First introduced in the 1900 Olympic Games as the first team sport, soccer, which started as an exhibition sport, has risen to become the most-watched sport in human history.
At that time, only amateur players were allowed to participate in the men’s soccer competition. It was only until the 1984 Olympic Games that professional soccer players were allowed to participate in the games.
Ever since soccer was included in the 1900 Olympic Games, it has featured in every tournament except the Olympic games of 1932. This exception was done to allow for the promotion of the new FIFA World Cup tournament – FIFA is the governing body of Olympic soccer.
To ensure the hegemony of this new FIFA tournament, FIFA went on to restrict the participation of professional soccer players in the Olympic Games.
In this article, we examine the reasons why Olympic soccer has an age limit and why it seems to play second fiddle to the FIFA World Cup.
Age Regulation of Soccer Players Participating in the Olympics
With the introduction of professional soccer players into the Olympic soccer games in 1984, the tournament began to grow in reputation. This was a great improvement from the showmanship of amateur players the soccer games were used to. At the time, South America and Europe were the strongest soccer continents in the world.
To allow for fairness to all participating members and also ensure the tournament was not filled with too many top-rated players, FIFA made a new resolution.
Participating nations would only be allowed to enlist professional players who haven’t played in the World Cup or have played less than 90 minutes in a World Cup soccer game.
Ahead of the 1992 Olympic tournament games, FIFA again made a change to their no-World Cup requirement rule. In its replacement, they introduced the under-23 rule. In other words, only players below the age of 23 can be shortlisted by participating members to play for their national team.
In 1996, 4 years later, an adjustment was made to the U23 rule. Participating nations would be able to include 3 overage players in their squad. With this new rule change, whether it came like a streak of luck or not, African countries were able to take advantage of it.
This was evident with Nigeria winning the 1996 edition, and Cameroon clinching victory in the 2000 edition of the Olympic soccer tournament games.
The Olympic soccer tournament was held in the summer of 2021, as against its scheduled time for 2020. With the world’s shut down due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the games suffered a 12-month delay. To cater to this delay, a slight modification was required to the U23 rule.
The tournament was played with the player’s age capped at 24. To buttress its sovereignty and control over the Olympic soccer games, FIFA officially confirmed that the U23 age cap earlier put in place has not been changed.
An exception was made to cater for players who, due to the pandemic, missed out on the opportunity to play one last time in the Olympics.
To be eligible to play in the 2021 Olympic soccer games, players must have been born on or after the 1st of January, 1997.
All of these rules only apply to the men’s Olympic soccer tournament. The women’s Olympic soccer tournament was officially introduced into the Olympic Tournament in 1996. Surprisingly, the U23 age cap rule does not apply to the women’s Olympic soccer national teams.
In other words, professional female soccer players from all levels and leagues of soccer are eligible to play for their country in the women’s Olympic soccer tournament.
Is There An Age Limit For Olympic Soccer?
Yes, but with some exceptions.
As already explained, only U-23 players are allowed to participate in the Olympic Soccer tournament. By U-23, it means eligible players must be below 23 years of age when the Olympic soccer tournament commences.
The exception provided for by FIFA is the inclusion of three overage players by each participating team. By overage, it means they are above 23 years of age.
Note: For the 2021 Tokyo Olympics though, FIFA elevated the age to 24 years old. They did so that players who lost the chance to participate in 2020 could play in 2021 instead.
What this implies is that players born on or after January 1, 1997, could play as stipulated in the original eligibility cut-off for the 2020 games.
Why Does Olympic Soccer Have an Age Limit?
One of the reasons why only players under the age of 23 are permitted to play in the Olympic Soccer is so that the reputation of the tournament is not overly elevated. As far as FIFA is concerned, the greatest international event for men’s soccer has to remain the FIFA World Cup.
FIFA, as the organization that governs world soccer, does not rate the soccer Olympic games the same way it does other major soccer tournaments. As a result, the Olympics is not on the international calendar of FIFA. Hence, domestic leagues are not put on hold for the cause of this event.
If all the players who were to take part in the Olympics took part in FIFA as well, it would appear as if one game was the continuation of the other. In other words, the winner of the FIFA World Cup would be targeted to be dethroned in the Olympics or he might maintain his win and vice versa.
In essence, the results would be too alike. To allow for such to happen, would mean that the World Cup would lose its peculiarity and prestige.
Here are some of the reasons FIFA imposed age restrictions in men’s Olympic soccer tournament:
To Demarcate The Olympic Soccer tournament from FIFA World Cup
Considering the history of Olympic Soccer – from when it was first included in the Olympic Games – it started before the first World Cup competition was inaugurated.
The first FIFA World Cup was held in 1930. This would be exactly 30 years from the first men’s Olympic soccer tournament. To dwarf the popularity of the men’s Olympic soccer tournament, concrete measures needed to be taken.
One of the first steps to undertake was a cancellation of the 1932 Olympic Tournament to avoid comparison with the 1930 FIFA World Cup.
The soccer Olympic games were organized by choosing 16 finalists from 6 confederations. Qualifying matches will be played to determine which national teams are shortlisted among the 16 nations.
If you’re familiar with the FIFA World Cup, a similar approach is used to determine the finalists that begin the tournament at group stages. The major difference here is that the starting group stages consist of 32 teams.
In avoiding identical/rival tournaments and keeping the premier status of the FIFA World Cup, the soccer organization introduced the age limit. Since most professional players are above the age of 23, this became a logical decision.
Despite the provision that allows for three overage players, a star player is rarely seen at the Olympics.
A few possible reasons for this are:
- Olympic soccer is not regarded as a big deal in the world of men’s soccer.
- The players need permission from their clubs.
- It’s primarily a tournament for fresh, young talent.
To Level the Playing Field For All the Teams in the Competition
If we go by the number of wins individual nations have accumulated since the inception of the World Cup, the winners of the World Cup have mostly been teams from Europe and South America.
Going by this statistic, there’s a high probability of the men’s Olympic soccer tournament being dominated by national teams from Europe and South America. With the age restriction in place, top players from these continents will not be available to take the shine from young and growing soccer players.
Notwithstanding, Europe and South America hold a strong record at the Olympics but the room has also been created for other countries from continents like Africa to win the tournament. Notable mention here again was the Olympic wins of Nigeria and Cameroon in 1996 & 2000 respectively.
If the history of the winners of the FIFA World Cup is anything to go by, then it is fair to say that nations from Africa would not stand a chance to clinch victory, if mirror tournaments like the men’s Olympic soccer games were not created. Not just created but with age limitation to allow for budding talents – To keep it as a platform where younger talent would shine.
Olympic age requirements were altered to showcase young players instead of older ones. The overage players are not merely added as an advantage as it may look on the surface, they are also tasked with leading and coordinating their young teammates.
Just as Juan Roman Riquelme captained the La Albiceleste in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and paved their way to victory, the Brazilian team won a gold medal with Neymar in the 2016 Olympic Games. He was 25 at the time and was added to the team as an average player. Undoubtedly, the presence of overage players in a youth team can ultimately boost the morale of the team.
The age limit for Olympic Soccer applies to men but not women. This is primarily to maintain FIFA’s reputation as the organization that crowns the best soccer team, maintain a distinction between FIFA and Olympic soccer, and also ensure that the Olympic tournament is a place where amateurs can seize the opportunity and shine.
Not many star players turn up to Olympic Soccer for numerous reasons even though the room has been made for three players beyond 23 to participate.
Hi there, I’m Jay.
Soccer is everything in my life! My friends and I have created this blog with all our enthusiasm, passion, and understanding after years of playing pro soccer. Hope you will enjoy it!