Why does Olympic Soccer have an Age Limit?

Why does Olympic Soccer have an Age Limit? - header image

One of my favorite events to watch at the Olympics is the soccer tournament. But one of the things that has always intrigued me is why there is an age limit on which players can take part. So I decided it was time to find out and I wanted to share what I found with you.

Why does Olympic soccer have an age limit?

Olympic soccer has an age limit to ensure the FIFA World Cup(a separate tournament) retains its number 1 position in world soccer and doesn’t have to compete for attention with Olympic soccer.

As with many decisions that people make every day there wasn’t just one issue to take into consideration, there were a number of other factors that came into play as well.

If you want to find out when soccer was first featured in the Olympics, have a look at this article I recently wrote. You may be surprised at what you find out!

Reasons Why the Olympic Soccer Age Limit Was Put in Place

Avoiding competition with the FIFA World Cup was clearly a significant factor in making the decision to implement an age limit at the Olympics.

The concern was that without any obvious difference between the two competitions, apart from a difference in the number of teams taking part, it would just be like a World Cup taking place every two years rather than every 4 years.

FIFA(the organization that governs world soccer) was worried that this would negatively affect the importance and significance of the World Cup and was insistent that there had to be a notable difference between the two.

When working through the process of deciding whether to impose an age limit, there were another few things going on as well that would have influenced the minds of those who were making the decision.

One of those factors was that the introduction of an age limit had the advantage of leveling the playing field for all the teams in the competition.

Traditionally world soccer is dominated by the teams from Europe and South America. In fact, in the whole history of the FIFA World Cup since it first took place in 1930 no team from outside Europe or South America has ever won it. They’ve never even made it to the final game!

The Olympic Rings

If Olympic Soccer was an all-age tournament there would be a high chance of it also being dominated by the national teams from Europe and South America.

Although the European and South American teams still have a strong record at the Olympics, countries from other continents have been able to take advantage of the age restriction with the African nation of Nigeria winning the tournament in 1996 and Cameroon winning in 2000.

Another factor that would also have been considered by the International Olympic Committee(IOC) and FIFA was the already busy schedule that the soccer players had.

As well as all the games they had to play for their club and national teams throughout a regular 9-10 month season, they also already had other tournaments to take part in their summer and winter breaks.

Expecting all a nation’s best players to turn out for the Olympic soccer tournament as well was considered to be too much to ask of them. Although these soccer players are athletes in peak condition, they still need a break and time off sometimes as well!

We all intuitively know that improving our fitness level would improve our performance on the field.

But we also know getting fitter is hard.

To make this easier, I created a 30 Day Soccer Fitness Program that provides you with a daily, step-by-step guide to help you take your soccer performance to the next level.

  • If you want to outperform the opposition,
  • If you want to be a better player in 30 days than you are now,
  • And if you want to reduce your chance of injury,

What Is the Age Limit for Soccer at the Olympics?

The age limit for soccer at the Olympics is 23 years old. The age of 23 was chosen for the Olympics because the European teams qualify based on how well they perform at the European u21 championships that used to take place two years before the Olympic tournament.

In most other soccer tournaments the highest age limit is usually 21 years old. However, having an age limit of 23 meant that those players who were 21 at the time of the previous u21 European championship would still be allowed to take part in the competition that they had worked so hard to qualify for.

It would be pretty frustrating to help get your team to the Olympics only to then be told you’re too old to actually take part!

Since this decision was made, the timings of the u21 European championship have changed, and they now take place the year before the Olympics.

When Was the Age Limit Introduced?

Soccer became an official Olympic sport in 1904 at the Olympic Games in St. Louis. However, FIFA recognizes the 1908 Olympic games as soccer’s first official appearance at the Olympics. Women’s soccer became an Olympic sport at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Although soccer became an Olympic sport over 100 years ago, the age limit for Olympic soccer wasn’t introduced until much later.

The age limit for Olympic soccer was introduced in 1992 at the Barcelona Olympics.

*If you’re interested in finding out how long soccer has been a part of the Olympics, click here to go to another of my articles giving you much more information about Olympic soccer.*

Prior to this, the agreement between the IOC and FIFA had been that the competing teams could enter any players they wanted. The only exception to this was that countries from Europe and South America could only field players who had not previously taken part in a FIFA World Cup.

Similar to what was mentioned earlier, this was in place to try and prevent the competition from being dominated by the same teams every time.

Are There Any Exceptions To the 23-Year-Old Age Limit?

Yes, there are!

The main exception is that every team is allowed to enter 3 over-age players.

This allows some of the best players from each nation to still take part and adds a higher level of skill and experience to the teams. This has allowed some of the best players in the world such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to appear in the Olympics well beyond the age of 23.

Interestingly, the players over the age of 23 that can take part would not have been able to take part in any of the qualifying rounds for the tournament.

This is due to the fact that all the qualifying rounds take place between the under 21 teams from the nations participating. By the time the Olympics comes around, all those players would still be under the age of 23.

Does Women’s Soccer at the Olympics Also Have an Age Limit?

female soccer player running with ball

Interestingly, there are a few differences between men and women’s soccer at the Olympics.

For one thing, there is no age limit in the women’s tournament.

The reason for this is that it is generally agreed that women’s soccer around the world is more equally competitive than in men’s soccer, where it is dominated by nations from just two continents. Because of this, there isn’t the same need to balance out the competition.

The fact that the women’s World Cup, although growing in popularity, isn’t as widely watched or as popular as the men’s version, also means that there wasn’t the same issue of rival competitions to concern FIFA either.

They have so far been happy to let the women’s soccer competition be open to players of all ages since it first took place at the 1996 games in Atlanta.

Because of the lack of an age limit, another difference in women’s soccer is that it’s usually the best women’s soccer players from around the world that turn up to play every 4 years.

In men’s soccer that’s rarely the case.

This is because not only does the men’s soccer tournament have an age limit which, by definition limits the players who are eligible, but because the Olympic tournament isn’t on the FIFA international calendar.

This means the player’s clubs are under no obligation to release them to play in the Olympics.

So if you’re looking to watch the best players around the world competing then you’re probably better off watching the women’s rather than the men’s soccer.

Related questions

Do professional soccer players play in the Olympics? Professional soccer players have been playing in the Olympics since the 1984 games in Los Angeles when the competing nations were first given permission to enter professional players. Before the 1984 Olympics, all players had to be amateur.

How many players are on an Olympic soccer team? According to the regulations, each team in the Olympics can have a roster of up to 20 players eligible for each match. This includes 11 selected players and 9 substitutes. Of these 20 players, 3 must be goalkeepers.

Is Olympic soccer a big deal? Olympic Soccer is a big deal as it brings together teams from across the world to compete in front of a global audience. However, it is often compared unfavorably to the soccer World Cup which is considered to be a much bigger and important competition.

*Check out the next post “Can a Goalkeeper Score in Soccer?”*


Hi! My name's Ben. I've played, watched, read about, and enjoyed soccer throughout my life. I really enjoy finding out more about the game I love and sharing it with you all. Sign up to the yoursoccerhome.com newsletter here or check out more about me here - Ben Clayfield

Recent Posts