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With Japan eyeing its first men’s Olympic soccer medal in 53 years following a perfect group stage, it would seem at first glance as though there’s no better time than now to get excited about the tournament, with quarterfinals starting Saturday.

But poor performances by some of the sport’s powerhouses, including reigning world champion France — who were beaten by Japan 4-0 on Wednesday — and recent Copa America winner Argentina, are a reminder that the reality of the relationship between the world’s most popular sport and the Olympics is far more complicated.

Since making its debut in 1900 in Paris — 30 years before the inaugural World Cup in Uruguay — men’s soccer at the Olympics has gone through a tumultuous series of changes, with global governing body FIFA and the International Olympic Committee often grappling to exert their influence over the tournament.

After decades as an amateur tournament dominated by the Soviet Union — whose state-sponsored sides were amateur in name only — ended with the admission of professional players in 1984, the Olympic tournament’s current age limit of 23 was established for the Barcelona Games in 1992. Teams were allowed to name three overage players beginning four years later in Atlanta — a format that has continued through to Tokyo.

But the status of Olympic men’s soccer brings several complications that have hampered the event’s ability to showcase the world’s top young talent and inspired debates every four years over whether it deserves to remain a part of the program.

Like other underage tournaments such as the U-20 and U-17 World Cups, the Olympics fall outside of FIFA’s international match periods — meaning that unlike major senior tournaments such as the World Cup and continental tournaments, national teams cannot compel clubs to make their players available.

Although clubs are often understanding when it comes to younger players — who can see their profiles (and potential transfer fees) elevated with a strong performance at the Games — the same cannot be said of overage players, whose participation is sometimes regarded by clubs and even fans as a distraction as well as a fitness risk ahead of the new season.

Japan is all too familiar with call-up struggles. Yasuharu Sorimachi’s side at the 2008 Beijing Olympics featured not a single overage player after the Japan Football Association failed to secure the likes of midfielder Yasuhito Endo or forward Yoshito Okubo from their J. League clubs.

The lack of a guiding veteran presence cost the team, which slumped to three straight losses — a “failure” that Sorimachi, now the JFA’s technical director, cited when Japan announced a Tokyo 2020 squad with a full complement of overage selections and a total of nine players currently with European clubs.

“While there were a lot of reasons we couldn’t invite any overage players for Beijing, I can’t deny that there was a lot of last-minute panic,” Sorimachi told Sports Graphic Number earlier this month. “We needed to have prepared much earlier, and that was a very big lesson we took away from that tournament.”

Another harsh lesson for Japan was the case of Rio 2016 selection Yuya Kubo, who was recalled by Switzerland’s Young Boys shortly before the tournament to replace an injured teammate in Champions League qualifying.

That incident — along with a steadily rising trend of Olympic-eligible Japanese players moving to Europe — inspired the JFA to establish a branch office in Germany, which since early 2020 has monitored more than 50 players on the continent and handled negotiations with their parent clubs.

“We started talking to clubs as soon as Tokyo 2020’s tournament changed from U-23 to U-24 (because of the event’s one-year postponement),” Sorimachi said. “There are a lot of players that age who are already key players at their clubs, and how those clubs respond changes greatly depending on whether you approach them a year in advance or shortly before the Games.”

Richarlison celebrates Brazil's second goal on Wednesday at Saitama Stadium. | REUTERS
Richarlison celebrates Brazil’s second goal on Wednesday at Saitama Stadium. | REUTERS

While soccer’s more established regions focus on producing generations of players capable of competing over multiple World Cup cycles, so-called developing regions such as Asia consider the Olympics a source of national pride — especially when a World Cup appearance is a distant dream.

“In Asia, football at the Olympics has always mattered and I think it always will,” Paul Williams, co-host of “The Asian Game” podcast, told The Japan Times. “When Australia was suffering its long 32-year World Cup drought, playing at the Olympics was the next best thing and the performances and results of some of those teams, going back to Seoul and Barcelona in 1988 and 1992, respectively, go down in football folklore in the country.

“It is a mini version of the World Cup with perhaps a greater chance for achieving a result and that will always mean Olympic football is relevant in Asia.”

For programs that place an emphasis on youth categories and establish a clear path of progression, the benefits of developing a strong Olympic squad that can test its skill against the world’s best can be enormous, potentially forming a “golden generation” capable of contesting senior tournaments.

“Undoubtedly we think this is a very strong tournament in technical terms. We’re playing against very strong teams and there are good players who are at a very high level, even higher than the Saudi team,” Saudi Arabia assistant coach Ahmed Al-ruwaiei said Wednesday after his country’s 3-1 defeat to Brazil at Saitama Stadium. “Interacting with these players and playing against them, I think this is a great opportunity for Saudi players and they will definitely benefit from it.

“As a technical management team, we perceive this tournament as a very highly important one, which is not any less important than the World Cup given the players and the teams that are playing.”

For some countries, not taking Olympic soccer seriously can have consequences. The United States’ failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia has been blamed by some on its inability to reach any Olympics since Beijing, and another disappointing CONCACAF qualifying tournament earlier this year deprived one of the country’s strongest-ever generations a chance to test themselves against world-class talent and build the sport’s domestic audience.

“The Olympics are a huge deal in the United States on their own, and millions of people watch sports they don’t otherwise. Viewers would tune into soccer games just to see a U.S. team play,” Philadelphia Inquirer soccer writer Jonathan Tannenwald said.

“And at (Tokyo 2020) they would have likely seen some big names … like Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, Juventus’ Weston McKennie, and RB Leipzig’s Tyler Adams, who wanted to play in the Olympics and are age-eligible.”

Japan's Ritsu Doan battles France's Clement Michelin on Wednesday night. | REUTERS
Japan’s Ritsu Doan battles France’s Clement Michelin on Wednesday night. | REUTERS

The persistent elephants in the room are that of Europe, whose continental championship traditionally falls on Olympic years, and South America, which from this cycle shifted its Copa America tournament to match.

While UEFA nations have won just three of 18 potential medals since the addition of overage players in Atlanta 1996, CONMEBOL has captured nine — including golds in 2004, 2008 (both Argentina) and 2016 (host nation Brazil) — an indication of a clear gap in enthusiasm between the sport’s most powerful confederations.

“I really think it’s an unbelievable experience because it’s a big tournament with big teams, and we come here to win these,” Brazil striker Matheus Cunha said on Wednesday evening. “For football it’s different because we come with different age (limits), but for me it’s one of the top three tournaments in the world and we’re very happy to be a part of this.”

But the real question — and perhaps the key to the future viability of Olympic men’s soccer — is whether European countries will change their mindset toward the Games. Four UEFA nations entered Tokyo 2020’s group stage but only Spain will contest the knockout tournament after France, Romania and Germany crashed out.

While that represents a decrease from the three European sides that reached the knockouts five years ago in Rio, the enthusiasm Spanish players have for the Games is clear — even if the tight schedule has meant little time to relax for those who also participated in last month’s Euros, such as RB Leipzig forward Dani Olmo.

“Some people may ask why should I come (to the Olympics) and not rest a little bit, but I say no,” Olmo said. “This is a big opportunity for us, for the athletes. If I can take it, if the coach gives me the opportunity to come, of course I come.

“The atmosphere in the village, you can feel it. You’re living with stars. And this atmosphere is incredible for us. We’ve had the chance to be there for a few days and it’s a really great experience.”

But the focus for Spanish players remains the highest spot on the podium, where current Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and Spain head coach Luis Enrique stood after defeating Poland on a magical August night at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

“For us, every competition that we play in for our country is the biggest one,” Tottenham midfielder Bryan Gil said. “We are a country that always wants to win, so hopefully we can give our fans something back.”

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