15 Ways the World Cup Is Different from Olympic Soccer

You don’t have to be a soccer expert to know that the World Cup is the sport’s biggest international event. That’s right — it’s even bigger of a deal than participating in the Olympics. While most other sports see the Olympic games as the grandest stage, soccer holds its World Cup to a much higher standard. And this is no fluke. The two events are actually set apart by a fair share of differences. Here are 15 ways the World Cup differs from the soccer at the Olympic games. (The player commentary on page 14 will surprise you.)

A different ‘calendar year’

2018 Russia World Cup
Brazil vs. Mexico at the 2018 Russia World Cup | Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

Many of the sports that have their own Olympic events have seasons that revolve around when the Games would be, so when it comes time to compete the athletes are available. This isn’t the case for some of the bigger sports, however, and soccer is one of them. So even though there is a FIFA contingent that organizes soccer at the Summer Games, FIFA may not allow its top players to compete because the Olympics falls during the FIFA season. The World Cup, on the other hand, falls within the boundaries of the FIFA calendar.

Countries participating

Egypt v. Saudi Arabia
You won’t see a match between Egypt and Saudi Arabia at the Summer Games | Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s called the World Cup for a reason. The grand event hosted 32 national teams in Russia in the 2018 tournament. (This is also what allows the World Cup to host so many games over the span of a month. But more on that in a bit.) Naturally, the Olympics only hosts about half of that, with 16 men’s teams and 12 women’s teams participating in 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.

Next: Here’s where things get interesting …

Age requirement

The age restriction will keep Neymar from being in another Olympics | Felipe Oliveira/Getty Images

You can’t put all the blame on FIFA for players not participating in the Olympics when the Games also put restrictions on who can play at the event. Each team participating in the Olympics can only have three players over the age of 23 on their roster, which has led to the Games being mockingly referred to as a U-23 tournament. The World Cup, on the other hand, doesn’t have an age limit.

Next: Another factor …

Roster size

Round of 16 match between Colombia and England
Round of 16 match between Colombia and England | Clive Rose/Getty Images

Again, here’s a place where the World Cup is able to put out a better sampling of the world’s best players. Countries participating in the World Cup send rosters of 23 players to the event. For the Olympics, on the other hand, countries only send teams of 18 players to the Summer Games.

Next: Something to consider …

Who impacts the level of skill

Germany v. Sweden
Match between Germany and Sweden at the 2018 World Cup | Odd Andersen /AFP/Getty Images

Because of the age requirement, many think the level of skill displayed at the Olympics isn’t a good indicator of what the world’s best soccer players are capable of. Keep in mind that FIFA is part of the organizing committee for soccer at the Olympics. So they always have the final say in whether the best players in the world can participate. As the New York Times aptly summarized in 2008: “FIFA’s message to the Olympics is clear: Soccer is one sport in which you will never be allowed to stage an event with the best in the world.”

Next: When it comes to the event itself …

Round of 16

World Cup fans
The World Cup round of 16 certainly attracts some interesting fans | Manan Vatsyayana /AFP/Getty Images

Part of the World Cup’s appeal is that it runs over the course of the month, and viewers who don’t watch certain teams on a regular basis can become more familiar with the competition. Especially since there is time for a round of 16 at the start of the tournament. The Summer Games pack the games — again, made up of fewer teams — onto a much shorter schedule with less time for fanfare.

Next: To add to that …

The World Cup has ‘the groups’

Germany v. Russia
Germany and Mexico made up Group F in the 2018 World Cup | Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

Because the opportunity for a round of 16 games, the World Cup teams are grouped together ahead of the quarterfinal bracket. While the teams themselves are always dissected and ranked, groups tend to have their own labels and identities as well. Every World Cup tends to have a group that is so stacked, teams have a hard time beating each other to make it out of the group alive, known as the Group of Death. (Group F was dubbed by some as the Group of Death in the 2018 World Cup.)

Next: An interesting fact …

Men’s and women’s tournaments

Canadian women's soccer team
The Canadian women’s team celebrates after defeating Brazil at the 2016 Olympics in Rio | Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images)

The World Cup reportedly keeps the men’s and women’s tournaments separate so that the former doesn’t hurt TV viewership for the latter. (More on TV viewing on page 12.) They are kept so separate even, that the women’s tournament isn’t held until a whole year after the men’s tournament. (As anyone who has ever watched the Olympics knows, the men’s and women’s events overlap.)

Next: For the rulebook nerds out there …

Extra time

England won the penalty shootout to defeat Colombia and advance at the 2018 World Cup
England won the penalty shootout to defeat Colombia and advance at the 2018 World Cup | Clive Rose/Getty Images

Unlike most professional sporting events, a soccer game can end with a tied score. And soccer at the Olympics is no exception. This is where the World Cup breaks its own rules and allows for extra time after the usual 90-minute regulation. (Because you can’t have a draw when one team has to be eliminated and go home, right?) There are two 15-minute periods of extra time to ensure that there is a winner. If there still isn’t a winner, the game goes to a penalty kick shootout.

Next: One of the most obvious differences is …

Trophy vs. gold medal

World Cup trophy replica
World Cup trophy replica | Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Of course, the World Cup and the Olympics have very different awards ceremonies. Winning a medal at the Olympics leads to a very well-known sequence of events — the victor and two runners’ up stand on a staggered podium, each receives his or her medal, and then they all stand there while the gold medal winner’s national anthem plays. The World Cup simply puts the winners on stage to receive their hardware, then showers them with confetti.

Next: As for all of you at home …

TV viewership

Football Fans Watch Colombia Take On England In The FIFA World Cup
Fans watch live of Colombia vs England match by TV in the pub on July 3, 2018 in Moscow, Russia | Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images

Naturally, you’d expect the Olympics to garner the biggest viewing audience out of any other television event. And despite FIFA’s efforts to not send its best players to the Summer Games, the World Cup doesn’t have quite as large of an audience. According to CBS Baltimore, the 2012 Summer Games in London was televised in 220 territories with 3.6 billion viewers. (Reportedly, 11.1 million of those viewers came from the US.) The 2010 World Cup was televised in 214 territories and had 3.2 billion viewers.

Next: Something interesting to consider …

More familiarity with World Cup teams?

David De Gea of Spain at the World Cup
David De Gea of Spain attempts to save a penalty during the penalty shoot out during the 2018 FIFA World Cup | Dan Mullan/Getty Images

You know the drill with the Olympics: Most of the sports and events garner large audiences during the Games and are largely forgotten about in the years in between the events. While the World Cup is also on a four-year calendar — taking place two years after each Summer Olympics — the popularity of the sport throughout the rest of the year keeps viewers more familiar with the athletes and teams.

Next: Since this is the 21st century in sports …

The gambling aspect

Sports betting
Sports betting | Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Since sports gambling has grown at such a rapid rate over the last few years, it’s hard to determine which event has a leg up when it comes to raking in bets. You can absolutely bet — no pun intended — that both the World Cup and the Olympics have a growing presence in the global sports gambling market. That being said, Casino.org estimated in 2016 that the Olympics as a whole doesn’t pull in quite the same global pull as the World Cup does.

Next: So what do the star athletes think?

Players have varying opinions

Lionel Messi celebrates scoring a goal.
Lionel Messi | Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images

There are mixed reviews among the world’s most premier players as to which event is a bigger deal. While many put the World Cup on a pedestal, FC Barcelona star Lionel Messi once told Esquire his gold medal from the 2008 Summer Games is his most coveted prize. “The Olympic gold in 2008 is the win that I value the most because it is a tournament that you may only play in once in your life and involves many athletes from different disciplines,” he said.

Next: Last but not least …

Who comes out on top?

Colombia's goalkeeper David Ospina
Colombia’s goalkeeper David Ospina | Juan Mabromata / AFP/ Getty Images

There’s no perfect gauge to determine whether World Cup soccer is truly superior to the soccer played at the Summer Olympics or not. It really comes down to the viewers as to which event they decide to watch — or even more, which they choose to put their money on. Either way, with the World Cup and Summer Olympics running on different four-year calendars, soccer fans can count on watching their favorite sport every summer, regardless of which large stage they play it on.

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