Top 10 moments in Olympic soccer history

Top 10 moments in Olympic soccer history

With the 2024 Olympics in Paris fast approaching, now is the perfect time to get ready for the men’s and women’s soccer tournaments by looking back at the top moments in Olympic soccer history.

A young Lionel Messi bamboozling defenders on his way to Gold? Yes please. USWNT legends scoring extra time winners in the final? Go on then.

[ WATCH: 2024 Paris Olympics across NBC Sports ]

Remember: you can watch all of the Olympic soccer across NBC Sports’ platforms this summer, as the tournaments take place in stadiums across France. The women’s tournament runs from July 25 to August 10, while the men’s tournament starts one day earlier.

Below are the top 10 moments in Olympic soccer history, as we will release one moment each week over the final 10 weeks of the 2023-24 Premier League season.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA ]


Top 10 moments in Olympic soccer history

2. USWNT win first-ever Olympic women’s soccer tournament in front of then record crowd for women’s sporting event – Atlanta 1996

An historic occasion on so many levels, the first-ever women’s soccer tournament at the Olympics saw the USA prevail on home soil in Atlanta in 1996 in front of a record crowd for a women’s sporting event.

The iconic USWNT team included the likes of Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Michelle Akers, Julie Foudy, Brianna Scurry and Kristine Lilly, as they captured the imagination of the U.S. sporting public with huge crowds turning out throughout the tournament.

After making their way through the group stage undefeated, the USWNT beat Norway in the semifinals in extra time thanks to Shannon MacMillan’s golden goal.

That win set up a gold medal match against China, whom the U.S. had drawn 0-0 in the group stage and beat in the third-place match at the 1995 World Cup in Sweden the summer before.

An incredible scene was set in Athens, Georgia as over 76,000 fans packed into Sanford Stadium, Home of University of Georgia Football, to watch both the bronze medal and gold medal matches on August 1, 1996.

It set a record for the largest crowd in history to watch a women’s sporting event.

The final itself saw MacMillan score early to give the USWNT the lead but Sun Wen equalized for China. Tiffany Milbrett would then score with just over 20 minutes to go and the USA held on to win the first-ever Olympic gold medal in women’s soccer.

But this moment was about so much more than winning Gold. Over the years documentaries have been made about this U.S. team and this Olympic final, as it helped propel the women’s game onto the global stage and it has never looked back.

3. USWNT beat Canada 4-3 in epic semifinal at Old Trafford en-route to third-straight gold – London 2012

The USWNT and Canada played out one of the greatest games in Olympic history as the U.S. won an epic semifinal 4-3 to reach the gold medal game at London 2012.

These two teams knew each other so well after so many tight clashes over the years and so many players playing together and against each other on the club scene, and that led to an intense semifinal at Old Trafford.

The game was very chippy and soon became a classic with Canada taking the lead on three occasions as Christine Sinclair, who has since become the highest scoring international player of all time, scored a hat trick.

But the U.S. fought back each time, as Megan Rapinoe scored from a corner and then a stunner at the famous Stretford End and Abby Wambach’s 80th-minute penalty kick sent the game to extra time.

With the score locked at 3-3 it looked like the game was heading to penalty kicks for a spot in the gold medal match at Wembley.

But then Alex Morgan headed home in the 123rd minute with the last attack of the game as the USWNT celebrated wildly, as this U.S. squad boasted so many veterans and soon to be legends who were ready to receive the baton.

The USWNT then went on to beat Japan in the final to become the first team in the history of Olympic soccer to win three straight Olympic gold medals. But it was the semifinal against Canada that will go down as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, games in Olympic soccer history.

4. Nigeria’s ‘Dream Team’ make history with epic gold-medal run – Atlanta 1996

This Nigeria side, known as ‘The Dream Team’ in their homeland, lit up the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta as the likes of Nwankwo Kanu, Sunday Oliseh, Jay-Jay Okocha, Celestine Babayaro, Daniel Amokachi and Taribo West burst onto the international stage and made history. Plus, as always, you know Nigeria had incredible kits. They always do.

With expectations extremely low ahead of Atlanta 1996, Nigeria’s head coach Jo Bonfrere had quit before the tournament but the players convinced him to come back. It was a good job he did. The Super Eagles dazzled throughout as the free-scoring and flamboyant side went head-to-head with reigning World Cup champs Brazil in the group stage and semifinals.

Original Ronaldo scored the only goal in the group stage game as Brazil prevailed and it looked like that would be the case in the semifinal too as Brazil led Nigeria 3-1.

But the African giants came roaring back with a comeback for the ages as they took the game to extra time with a stunning 90th minute flicked goal from Kanu. Kanu then made it 4-3 in extra time as he scored the Golden Goal winner to take Nigeria to the final against Argentina.

Nigeria were the heavy underdogs once again but they won a thrilling final 3-2 thanks to another brilliant comeback as they trailed 2-1 with just 15 minutes to go. Argentine superstars Hernan Crespo and Claudio Lopez had the South American powerhouses in a commanding position.

But Amokachi equalized and then substitute Emmanuel Amuneke scored in the final minute to send the crowd of over 86,000 fans at Sanford Stadium, Home of University of Georgia Football, wild. Nigeria had become Africa’s first-ever team to win gold in Olympic football.

Most of this Nigeria side would go on to secure moves to Europe’s top teams and have stellar club careers as the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta showcased their incredible talent to the global stage.

5. A young Lionel Messi inspires Argentina to back-to-back Olympic gold medals – Beijing 2008

By the time Lionel Messi rocked up the Beijing Olympics in 2008 he had already won the Champions League with Barcelona. But the 2008-09 season was when he really let the world know he was a superstar set to dominate. And that storybook season started at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, when Messi was rocking long greasy hair and playing in shorts that were way too big for him.

Messi dazzled throughout the tournament as Argentina as Sergio Aguero scored twice in a 3-0 victory against old foes Brazil in the semifinals, with Juan Riquleme, Pablo Zabaleta, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Javier Mascherano and Ever Banega also part of Argentina’s star-studded squad. It was in their quarterfinal win against the Netherlands when Messi particularly bamboozled opponents to set up Angel di Maria for the winner in style with a perfectly-weighted pass. And that was a theme which would win Argentina gold.

Just 21 years old, Messi destroyed everyone. In the final against Nigeria he set up Di Maria to again score the winner. We’d see a lot more of this in the years to come.

Messi would go on to score over 20 goals for the first time in his career in the 2008-09 season as Barcelona went on to win a historic treble under first-year coach Pep Guardiola (heard of him?) as they beat Manchester United in the Champions League final in Rome as Messi scored a header in that final. Yep, that’s right, Leo can fly too.

But when you remember the 2008-09 season where Messi truly announced himself as the greatest player on the planet, remember that it all started with him ripping it up at Beijing 2008 as he led Argentina to gold medal glory for a second-straight Olympics.

6. Carli Lloyd nets the winner as USWNT beat Brazil to win gold in extra time – Beijing 2008

Beijing 2008 was yet another Olympics where the USWNT prevailed as future legendary players stood tall in the final.

After injuries to key players hit the US women’s team hard before the Olympics, they were surprisingly not one of the favorites heading into this tournament and they lost their opening game in Beijing to Norway.

But that only spurred the USWNT on as they beat Japan in the group stage and semifinals, while also beating Canada in extra time during the knockout rounds as they grew as the tournament went on.

That run set up the gold medal match against Marta’s Brazil in front of over 50,000 in Beijing as a tight, tense game took place. Rising star goalkeeper Hope Solo and a solid defensive unit kept out Brazilian star Marta and Co. as the USWNT took the game to extra time.

Future legend Carli Lloyd then delivered in the biggest moment of all in extra time. First she pulled off a lovely flick, then got the ball back and went on a driving run from midfield before unleashing a beautiful low strike into the bottom corner from outside the box. This type of goal became Lloyd’s trademark during her incredible career and her teammates went wild.

Lloyd’s goal won the USWNT gold once again and it was a total team effort in Beijing as the USA’s domination of women’s soccer at the Olympics continued as they secured their second-straight Olympic Gold, and third in the first four Olympics for women’s soccer.

No. 6: Lloyd, US win gold in extra time in Beijing

Carli Lloyd’s legendary solo strike in extra time against Brazil won gold at Beijing 2008: the third Olympic gold medal in the USWNT’s history.

7. Hosts Spain win on home soil as Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique play starring role – Barcelona 1992

What a moment this was for Spain as they won Olympic gold on home soil as a squad led by Barcelona legends Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique dazzled. Spain are in fact still the last European nation to win Olympic gold in men’s football and they were the first host country in over 72 years to win Gold. France will be hoping to become the next European nation to win gold medal in men’s football this summer…

Back to 1992 in Barcelona, Spain won all of their group stage games and their quarterfinal and semifinal without conceding a goal as things were set up for a fairytale final at Barcelona’s famous Nou Camp stadium with a 95,000 sell–out crowd expecting a gold medal.

But things didn’t go as planned during the final as Poland took the lead and then fought back to make it 2-2 with 14 minutes to go. But step up Kiko.

As the clock ticked over to the 90th minute, Spain won a corner. The corner was whipped in and the ball was half-cleared as Luis Enrique’s goalbound shot was blocked.

But the loose ball dropped straight to Kiko who slotted home the winner in the 91st minute to send the Nou Camp wild as Guardiola and Co. could not believe it. Seconds later, the final whistle blew.

It was an breathtaking way for Spain to deliver a first-ever gold in men’s football as the host nation inspired the home crowd with stunning performances throughout their gold medal run. It was enough to bring tears of joy from Guardiola on the podium as he and his teammates had won gold for Spain at Barcelona 1992.

8. Abby Wambach scores overtime winner for USWNT v Brazil – Athens 2004

A name that is synonymous with the USA and glory is Abby Wambach. Her goal to win the US women’s team the 2004 Gold medal was Wambach at her best. In fact, in Athens she set a then new record for the most goals scored by a US women’s player at a single Olympics tournament.

2004 saw USWNT legends such as Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain feature in the Olympics for the final time as Wambach led a new generation of players who would go on to dominate like never before in the next decade.

In the 2004 final in Athens, the USWNT went to overtime against Brazil with the Gold medal on the line. Step up Abby Wambach to head home the winner from a corner as she powered the ball into the net in typical fashion.

We saw this kind of goal over and over again during her legendary career. This was Wambach’s first major honor for the USA and the medals, and goals, just kept on coming as she scored 184 goals in 255 games to become the all-time leading scorer for the USWNT.

9. USMNT finish fourth, their best-ever finish in modern Olympics era, as teenage Landon Donovan arrives – Sydney 2000

The 2000 Olympics in Sydney saw the USMNT finish fourth which is their best-ever finish in the modern Olympics. Sydney also saw the emergence of a blond-haired, 18-year-old who went by the name of Landon Donovan. Remember him?

Donovan was the youngest player on the US squad that caused quite the stir and he would soon be making his full USMNT debut and the rest is history as he’d go on to become the all-time leading goalscorer.

Alongside Donovan the USMNT had a crop of talented youngsters, many of whom would go on to help them reach the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals less than 2 years later in South Korea and Japan. The likes of Josh Wolff, John O’ Brien and Frankie Hejduk were rising stars on this Olympic team, while veterans Brad Friedel and Jeff Agoos were instrumental in the USA’s run to the semifinals.

NBC Sports’ very own Tim Howard was part of the US squad as they finished top of their group, with Donovan scoring in his Olympic debut in the win over Kuwait as all eyes were on the young Californian forward. In the group stage the USA actually finished ahead of eventual Gold medal winners Cameroon, underlining their promise.

The USMNT then went on to beat Japan on penalties in the quarterfinals to set up a semifinal vs an extremely stacked Spain side which included Carlos Puyol and Xavi. However, the US lost to Spain and then to a very talented Chile side in the bronze medal match as tournament top scorer Ivan Zamarano scored twice.

Still, it was a breakout tournament for the US and a superstar was born in Landon Donovan.

10. Carlos Tevez scores stunning volley as Argentina beat Italy, go on to win first-ever men’s soccer Gold – Athens 2004

Argentina won its first-ever Olympic Gold medal in men’s soccer in 2004 and a young Carlos Tevez was the x-factor as he was the top scorer in the tournament and won the Golden boot with eight goals.

Carlitos scored a stunning volley in Argentina’s impressive 3-0 semifinal win against Italy, as La Albiceleste brushed aside an Italy side which featured Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi who would both go on to win the World Cup with Italy less than two years later.

Argentina then beat Paraguay in the final (thanks to a Tevez goal, of course) on what was a stunning day for the South American nation in Athens as Argentina also won their first-ever Gold medal in men’s basketball. This Argentina side has to go down as one of the greatest in Olympic history as they scored 17 goals and let in zero as they won Olympic Gold at a canter.

The head coach of this hugely talented Argentine team was the legendary Marcelo Bielsa and Boca Juniors’ rising star Tevez was the jewel in his crown. Javier Mascherano and Javier Saviola were rising stars on this team too as Bielsa’s side had a perfect mixture of youth and experience with world-class defenders Roberto Ayala and Gabriel Heinze leading by example.

Although Tevez would win trophies galore with Boca Juniors, Corinthians, Manchester City, Manchester United and Juventus during his glittering club career, this was the only winners medal he would get for Argentina and it meant so much to him.

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