By Paul Gardner
The camel, so it is said, was supposed to be a horse - but it was designed by a committee and that's the way it came out, ungainly, unshapely, and often unmanageable.
By that reckoning, it's fair enough to define Olympic soccer as the camel of soccer tournaments. It fits all three of the above adjectives, and it's been designed, and re-designed, and designed again by a series of committees. And not one of those committees has yet proffered a tournament that doesn't look like a camel.
The difficulty of course, is that FIFA already has a lock on the logical world tournaments: the World Cup and the under-20 and under-17 World Cups. Do we need another world championship? Not really, but the Olympics does, it needs soccer, not least because soccer draws more paying spectators than any other Olympic event - it has even managed to do just that when the Olympics are staged in the USA.
So the Olympics needs soccer - but not second-rate soccer. It wants the best. It would like to stage a version of the full World Cup, but obviously FIFA is not about to allow that. So we've had a series of pathetically ill-born camels.
Amateurs only to start with, but that notion was wrecked by the Eastern European communist countries that used their full national teams, claiming they had no pro sportsmen. So, for the rest, it became amateurs plus some pros, then - giving in to reality - all pros - but with limitations, that is no pros from Europe or South America, then on further thought, that was changed to no pros with World Cup experience, until FIFA thought up an age limit of under-23, which the Olympic people regarded almost as an insult to their event, but to retain soccer they accepted it - and got it relaxed slightly to allow each team to field three over-age players.
And, camel-wise, that's where we are. An arbitrary age limit of no particular significance, plus another arbitrary figure for three over-age players. A meaningless, totally synthetic tournament.
That under-23 age specification causes all sorts of problems because it obviously includes a lot of pro players who are regular starters - even stars - for their pro club teams. Howls of protest at having to release these players have been heard, particularly from European clubs. For the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Barcelona refused to release Argentina's Lionel Messi - and took FIFA to the Court of Arbitration Sport (CAS) over the issue. But by the time CAS handed down its decision in favor of Barcelona, Messi was already en route to China, and the club relented and allowed Messi to play - and win the gold - with Argentina.
So it is hardly surprising that UEFA has now announced that it favors an under-21 Olympic age limit, with no over-age players. A formula that would greatly reduce the number of senior-team pros likely to be called in by the competing nations.
But such a change would raise the obvious objection: what's the point of such a competition when FIFA already has an under-20 World Cup? This is staged every two years in the odd numbered years - in other words there will always be an under-20 World Cup in the year preceding the Olympics.
The under-21 demand would make more sense - a lot more sense - if FIFA would reduce the age limits of its own World Cups - lowering the under-20 to an under-18 World Cup, and lowering the under-17 to under-16.
None of which, I fear is likely to happen. FIFA boss Sepp Blatter seems determined to retain the current Olympic structure (the under-23 camel) and he probably has enough support from Asia, Africa and Concacaf to get his way. Exactly why those confederations should support the under-23 formula needs an analysis of the politics and personalities involved. To mention the obvious examples of the complicating factors - examples that at least carry the suggestion of divided loyalties - Blatter is a member of the International Olympic Committee, as is Issa Hayatou, president of the African Confederation.
So the unedifying Saga of the Olympic Camel will drag on - no doubt with further mutations to come.