The origin of soccer (known as football in Europe) is traced all the way back to 2500 B.C. where Ancient China, Greece and the Near East apparently played a game that resembled the sport. On the Olympic level, men's soccer didn't become an official event until 1908. It was on the schedule for the original modern Olympics in 1896, but was cancelled after no teams entered. The sport then served as an exhibition in the 1900 and '04 games.
The Olympics stand on professionalism caused several teams to withdraw in 1928 when they could not send the top players to participate. The World Cup then spawned as a direct result the following year.
The International Olympic Committee changed its stance on professionalism in 1984, but only if the player had not taken part in the World Cup. The rule was again amended in 1992 to allow all players under 23 years of age to represent their country, regardless of their professional status. Now, since 1996, each squad is allotted spots for three professionals over the age of 22.
Sixteen men's teams now qualify for each Olympic Games. They are divided into four groups with four teams in each. The round-robin competition sends the top two teams from each bracket into the knockout phase of the tournament, where the top three finishers take home medals after the single-elimination portion of the competition comes to an end.
The women, competing in their third Olympic Games, have 10 teams in the field in Athens. They also go through a round-robin tournament where eight teams advance to into the next round before the single-elimination matches begin.
Women's soccer at the Olympics does not have any age or professionalism restrictions. The United States won the initial women's gold medal in 1996 before Norway defeated the Americans in the final in 2000.
Hungary leads the way with three Olympic gold medals in men's soccer. Great Britain, Uruguay and the Soviet Union all have two gold medals to boast. Two African nations, Cameroon and Nigeria, have won the last two competitions in 2000 and 1996 respectively.
Qualifying for the Olympics is an arduous process. Both men's and women's teams must navigate their way through difficult geographically composed groups to earn a spot in the final competition.
The men's teams for both the United States and Canada failed to qualify for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. The Canadian women's team also will not compete after failing to make it to Greece for the competition.
The United States women's team comes into the event as the likely favorite to take home the gold medal. It might, however, be the end of an era for many of the American women known throughout the world. Led by stars Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brianna Scurry and Brandi Chastain, the U.S. has plenty of experience on its roster. The 18-player squad has an average of 104 caps per player, and several of the veterans will be participating in their third Olympic Games. The U.S. also has talented youngsters like Lindsay Tarpley, Aly Wagner and Heather O'Reilly ready to contribute in Greece, making the Americans a force to be reckoned with.
Greece comes into the Olympics sky high after its surprise victory in the men's European Championships. The home crowd should provide the Greek squad with an immense home-field advantage as the sport has been front-page news following the conclusion of Euro 2004 in early July. Mali, Mexico and the Korean Republic join the host country in Group A, and Mexico and Greece should be the early favorites to finish atop the table. Greece, though, is only making its third ever appearance in soccer at the Olympics and has never won a match. They had also never won a match at the European Championships before capturing the tournament earlier this summer.
Italy, which has not won an Olympic medal in the sport since 1936, headlines the list of participants in Group B. Ghana (1992 bronze medalists), Japan (1968 bronze medalists) and Paraguay complete Group B at the Athens Games.
Argentina is the 1996 men's bronze medalists and will be looking for its first ever Olympic gold in the sport. The Argentines lost a heartbreaker in the '96 final against Nigeria and have a strong squad looking to make up for the senior national team's flop in the 2002 World Cup. Tunisia, Australia and Serbia & Montenegro round out Group C. Australia will be making its fourth consecutive appearance in the Olympic Games, but is coming off an embarrassing performance at home in Sydney.
Portugal might have lost to Greece in the final of the European Championships earlier this summer, but the effort must be considered a success for a country that had never made it past the semifinals of a major competition prior to the tournament. The Portuguese have plenty of young talent that is expected to produce some positive results in Athens as well. They will attempt to do so against Costa Rica, Morocco and Iraq in Group D. Iraq, with the country in the midst of rebuilding, will be the story of the Olympic Games if it can win some matches.
Norway, the defending women's champions and 1996 bronze medalists, failed to make it to Greece as one of the 10 teams in the competition. With 10 teams and just three brackets, Groups E and F are composed of just three teams while Group G (with the United States in it) has four.
Group E consists of Japan, Nigeria and Sweden, which will compete against each other for spots in the quarterfinals. Sweden qualified based on its performance in the 2003 World Cup and Japan shocked its traditionally powerful rival nations to earn its spot. Nigeria, meanwhile, remains the only African women's representative in the sport of soccer. They will be making a second appearance after losing all three of its matches in Sydney in 2000.
China, Germany and Mexico will battle it out in Group F. China is one of the top squads in the competition and should do well in Greece. Germany is the women's defending World Cup champions and the bronze medalists in Sydney in 2000.
The U.S. has host country Greece, Australia and Brazil to contend with in Group G. Australia was eliminated in the first round of the 2003 World Cup, but they have a very talented squad assembled for the Summer Olympic Games. Greece and Brazil, meanwhile, will be looking to pull off some upsets.