, which was decidedly pro-Cameroon for this memorable match.

“This is the culmination of a very long career for our players,” Cameroon coach Jean-Paul Akono said. “Winning the gold medal at the Olympics was absolutely wonderful. Our players are very skilled, but I’m not saying there was a great deal of luck involved.

“If an African country wants to win a World Cup, they need more organization and more seriousness in their approach.”

Spain, which won soccer gold at the Barcelona Summer Games, was forced to play two men down after Gabri and Jose Mari were red-carded in the 71st and 90th minutes, respectively. Gabri was given his marching orders by referee Felipe de Jesus Ramos Rizo of Mexico for depositing his cleat on the right knee of Nicolas Alnoudji at midfield.

Mari was sent off two minutes into stoppage time at the end of regulation after he tried a rather dubious dive in front of Cameroon defender Patrice Abanda in the penalty area. Abanda never touched him and Rizo gave Mari a yellow card for his dive and another yellow and a red for dissent.

“That was the end for us,” Spain coach Inaki Saez Ruiz said.

That left Spain without much hope of winning in extra time as Cameroon took target practice at goalkeeper Aranzubia. The Spanish, however, brought all eight field players back to defend, so it was difficult to penetrate the defense.

With a little more than a minute remaining in the second extra time period, Mboma, however, managed to find a way to get through the forest of players and tucked a four-yard shot from the left side into the far corner. Game officials, however, ruled that Mboma was offside.

Instant replays, however, showed that Mboma was not offside, and that the goal should have stood.

Several minutes later Mboma and his teammates went out and secured the gold medal again, although in the first half the crowd of 98,212 must have been wondering if Cameroon could survive the Spanish onslaught.

In fact, if fans were late arriving or decided to hit the refreshment stands a little before halftime, they missed both first-half goals as Cameroon dug a great hole for itself.

The game was only 33 seconds old when disaster struck for Cameroon as defender Patrice Abanda fouled Toni Velamazan at the edge of the penalty area on the right side. Xavi then powered an 18-yard free kick through a hole in the Africans’ five-man wall past goalkeeper Carlos Kameni into the lower left corner for a 1-0 lead in the second minute.

Kameni, who, at 16 is the youngest player in the tournament, had his moment in the bright afternoon sun several minutes later after defender Aaron Nguimbat fouled Jose Mari in the penalty area in the fifth minute. Kameni dived to the right to save Angulo’s penalty kick to deny the Spanish striker’s right-foot shot.

A little more than a minute into stoppage time, Gabri ran onto a long ball and placed a low, 14-yard shot to the left of Kameni for a 2-0 lead.

“Our morale was low at halftime, but unfortunately for Spain, we have a lot of morale,” Akono said.

In the 53rd minute, Mboma played a part in the second goal in the 53rd minute as is cross from 12 yards bounded off the chest of Amaya and past a surprised Aranzubia to the near post.

Mboma turned playmaker to set up the equalizer in the 58th minute, sprinting down the right wing before placing a low cross to the onrushing Eto’O in the penalty area. Eto’O had little problem beating Aranzubia with a left-footed shot to the lower left corner for a 2-2 tie, setting up a memorable finish.

The rest of the tournament

The other surprise team of the tournament was the United States, which had not advanced out of the opening round in 76 years. This time the Americans did and stunned the soccer community by reaching the medal round for the very first time after outlasting Japan in the quarterfinals in an epic encounter that was decided by penalty kicks. The U.S. met its match in the Final Four, however, losing to Spain and Chile. Chile was the other surprise side, earning the bronze medal as striker Ivan Zamorano was top goal-scorer with six goals).

There certainly were some moments to forget or at least to cover your eyes. The Italian players threw their shorts-yes, shorts, not shirts-into the stands at the Melbourne Cricket Ground to celebrate their opening 1-0 victory over Australia. Then there was Brazilian Lucio, who head-butted his own teammate, Roger, for some reason during the men’s quarterfinal loss to Cameroon.

The other surprise of this tournament came from Chile who, led by their magnificent striker Ivan Zamorano (top goal-scorer with six goals), picked up the bronze medal.

Athens, 2004

Only time will tell how Argentina’s fabulous Olympic run will be viewed in international soccer history. Like it or not, Olympic fans, but the Summer Games are but a mere blip on the way to the World Cup for many teams. Now, that’s where soccer greatness and failure are truly measured.

By itself, the Argentines’ accomplishment was quite extraordinary, imposing and astonishing, considering the long and storied history of the competition. They ran the table, winning all six of their matches while outscoring their opposition, 17-0, and becoming the first champion in 22 Olympic soccer tournaments not to concede a goal. They also became only the third South American team to win a gold medal (Uruguay, in 1924 and 1928, was the first).

It is one of the greatest, if not the greatest Olympic triumph, of all time. Their final victory, however, was hardly anything to write home about, a 1-0 win over Paraguay at Olympic Stadium on a Saturday morning (yes, Saturday morning; the game kicked off at 10 a.m.).

Carlos Tevez, undisputedly the man of the tournament, scored the lone goal of the match in the 18th minute, but for the rest of the game he was rather muted. Perhaps he was slowed down by a rather unexpected elbow by Paraguay captain and defender Carlos Gamarra.

It earned Gamarra a yellow card, but his calculated risk was worth it. Tevez had some other dangerous chances, but he never scored or set up a goal the rest of the way.

As the leading Olympic goal-scorer and his overall performance, Tevez’s Olympic legacy is secure, Argentina coach Marcelo Bielsa, who did not like to single out any of his players, said that midfielder Andres D’Alessandro and Tevez will become “elite sportsmen.”

The rest of the tournament

If the Argentines were the favorites of the tournament, Iraq was the darlings for obvious reasons as striker Mahmoud Younis and midfielders Sadir Salih and Abdul Whahab Abu Al Hail stood out. Just getting to Greece was a major triumph for the war-torn country. The Iraqis won Group C, overcoming Portugal and Morocco. They edged Australia, 1-0, to reach the semifinals before coming back down to earth. The Middle Eastern side lost to Paraguay, 3-1, in the semifinals and Italy, 1-0, in the gold-medal match. Still, a fourth-place finish was more than what Iraq’s most ardent supporters could have wished for prior to the tournament.

After winning the past two Olympics, African teams stumbled big time. Mali was the only side to reach the quarterfinals before it lost to Italy. Ghana, Morocco and Tunisia were eliminated in the opening round.

Another disappointing team was pre-tournament favorites Portugal, which was bested by Iraq, 4-2, in its opener. While they edged Morocco, 2-1, the Portuguese never truly recovered. The same could be said about Christian Ronaldo — yes, that Christian Ronaldo — who endured a sub-par tournament. And to add to Portugal’s headaches and woes, the European side accrued an incredible 13 yellow cards and three cards in only three matches (some would say that was a prelude to the England-Portugal fiasco at the 2006 World Cup).

Beijing, 2008

With Lionel Messi, you just can’t win. If he doesn’t beat you one way, he’ll find another route.

Stop the 21-year-old man-child from scoring and he’ll slip a pass to a teammate to score the game-winner.

Case in point: the Aug. 23 men’s Olympic semifinal.

Once again Messi demonstrated why he is considered one of the best soccer players in the world — perhaps the very best by some. Messi left the Bird’s Nest without a goal, but he certainly settled for some Olympic gold, setting up Angel DiMaria’s score as Argentina overcame Nigeria with a 1-0 win and 108-degree field temperatures.

The Argentines made history by becoming only the fourth men’s team to win back-to-back Olympic titles, joining the rarefied company of Great Britain (1908, 1912), Uruguay (1923, 1928) and Hungary (1964, 1968). The Argentines bested Paraguay at the Athens, Greece Summer Games in 2004, behind Manchester United star Carlos Tevez.

This time it was Messi’s turn to lead the way and shine as the Argentines ran the table for the second consecutive tournament, winning all six games and outscoring their foes, 11-2. No team had accomplished that before.

“We knew coming in that we may never have this experience again, so we are lucky that everything went well, and we got what we wanted,” Messi said.

“This is a great day for the people of Argentina, and for the development of the game there,” coach Sergio Batista said.

Messi almost didn’t play in the tournament. His Spanish club team, Barcelona, won a court ruling that would have allowed it to pull back Messi. But when push came to shove, the La Liga side let the man known as “The Flea” to remain in China. It worked out well for Argentina and will allow Messi to return to Spain a contented man with motivation to perform brilliance for his club.

“People said a lot of things that annoyed me before I came to China, everyone knows that,” Messi told FIFA.com. “That’s what makes this medal so special.”

Compared to some of his earlier performances in the tournament, Messi wasn’t anywhere close to his brilliant and lethal self as Nigeria did its best to contain him. So, the Barcelona FC superstar went to Plan B — he passed. His most important one was to DiMaria, who raced in on the left side on goalkeeper Ambruse Vanzekin, chipping him from 18 yards in the 58th minute before a full house of 89,103.

DiMaria admitted that he first thought of firing away, but changed his strategy when he saw the keeper come out of the net. “Luckily, it went in,” he said.

Nigeria coach Samson Siasia said Messi was the difference between a gold and a silver. “He terrorizes not only our team, but all teams in Europe,” he said.

But Messi realized Argentina did not perform up to the usual high standards it has set for itself.

“It was a shame that we didn’t play our best game today,” Messi said.

While Argentina’s triumph was a historical one, it will not go down as one of the better played finals. You can blame the heat for that.

“It was very hard to play,” Messi said. “We were tired, and it was very hot. But the energy we had come from knowing that we were playing in the final.”

Because FIFA wanted to play the game at National Stadium, it had to settle on a noon local starting time before the final day of track and field events here (all other matches were played at night). That coincided with field temperatures of degrees. Soccer’s world governing body allowed water breaks in the 30th and 70th minutes as a precautionary measure, which is virtually unprecedented at the international level.

“In terms of spectacle, it was a very hot day for football,” Argentina coach Sergio Batista said. “The heat did influence the performance of the players, but we are not the ones who make the rules.”

Samson agreed.

“No team has actually played at noon since we started this tournament,” he said. “It affected both countries and most players didn’t perform to their level because of the heat. But we didn’t make the rules. They said play the game at 12 o’clock which I don’t think wasn’t a good idea.”

The Nigerians, trying to become the first African side to win two soccer gold medals (1996 was the first), had to settle for silver, although they made the Argentines sweat with a number of close encounters in the waning minutes.

“I do think we were our own worst enemies today,” forward Peter Odemwingie said.

The triumph gave the Argentines three major internationals over the past three years, including Under-20 World Cups in 2005 and 2007.

London, 2012

For the first time, a Concacaf men’s team won the Olympic tournament as Mexico upended favorites Brazil, 2-1,

El Tri’s triumph climaxed an astonishing 14-month period in which they won several major championships. In 2011, they captured the FIFA Under-17 World Cup for the second consecutive time, finished third at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, secured the Pan-American Games title and won the CONCACAF Gold Cup for the second successive time.

“We have better players, more experienced players, a better selection of young players,” Mexico coach Luis Fernando Tena said. “Our coaches are better trained and paid, which is important.

“Our youngsters . . . have left behind the old complexes. They look towards the future like conquistadors.”

The Mexicans attributed their success to a new mentality. In the past, they might have wilted under pressure against such an imposing team as Brazil. Instead, they thrived on it.

“It’s true the world thinks of Brazil as a football superpower, but we knew we could beat them,” defender Diego Reyes said. “We have a great team spirit and mentality. We are courageous and common effort allowed us to win.

“I think Mexico is being recognized more and more as a great football nation in the world. The Mexican mentality is changing, and we feel we can win.”

El Tri started slowly and picked up stream. They played south Korea to a scoreless tie before shutting out Gabon, 2-0, and Switzerland, 1-0, to win Group B. The Mexicans survived a challenging quarterfinal confrontation with Senegal, losing a two-goal lead late in the second half before recovering in extratime for a 4-2 win.

Five-time World Cup champion Brazil had made it a priority to win their first gold medal after falling short in the past. Entering the match, the Brazilians had secured a pair of silver medals (1984 and 1988) and a pair of bronzes (1996 and 2008). They certainly looked like champions, scoring three goals in each of their opening five matches, while outscoring its opposition, 15-5, behind Neymar and Leandro Damiao (tournament-best six goals).

Mexico was forced to play without its top player, striker Giovani dos Santos, ruled out after injuring a thigh muscle in the semifinals.

El Tri proved to be the hungrier team. Only 29 seconds after the opening kickoff, Oribe Peralta took advantage of Javier Aquino stripping the ball from defender Rafael to score a stunning, goal from 18 yards. Forced to chase the game essentially from the opening kickoff, Brazil never found its rhythm until the second half and by then it was too late. Peralta added another, a 10-yard header in the 75th minute, a goal that was needed because first-half substitute Hulk sliced the advantage in half a minute into stoppage time.

“I don’t know if this was the best match of my career, but what I do know is that this is the most important because I am here today with a gold medal,” said Peralta, who finished with four goals. “I dreamed about this moment. It is one of those things you don’t get to live every day.”

Neymar, Brazil’s most creative player, wasn’t much of a factor. “Everybody knows the finals are won in the little details,” he said. “Mexico today were better than us.”

While Brazil’s golden quest ended in disappointment again, Spain’s failure was even more shocking after its national team had just captured Euro 2012 a month earlier. Despite boasting three players from that squad — Juan Mata, defender Jordi Alba, team captain and midfielder Javier Martinez — did not score a goal in three games, earning only a point — in scoreless draw with Morocco and finished at 0-1-2.

“We lost the three matches at the Olympic Games and that’s a disgrace,” Mata said, overstating the failure.

Even Uruguay, with the likes of star Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani and Nicolas Lodeiro , fell short the knockout round from Group A.

Both of Great Britain’s teams exited from their respective completions in the quarterfinals by eventual bronze medalists.

The men were shown the door by South Korea,, losing in a penalty-kick shootout, 5-4, after playing to a 1-1 draw in regulation and extratime. Ki Sung-yueng converted the winning penalty after Daniel Sturridge missed the fifth attempt for the hosts.

“I think that’s our sixth game maybe,” said GB captain and Manchester United standout midfielder Ryan Giggs. “The Korean lads had, I think, played 18 games unbeaten, so that’s the sort of preparation they’ve had compared to our preparation. We’ve got better each game, but it was a bit difficult for us.”

Rio de Janeiro, 2016

The Brazilian men’s quest of an Olympic football gold medal had just about reached mythic proportions.

No matter what they did, they fell short of the mark.

They certainly looked like champions prior to the 2-1 loss to Mexico in the final at Wembley Stadium in 2012, recording three goals in each of their opening five matches and outscoring their foes, 15-5.

The had won two bronze medals (1996 and 2008) and three silvers (1994, 1988 and 2012). While most countries will be happy with a medal, that is considered a failure in Brazil, which is five-time FIFA World Cup champions and the winner of many other official FIFA competitions.

The Brazilian Football Confederation had made it a priority to win their first gold medal.

“Yet again we came close but didn’t quite get it,” coach Mano Menezes said. “I’m forced to conclude that we’re missing something in our Under-23 structure.

“We will continue on our path towards the next World Cup and now call into play the main Brazil team. The World Cup in 2014 remains our goal.”

Finally, as the host team in 2016, Brazil finally grabbed the bronze ring and the gold medal, besting Germany in the final at Maracana Stadium in Rio. The Brazilians won a penalty-kick shootout, 5-4, after playing to a 1-1 draw in front of 63,707 spectators. What made the result sweeter was that the Germans humiliated the South American side in the World Cup semifinal in Brazil, 7-1, two years prior.

Neymar converted the winning penalty after Weverton saved Nils Petersen’s attempt in the fifth round of the tie-breaker.

“That’s it,” said Neymar, who tallied the lone Brazilian goal off a spectacular free kick in the 27th minute. “We made history.”

Indeed, the team did.

“This restores our self-esteem,” Brazil head coach Rogerio Micale said. “We see that not all was lost, our football is still alive. There are some things that need to be fixed, but today we were able to make our people happy.”

The Germans equalized as Max Meyer put home Jeremy Toljan’s cross from the middle of the penalty area in the 59th minute.

In the shootout, the first eight penalty-takers were on target: Matthias Ginter, Serge Gnabry, Brandt and Niklas Sule for Germany; Augusto, Marquinhos, Rafinha and Luan for Brazil.

After Weverton denied Peterson in the fifth round, Neymar then boosted the Brazilians to victory. He took a halted run-up before he fiired the ball home. He then dropped to his knees and cried.

Brazil didn’t exactly get off to a fabulous start to the tournament, playing a a pair of scoreless draws with South Africa and Iraq. The hosts bounced back with a 4-0 win over Denmark to capture Group B.

Neymar and Luan scored on either side of halftime to lift the Brazilians to a 2-0 quarterfinal victory over Colombia. Neymar pulled off a rarity, scoring in the first and final minute of a 6-0 semifinal win over Honduras. Gabriel Jesus added a brace.

Nigeria downed Honduras, 3-2, to win the bronze.