Argentina successfully defended its Athens Games gold in the Bird’s Nest on Saturday, but events off the pitch have made sure little else about Olympic soccer will be the same again.
When the teams line up for the first match in London in 2012, one change may well be immediately apparent. The rule allowing countries to include three overage players in their Under-23 squads is soon to come under review, and is not expected to survive.
Such a change would deprive the London Games of many of the stars who helped draw big crowds in China, but another decision, taken on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, will have far more serious repercussions.
The buildup to Beijing was dominated by a tug-of-war between countries desperate to take their strongest players and clubs keen to see them stay at home.
That saga is, of course, as old as the hills, but a landmark ruling in the case of Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazilian pair Diego and Rafinha threatens to change the landscape forever.
Barcelona, Werder Bremen and Schalke — the three players’ club sides — argued to world governing body FIFA that, as the Olympics are not covered by official international dates, clubs were not obliged to release the players.
Previously, the general assumption had been that clubs were free to refuse callups for overage players but duty-bound to yield for those under 23. FIFA confirmed as much when its Players’ Status Committee ruled against the challenge.
But with Champions League matches to be played while the Olympic tournament was ongoing, the clubs brought their case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which took a very different view to FIFA.
The clubs were awarded the right to refuse to release players, and all hell broke loose in China with less than a day to go before the competition began.
“If this ruling is applied to all the players here then we have no Olympic tournament,” said a furious FIFA president Sepp Blatter.
Blatter called for mercy from the clubs, and a deal was struck to allow Messi, Rafinha and Diego to play on in China. Other clubs, however, took it as a green light to flex their muscles.
Hamburg recalled defender Vincent Kompany from the Belgium squad. Marseille refused to part with Nigeria’s Taye Taiwo. Even Partizan Belgrade, hardly one of Europe’s powerhouses, felt emboldened enough to yank Serbia midfielders Zoran Tosic and Ljubomir Fejsa.
Suddenly, it looked like every player was fair game. Clubs had the scent of blood in their nostrils, and proceeded to eat the tournament alive.
That such a major decision was taken a day before the competition began beggars belief. It was always clear that a standoff would occur, and FIFA and the Olympic organizers should have had the foresight to resolve it long before the teams arrived in Beijing.
But the lateness of the intervention has only strengthened the clubs’ hand further.
Barcelona, Schalke and Werder allowed Brazil and Argentina to use their players only after a compensation package had been hammered out, with Barcelona even insisting that Messi be absent from all Argentina friendlies for a year.
With bargains being struck so late in the day, the countries were left with little choice. The clubs could effectively hold them to ransom.
The path of national associations paying clubs is a dangerous one to take. Big nations might be able to match club wages, but if Togo has to pay what Arsenal pays Emmanuel Adebayor for his services, it will be more than just Olympic soccer that goes down the tubes.
The furor at the Beijing Games seems to have swayed Blatter into a rethink of soccer’s status at the Olympics. The president has suggested five-a-side or beach soccer could take its place, and while this may just be melodramatic posturing, it does suggest he can hear the death knell tolling.
Soccer has long been out of place at the Olympics, and its removal from the games is overdue. But a tournament that served as the forerunner to the World Cup deserves better than the slow, humiliating death it is suffering now.