The men’s and women’s Olympic football tournaments are among the marquee events on the world soccer scene.
Both competitions operate similarly. Here’s how they work.
- Qualifying: Participating nations need to qualify for the Olympic soccer tournament from their respective region. Each regional body determines for itself how qualifying happens.
- Olympic group draw: The teams that qualify for the Olympics are split into different groups based on a random seeded draw. The competition schedule is predetermined in advance of the draw.
- Olympic roster selection: Each national team head coach picks 22 soccer players to compete at the Olympics based on Olympic roster rules (more below).
Once the teams get to the Olympics, the tournament is split into two phases:
- Group stage: Each team starts by playing three matches in the round-robin group stage. Only eight teams advance from the group stage to the knockout rounds.
- Knockout stage: The tournaments wrap up with single-elimination quarterfinals, semifinals and the two medal matches. semifinal losers meet for the bronze. The semifinal winners play a gold/silver medal match.
That’s all straightforward enough. But there are slight differences that make these Olympic tournaments different.
How many teams qualify to the Olympics?
As of 2021, the men’s and women’s soccer tournaments start with a different number of participating teams:
- Men’s Olympic soccer: 16 teams
- Women’s Olympic soccer: 12 teams
Men’s soccer has been played at every summer Olympics, while women’s soccer was introduced for the first time in 1996.
The women’s competition started out with eight teams in 1996, increased to 10 participants in 2000 and expanded to 12 teams for the 2008 Games in Beijing. With the rapid growth in women’s soccer occurring around the world, expansion to 16 teams seems inevitable.
What’s the difference between the Olympics and the World Cup?
Both men’s and women’s FIFA World Cups see the participation of the best teams with their best players after qualifying competitions that involve every national team on the planet. That’s not the case with the Olympics, and this ensures that, while still prestigious, the Olympics never compete with the World Cup.
The FIFA World Cups for men and women feature an expanded field of teams which makes both the pinnacle of achievement in the sport: 32 participants for both the men and women World Cups. The reduced field at the Olympics gives it less of a world championship feel.
Furthermore, in the case of men’s Olympic soccer only, FIFA and the International Olympic Committee limit tournament participation to players who are 23 years of age and younger, with only three over-23 selections permitted on each roster (given the pandemic delay, that age cutoff was pushed to 24 for 2021). It’s also not mandatory that club teams release male players to their national teams for the men’s Olympic tournament. That’s why you don’t see Lionel Messi playing for Argentina or Neymar playing for Brazil in Tokyo 2021, although both could have probably twisted a few arms if they really wanted to be there.
Meanwhile, the women’s Olympic soccer tournament features full senior national teams. No age restrictions.
How does each nation qualify for Olympic soccer?
Each region has its own rules for determining how its qualifying slots are filled. The majority have Olympic qualifying tournaments, with some of these branded as Under-23 championships in the case of the men.
They don’t complicate things in Europe: They just repurpose their regularly scheduled men’s Under-21 European Championship to determine the four European qualifying berths to the Olympics. They also take the top European finishers at the FIFA Women’s World Cup to fill the three berths to the women’s Olympic tournament (England’s finish gave Great Britain a spot). That’s why the last women’s Olympic gold medal winner, Germany, is not at the 2021 Olympics.
Here’s the breakdown of berths around the globe for Tokyo 2021:
|Region||Men’s Olympic Berths||Women’s Olympic Berths|
|Africa||3 (Egypt, Ivory Coast, South Africa)||1.5 (Zambia)|
|Asia||3 (Australia, Saudi Arabia, S. Korea)||2 (Australia, China)|
|Europe||4 (France, Germany, Romania, Spain)||3 (Great Britain, Netherlands, Sweden)|
|Oceania||1 (New Zealand)||1 (New Zealand)|
|South America||2 (Brazil, Argentina)||1.5 (Brazil)|
|North America||2 (Honduras, Mexico)||2 (USA, Canada)|
The reason that Africa and South America are listed as having 1.5 berths each? That half-berth refers to a playoff that’s played between both regions. Chile beat Cameroon over two matches to make the 2021 Olympics.
Lastly, the host nation automatically qualifies for the men’s and women’s soccer tournaments. Japan has both a men’s and women’s soccer team competing at the 2021 Tokyo Games.
Are the rules different in Olympic soccer?
World soccer governing body FIFA actually runs both men’s and women’s competitions at the Olympics and so the Laws of the Game and tournament formats line up pretty similarly with the World Cup and other international competitions.
In the group stage, teams earn three points for a win, one for a draw and none for a loss. There are tiebreakers for teams that are even on points during the three-match, round-robin group phase and they’re used in this order:
- Superior goal difference in all group matches (difference between goals scored and conceded);
- Most goals scored in all group matches;
- Most points obtained in group matches between the teams in question;
- Superior goal difference in group matches between the teams in question;
- Most goals scored in group matches between the teams in question;
- Best conduct score relating to yellow and red cards received in all group matches:
- Drawing of lots
Eight teams advance from the group stages to the single-elimination knockout stages which feature quarterfinal and semifinal matches that lead up to the gold/silver-medal match and the bronze-medal match.
If you really want to delve into all the nitty gritty of the rules, all 78 pages of them are published.
What happens if Olympic soccer games end in ties?
During the group stage, draws after 90 minutes result in a point for each team in their respective group standings.
During the single-elimination knockout rounds, all matches in both the men’s and women’s tournaments that are tied after 90 minutes of regulation will head to 30 minutes of extra time (two periods of 15 minutes each). If the draw persists, a penalty-kick shootout will be used to determine a winner.