Football isn’t considered the biggest of Olympic sports. Competing nations tend to focus more on the World Cup and major regional tournaments. Additionally, with the men’s teams at the Olympics restricted to under-23 players, countries simply wouldn’t be able to field their best teams even if they wanted to.
With that said, football is still the world’s favorite sport, and even a sort of marginalized version of an international tournament commands a respectable amount of attention. The host nation is always likely to put its best foot forward at the very least, and Hajime Moriyasu, who is charged with managing the Japanese team for Tokyo 2020 has indicated that he's going for a medal. This, combined with the fact that some of the world’s best players slot into the U-23 category and might just show up in Tokyo, means the football should be a great deal of fun for those attending, or even watching from around the world.
We don’t know at this stage what rosters will look like, and it’s possible that countries may hold back certain stars, or that those stars’ clubs will unofficially restrict them from play. However, this is a brief look at some of the best up-and-comers of world football who could be competing in Tokyo next summer.
Takefusa Kubo (Japan)
Takefusa Kubo will be something of a sensation if he suits up for the Japanese side in 2020. Known since his early teenage years and referred to as the “Japanese Messi,” he’s a thrilling, creative player who is still just 17 years old. He’d be on the younger end even in a U-23 tournament, but would have the chance to showcase the kind of talent that could position him as the heir to Shinji Kagawa as the best active Japanese player.
Kylian Mbappé (France)
Kylian Mbappé loudly announced himself as one of the best young footballers in recent memory when he effectively led France to the World Cup title last summer. He may frankly be beyond the Olympics, but he will be young enough to compete and will likely be the best player in the tournament should he choose to do so. Olympic football would surely be better for it.
Christian Pulisic (United States)
Pulisic will have a fascinating decision on his hands as to whether or not to compete in the Olympics. He has a world of pressure on his shoulder in that he may be on his way to the Premier League, and he’s already, inarguably, the best player the United States has ever produced. He may sit out to focus on his own career, but he could also seek out some international play after his country missed the World Cup in 2018, and if he plays he too will be among the best active competitors.
Curtis Jones (England)
Curtis Jones is not a name the casual football fan knows just yet, but he’s viewed as one of the better teenage players in Europe, and at 18 is already with Liverpool in the Premier League - a club that happens to be having one of its best seasons in decades. Right now, predictions for the EPL have Liverpool neck-and-neck with Manchester City for a potential championship, and while Jones won’t be much of a part of it, it will only shine a bigger spotlight on him when he breaks through. For his part, Jones could raise his profile by starring for England in 2020.
Matthijs de Ligt (Netherlands)
At just 19, the Netherlands’ Matthijs de Ligt has already had strong showings against some of Europe’s best clubs in his capacity as the central defender for Ajax. He won’t get the same attention as some of the midfielders and strikers on this list simply because it takes most fans longer to really notice and appreciate a great defender. But all in all, De Ligt seems to be the best player the Dutch have produced in years, which is saying something. He’d be a wonderful addition to the Olympic field next summer.
Gianluigi Donnarumma (Italy)
If you’re looking for the next man to have a chance at definitive status as the world’s best goalkeeper, keep your eye on Italian prodigy Gianluigi Donnarumma. He’s already represented Italy in international competition and, at 19, appears to be an almost eerily natural successor to the great Gianluigi Buffon. If he plays, he’ll likely be the best keeper in action in 2020, and could effectively kick off what seems sure to be a legendary career in major tournaments.