Paris Games: Welcome to the weird world of men’s soccer at the Olympics

Kylian Mbappé wanted to be there. France coach Thierry Henry wanted it too.

In the end, not even French president Emmanuel Macron could pull enough strings to free up his country’s finest soccer player to compete in the Paris Games.

Welcome to the weird of world of men’s Olympic soccer.

The world’s most popular sport occupies a strange space at the Games — confused by compromises and contortions that appear designed to ensure it remains a part of the roster so long as it provides the least possible disruption to teams, players and authorities, whose priorities lie elsewhere.

“It’s become a complete mishmash over the years from being something that was quite important… to something that quite a lot of people would like scrapped because the calendar is so clogged up,” soccer author Steve Menary told The Associated Press.

Men’s soccer has been part of the Olympics since the 1900 Games, also in Paris. The only time it hasn’t featured since then was at Los Angeles in 1932 to help promote the newly conceived World Cup.

Wind the clock forward and the World Cup is now arguably the biggest sporting event on the planet.

Olympic soccer pales in comparison and a gold medal simply isn’t the ultimate prize for fabulously wealthy players already caught up in tensions between club and international obligations and the battle to control ever-limited gaps in the calendar.

The result is an international soccer tournament unlike any other, with exceptions and caveats shoe-horned in at all angles.

“Football is the world’s global ritual,” David Goldblatt, author of “The Games – A Global History of the Olympics,” told the AP. “The balance of power and money and influence between football and every other sport combined — and FIFA and the IOC — has just tipped decisively in favor of football in the last 20 years.

“Once upon a time the Olympics could have claimed to be the greatest sporting show on earth.”

While that may still be the case for track and field and myriad other events, in terms of men’s soccer, it is firmly in the shadow of the most popular competitions like the World Cup, Champions League and Premier League.

It means that the job of assembling a squad to play at the Games is not as straightforward as picking your country’s best players.

Mbappé is a case in point.

“I have always had the same ambition,” the World Cup champion said in March. “I have always said that I wanted to go, but it doesn’t depend on me.”

And this is where it gets tricky.

FIFA’s Calendar

Unlike other major soccer tournaments like the World Cup, European Championship and Copa America, the Olympic men’s soccer event is not featured on world governing body FIFA’s International Match Calendar.

That’s important because clubs are only required to release players for tournaments included on the calendar.

In 2008, the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld an appeal by Barcelona to stop Lionel Messi from competing at the Beijing Games. Barcelona eventually relented and Messi went on to lead Argentina to gold.

So despite Mbappé’s desire to be part of France’s team — the decision was not his to make as he’s joined Real Madrid. And even Macron’s plea for Madrid to “free up Kylian for the Olympic Games,” didn’t work.

Meanwhile, the women’s soccer tournament at the Olympics is on FIFA’s calendar and will therefore feature the top players. Women’s soccer was added to the Olympics in 1996.

An Exception

It’s ironic that Barcelona fought so hard to stop Messi from competing, given the Spanish Football Federation compels its teams to allow Spanish players to take part in the Games.

For Tokyo in 2021, Spain included six members of its squad that had been involved in the European Championship earlier that summer. Barcelona Midfielder suffered injury problems after doubling up at the last Euros and Olympics and played close to 70 games that season.


World players’ union FIFPRO has raised concerns about the demands on players in an ever-congested calendar.

Following the mid-season World Cup in 2022 it said that 43% of players surveyed had experienced “extreme or increased mental fatigue.”

Fears over the mental and physical health of players have seen the union take legal action to demand FIFA reschedule the newly expanded Club World Cup that will take place in 2025.

“Professional footballers are playing too many games,” Goldblatt said. “There is absolutely no shortage of football tournaments both meaningful and entertaining.”

A Compromise

While another team sport such as basketball will bring together the NBA’s finest players and famously produced the Dream Team at Barcelona in 1992, men’s soccer has had to go down a different route.

A compromise, likely intended to avoid clashes with club teams, reached in 1992 made the tournament age-restricted to under 23s. That in itself is something of an oddity, given FIFA’s only age-restricted World Cups are for U17s and U20s. The IOC has voiced concerns over FIFA’s attempts to expand the popularity of the World Cup at the expense of other events.

“It is hard enough getting the stars to show up as it is given the calendar issues,” Goldblatt said. “I think that was just ‘Lets get some stars in.’ It’s a sort of cobbled together thing.”

The problem with a catchment of U23 also is many players by that age would already be established at top teams around the world and at international level.

Take Jude Bellingham, for example, who was a veteran of two major international tournaments for England by the time he signed for Real Madrid at the age of 19.

And Another Thing

To confuse matters further, an additional workaround allows each team to include three overage players.

That quickly led to speculation Messi could be included in Argentina’s squad, though Inter Miami would likely not have been too happy about its just-turned 37-year-old icon playing at the Copa America and the Olympics in the middle of the MLS season.

Not that countries haven’t used the overage quota to bring in big stars.

Neymar was one of Brazil’s overage players at Rio 2016 and captained his country to gold.

Simpler Times

Men’s soccer used to be amateur event, but that led to its own problems because different countries had different ideas about what it was to be an amateur.

“Everyone had different rules. None of which matched up,” said Menary, author of “GB United? British Olympic Football and the End of the Amateur Dream.”

In his book, Menary recounts how Britain played Italy at the Rome Games in 1960.

“The Italian team, their rule was if you are under 21 you couldn’t be a professional,” he said. “The Italian U21 team had some of the best players Italy have ever had.”

By comparison, Britain fielded a team of non-league players… and still drew 2-2.

The Teams

While some of soccer’s most powerful nations, such as Argentina, France and Spain are in the field of 16 teams at the Games, the likes of Mali, Dominican Republic and Guinea are less obvious qualifiers.

The United States men’s team is back for the first time since 2008.

Brazil — winner of the last two editions — didn’t qualify.

Britain, which won three of the first four editions, no longer enters a men’s team, with suggestions in the past that by doing so it could jeopardize the independent statuses of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Britain does, however, enter a team into the women’s event and made an exception for the men at London 2012.

It may not be the strongest lineup of nations, but unlike other major tournaments, the format of the Olympics does appear to produce more surprise winners like Nigeria at Atlanta in 1996 and Cameroon four years later in Sydney.

The Future

It is unlikely Olympic men’s soccer will ever rival the big international or club competitions again.

But it can still produce iconic moments.

“In Nigeria and Cameroon when they won the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta and Sydney, that was a big deal because no African team has won the World Cup,” Goldblatt said. “For some people it assumes significance and importance.”

Menary agrees and cites the case of Fiji forward Roy Krishna, who played in Rio.

“That’s going to be the highlight of his career,” Menary said. “That was a massive thing. For those guys who (for them) that is the only chance to play in a big thing like that, it is huge.”


James Robson is at


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