For many soccer fans, the World Cup is the epitome of sports events that pits the greatest soccer players across the globe against each other.
The extravaganza comes every four years yet wedged in between each one is the Olympics, which does include soccer.
In fact, soccer is one of the most popular and prestigious summer Olympic sports with both men’s and women’s competitions.
While men’s soccer has been in the Olympics since the start of the twentieth century, it took a lot longer for the women’s game to be included.
In this guide, we will look at both men’s and women’s soccer in the Olympics
Men’s Soccer In The Olympic Games
Men’s soccer has been part of the program in the Olympic Games since 1900, though the tournament has not been included in every single Games.
Though the Olympics is held every four years, some editions of the men’s competition have been canceled.
That includes during the two World Wars but men’s soccer was not included in the 1932 Olympic Games due to FIFA’s intervention.
Even the first two Olympic Games to involve soccer (1900 and 1904), had to deal with FIFA refusing to recognize them as official tournaments. Therefore, FIFA only noted soccer to be an official Olympic event from 1908 on.
This argument is down to the understanding that the soccer competitions in the 1900 and 1904 Olympic Games were known to be ‘exhibition tournaments. By 1908, soccer was fully recognized as an Olympic sport which included its status as a full medal tournament.
The World Cup can seem to be a vastly more prestigious competition compared to the soccer competition in the Olympic Games. Of course, soccer players want to represent their country at any tournament that they can.
However, the demands on modern footballers means that participation in the Olympics for players in between World Cups can seem excessive, not to mention for the clubs that pay their wages (see also ‘The Complete List Of MLS Player Salaries‘).
Even soccer players need a rest, and competing in another global soccer tournament in between the World Cup can look to scupper their upcoming season with their club.
How Countries Qualify For Men’s Soccer In The Olympic Games
There is a qualifying tournament for men’s soccer competition in the Olympic Games, which is organized according to continent.
Typically, this is in the form of an Under-23 tournament though the qualifiers in Europe come from the finalists in the UEFA Under-21 Championship. Those competing teams must be drawn from players who qualify as U-23.
However, up to three players for each team are allowed to be at least 23. This age qualification is largely to prevent the men’s soccer competition in the Olympic Games from mirroring the FIFA World Cup.
It also helps the club sides out as fewer experienced players are likely to be called up to represent their country at the Olympics.
For the 2024 Olympic Games, four places go to Europe (including France as the host country), and three or four places to each of Asia and Africa.
There are also two teams for each of the South and North American confederations, with a single place awarded to Oceania.
The Men’s Soccer Competition In The Olympic Games
The current men’s soccer competition involves a total of 32 games. This includes a group stage, a knockout stage, the final, and a third-place play-off.
The group stage includes groups of four teams and only the top two teams progress through to the knockout stage.
The route to the final includes quarter-finals and semi-finals, with the final being a gold medal match and the third-place play-off being a bronze medal match.
Since the 2004 Olympic Games, the competition has been adapted for the knock-out stage. Extra time is included if the teams are level after 90 minutes, followed by a penalty shootout if the teams are still tied.
The current Olympic champions are Brazil, having won their second title in the 2020 Olympic Games. Two teams are tied with the most titles on three each, which are Hungary and Great Britain, though neither has won it since Hungary triumphed in 1968.
Though Hungary no longer enjoys so much prestige, their three wins came in a golden period for the nation’s soccer team.
Those three successes were in 1952, 1964, and 1968 and during that time, the nation reached the final of the World Cup in 1954.
Though they lost to West Germany in Bern, they perhaps should have won when they took a 2-0 lead only to lose 3-2. In 1953, Hungary also defeated England by a scoreline of 6-3 at Wembley Stadium in what was deemed the ‘Match of the Century’.
It is interesting that in the first edition of the Olympic Games in 1900, the nations who competed were actually club sides or teams comprised of students.
Though Great Britain won that tournament, they were represented by Upton Park FC, an amateur football club that no longer exists.
Upton Park FC defeated France in Paris in the final with the hosts being represented by Club Français, which later became professional in 1932. Even the third-placed nation, Belgium, was represented by players from the Universite Libre of Brussels.
There was also the 2012 Olympic Games where, as a one-off, a Great Britain team was created. This is due to Great Britain actually being comprised of individual nations that all compete in UEFA competitions.
After an agreement was met, the team was formed of eligible and willing footballers from England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
The team got through to the knockout stage but lost to South Korea on penalties in the quarter-finals.
Professional Soccer Players Competing In The Olympic Games
The 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona was a game-changer for the men’s soccer competition. This was the first edition of the competition where the International Olympic Committee allowed professional soccer players to compete.
The decision was largely offset by the enforcement of an age limit for those participating soccer players to compete.
This means that since 1992, only a select few of the best soccer players have represented their nation at the Olympic Games.
Women’s Soccer In The Olympics
Perhaps the main difference between the men’s and women’s soccer competitions in the Olympic Games is how the teams qualify. In both competitions, the host nation’s team enjoys automatic competition.
However, some confederations use their own qualification tournaments to work out which countries head to the Olympics.
This includes qualifying tournaments in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and North America with Central America, and the Caribbean. However, in Europe, the three teams are chosen by how well they performed in the preceding FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Similarly, in South America, the teams are chosen by their performance in the Copa América that comes before the Olympic Games.
The winning team automatically qualifies for the Olympic Games while the runner-ups play in a play-off against the second-placed team from Africa.
How Countries Qualify For Women’s Soccer In The Olympic Games
While the men’s competition in the Olympic Games uses U-23 players, the women’s tournament is a little different as full senior national teams are involved with no such restrictions.
Also, the selection of teams differs with UEFA teams (those from Europe) picked from the most successful teams in the previous World Cup.
The qualifying teams in South America come from their Copa América competition with the winners going through automatically and a second-place team competing in an intercontinental play-off with Africa’s second-placed team.
However, the remaining confederations decide their teams in qualifying tournaments too.
The Women’s Soccer Competition In The Olympic Games
There are only 26 games in the women’s soccer competition in the Olympic Games. There are still four teams in each group but only three groups are included.
The top two teams in each group qualify for the knockout stage and are joined by the two best teams who finished third in their group.
From there, four quarter-final games are played, then two semi-finals, with a bronze medal match for the third place play-off and the final being for the gold medals.
Women’s soccer did not appear as an Olympic sport until 1996 at the Atlanta Games. At the time, women’s soccer was garnering interest in the United States yet when the host nation won the tournament in the final against China, interest rapidly increased.
The US women’s team lost their title against Norway in the next Olympic Games yet won it again in 2004 and 2008, defeating Brazil on both occasions. A third win in a row was achieved when the United States beat Japan 2-1 in the final in London in 2012.
The United States can perhaps rightly claim to have dominated the Olympic women’s competition since it began in 1996.
With four wins out of seven competitions only the nations of Germany (2016), Canada (2020), and Norway (2000) have claimed gold medals. However, both Brazil and Sweden have lost the final twice.
The Famous Soccer Players To Have Won Olympic Gold Medals
To compete in the men’s competition in the Olympics typically means qualifying for the national U-23 team. Essentially, the men’s competition is a youth tournament yet there are some great players who have scored Olympic gold medals on their way to greater things.
Top players to have triumphed at the Olympic Games early in their careers include the Argentinian trio; Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, and Carlos Tevez.
Messi and Aguero both starred for Argentina in their 2008 Summer Olympics success, while Tevez was the top scorer in the 2004 win that preceded it with eight goals.
Cameroon won gold in their first appearance in the tournament in 2000, with Samuel Eto’o playing a starring role when they defeated Spain on penalties. Then there is the Brazilian striker Neymar, who won the 2016 competition with Brazil in Rio de Janeiro.
For the women’s competition, Mia Hamm had already become famous with her iconic celebration. That was when the United States won the World Cup on home soil in 1999 with Hamm scoring the decisive penalty in the shootout against China.
She went on to lose the Olympic gold medal match to Norway in 2000 but scored redemption four years later, earning the gold medal against Brazil.
While soccer is an Olympic sport, it took until 1996 for a women’s competition to be included. The men’s competition has been involved since 1900 but is typically understood to be a youth tournament with most of the players qualifying for the squad being classed as U-23.
Such restrictions are not part of the women’s competition as full squads are included. That does give the tournament more of a level playing field and increased competitiveness.
There are discrepancies between how nations qualify for the Olympic competitions. Some confederations prefer to host their own qualifying tournaments while others use a nation’s performance in a competition such as the World Cup or Copa América to send their best teams over as qualifiers.
The World Cup may still take precedence over the Olympic Games when it comes to soccer but there are few players who can say that they have scored winning medals in both competitions.
Frequently Asked Questions
Has There Been An Olympics Without Soccer Included As A Sport?
Yes, there has been an Olympics without soccer involved as a sport, either as a men’s or women’s competition. This was the 1932 edition of the Olympics held in Los Angeles held during the global Great Depression.
The main reason for the lack of soccer as an Olympic sport was that FIFA intended to promote its own event, the World Cup, which had begun in 1930.
The 1934 World Cup was held in Italy and FIFA preferred countries to compete in that rather than compete at the Olympics.
When the 1936 Olympic Games were held in Germany, the International Olympic Committee and FIFA had agreed on how soccer should be included. Since then, each Olympic Games has included a men’s competition.
Which Well-Known Sports Are Not Included In The Olympics?
Thankfully for a lot of sports fans, soccer is included as an Olympic sport. However, there are some other well-known sports that are not part of the Olympic Games.
This includes cricket (even though it was in the first modern Games of 1896), and polo which has not been included since 1936. Darts may be involved in future Olympic Games, as may squash.
Finally, bowling was involved as a demonstration sport at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 but has not been involved since.