As expected, FIFA ruled yesterday that clubs must release players to play in the Olympics. Although it’s long been understood that it was expected, there has not been a hard and fast rule governing the practice, since Olympic soccer is governed by the IOC rather than by FIFA.
FIFA mandates that clubs release players for all designated international dates. However, the Olympics don’t take place during a designated break time. Since it’s an under-23 tournament that mostly takes place in the pre-season it’s not usually an issue.
However when Argentina (the favourites for gold I reckon) called up arguably the world’s best player younger than 23, Lionel Messi, Barcelona balked. Messi’s an important part of Barcelona and club representatives said that they were worried about how playing in Beijing would impact his pre-season training.
But, yesterday FIFA ruled that Messi can go and that Barcelona can just deal with it (two other players, Brazilians Rafinha and Diego, were being held back by German side Werder Bremen as well).
The footballing world has always been ambivalent about the Olympic tournament. On one hand it’s recognized that the Olympics are the world’s biggest stage and it’s important that the world’s biggest game be a part of it. However, FIFA does not want to take away from the luster of the World Cup in any way (and that the women’s Olympic tournament is at least as prestigious as the Women’s World Cup, if not more so, would seem to illustrate that FIFA’s concerns are valid).
The compromise—a u-23 tournament with three overagers allowed per team—seems to work. Although it’s far from the most prestigious tournament in the world, it’s still an intriguing competition (and one that is a little more wide open than the World Cup). Still, the clubs will always try to push back when their assets are called up, so yesterday’s decision was needed and welcome.