Football's all-round sportsmen

With the illustrious likes of Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi preparing to do battle for Olympic glory, football supporters in Beijing look certain to be treated to a veritable feast of top-class action. What these aficionados of the beautiful game might not realise, however, is that but for a twist of fate - or in some cases an inspired career choice - some of football's all-time greats could have been chasing gold in another sport.

The world's most popular game has never been short of extraordinary all-round sportsmen, and the most remarkable early example was an Englishman by the name of Charles Burgess Fry. A career that encompassed an FA Cup Final appearance with Southampton and a full England cap would have satisfied most men, but success in football was merely a minor chapter in Fry's spellbinding sporting story.

A brilliant mind whose intellect and athleticism once saw him described as "the most variously gifted Englishman of any age", Fry equalled the world long jump record in 1893 and competed at the highest level in international sprinting. He was also a gifted acrobat who turned his hand to rugby, excelling to the extent that he was invited to represent the famous Barbarians.

Incredibly, however, Fry is not best remembered for his prowess in any of these sports. Rather, he is recalled most frequently for his exploits in cricket, where his record of over 30,000 top class runs and record as Sussex and England captain has ensured his place among the game's bona fide greats.

Spectacular stories
While no-one since has shone in such a vast array of sports, plenty have followed closely in Fry's footsteps. Ben Howard Baker, for example, not only kept goal for Everton, Chelsea and England - he also represented Britain in the high jump at both the 1912 and 1920 Olympics.

However, the man who came closest to emulating Fry's achievements was Preguinho. Though best remembered as Brazil's first-ever captain and the scorer of the Auriverde's maiden FIFA World Cup™ goal, this brilliant athlete practised no fewer than eight sports for Fluminese. One especially legendary incident saw him help the Tricolor Carioca become state swimming champions in 1925, before jumping in a taxi and arriving at the football team's stadium just in time to inspire them to victory over Sao Cristovao in the final of the Torneio Inicio.

Chris Balderstone, another who combined professional football with a career in international cricket, managed a similar fear, batting for Leicestershire during the day, then turning out in midfield for Doncaster Rovers on the same evening, before returning to complete his century the following morning.

Vsevolod Bobrov, meanwhile, would have a strong claim to being football's greatest-ever Olympian. A prolific forward who starred for the Soviet Union and CSKA Moscow before going on to become one of the greatest ice hockey players in history, Borbov is certainly one of an elite band of athletes to have competed in both the summer (football, 1952) and winter (ice hockey, 1956) Olympics, winning a gold medal in the latter.

Norway international Simen Agdestein enjoyed success in a less traditional arena, becoming a grandmaster in chess and representing his country in this discipline at the Olympiad on seven occasions.

From bat to ball
Many more of football's famous names have excelled in other sports. Buff Donelli, for example, was one of the best American football and soccer players of his generation, starring in the 1934 FIFA World Cup, while countryman Frank Borghi played in goal when the US famously beat England 1-0 in the 1950 edition after starting out as a professional baseball player. More recently, Bruce Arena - the coach who led USA to Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006 - began his sporting career as a professional lacrosse player.

Dutch legend Johan Neeskens represented the Netherlands - and was voted best batsman - at the European Youth Baseball Championship during the 1960s, while Oranje team-mate Johan Cruyff excelled as a pitcher before switching to football.

Goalkeepers have proved an especially versatile bunch, with Lev Yashin, Magnus Hedman and David Seaman all preceding their international careers by keeping goal in ice hockey. Others have waited until retiring from football to try their luck in other sports, such as Jesus Angoy and Horst Muhlmann - goalkeepers with Barcelona and Schalke respectively - who went on to compete in the NFL, or Fabien Barthez, currently trying his luck as a rally car driver.

Whether it is the thrill of competitive action or the simple love of taking part that keeps these former footballers in the sporting arena, the connections between the beautiful game and its fellow sports would certainly appear to be as strong as ever.