The unpredictable race to Olympic men's football gold

Maya Yoshida of Japan (C) celebrated after scoring with Hiroshi Kiyotake (17) and Yuki Otsu during the Men's Football Quarter-final match against Egypt at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Maya Yoshida of Japan (C) celebrated after scoring with Hiroshi Kiyotake (17) and Yuki Otsu during the Men's Football Quarter-final match against Egypt at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

The FIFA World Cup is a prestigious prize in football but the Olympic Games offer another chance to take the ultimate prize. On 11/11 - Football Day in Japan - Tokyo 2020 takes a look at the history of the sport and the players who have helped inspire a generation.

Men’s football at the Olympic Games is one of the competitions that has an age limit.

Starting from the Olympic Games Barcelona 1992, players need to be 23-years-old or under to be eligible to participate, and from Atlanta 1996 onwards, up to three overaged players (24 or above) were allowed to be added to rosters. While the FIFA World Cup is a prestigious tournament in men’s football, the Olympic Games have an altogether different appeal and significance.

Every country has a chance to win

The World Cup, which started in Uruguay in 1930, hosted its 21st edition of the tournament at Russia 2018. However, only eight countries have won, which along with the Olympic Games, is the world’s largest sporting event.

Brazil holds the record with five titles, followed by Italy and Germany (including West Germany) with four titles, Uruguay, Argentina and France with two titles and England and Spain with one. These eight nations, amongst others are known as the traditional powerhouses of football because of their past achievements and national love of the sport.

The deeper a country makes it through, the more traditional powerhouses stand in their path, making it difficult to advance in the tournament. At the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Croatia advanced to the finals for the first time, but were defeated by France. The experience of winning tournaments in the past is what counts the most. And that is the beauty of the World Cup.

On the other hand, men's football made its Olympic debut at the Paris 1900 Games, 30 years before the inaugural World Cup, and has produced 19 winning countries in 26 tournaments (football was not held at the Los Angeles 1932 Games).

Five teams have won multiple championships, including Hungary and England with three titles and Argentina, the Soviet Union (now Russian Federation) and Uruguay with two. Brazil, who have five World Cup titles, finally won the long sought-after gold medal on home soil at Rio 2016.

In recent tournaments, teams like Mexico - who have never advanced past the quarter-finals in the World Cup (London 2012) - and African nations (Nigeria at Atlanta 1996, Cameroon at Sydney 2000) have claimed Olympic gold.

At an Olympic Games, every country has the chance to win the gold medal.

During the London 2012 Games, Mexico defeated Brazil in the finals to win gold.
During the London 2012 Games, Mexico defeated Brazil in the finals to win gold.
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A tournament that has a great impact on young players’ careers

For young players aged 23 and under, the Olympic Games, which garners attention from around the world, are an excellent opportunity to showcase their skills. The players fight for national honour and pride while simultaneously engaging in fierce competition with the goal of stepping up to bigger clubs. Playing well in international tournaments serves an important index for evaluations, and the Games has a great impact on the careers of young players.

In addition to players such as Lionel Messi (Argentina/gold medal at Beijing 2008) and Neymar (Brazil/silver medal at the London 2012, gold medal at the Rio 2016), who brought gold medals back to their home countries, star players such as Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal/participant at Athens 2004) and Ronaldinho (Brazil/participant at Sydney 2000) have Olympic Games experience and later made great strides in their careers.

Since Barcelona 1992, no European nation has won Olympic gold, and this is said to be greatly influenced by the UEFA European Championship. Because they are held from June to July on the same year as the Olympic Games, players under the age of 23 who take part in the UEFA European Championship often decline to participate in the Games partly due to the intentions of their affiliated clubs.

Of course there are cases where the players cannot be called up due to various circumstances of each country, but this trade-off is a difficult problem for European teams.

Messi (right), who took part in the Beijing 2008 Games, brought home a gold medal to his home country of Argentina.
Messi (right), who took part in the Beijing 2008 Games, brought home a gold medal to his home country of Argentina.
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How to utilise the overage slots

What makes it even more difficult to predict the winner is the existence of the overage slots. Since Atlanta 1996, where this system was first utilised, players who took part in the overage slots played as expected for the winning country and led their young teams. During the Sydney 2000 Games, Patrick M'Boma, who demonstrated his outstanding scoring abilities in the J.League, scored four goals and led Cameroon to its first Olympic victory. At Rio 2016, Neymar, who shouldered the expectations of his home country, scored four goals including the first goal in the finals, and was the driving force behind the gold medal winning run.

Argentina, who won consecutive finals at Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, called up overage players to strengthen their defence and clinched gold. The players selected for the overage slots for Japan, who advanced to the quarter-finals during Sydney 2000 and finished in fourth place during London 2012, also served as driving forces for their team.

Mboma smashes in classy free-kick
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Utilising the overage slots also comes with risks. The players selected for these slots are added to the team just before the tournament, so there isn’t much time for them to deepen their teamwork with the rest of the squad. If they fit well, the team’s overall strength will increase significantly, but it is possible for them to have the opposite effect as well. Who should be called up in which positions? In addition to how they play, the characters of the players are also important, so determining how to use the overage slots can influence the results.

Watching traditional powerhouse teams that combine tradition and performance clash against each other at a high level is attractive for the spectators, but unpredictable matches where either side has the chance to win is equally exciting. The unique overage rule is reflected in the strategies of each country, and arouses the interest of fans. With the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Games being delayed by one year, players under the age of 24 were given the opportunity to take part. For young players, this year will serve as a valuable time to develop, and we can expect even more fierce battles to take place than ever before in Tokyo.

Neymar (second from the right), who was called up to the Brazil squad as an overage player, served as a driving force to help Brazil clinch their first Olympic Football gold medal at the Rio 2016 Games.
Neymar (second from the right), who was called up to the Brazil squad as an overage player, served as a driving force to help Brazil clinch their first Olympic Football gold medal at the Rio 2016 Games.
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