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Tokyo Olympics - men's football preview: Medal favourites, key players, how to watch & more

Jamie Spencer
The delayed Tokyo Olympics are just days away
The delayed Tokyo Olympics are just days away / Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Men’s football at the Olympics has become increasingly prominent in recent years, with higher profile players like Neymar, Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero wanting to be involved.

It is still an age-restricted tournament but being part of the Olympic Games gives it a unique and special edge that other competitions don’t really have.

Here’s a look at everything you need to know about men’s football at this summer’s Olympics…

Which countries have qualified for the Olympics?

Argentina & South Korea have each won medals in the past
Argentina & South Korea have each won medals in the past / JUNG YEON-JE/Getty Images

Japan: Hosts

France, Germany, Romania, Spain: Semi-finalists at European Under-21 Championship

New Zealand: OFC Olympic qualifying tournament

Egypt, Ivory Coast, South Africa: Top three at the Under-23 Africa Cup of Nations

Australia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea: Top three at the Under-23 AFC Championship

Argentina, Brazil: CONMEBOL pre-Olympic tournament

Honduras, Mexico: CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament

What are the age restriction rules?

Dani Alves appears an over-age player for Brazil
Dani Alves appears an over-age player for Brazil / Lionel Ng/Getty Images

Men’s football debuted as an Olympic sport in 1900 but was strictly a competition for non-professionals until rules changes in 1984 permitted pros to be selected, albeit limited to those who had never played in World Cup if you were European or South American.

The World Cup clause was removed in 1992 when it became an age-restricted tournament for Under-23 players. The over-age rule, allowing the selection of three players who don’t fit the age criteria, was first seen at the 1996 Olympics.

Typically, the age cut-off allows the selection of any born on or since 1 January in the year 23 years before the Olympics are due to take place. For example, excluding over-age exemptions, players for the 2020 Olympics must have been on or since 1 January 1997.

Given the postponement of the original Games due to the coronavirus pandemic, the IOC opted to leave the age cut-off point unchanged to ensure players turning 24 wouldn’t be unfairly excluded. Technically, this summer’s Olympic competition is actually an Under-24 tournament.

What is the competition format?

Football at the Olympics follows a typical tournament format
Football at the Olympics follows a typical tournament format / SOPA Images/Getty Images

The 16 competing nations have been divided into three groups (A-D) of four as follows:

Group A: Japan, South Africa, Mexico, France

Group B: New Zealand, South Korea, Honduras, Romania

Group C: Egypt, Spain, Argentina, Australia

Group D: Brazil, Germany, Ivory Coast, Saudi Arabia

Each team plays every other in the group once in typical round robin format, with the top two in each group automatically qualifying for the quarter-finals.

The two eventual finalists will compete for the gold medal, with the runners-up getting silver, while the two losing semi-finalists go into a playoff to see who takes home the bronze medal.

When are game being played?

The first games in the men’s football take place on 22 July, a day before the opening ceremony actually officially declares the Olympics open.

The group stage will then conclude on 28 July, with the knockout bracket to begin three days later and continue until the gold medal match on 7 August.

22 July: Mexico vs France (A), Japan vs South Africa (A), New Zealand vs South Korea (B), Honduras vs Romania (B), Egypt vs Spain (C), Argentina vs Australia (C), Ivory Coast vs Saudi Arabia (D), Brazil vs Germany (D)

25 July: France vs South Africa (A), Japan vs Mexico (A), New Zealand vs Honduras (B), Romania vs South Korea (B), Egypt vs Argentina (C), Australia vs Spain (C), Brazil vs Ivory Coast (D), Saudi Arabia vs Germany (D)

28 July: France vs Japan (A), South Africa vs Mexico (A), Romania vs New Zealand (B), South Korea vs Honduras (B), Australia vs Egypt (C), Spain vs Argentina (C), Saudi Arabia vs Brazil (D), Germany vs Ivory Coast (D)

31 July: Quarter-finals

3 August: Semi-finals

6 August: Bronze medal match

7 August: Gold medal match

Where are games being played?

The gold medal match is being played in Yokohama, which hosted the 2002 World Cup final
The gold medal match is being played in Yokohama, which hosted the 2002 World Cup final / MARTIN BUREAU/Getty Images

Although the Olympics are always based in a single city, the football tournament is usually spread slightly further afield across the host nation in order to have access to stadiums.

This year is no exception, with games taking place in the cities of Sapporo, Rifu, Kashima, Saitama and Yokohama in addition to Tokyo itself.

The gold medal match will be played in nearby Yokohama at the stadium that hosted the 2002 World Cup final, the 2019 Rugby World Cup final and numerous FIFA Club World Cup competitions.

Players to watch out for

Takefusa Kubo
Takefusa Kubo will be a home favourite / Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

Takefusa Kubo (Japan)

Poached from FC Tokyo by Real Madrid in 2019, Kubo spent last on loan with Villarreal and Getafe and returns home to represent a Japan side that could do well on home soil.

Diego Lainez (Mexico)

Laine played 25 times in all competitions for Real Betis last season and is actually the only player in the Mexican squad that isn’t based at a domestic club.

Lyle Foster (South Africa)

South Africa’s Foster is still only 20 but has long been considered a top talent with vast potential. He has been developed by Monaco’s esteemed by youth academy and now plays in Portugal.

Alexis Mac Allister (Argentina)

Brighton fans will hope Mac Allister does well for Argentina this summer. He has played senior international games before but is a bright spark of this Under-23 squad.

Pedri (Spain)

After 52 appearances for Barcelona last season and playing every minute for Spain at Euro 2020, it remains to be seen just how involved Pedri will be at the Olympics. But he could easily be the best player at the tournament.

Pedri played every minute for Spain at Euro 2020 / David Ramos/Getty Images

Matheus Cunha (Brazil)

Cunha is less widely recognised than some of his Brazil colleague but has a very good record at this level. He has previously played for RB Leipzig and has impressed with Hertha since 2020.

Amad Diallo (Ivory Coast)

Manchester United’s teenage talent has an opportunity to make his mark in an Ivory Coast side that will hope to cause some upsets. He has the talent, now this is his platform.

Who are favourites to win the gold medal?

Brazil could retain the title they won in 2016
Brazil could retain the title they won in 2016 / Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

Brazil won gold on home soil last time. But while they don’t have Neymar among their ranks this year, the Selecao still have a strong squad with a mix of domestic and European-based players, including Richarlison, Diego Carlos, Douglas Luiz, Malcom, Reinier and Gabriel Martinielli.

They are also led by a 38-year-old Dani Alves determined to add another title to his collection.

Spain will similarly be fancied to do well after naming a strong squad, although fatigue could be an issue if they are reliant on the players who were until recently competing at Euro 2020.

Argentina’s squad hasn’t been as strong as it has in the past but they will still pose a threat, as will Mexico. Ivory Coast also ought not to be underestimated, despite being in a tough group.

How can I watch the Olympics?

In the UK, the whole of the Olympics is available on BBC platforms, whether that be channel broadcasts (BBC1, BBC2, BBC4), on the red button, BBC website or iPlayer.

In the United States, Olympic football is available to stream via fuboTV.

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