Yawn, yawn, YAWN!!. Here we go again, wrestling with soccer's eternal Olympic mess. The details are always the same -- which players should be permitted to play in the tournament? The overall question -- should the tournament be dropped from the Olympics? -- hovers always in the background.
To show you that nothing is new, we go back nine years, to 2000. The Sydney games were approaching, with the soccer tournament to be played under bizarre regulations: players had to be under-23 years of age, except that each team could field three over-age players. Juan Antonio Samaranch let it be known that he wanted each team to field up to sevenoveragers. No way, replied FIFA boss Sepp Blatter. From on high floated down a royal opinion from Princess Anne, the President of the British national Olympic committee, who wanted soccer, and all team sports, banned.
Princess Anne did not get her way, though hers was the obvious remedy for all the problems. The crazy regulations are still in effect, and FIFA is still trying to define the Olympic player. Blatter now says that "The Olympic Games are for youth." Where he gets that idea from, who knows. But acting on that thought, he proceeds: "We should play them with the youngsters."
So he trashes the idea of overage players -- "It's illogical. We're going to abolish that" -- and says the overall age level should be reduced to 21. Meaning, in effect, a four-yearly under-21 World Cup.
Blatter is now promoting Olympic soccer as a "youth tournament." What effect that will have on the attendances at Olympic soccer games (which have always been played in jammed stadiums), who knows.
But is Blatter correct to use the word "youth"? Hardly.
Reminder: FIFA already has an U-20 World Cup, which is played every two years. Until 2005, that tournament was officially the FIFA World Youth Championship. Not any more. It is now called the FIFA Under-20 World Cup. A sensible change of wording because most of the players in the U-20 World Cup are contracted to pro clubs, some of them are already first team players receiving lavish salaries. The game they play is definitely not "youth soccer." Those players, of course, are the stars, the very ones that the national teams particularly want to call up, and the very ones that the pro clubs don't want to release.
Whenever Blatter speaks out it's worthwhile noting if he is visiting a foreign country. These Olympic pronouncements came when Blatter was in Brazil, and it needs to be noted that Brazil and Argentina, in particular, have squawked pretty loudly over the under-23 age grouping, having had immense problems getting European clubs to release players. Sure enough, Brazil and Argentina could expect some benefit from a lowering of the Olympic qualifying age.
The European clubs do plenty of squawking, too. Last year's Beijing Olympics saw an almighty row between Argentina and Barcelona over the release of Lionel Messi. Barcelona even took the dispute to CAS (the court of arbitration for sport); it won its case, though by that time Messi was already in China, helping Argentina to its second straight Olympic title.
FIFA, no doubt, would prefer to avoid such confrontations (it lost this one mainly because it had omitted to include the Olympic games on the list of events for which players must be released).
Knocking the age level down to 21 will ease the release problem somewhat. Further relief could be obtained by making the U-20 World Cup an under-19 event, which would also have the benefit of distancing it slightly more from the newly under-21 Olympics. Having done that, the next logical step would be to lower the age of the U-17 World Cup to under-16. That move was suggested to me some five years ago by the Argentine under-17 coach Hugo Tocalli. It sounded sensible then, it sounds more sensible today. At least FIFA would then have an event to which it could truly apply the word "youth."