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Why Olympic men’s soccer is a JV event (in which the U.S. could contend for a medal)

Kylian Mbappé really wanted to play at the Paris Olympics. Lionel Messi reportedly did too. But neither will, because they, like most men’s soccer stars, are victims of an age-old power struggle domineered by the sport’s global governing body, FIFA.

The struggle is the reason organizers impose two key restrictions on each men’s Olympic roster:

1. All but three players must be 23 years old or younger.

2. No matter the player’s age, his professional club isn’t required to grant him permission to play at the tournament.

The second rule spoiled Mbappé’s dream. Not even French President Emmanuel Macron could salvage it. “I’ve always said that the Games in Paris are special, and I wanted to be there,” Mbappé, a native Parisian, said in March. But Real Madrid refused to release him. And, well, “it’s our employer,” French teammate Aurélien Tchouaméni explained. “If Real Madrid puts a veto, there’s not much to say.”

Dozens of other clubs have also declined to grant necessary permissions. And so, of the world’s top 100 players, only two — Argentina’s Julián Álvarez and Morocco’s Achraf Hakimi — will be present.

Most of the 288 players, instead, will be up-and-comers or middling veterans. None of the U.S. men’s national team regulars who appeared at the 2024 Copa América — not even under-23 stars like Gio Reyna — are on the U.S. squad, which was announced Monday. The three over-23 selections are MLS defenders Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson and midfielder Djordje Mihailovic.

The rules make Olympic men’s soccer something of a junior varsity competition. And they’re in place because FIFA doesn’t want the Games — or any other soccer tournament — to rival its World Cup. The historical explanation, though, is a bit more nuanced.

El francés Kylian Mbappé realiza un gesto durante la sesión de entrenamientos en Paderborn, Alemania, el jueves 13 de junio de 2024. (AP Foto/Hassan Ammar)
No, French superstar Kylian Mbappé will not be competing in the Paris Olympics this summer. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Once upon a time, a century ago, when there was not yet a World Cup to rival, the Olympics were soccer’s pinnacle. FIFA recognized the Games as world championships in the 1920s, until amateurism complicated matters.

Soccer, at the time, was slowly professionalizing. The International Olympic Committee was clinging to the ideal that all participants should be amateurs. So FIFA took control, and launched a World Cup open to all, which instantly trumped the Olympic tournament.

Thus began a series of quarrels between FIFA and the IOC that have shaped Olympic soccer. Amid the first of several eligibility disputes, soccer dropped off the Olympic program in 1932. It returned in 1936, and remained post-World War II, but it also remained strictly amateur. So, it crystallized as a second-rate competition.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, the IOC finally unwound rules surrounding amateurism. But by then, the script had flipped. FIFA had matured into a commercially driven organization, one which recognized that a fully professional Olympic soccer tournament would be a potential threat to the preeminence — and profitability — of the men’s World Cup.

So it negotiated a succession of compromises. The first: In the ‘80s, countries from outside Europe and South America could field all their pros, but any European or South American who had played in a World Cup wasn’t eligible.

In 1992, the under-23 rule replaced those uneven restrictions. In 1996, the three overage players were added. Those limitations have remained in place ever since.

But they aren’t the extent of FIFA’s control. Its key mechanism is the so-called “international calendar,” which carves out specific windows during which pro clubs (the soccer equivalents of the Lakers or Yankees) must allow players to join up with their national teams (Team USA).

The windows are structured around major tournaments; they ensure, for example, that all players are available for continental championships like the Euros and Copa América.

The Olympics, however, aren’t on FIFA’s calendar. Olympic availability, therefore, becomes a subject of sometimes-contentious dialogue among national team coaches, agents, players and their clubs.

Brazil's gold medallist Dani Alves celebrates after receiving his medal during the medal ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games men's football competition at Yokohama International Stadium in Yokohama, Japan, on August 7, 2021. (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP) (Photo by TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images)

Those negotiations are what USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter called “the first barrier.” For months, Berhalter, U.S. Soccer Federation officials and U-23 coach Marko Mitrovic, who will lead the Olympic team, went back and forth with clubs in an attempt to secure players for the Paris Games.

And some clubs rebuffed them. Buttressed by the FIFA rules, clubs held every last ounce of leverage. Those in Europe begin their preseasons in July, and their seasons in August, so, acting in self-interest, they block key players from going to the Olympics. The U.S. hopefuls reportedly denied include Ricardo Pepi and Malik Tillman (PSV Eindhoven), Brandon Vázquez (Monterrey) and Haji Wright (Coventry City).

Those negotiations, though, are only a portion of the puzzle that Mitrovic, Berhalter, and their peers around the world had to piece together. “The second barrier,” as Berhalter said, was “participation in Copa América.” The Copa and Euros were the priority tournaments for six Olympic contenders from Europe and the Americas. They packed more prestige and prize money. And they took place weeks before the 2024 Games.

The U.S., Argentina, France and Spain all took their A-teams to those tournaments. They also knew that A-team players, at some point, would need a break. To grind through a long European club season (August-May), then the Copa América (June-July), then the Olympics (July-August) would leave anyone who participated in both international tournaments with insufficient rest.

A post-Olympic break, on the other hand — even a two-week mini-offseason — would set them back at the start of the 2024-25 club season.

So the U.S. rosters for the Copa América and Olympics will be almost entirely distinct. Only Robinson, who didn’t play a single minute at the Copa, and whose MLS club season runs February-December, will be at both.

And only a few foreign players, such as Manchester City’s Álvarez, will accept the club setback and play at both. Dozens of others will be on vacation as the Games begin, and on preseason tours with their clubs as the Olympic knockout rounds identify a champion.

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS - JUNE 11: Marko Mitrovic of the United States U23 sings the national anthem prior to an under 23 game between Japan and USMNT at Children's Mercy Park on June 11, 2024 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Andrea Vilchez/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)
Marko Mitrovic of the United States U23 sings the national anthem prior to an under 23 game between Japan and USMNT at Children's Mercy Park on June 11, 2024 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Andrea Vilchez/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

The upside of the many complications is that they can be an equalizing force, one that could give the U.S. hope of medaling.

The USMNT, of course, has never been past the quarterfinals of a modern World Cup; it can’t measure up to France, Spain or Argentina. But its JV team could compete with other JV squads around the world. It will be expected to advance from a group that also features France, New Zealand and Guinea.

The Olympic field, in general, is not stacked like a World Cup would be. No continental confederation gets more than three berths. Two of the three European teams that qualified via UEFA’s U-21 championship were Israel and Ukraine. Among the other nations involved are Iraq, Uzbekistan, Mali, Egypt and the Dominican Republic.

For all of these reasons, men’s Olympic soccer can be something of a crapshoot. Whereas the women’s competition is simply a watered-down World Cup, with all stars eligible, modern-era men’s champions include Mexico, Cameroon and Nigeria; medalists include South Korea, Paraguay and Chile.

The usual suspects — France, Argentina and Spain — will still be favored in 2024. But the U.S., which is back at the tournament for the first time since 2008, could contend for a medal. It opens Wednesday, July 24 (3 p.m. ET, USA/Peacock/Telemundo), two days before the Opening Ceremony, with a primetime showdown in Marseille against the host, France.