The Olympics is one of the most prestigious sporting events in existence, with a history that goes back over 2000 years. The ancient Greeks used sports as a way to compete with each other and thus avoid open warfare, with events like running, spear throwing, and discus throwing.
The modern Olympics is held every four years, and the Summer and Winter Olympics are held separately, with the next Summer Olympics due in 2024 and the Winter Olympics in 2026.
Many sports have been added to the games over the years, and while soccer has been a part of the Summer Olympics for over a century, its popularity just doesn’t compete with that of other soccer tournaments.
Today, we’re going to look at the five main reasons why Olympic soccer isn’t as popular as either FIFA-sponsored competitions or even national leagues.
Why is Olympic soccer not treated with the same excitement during an Olympic Games when fans and teams are obsessed with winning for the rest of the soccer season?
1. The Best Players Rarely Compete in The Olympics
Soccer has been a part of the Olympic calendar since 1900, with the notable and very relevant exception of the 1932 Summer Olympics. The reason the 1932 Olympics didn’t have soccer included was due to the very first FIFA World Cup being held in 1930.
In a move that would set the tone for the future of Olympic soccer, the World Cup was to take precedence over other international soccer competitions.
This focus on the World Cup, a tournament specifically for soccer, and therefore not sharing the stage with multiple sports, meant that the very best players would always focus their energies on the World Cup rather than the Olympics.
Another contentious issue is that while the Summer Olympics are held two years after each World Cup, so at least they don’t clash in the same calendar year, the Olympics are held in the same year as the UEFA European Championships.
This means that the best players in Europe will always concentrate on qualification for the European competition rather than the Olympics.
Make no mistake, the Olympics is a huge deal, with a history and importance that’s hard to ignore, but for soccer players, it’s the World Cup and European Championships that matter the most. It’s little wonder South American teams do so well in the Summer Olympics, as they don’t have the European Championships to contend with.
2. The Under-23 Rule Is Designed To Keep The World Cup As No.1
In 1992 another regulation was introduced to Olympic Soccer that effectively made it impossible for the competition to be taken as seriously as the FIFA World Cup.
From 1992 until the present day, teams competing in the Summer Olympic soccer tournament must only have three players over the age of 23 in the squad.
While this is a great plus for those players under 23, they now have a much higher chance of finding game time; it does restrict who can be called up for the Olympics.
For professional clubs, this new rule was a welcome one, the risk of losing their better players to a tournament that doesn’t benefit the club was all but wiped out overnight.
The World Cup, with players of all ages able to compete, was already the number one soccer tournament in the world, and now players over the age of 23 would be unlikely to be called up to an Olympic tournament.
The very best players, the absolute elite, players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Kilian Mbappe, simply won’t be released by their clubs to play Olympic soccer.
Clubs won’t risk them getting injured, don’t want them to be overworked, and see zero benefits to their club or player.
3. The Competition Doesn’t Have The History
Ask any hardened soccer fan where the next World Cup is being held, and they’ll probably be able to answer immediately. Ask them if they’ve seen replays of previous tournaments, and they’ll wax lyrical about the great World Cup goals and the great players who have taken tournaments by storm.
Ask that same fan if they enjoyed the 2012 Summer Olympic soccer tournament, and they’ll probably not even know what country hosted it, let alone won the trophy. It’s not that the Summer Olympics isn’t huge, nor that the soccer stadiums don’t get good crowds; it’s just that there isn’t the excitement of a World Cup year.
We’ve known fans of their national team save their money for years, preparing to pay for travel and tickets to watch their nation in World Cups and European Championships.
But for an Olympic soccer game, it’s invariably the locals who turn up, hoping to see future stars or just to be a part of the incredible atmosphere that an Olympic game brings.
4. Fewer Fans Get To See Live Games
Unlike the World Cup and European Championships, which are spread over an entire country, the Summer Olympics are held in one city, restricting the number of fans that can see live games.
Having the Olympics in one capital city will often mean that fans with tickets will invariably see multiple games for nations they don’t necessarily support.
TV coverage for the Olympics is massive; with so many sports on show, armchair fans can watch dozens of sports every day, with the world’s best athletes competing for top honors. The high number of sports means that, at times, viewers are restricted on how much of a soccer game they’ll see.
Unless you’re at the game itself, there’s a high chance that you’ll only be able to watch highlights of a game, although as the competition progresses, the games are shown in their entirety.
Every World Cup game will be viewed in its entirety for every match throughout the tournament, with pundits on hand to dissect every pass, mistake, and goal.
5. Soccer Will Always Take A Back Seat To Other Olympic Sports
A World Cup or European Championships is about one thing; elite soccer, with the best players from each nation competing for the highest honors in the sport. An Olympics is a multi-disciplinary competition with thousands of competitors, some of whom have trained their entire lives for that one competition.
Professional soccer players who head to an Olympics know that after the tournament, they’ll head back to their clubs and continue playing week after week. An Olympic athlete might compete in several competitions. Still, their entire focus, their whole life, will be aimed at winning an Olympic medal.
Soccer simply can’t compete with that level of competition; players will be trying to win titles, cups, and matches month after month. While every player hopes to represent their country at top competitions, they’ll be focussed on the World Cup or European Championships, not the Olympics.
While it’s a sad fact that very few players get into soccer in the hope they’ll win an Olympic medal, for every runner, swimmer, and countless other athletes, it’s the pinnacle of their career. And so it should be; winning an Olympic gold medal after four years of rigorous training is every Olympian’s dream. But for every soccer player, lifting the World Cup just means more.