Is Soccer In The Olympics?

Even if you’re not a big fan of soccer, then you’re likely to know about the Olympic Games. Possibly the biggest international sporting competition in the world, the Games take place every four years, and the first ones were held in Athens, Greece in 1896.

These first Olympic Games, or Olympiad, saw 280 competitors from 43 countries compete in athletics (track and field), cycling, swimming, gymnastics, weightlifting, wrestling, fencing, shooting, and tennis events.

Soccer, or football or more correctly, association football, as an organized sport, was still in its infancy at this time, the first formal, competitive league competition having begun in England in 1888.

Soccer is now a sport in the Olympics. Men’s soccer has been a part of the Olympics since 1900, and women’s soccer became an Olympics sport in 1996. 

When Was Soccer Introduced As An Olympic Sport?

The International Olympic Committee quickly realized the growing popularity of the game, and so arranged for the sport to be included from the second Olympiad, in 1900. However, for various reasons, neither the world governing body of football, FIFA, nor the International Olympic Committee (IOC) regard the football competitions staged as part of the Olympics in 1900 and 1904 as being official tournaments. Rather, like several other sports introduced to the Olympics since, it is considered by these bodies to have been an exhibition event, staged largely to gauge the level of interest in the sport, and so whether it was worthy of inclusion as a recognized sport. 

Even after men’s football was included in the Olympics, it took almost another century – until 1996 – before women’s soccer became an Olympic event. 

Only once since 1900 has there not been an Olympics soccer tournament. That was in 1932, and it was taken out of the schedule for those games because FIFA had only two years earlier introduced its own worldwide soccer tournament, the World Cup. So in an attempt to build interest in the new competition, FIFA decided not to allow national teams to enter the Olympics.

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How Do Nations Qualify To Compete In An Olympic Football Tournament?

Only players aged under 23 can compete in an Olympic soccer tournament, and for the purpose of qualifying for to compete in the Olympic soccer games, a country’s team must achieve success in one of the six regional qualifying tournaments, as follows:

  • Europe: The four teams which reach the semi-finals of the preceding UEFA (European Football Association) under-21 championships. NOTE: There used to be an under-23 equivalent tournament, but because of the heavy demands on many young players, the age delineation between senior and junior tournaments was lowered to 21.
  • Africa: The top three teams in the preceding under-23 Cup of Nations, organized by the Confederation of African Football (CAF).
  • Asia: As per Africa, the top three teams from the previous Asian Football Confederation (AFC) under-23 championship qualify for the soccer Olympics at the next games.
  • North and Central America and the Caribbean: CONCACAF, the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football, stages a stand-alone qualifying tournament, from which only the winners and runners-up go forward to compete in the next Olympics soccer event.
  • Oceania: The Oceania Football Confederation also stages a specific qualification tournament, but in this instance, only the winner qualifies for the next Olympic soccer games finals.
  • South America: Here, a specific pre-Olympic qualifying tournament is held, organized by CONMEBOL, the South American Football Confederation. Its teams first entered the Olympics soccer tournament in 1960.

Aside from these qualifying teams, the only nation which is given automatic passage into the final stages of each soccer Olympics is the one hosting the Games

What Makes Olympics soccer unique among other sports?

Primarily, it is the fact that professional players have been able to compete at the main Olympic event since 1992, the only restriction being the previously-mentioned age stipulation that all teams are only allowed to field three players over the age of 23 whenever they play in a match at the Olympic Games.

Because FIFA does not recognize the Soccer Olympics as a full-blown tournament, it is left to the individual nations to decide whether they send their best players and strongest team, because the tournament has to fit in with a busy program of other qualification games for other competitions and friendly matches. 

As far as women’s Olympics soccer is concerned, many of the players and coaching staff are semi-professional. 

Who Are The Most Famous Soccer Players To Compete At The Olympics?

While only a few players who could be considered household names have had the chance to win an Olympic medal, there are some notable exceptions. Those who have competed at an Olympics include:

  • Jurgen Klinsmann (West Germany, 1988): The Tottenham Hotspur player was still coming through the ranks at Stuttgart when he was included in his country’s soccer Olympics squad. He scored four goals at the tournament, helping the Germans win the bronze medal.
  • Ronaldinho (Brazil, 2000, 2008): Not only was he a legendary player for much of the 2000s, but he is also one of only a handful of stars to appear at two Olympic Games. However, he only has a bronze medal to show for his efforts, his team finishing third in 2008.
  • Lionel Messi (Argentina, 2008): Messi was already a Champions League and double La Liga title winner when he spearheaded a very strong Argentinian side to gold medal success, alongside Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria.
  • Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis (Hungary, 1952): The twin forward-line of the great Hungarian team of the early-1950s, which not only won the gold medal at the 1952 Olympics soccer event, but then infamously inflicted two humbling defeats on an England team in 1953 and 1954, when they followed up a 6-3 win at Wembley with a 7-1 humiliation the following May in Budapest.
  • Pep Guardiola (Spain, 1992): Now the manager of English team Manchester City, Guardiola achieved a memorable double in the summer of 1992, first helping his club team, Barcelona, win the European Cup for the first time, then just a few weeks later, being integral to the Spanish team which won the Olympics soccer tournament in his home city.
  • Samuel Eto’o (Cameroon, 2000): For a while, the Cameroonian international was touted as the next ‘world’s best player’. But he fell out of favor with his club, Real Madrid, and moved to Real Mallorca in an attempt to revive his career, just before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and within months, helped his team claim its first Olympic soccer games gold medal.
  • Neymar (Brazil, 2016): He was chosen as Brazil’s over-age player for the games held in his native country, and scored four goals to help them win the gold medal – including the decisive goal in the penalty shoot-out which gave them victory over Germany.

international soccer fans

What Is The History Of Women’s Olympic Soccer?

Women’s football was first included in the Olympic Games in Atlanta, USA in 1996. 

Unlike in the men’s tournament, no age restrictions are placed on players taking part, and the countries taking part send their full senior national squads to participate.

In the competitive cycle of women’s international football, each Olympic Games takes place the year after the women’s version of the World Cup. So the European teams taking part in the tournament are those which went the furthest at the previous year’s tournament. Other regions hold stand-alone tournaments to determine which nations qualify to compete. 

For the first two Olympic Games at which women’s football featured, eight nations took part, increasing to 10 for the 2004 Games, and since 2008, 12 teams have competed at the soccer Olympics tournament in women’s football. As of 2020, the composition of the teams playing in the Olympic soccer games finals was: Europe 3, Asia 3 (in 2020 this included the hosts, Japan), North America 2, Africa and South America 1 or 2, Oceania 1.

Only three countries, Brazil, Sweden and the United States have competed in all seven tournaments held up to 2020. The U.S. has won the most Olympics soccer gold medals, with four, the other winners have been Norway, Germany and Canada.

To many observers, the Olympic Games have provided a far more productive platform for the growth and development of the women’s game than has been the case for men, where, due to the heavier commitments of the professional game, the quality of the players taking part, in the main, is lower.