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Olympic football at Tokyo 2020: Top things to know following the draw

When do the Olympic football matches take place at Tokyo 2020 in 2021, and where? What is the history of football at the Olympic Games? Which stars can you expect to see? Find out here.
By David Childs

Football is one of 33 sports that will take place at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 in 2021.

But which teams will be involved? who are the ones to watch? When will competition take place, and where will it be held? Ever wanted to know about the sport’s Olympic history?

Here is our guide to the top things to know about Olympic football.

Top Football Players to Watch at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021

In the women’s competition the United States, reigning FIFA Women’s World Cup champions, will be bringing their star-studded squad to Tokyo. Megan Rapinoe will likely feature at her third Games alongside Alex Morgan who, after giving birth in May 2020, would have been an unlikely inclusion had the competition taken place during its original dates.

Great Britain qualified through England’s performance at the FIFA Women World’s Cup in 2019, where they finished as one of the three highest European teams and thus earned one of the three qualification spots allocated to UEFA. Lucy Bronze, The Best FIFA Women’s Player in 2020, will almost definitely be in the 18-player squad, which can also include players from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

You should expect a lot of goals in Tokyo too. Some of the world’s most prolific strikers, such as Australia’s Sam Kerr, Vivianne Miedema of the Netherlands and the world-record holder for most international goals, Canada’s Christine Sinclair, should all feature.

Megan Rapinoe celebrates after scoring the opening goal of the final from the penalty spot

Due to the nature of the competition in men’s football at the Olympics, it is difficult to identify the stars because it is unclear who will be available.

Historically taking place after major continental tournaments (as is the case in 2021 with UEFA EURO and Copa America) and being considered an Under-23 competition, the squads are often not fully known until weeks before the Games begin.

That is not to say there will not be stars at Tokyo – 2018 FIFA World Cup winner Kylian Mbappe was in France’s preliminary list before COVID-19 shutdown the sporting calendar in March 2020, while the legendary Real Madrid and Spain captain Sergio Ramos has been linked with one of Spain’s “overaged” spots too

For the hosts, Real Madrid’s Kubo Takefusa is one to watch. The Japanese international, who turns 20 in June, could likely feature in Tokyo after impressing in La Liga for Mallorca and Villarreal on-loan, and is currently featuring for Getafe.

Olympic football competition format at the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021

The women’s competition will feature 12 full national teams, divided into three groups of four. From each group, the top two teams will automatically reach the quarter-finals, and the two remaining spots going to the two best third-placed teams from the first round. The two losing semi-finalists will contest a bronze medal match the day before the gold medal match, which takes place on Friday 6th August.

There will be 16 teams competing in the first round of the men’s competition, split into four groups of four, in a “round-robin” format. The top two teams from each group will qualify for the knock-out stage of the tournament, beginning with the quarter-finals. From here, it follows the same structure as the women, with the gold medal match taking place on Saturday 7th August.

Teams competing in Olympic Football at the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021

Men's tournament:

The last of the 16 spots for the men's competition were decided in March 2021 with London 2012 gold medallists Mexico and Honduras progressing from the CONCACAF qualifiers in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The event hosts beat Canada 2-0 to book their place in Tokyo while Honduras reached a fourth consecutive Games with a 2-1 victory over the USA.

Brazil will defend their title in Tokyo after coming through CONMEBOL qualifying last year along with Argentina with Rio 2016 runners-up Germany hoping to go one better in Japan.

The first match of the men's tournament will see Mexico play France on 22 July 2021 at the Tokyo Stadium with hosts Japan taking on South Africa later that day.

The men's groups in full for Tokyo 2020

Group A: Japan, South Africa, Mexico, France.

Group B: New Zealand, Korea Republic, Honduras, Romania.

Group C: Egypt, Spain, Argentina, Australia.

Group D: Brazil, Germany, Cote D’Ivoire, Saudi Arabia

Women's tournament:

The United States will start their campaign against the team who put them out of Rio 2016: Sweden.

The current World Cup holders went out to Sweden on penalties in the quarter-finals in Rio, ending their hopes of a fourth consecutive gold and failing to reach the Olympic final for the first time.

The last berth in the 12-team competition went to Chile who drew 0-0 with Cameroon to go through 2-1 on aggregate in Antalya, Turkey and reach their first women's Olympic football tournament.

Also on 13 April, two strikes from Wang Shuang - including the only goal in extra time - saw Rio 2016 quarter-finalists China beat South Korea 4-3 on aggregate in Suzhou.

Rio gold medallists Germany failed to qualify having been beaten by Sweden in the quarter-finals of the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup.

Hosts Japan will kick things off with a game against Canada.

The women's groups in full for Tokyo 2020

Group E: Japan, Canada, Great Britain, Chile.

Group F: China PR, Brazil, Zambia, Netherlands.

Group G: Sweden, USA, Australia, New Zealand.

Olympic Football schedule at the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021

The Opening Ceremony of Tokyo 2020 may take place on Friday July 23, but the football action kicks off two days before, on Wednesday July 21st. A full card of fixtures in the Women’s First Round takes place on this day, with two matches taking place at the Sapporo Dome, Miyagi Stadium and Tokyo Stadium respectively.

The men’s competition begins the next day on Thursday 22nd at the same venues, along with the International Stadium in Yokohama to facilitate the additional two fixtures.

This daily match schedule (women’s matches followed by men’s) is continued throughout the Games.

The quarter-finals in the women’s competition will take place on Friday 30th July with the men’s equivalent taking place the next day (Saturday 31st July). The finalists will be confirmed on August 2nd and 3rd with the gold medal matches taking place in the women’s competition on Friday 6th August at the Olympic Stadium. The men’s final will be held in Yokohama the next day.

Olympic Football Venues at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021

The majority of the matches will take place in Tokyo and the surrounding cities of Yokohama, Saitama, Kashima and further north in Sendai. Sapporo, in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, will also host fixtures during Tokyo 2020.

Football fans will be familiar with a lot of the stadiums and locations that will be used during the Games, as many were built for the 2002 FIFA World Cup which Japan hosted along with Korea Republic. The venue from the final of that competition, the International Stadium in Yokohama, will host the men’s football gold medal match on Saturday 7 August.

A Brief History of Olympic Football

Since 1900, men’s football has featured at the Summer Olympics on all but one occasion (Los Angeles 1932). The dominance of Uruguay in the 1920s, when they won gold in 1924 and 1928, would eventually lead to them hosting the first-ever FIFA World Cup in 1930. To this day La Celeste wear four stars on their jerseys – two for their World Cup triumphs in 1930 and 1950, and two for their Olympic gold medals.

Since then, the FIFA World Cup has grown to become the predominant tournament in men’s international football and the Olympic Games have evolved into an under-23 competition (albeit with the inclusion of three “over-aged” players). The competition still carries a great prestige in the football calendar however, as seen by the joy of Neymar when he led Brazil to their first gold at Rio 2016.

The history of women’s football is somewhat different. A part of the Olympic programme since just 1996, it has grown massively in the last 25 years.

The competition, which is contested by full national sides, has perhaps unsurprisingly been dominated by the United States, who have won four of the six gold medals. They suffered a surprise defeat five years ago in Brazil however when they were knocked out by Sweden in the quarter-finals, the first time the USWNT (United States Women's National Team) had failed to reach the semi-finals let alone win a medal.

Germany won gold in Rio 2016, but they did not qualify for Tokyo 2020.