Olympic football rules explained: how the men’s and women’s football tournaments work in Tokyo


The Olympic football tournaments for men and women are among the flagship events of the world football scene.

Both competitions work the same. Here is how they work.

  • Qualification: Participating nations must qualify for the Olympic football tournament in their respective region. Each regional body itself determines the course of the qualification.
  • Olympic group draw: The teams qualified for the Olympic Games are divided into different groups on the basis of a draw. The competition schedule is predetermined before the draw.
  • Selection of the Olympic list: Each national team head coach chooses 22 football players to compete in the Olympics according to the rules of the Olympic roster (see below).

Once the teams arrive at the Olympic Games, the tournament is divided into two phases:

  • Group stage: Each team begins by playing three matches in the group stage of the round robin tournament. Only eight teams advance from the group stage to the round of 16.
  • Knockout phase: The tournaments end with knockout quarter-finals, semi-finals and the two medal matches. the losers of the semi-finals meet for bronze. The winners of the semi-finals play in a gold / silver medal match.

This is all pretty straightforward. But there are slight differences that make these Olympic tournaments different.

MORE: Update on Men’s and Women’s Football Results

How many teams qualify for the Olympic Games?

From 2021, the men’s and women’s soccer tournaments start with a different number of participating teams:

  • Men’s Olympic Football: 16 teams
  • Women’s Olympic Football: 12 teams

Men’s football has been played at every Summer Olympics, while women’s football was first introduced in 1996.

The women’s competition started with eight teams in 1996, grew to 10 participants in 2000 and expanded to 12 teams for the 2008 Games in Beijing. With the rapid growth of women’s football around the world, expansion to 16 teams seems inevitable.

What is the difference between the Olympics and the World Cup?

The men’s and women’s FIFA World Cups see the participation of the best teams with their best players after qualifying competitions that involve all the national teams on the planet. This is not the case with the Olympics, and it ensures that, while prestigious, the Olympics never compete with the World Cup.

The FIFA World Cups for men and women present a wider field of teams that are both the pinnacle of achievement in sport: 32 participants for the Men and Women World Cups. The reduced field at the Olympics gives it less of a world championship feel.

In addition, in the case of men’s Olympic football only, FIFA and the International Olympic Committee limit participation in tournaments to players 23 and under, with only three selections over 23 allowed on each list (taking into account the delay pandemic, this age the threshold has been pushed back to 24 for 2021). It is also not mandatory for club teams to release male players in their national teams for the men’s Olympic tournament. That’s why you don’t see Lionel Messi playing for Argentina or Neymar playing for Brazil in Tokyo 2021, although the two probably could have wrung a few arms if they really wanted to be there.

Meanwhile, the Olympic women’s football tournament features full senior national teams. No age restriction.

PLUS: Full schedules for men’s soccer and women’s soccer

How does each nation qualify for Olympic football?

Each region has its own rules for determining how its qualifying slots are filled. The majority hold Olympic qualifying tournaments, some of which qualify as Under-23 Championships in the case of men.

They don’t complicate matters in Europe: they are simply reusing their European Men’s Under-21 Championship to determine the four European qualifying places for the Olympics. They also take Europe’s top finishers at the FIFA Women’s World Cup to fill all three spots in the women’s Olympic tournament (England’s result gave Great Britain a place). That’s why the last women’s Olympic gold medalist, Germany, is not at the 2021 Olympics.

Here is the distribution of berths worldwide for Tokyo 2021:

Region Olympic places men Olympic places women
Africa 3 (Egypt, Ivory Coast, South Africa) 1.5 (Zambia)
Asia 3 (Australia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea) 2 (Australia, China)
Europe 4 (France, Germany, Romania, Spain) 3 (Great Britain, Netherlands, Sweden)
Oceania 1 (New Zealand) 1 (New Zealand)
South America 2 (Brazil, Argentina) 1.5 (Brazil)
North America 2 (Honduras, Mexico) 2 (United States, Canada)

The reason why Africa and South America are listed as having 1.5 berths each? This half-berth refers to a playoff that is played between the two regions. Chile beat Cameroon in two matches to qualify for the 2021 Olympics.

Finally, the host country automatically qualifies for the men’s and women’s football tournaments. Japan has a male and female soccer team competing at the Tokyo 2021 Games.

MORE: Update on the top scorers of the men’s tournament

Are the rules different in Olympic football?

The governing body of world football, FIFA, actually organizes men’s and women’s competitions at the Olympics.

In the group stage, teams score three points for a win, one for a draw and none for a loss. There are tiebreakers for teams that even score points in the three-game group stage of the round robin and they are used in this order:

  1. Greater goal difference in all group matches (difference between goals scored and conceded);
  2. Most goals scored in all group matches;
  3. Most of the points obtained in the group matches between the teams in question;
  4. Greater goal difference in group matches between the teams in question;
  5. Most of the goals scored in the group matches between the teams in question;
  6. Best driving score relative to yellow and red cards received in all group matches:
  7. Draw

Eight teams advance from the group stages to the knockout round of 16 which features quarterfinal and semi-final matches leading up to the gold / silver medal match and the bronze medal match.

If you really want to dive into all the details of the rules, all 78 pages of them are posted.

What happens if Olympic football matches end in ties?

During the group stage, draws after 90 minutes give each team one point in their respective group ranking.

In the knockout round, all matches in the men’s and women’s tournaments that are tied after 90 minutes of settlement will move towards 30 minutes of extra time (two periods of 15 minutes each). If the toss persists, a penalty shootout will be used to determine the winner.

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