Updated: Jan 1, 2020
Two of the world’s four best teams will not be competing in the Olympic Women’s Soccer tournament in 2020. France and Germany, due to their elimination in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, have also failed to qualify for the Olympics. This has provoked some consternation and confusion, as well as quite a few demands for changes to the system.
There has to be something that changes this. @UEFA needs to spend the money and do a proper qualifying tournament. France is too good not to be at Olympics. Total shame. Games like tonight are what the game and these women deserve!!! https://t.co/n6EkdEILN8 — Abby Wambach (@AbbyWambach) June 28, 2019
European entrants in 2020 women’s Olympic soccer tournament: Sweden, Netherlands, Great Britain. Out: Germany, France. Two big problems: Olympics needs to increase women’s field from 12 to at least 16 (men’s size). UEFA needs to stop using WWC results to decide Olympic entrants. — Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) June 29, 2019
Unfortunately, as is often the case when Americans jump into situations to offer their opinions, it’s quite a bit more complicated than this.
There isn’t time to run a fair European qualification process
It certainly is strange that European teams don’t get a separate qualification process for the Olympics. It feels like double jeopardy: fail in one tournament, and you’re also blocked from the next.
But there is a pretty obvious explanation why they do it this way: the steady march of the clock. UEFA already runs full qualification campaigns for the World Cup and the European Championship, which take up the vast majority of available time. World Cup qualifying didn’t finish until November of 2018, and Euros qualifying begins in August of 2019. That’s next month!
Compare to CONCACAF’s qualifying process for the Olympics, which is theoretically spread out over a few months but for all realistic purposes takes place in a single two-week tournament. Teams from Central America and the Caribbean go through their own mini-competitions for the privilege of making that final event, but the US and Canada—far and away the two best teams, and the ones overwhelmingly likely to actually make the Olympics—jump directly into the competition at this final stage.
UEFA can’t do something like this because they have close to 50 teams, of which 15-20 could realistically challenge for a spot. It takes time, a lot of time, to whittle that down using any kind of fair process. And with the Olympics coming just twelve months after the World Cup, that time doesn’t exist.
The alternatives aren’t really any better
UEFA could try to create a modified system – maybe inviting a certain set of the top teams in the World Cup to play a mini-tournament. But this doesn’t really resolve the underlying problem of double-counting success and failure. Plus, it’s arguably equally cruel to the teams who outperformed their competitors at the previous tournament, who would now be forced to do it all again. And it would still eat up a decent chunk of time that isn’t really available. European leagues, after all, run through the fall and winter and expect member countries to follow the FIFA calendar. There really isn’t time for even a two-week break.
One change that would slightly ease this process would be to expand the field for the Olympics. Twelve teams is a weird number for a tournament, especially when geographic balance is enforced so rigidly. If it grew to sixteen, you could add two more European teams, guarantee a second spot for Africa, and allow a third Asian team to fight the playoff against South America. The men’s tournament has 16 teams, so there’s no good argument against allowing the same number on the women’s side.
But lack of good arguments has never made much difference when it comes to the Olympics’ organizers, who are not going to want to bring in 72 more athletes and schedule six more matches. And there’s no guarantee that they’d allocate the slots in a way that makes sense. And even if they did, it would just mean five European teams get selected through this process, without actually fixing the underlying time crunch.
The Olympics is a second-tier tournament, and that’s okay
So we can try to improve the system. Or we could just accept the reality that the Olympics isn’t as big a tournament as the World Cup, and never will be. That they ever seemed comparable is really just a historical accident. In the 1990s, when professional women’s soccer was barely a dream, every international tournament was an opportunity for real competition. And women’s soccer was added in 1996, in the United States, at a moment when American audiences were primed to grab hold of it. So it was a big success.
But as the pool of competitive nations grows, it’s far outstripping what the Olympics can offer. And so it can’t really be a true international tournament. In 2020, it will be without France and Germany. But if they had made it, we would have lost the Dutch, or England, or Sweden. Spain and Norway won’t be there. There will be no Argentina, no Scotland, no Denmark. We might see a playoff between Cameroon and Chile, with the loser missing out. These are all teams that could add a lot to the tournament.
Rather than lamenting all these absences, we should just get comfortable with the reality: the Olympics is a second-tier tournament, and that’s okay. It will still involve 12 very good teams, all of whom will do everything they can to win it. A gold medal will still mean a lot. But it simply isn’t the pinnacle.
Europe already has its own second-tier tournament with the European championships. And given the expanding quality of European women’s soccer, you could potentially argue that the Euros are equivalent to the Olympics at this point. Which actually creates some nice symmetry. European teams all get their own high-quality tournament to compete against each other. And the Olympics is a tournament for the rest of the world, with a few European teams invited to the mix to keep everyone honest.
Somewhat by accident, the Olympics has ended up being a very useful alternative for non-European nations that aren’t members of a federation deep enough to generate a meaningful tournament.
So if the system for picking which European teams come to play with everyone else in the Alt-Euro competition isn’t perfect, it’s just not that important. They have their own big event coming up a year later, and it’s not worth them mucking with their calendar to sort out their Olympic entrants.
None of this was designed this way. But it’s worked out that way. And we should just accept it for what it is, instead of trying to fix the unfixable.