Clubs grumbling over international callups is nothing new, but Vissel Kobe’s decision last week to deny Japan the services of striker Yoshito Okubo for the Beijing Olympics may prove to be a watershed moment.
The Olympic tournament is restricted to under-23s, with three spaces allowed for players whose age exceeds that limit.
The Japan Football Association, which had already secured Gamba Osaka’s Yasuhito Endo to fill one of the overage slots, planned to add the 26-year-old Okubo for the second and leave the final place open in case of injuries before the tournament begins.
But the JFA’s advances were rebuffed by Vissel, a club languishing near the bottom of the J. League standings, with Okubo’s fitness and the club’s injury problems cited as the reasons.
Matches at the Olympic tournament are not recognized by FIFA as official international dates, and although clubs are encouraged to release their players, they are under no obligation to do so.
But for a Japanese club to say no — to refuse to help the country in its quest for glory — was a shocking departure from the norm.
The J. League began as the brainchild of the JFA, which was keen to raise the profile of the sport in Japan and lay the foundation for a more successful national team for years to come.
The JFA and the J. League have since enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, with the success of both organizations achieved with the help and cooperation of the other.
But Vissel’s “insubordination” suggests the clubs are growing weary of unquestioningly providing players for national teams whatever the occasion, and are feeling bold enough to put their foot down.
Kobe’s refusal is all the more remarkable given that Olympic soccer remains something of a sacred cow in Japan.
Japan achieved success at the Summer Games long before it managed to qualify for the World Cup, and the bronze medal at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics remains the high water-mark for Japanese soccer.
That third-place finish was an outstanding achievement, but the reality is that soccer at the Olympics has long been an anomaly.
Soccer was an Olympic event before the World Cup began, but the World Cup has grown into such a behemoth that it now outstrips the Olympics as the most popular sporting, let alone soccer, event on the planet.
The dominance of the World Cup has long given Olympic organizers the headache of how to give relevance to their tournament, but they have been fighting a losing battle.
That is borne out by the unwieldy format of under-23 plus three overage players — a mangled rule designed to differentiate the Olympics from existing youth tournaments, yet diluted enough not to risk the wrath of FIFA lest it tread on the golden toes of the World Cup itself.
The 2012 London Games will not even feature the host nation. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Football Associations, petrified by the prospect of permanent amalgamation into a wider Great Britain team, have made sure of that.
That is not to say the Olympic soccer tournament is worthless. It offers a good test for young players and gives nations other than the world’s heavyweights a real chance of glory. Italy even saw fit to delay the start of the 2000 Serie A season to give its Olympians a better chance of gold in Sydney.
It would also take a heart of stone to deny the romantic appeal of the Olympics. Despite the doping, the corruption and the shady politics, the Olympics maintain a special place in the hearts of athletes everywhere, and soccer players are no different.
Stars such as Kaka and Clarence Seedorf have spoken of their desire to compete in Beijing, and the list of players who name Michael Jordan and Carl Lewis as their heroes alongside Diego Maradona and Pele is endless.
But Kaka and Seedorf are men who have achieved all there is to achieve in soccer. The World Cup and Champions League are their bread and butter. The Olympics are the icing on the cake.
Euro 2008 showed how great the international game can be when the club season is over and the focus falls on soccer at its majestic best.
The Olympic tournament is neither fish nor fowl. It is simply a lame duck waiting to be put out of its misery along with FIFA’s wretched Confederations Cup.
Vissel Kobe only said what every other club in Japan is thinking. Soccer has no place at the Olympics, and the risk to everyday league play is not worth the rewards it may bring.
Former Urawa Reds player Emerson has caused quite a stir with his adopted country, Qatar.
The Brazil-born striker took out Qatari nationality earlier this year, and the Middle East side’s progress to the final World Cup qualifying round suggested his decision was a canny one.
That was before FIFA ruled Emerson was ineligible to play for his new team, having already played for Brazil’s under-20s, and can play no further part in the campaign. The world governing body also ruled that the matches he has played in the competition so far must be allowed to stand.
The decision has angered Iraq, which missed out on qualification after finishing behind Qatar in the group standings.
Iraq says Qatar should be disqualified for fielding an ineligible player. Qatar says Emerson was not ruled ineligible at the time, and therefore did nothing wrong.
Avoiding situations like this in the future is quite simple — FIFA must lay down stricter rules barring the transfer of nationality, and stop the confusion once and for all.