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The Ultimate Guide To Olympic Football

The Olympics is one of the major sporting events in the world. However, Olympic football is not as hyped up compared to other tournaments like the World Cup.

Why is this so?

Here is an explanation about what you need to know about Olympic football.

Is football an Olympic sport?

Football has been an Olympic sport ever since 1900. It has featured in all Olympic events apart from 2 years: 1896 and 1932.

The history of Olympic football is rather complicated, especially during the early years when international football was in its infancy.

Olympic football has been a part of the Games for a long time. Due to the popularity of football across the world, football is considered as one of the major sports.

As such, the Olympics Games would want to have a football tournament too!

Is Olympic football under FIFA?

Olympic football is conducted and hosted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which is a separate sports governing body from FIFA. FIFA does not host Olympic football, but it still recognises the Olympics as a major football tournament.

For competitions that are hosted by FIFA, they would include the ‘FIFA‘ prefix just before the name. This includes:

However, the Olympic football tournament does not have the ‘FIFA’ prefix. It is not being hosted by FIFA, but by the IOC instead. The Olympics is also not found in FIFA’s International Match Calendar.

Nevertheless, Olympic football is still recognised by FIFA as a major football tournament. It can be found in both FIFA’s website as well as Wikipedia!

What is the format of Olympic football?

Olympic football consists of 16 teams that are divided into groups of 4 for the round-robin group stage. The top 2 teams of each group qualify for the knockout rounds, which include the quarter-finals, semi-finals, 3rd and 4th placing match and the finals.

The number of countries in Olympic football is half that of the World Cup (32). As such, there is a lower variety in the countries that participate in this tournament.

Here are the number of slots that are allocated for each continent during the 2020 Games:

ContinentNumber of Slots
South America2
North America2

For Europe, there are only 4 countries that can participate, which is rather low. This is because there are many strong European teams, such as:

  • France
  • Italy
  • Germany
  • Spain
  • England
  • The Netherlands

With only 4 slots available, not many good teams would feature in the tournament!

What is the age limit for Olympic football?

The age limit for men’s Olympic football is 23, and there can only be 3 players who are above 23 years old that can be included in the team roster. There is no age limit for women’s Olympic football.

However, this age limit was raised to 24 for the 2020 Olympic Games due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why is there an age limit for Olympic football?

The main rationale for the age limit imposed on Olympic football is not well known. However, it could be due to FIFA not wanting the Olympics to have a similar scale to the World Cup, which will defeat the purpose of hosting the World Cup.

Both the World Cup and the Olympics happen every 4 years. However, both of these tournaments happen 2 years apart from each other.

For example, the World Cup occurs in 2022, while the Olympics is held in 2020.

Due to this ‘short gap‘ between these tournaments, FIFA may feel that the Olympics may over shadow the World Cup. This could be why an age limit has been imposed on the tournament.

The Olympic Committee would want football to be a part of the Games, especially due to its popularity. As such, both committees might have come to a compromise with this age limit.

This satisfies both committees as:

  • FIFA’s World Cup will still be seen as more ‘glamorous’ compared to the Olympics
  • The Olympics will host a football tournament, which may attract football fans to watch the Olympic Games

Why do footballers not play in the Olympics?

Most well-known footballers do not play in the Olympics due to the under-23 age limit imposed on Olympic football. There are only 16 teams in the Olympic tournament which is half that of the World Cup, which reduces the number of famous footballers in the competition.

For a country to qualify for Olympic football, it depends on the performances of either the country’s U-20 to U-23 teams. The standard of these teams may be different from the actual men’s teams.

As such, even though the men’s team may be really good, the U-20 or U-23 team may not be of the same standard!

In this way, not all the countries with famous footballers may qualify for the Olympics.

Furthermore, the football season usually starts in August. This is very close to when Olympic football will be held.

As such, there may be a clash in scheduling.

Some clubs do not want their key players to play in the Olympics. This is because the Olympics is considered ‘less prestigious’ than the domestic football season. The players may be fatigued from the matches, and they may even get injured unnecessarily!

As such, most football teams would not want their players being risked at the Olympics.

Some players have been blocked from playing in the Olympics

Mohamed Salah was blocked by Liverpool to represent Egypt in the Olympics. This is possible because the Olympics is not officially recognised on FIFA’s match calendar.

Another example is Pedri, who had a breakthrough 2020/21 season with Barcelona. During the season break, he was called up to play in both the Euro 2020 and Olympics 2020.

Both of these tournaments were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Barcelona’s coach, Ronald Koeman, was not too happy with Pedri being called up for the Olympics. This is because he would not have any break before starting the 2021/22 season with Barcelona!

Can professional footballers play in the Olympics?

Professional football players are able to participate in the Olympics. However, due to the age limit imposed on each team, only 3 players over the age of 23 can play in the tournament. This limits the number of well-known players participating in the Olympics.

There are no restrictions being imposed on professional football players to play in the Olympics. However, the only restriction is the 23 age limit. This limits the number of well-known professional players from participating in the tournament!

Is Olympic football important?

Olympic football is important as it offers an avenue for younger players to showcase their talents in front of millions of fans and scouts. However, the publicity that Olympic football receives pales in comparison to other FIFA competitions like the World Cup and the Euros.

Due to the age limit imposed on Olympic football, managers have no choice but to play younger talents in these matches. This gives the youngsters an opportunity to perform in front of the masses.

If a player performs well, he may just be able to negotiate a transfer to a bigger club!

As such, this tournament is a great way for these young players to catch the eye of scouts and managers who are looking for the next big star.

Is winning Olympic football an equivalent to winning a major trophy?

Winning the gold medal in Olympic football may not be as prestigious as winning other tournaments like the World Cup or Euros. However, most people will still regard it as a notable achievement if you are part of the team that wins the Olympic football tournament.

Compared to the World Cup, there is not as much hype for Olympic football. When you win the Olympic gold medal, it may not mean be that prestigious.

This is mainly due to:

  • The number of countries that participate in the tournament
  • The age limit which restricts the ‘competitiveness’ of the game

However, Lionel Messi claims that winning the Olympic gold medal in 2008 with Argentina is the one medal that he values the most.

While the Olympics may not be as prestigious, it still does mean a lot to win a medal for your country!


Olympic football may not be as popular compared to other football competitions. However, it is still a tournament that an under 23 player may seize as an opportunity to impress the world.

Many players will still dream to win the Olympics with their country, as it is still a huge achievement. Even though there is less hype around it, Olympic football is still major international tournament!

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