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Olympic mess reignites old fight
by Paul Gardner, July 24th, 2008 7AM



Just think about this. Only a few weeks ago, peace broke out between FIFA and the rich European clubs, the G-14 group as they called themselves. The clubs decided to greatly expand their membership up to over 100 clubs, now including a whole bunch of not-so-rich clubs (thus countering the persistent charges of elitism), and changed the name to the European Club Association.

FIFA then agreed to recognize ECA as a negotiating body (FIFA had never recognized G-14's right to represent anyone).

The abrasive differences between FIFA and the clubs really concern various matters that arise because of FIFA's insistence that it has the power to call up any players it likes, when it likes, for national team duty.

That's something of a simplification - it is the various national Soccer Federations that issue the call-ups, but they do so with the authority of FIFA behind them.

Obviously, clubs are never too excited about being deprived of their players - hence FIFA has tried to work out an international calendar of dates on which national team games or tournaments are played - dates that do not interfere with club games.

A scheme that, on the whole, works well - but a scheme that does nothing to solve another major gripe from the clubs: the knotty problem of player compensation. When a national federation swoops and whisks off a player or two for national team duty - shouldn't the clubs involved receive some sort of monetary compensation? The clubs continues to pay the players (and the wages are often huge) but have no control over what happens to the players.

In particular, they have no say in what sort of training and medical treatment their players receive while with the national teams. A matter that gathers gale-force and stirs up huge protests when a player is injured and has to undergo a lengthy recovery period.

It was on precisely that point the FIFA and the old G-14 appeared to be heading for a no-holds-barred clash. The Belgian club Charleroi - backed by G-14 - had brought a court case against FIFA because no compensation was available when one of its players was injured while on international duty and was out of action for eight months. The case was pending at the European court of justice, when the above-mentioned peace movement descended. The case has since been dropped, and FIFA is now agreeing to payments of up to $6,000 for each day that a player is with his national team.

And now - just when all seemed to be going so well - there comes the Olympic mess, and the matter of player release has broken out all over again. That the new disagreement - which is actually the same old disagreement - should involve the Olympic Games should surprise no one.

The Olympic soccer tournament has long been a hopeless ugly-duckling of a tournament, totally unable to define itself. Of course, it used to be - say in pre-World War II days - for amateur teams. But the rise of the Eastern European communist countries in the post-war years made a nonsense of the very word amateur. Those countries claimed that all their athletes were amateurs and so were able to field full-strength national teams. Not surprisingly, the eight Olympic titles disputed between 1952 and 1980 all went to Eastern Europe. But by 1984 most other countries were openly cheating, using professionals, albeit younger ones. So FIFA faced reality and changed the "rules," turning them into an absurd tangle: pros were now allowed, but with restrictions. Teams from Europe and South America were not allowed to use players who had played in the World Cup. The rest of the world could use their strongest teams.

By 1992 - following a tug-of-war between the International Olympic Committee, which wanted no restrictions at all, and FIFA, which was not about to allow the Olympic tournament to become another world cup - the tournament was limited to under-23 players. The International Olympic Committee, though, was not happy with what looked like a second-rate tournament, and so the compromise of an under 23-team - but with three over-age players - was arrived at.

So the teams are a meaningless hodge-podge built around an arbitrary age-limit which is relaxed for three players, another arbitrary figure. The tournament is not taken too seriously by many of the big countries. The USA, of course - for totally non-soccer reasons mostly connected with huge TV-viewing figures for the Olympic Games - treats the tournament with enormous solemnity. Is any one about to deny that, lurking in every soccer-administrator's mind, is a hockey image, that of the amazing U.S. win in 1980?

At the moment, a number of European clubs are threatening not to release top players for various Olympic teams. Their reasoning sounds, to put it mildly, contentious. They are claiming that Olympic soccer is not, specifically, part of the international calendar, and that they are therefore not required to release players. Since everyone has known for decades that Olympic soccer is considered a major tournament - indeed, there have been squabbles over player release before - the European stand smacks of legalistic cleverness.

In the end, one wonders, who cares?  The best solution for Olympic soccer - the horse designed by a committee - would be to quietly kill it off. Unlikely, I suppose. In which case there is another absurdity looming in 2012, when the games move to London. Host England will, of course, enter a team. Well, no it won't. The IOC, quite correctly, does not recognize England as a country (only FIFA does that).  So, if England wants to enter, it will have to do so as part of a Great Britain (or is it United Kingdom?) team. Which means Scots and Welsh and Northern Irish players must be considered. Sounds like the coaching appointment from hell.

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