How the World Cup sets the stage for men’s soccer at the 2024 Paris Olympics
A day after an epic men’s World Cup final, French superstar Kylian Mbappé shared a brief statement on social media.
We’ll be back.
For France’s men’s program, and probably Mbappé as well, after losing the final to Lionel Messi‘s Argentina in a penalty shootout, the next chance for a bit of global redemption will be the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
In a storyline similar to eight years ago, a world famous attacker could follow World Cup heartbreak with a once-in-a-career opportunity: to deliver Olympic soccer gold in front of a home crowd.
Two Olympic cycles ago, Neymar buried the penalty shootout decider in the Olympic final at the Maracanã, two years after Brazil’s devastating defeat to Germany in the World Cup semifinals.
Mbappé, who already has a World Cup title from 2018, may face the same conundrum that Neymar navigated in 2016. If FIFA rules remain the same, his club team, which is already forced to allow Mbappé to play a senior continental tournament in early summer 2024, has the ultimate say as to whether Mbappé can play in the Olympics (not designated a senior tournament) later that summer.
For Mbappé, that club is currently Paris Saint-Germain, which may be inclined to let him play in the Games given its ties to the Olympic host city. In October 2021, Mbappé called the Olympics “the DNA of sport” and “the best opportunity for an athlete to live their dream.”
Mbappé already said in May that PSG is on board with him playing at the Olympics. He may have to give up the chance to play in the European Championship earlier that summer, as Neymar did for the 2016 Copa América Centenario in a deal with his club at the time, FC Barcelona.
Most stars do not compete in two major tournaments in one summer for their countries. Clubs prefer they rest ahead of their league seasons. Time will tell.
Then there’s Messi. The prevailing notion during the World Cup was that it would mark the 35-year-old’s farewell with the national team. At 6,029 days since his World Cup debut, he had not only the longest wait for a men’s title in history, but also the longest men’s World Cup career in history.
But Messi reportedly said after Sunday’s triumph that he plans to continue with La Albiceleste at least a bit longer. Still, it appears unlikely that Messi will be at the Olympics, which is largely a tournament for players age 23 and younger.
He already got his experience at the 2008 Beijing Games, winning gold (he and teammate Ángel Di María are the only men since World War II to own both an Olympic gold medal and a World Cup title). Plus, an Argentina team of U-23 players must qualify without him, and there are only two South American spots available.
Olympic men’s soccer teams are allowed up to three “over-age players,” (in Paris 2024’s case, players born before Jan. 1, 2001). Argentina has never used an over-age spot on a man older than 31.
But it has used them on big names. Defender Roberto Ayala captained Argentina at Copa América in 2004, then played the Olympics later that summer. In 2008, the Olympic team included midfielders Juan Riquelme and Javier Mascherano, who started every match at the 2006 World Cup. Note there was no Copa América in 2008, clearing the path for South American stars to take part in the Olympics. There is expected to be a Copa América in 2024, site TBA, and Argentina is defending champion.
How U.S. Soccer approaches the 2024 Olympics will be intriguing. It qualified a men’s team for the first time since 2008. It is expected to receive an automatic 2026 World Cup spot as co-host, so it would not have to play in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. The downside to that is that the U.S. must find other ways to schedule meaningful matches ahead of 2026.
The Olympics can provide that to an extent. The age restrictions mean that although the stakes are high, the event will be very different than a World Cup. The U.S. may also be invited to 2024 Copa América, perhaps even to host it, which would provide competition closer to a World Cup level and make it problematic to send its best players to the Olympics in the same summer.
Every U.S. Olympic men’s soccer team in the last 30 years included at least one player from the previous World Cup. Three players from this year’s World Cup team are young enough that they could be on the Olympic team without using an over-age exception (Yunus Musah, Gio Reyna, Joe Scally).
So, the U.S. Olympic team could include six World Cup players total, but that’s if they’re not held back for other senior national team matches that summer and given releases by their club teams. And if they want to play at all.
Olympic soccer can lure some players more than others. Messi said in 2017 that he valued his Olympic title above all of his other victories, though that was before he won Copa América, let alone the World Cup.
“World Cup is great,” he said in May 2016, according to an ESPN translation of an interview in Spanish, “but Olympics are something special.”
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