One unknown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic has been sorted, at the very least. Tokyo's 2020 Olympics will be postponed by a full year to July 23-August 8 of 2021, giving most involved a clear path for how to proceed. Nevertheless, the postponement's consequences have spawned a number of human interest stories and a wide web of knock-on effects, and one of the more unique dominoes yet to fall is what happens with the men's soccer tournament.
Being an under-23 competition (with the absurd three overage player exceptions per team, but more on that later), the roster construction for qualifying nations is intrinsically tied to a birthday cutoff date. The date for the 2020 Games was due to be Jan. 1, 1997, meaning any players born earlier were ineligible to participate.
FIFA and the IOC have yet to decide if that date will stick (thus making 2021 a U-24 competition) or if it will be bumped a year to Jan. 1, 1998 (thus keeping it a U-23 one). If it's the latter, then a number of would-be Olympians will find themselves out of luck, missing out on a rare career opportunity to increase their own exposure in front of a global audience and represent their nations in a world championship.
From the USA's qualifying squad announced for what was supposed to be Concacaf's tournament alone, nine players would fall into that latter category. Hassani Dotson, Jeremy Ebobisse, Justen Glad, Aaron Herrera, Jonathan Lewis, JT Marcinkowski, Erik Palmer-Brown, Sebastian Saucedo and Jackson Yueill, all born before Jan. 1, 1998, would all be ineligible. Mexico has it even worse, with 12 such players on its qualifying squad and others, such as Ajax standout Edson Alvarez, not part of qualifying but in the mix for the final Olympic squad.
It stands to reason that Concacaf's qualifying competition won't be rescheduled until there is a resolution from the FIFA/IOC level on the age requirement, but keeping the tournament a U-23 one would force U.S. U-23 manager Jason Kreis and Mexico U-23 manager Jaime Lozano to drastically reshuffle their qualifying squads.
The U.S. men haven't reached the Olympics since 2008, so there's an added emphasis on getting there. There already were roster hurdles in getting clubs to agree to release their players when they otherwise are not obligated to do so for youth competitions. U.S. men's national team general manager Brian McBride spoke about that hurdle at length upon taking charge in his new role. That stipulation already ruled the age-eligible likes of Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Gio Reyna and Josh Sargent out (for qualifying at the very least). Add in a shrunken player pool after going through pre-qualifying camps with a select group of talent, and the headache gets that much stronger.
The age cutoff decision affects way more than the USA and Mexico, of course. What about the nations that have already qualified and likely had their Olympic plans set? (Only Concacaf had yet to sort out qualifying to claim the final two places in the 16-team field.) If it does remain a U-23 competition, then it would prohibit five players from Argentina's qualifying squad and an astounding 12 from Brazil's from going to Japan. The host nation itself had nine players from its most recent U-23 gathering who wouldn't be able to participate. It's true that qualifying squads and tournament squads do not fully mimic one another, and that those who sealed qualification weren't all going to be going to the main stage, but it's a potentially detrimental development for both some individuals and their nations.
"If some who were set to play this year are no longer able to participate, it would be very disappointing for them, given the hard work they've put in," Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu told Kyodo News.
For European entrants like Spain, France and Germany, the postponement's effects could be two-fold. First, there's the age question, which could put the likes of Mikel Oyarzabal, Borja Mayoral, Benjamin Heinrichs, Suat Serdar, Marcus Thuram, Lucas Tousart and many others on the wrong side of the barrier. There's also a UEFA U-21 championship slated for June 2021, and nations involved in both competitions will have to decide where their available and released young players will go. Surely, those players who are cleared will not be doubly cleared to participate in both competitions, whereas without any Olympic postponement, there may well have been some roster overlap.
The easiest thing for FIFA and the IOC to do would be to honor the original date of eligibility, and, for one Olympics, make things of the U-24 variety. It's something the Australian federation has already been vocal about, with its chief executive, James Johnson, saying, “This would ensure the players who helped their nation qualify for the games this year but might otherwise be ineligible for the tournament next year because of age restrictions, have an opportunity to fulfill their dreams of representing their country and becoming Olympians.”
With three of 18 roster places (17%) already able to go to overage players, it's not like the powerbroker parties are very committed to the idea of it being a strictly U-23 competition, anyway. They should be, as the overage exception throws any idea that this tournament is conducted in the name of youth development out the window. Imagine if, say, for the NCAA basketball tournaments, schools were allowed to bring back alums for the Big Dance. It would make no competitive sense and be done solely to draw more eyeballs to games–kind of like the thinking that went into the men's Olympic soccer regulations. Yes, Neymar helping to lead Brazil to gold in Rio in 2016 made for some wonderful imagery and headlines, but it's completely against the spirit of what a U-23 world championship should look like.
Nevertheless, the opportunity to become Olympians hangs in the balance for a number of players. It's one of the many consequences brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, and it's one that has the chance to significantly impact a number of individuals for whom appearing on the medal stand—or at the very least representing their country on such a unique stage—means a great deal.