Olympic soccer tournament format explained: Rules, number of teams, match duration

Olympic soccer tournament format explained: Rules, number of teams, match duration

Lenah Ann
updated at April 12, 2023 at 8:28 PM

Soccer is among the most popular Olympic sports in the world that are held after every four years. The Olympic soccer tournament format currently in place for both men's and women's competitions consists of two stages, a group stage and a knockout stage. For teams to participate, they must participate in their region's pre-tournament qualification games organised per FIFA regulations.

How long are soccer matches in the Olympics
A close view of the original Olympics rings at Stratford on 14 June 2022, in London, England. Photo: Richard Baker
Source: Getty Images

Regarding the Olympics men's soccer, an age restriction requires only three players to be above 23 years, while the rest of the roster must be 23 years or younger. Women, on the other hand, have no age restrictions.

Olympic soccer records

Soccer has seen some of the best teams and players worldwide that have made memorable moments in both men's and women's competitions over the decades. Some of these legendary athletes and teams hold records that have gone down in the tournament's history.

  • Italy holds the record with 15 appearances in the men's event.
  • USA, Sweden, and Brazil have the record for appearing seven times in women's soccer since it was introduced in 1996 in Atlanta.
  • In the men's competitions, Denmark holds the record for the highest victory margin in a match after defeating France in 1908.
  • In the women's side, Germany holds the same record as Denmark after winning against China in 2004.
  • Antal Dunai, a former Hungarian striker holds the record for most goals, 13, in the men's soccer event.
  • In the women's event, Brazilian Cristiane holds the same record with 14 goals.
  • During the 2012 London games, 38-year old Ryan Giggs was named the oldest goal scorer in the soccer Olympics.
  • Hungary holds the record for the most gold medals in the men's soccer Olympics.
Men's Olympic soccer roster rules
AS Roma players warm up during the Italy Cup football match against US Cremonese in Rome, Italy on 1 February 2023. Photo: Elianto
Source: Getty Images

Men's Olympic soccer tournament format

The men's Olympic soccer tournament format includes the group and knockout stages. The group stage has 16 teams that are divided into four groups of four teams, each according to geography and seeding.

In doing so, teams do not play their neighbouring countries in the early kick-offs. Teams in the group play against each other once in a three-point victory, a point for a draw, and a losing team does not get any issues. Most points then rank these teams, and the goal difference breaks ties.

In the men's soccer knockout stage, the top two teams from various groups enter the quarterfinals. If two teams tie after the expected time, then an extra 30 minutes is added, and if the tie is still not broken, the teams head to a penalty shoot-out.

The teams that emerge winners in the quarterfinals head to the semi-finals, and the winners advance to the finals while the losers face off to determine the third-place team.

Men's Olympic soccer roster rules

Like any other sport, Olympic soccer has some set of rules and regulations that are supposed to be adhered to by the respective athletes.

Number of teams in Olympic soccer
Gianluca Mancini of AS Roma, Josep Martinez and Massimo Coda of Genoa CFC during the Italy Cup football match in Rome, Italy on 12 January 2023. Photo: Elianton
Source: Getty Images

Even though discipline is not as common as the known soccer, where different repercussions are faced in case of a broken rule, it is somewhat different in this case.

  • The men’s roster allows the inclusion of only 22 players.
  • Out of the 22 players, only 18 can play individual matches..
  • Remaining alternates can be used when a player is injured.
  • If a player is replaced then they cannot return.

FIFA stated,

The International Olympic Committee, IOC has made official a more flexible approach towards the participation of the alternate athletes in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Football Tournaments. As a result, the Participating Member Associations will be entitled to reconstitute their teams ahead of every match.

Additionally, the IOC had something to state;

The number of athletes on the start list will therefore remain at 18, but teams will now have 22 players, 18 athletes plus 4 alternate athletes, to select their team for every match. This is an exception for the Tokyo 2020 Games and does not create a precedent for future Olympic Games.

Number of teams in Olympic soccer

The number of men's and women's Olympic soccer teams differs as they have 16 and 12 teams, respectively. Men's soccer competition has been around for over a century, while the women's competition was first played in 1996.

Number of teams in Olympic soccer
Diogo Oliveira (L) vies for the ball with Santos' Felix Torres during their Mexican Apertura football tournament match, in Mexico City, on 21 August 2022. Photo: Victor Cruz
Source: Getty Images

Women's soccer started with eight teams and increased to ten in 2000. During the 2008 Games in Beijing, it expanded to 12 acquiring rapid growth worldwide, thus creating a possibility for expansion to 16 teams.

How long is a soccer match in the Olympics?

A match has a 90-minute play time divided into two halves of 45 minutes each. If the two halves end in a tie, then it is broken with an extra 30 minutes of playtime, divided into two halves of 15 minutes each, by which, if the tie persists, then a penalty shoot-out is held to determine the winner.

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

In the World Cup, the best teams and players of all ages take part after qualifying, and it involves every national team on the planet while in the Olympics, that is not the case.

The World Cup has 32 teams for both men and women, making it a great sport with significant fan bases worldwide, while on the other hand, it has fewer teams and thus feels less of a world competition.

How does each nation qualify for Olympic soccer?

Men's Olympic soccer tournament
Nicola Zalewski of AS Roma and Rogerio Oliveira da Silva of US Sassuolo during the Serie A football match at Olimpico stadium in Rome Italy on 12 March 2023. Photo: Elianto
Source: Getty Images

Various regions have criteria and rules to determine how the qualifying teams are selected. In the case of men, the majority hold under 23 tournaments to be fair in their selections, and the winner gets to participate in the Olympic competitions.

Are the rules different in Olympic soccer?

The rules for both men's and women's intentional competitions are the same in Olympic soccer and the World Cup, as FIFA governs them.

Globally, soccer has garnered over 5 billion fans and continues to gain more daily. It is a simple and elegant game loved and watched worldwide, especially during the finals. The Olympic soccer tournament format has created a spotlight for professional footballers to rise to stardom while playing either exhibition matches or for their national teams.

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Lenah Ann
Lenah Ann is a Kenyan-based content creator with 2 years of experience. She graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Mass Media and Communication from Dedan Kimathi, Kenya in 2021.