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Jul 29, 2008

Club versus the Olympics

With just days to go before the Olympic football tournament kicks-off the issue of 'club versus country' has reared its ugly head, yet again. And, yet again, football's world governing body has failed to adequately address the issue.

With the event due to begin one day before the Beijing Games' official August 8th opening FIFA took too long to enforce its earlier decision that will make clubs release any of their players who receive an Olympic call-up

The event, which is restricted to players under the age of 23 (with three overage player per-team also permitted), has caused controversy - particularly amongst Europe's top clubs who are reluctant to allow their players to compete in China on the eve of the new domestic campaign.

In Germany Werder Bremen and Schalke tried and failed to respectively prevent Diego and Rafinha from joining up with the Brazilian Olympic team, while Barcelona are vowing to fight to retain the services of Argentina international Lionel Messi.

FIFA needed to appeal more strongly to clubs, many of them without Olympic interests, that players should be allowed represent their countries at such an event because it is a once in a life time opportunity.

Sadly this issue has been ongoing for years, every follower of the game is all too aware of it and all agree that it needs resolving.

In the last 12 months alone players have been involved in a variety of tug-of-war battles between club sides and national associations.

Take last year's Copa America, for example, when some clubs refused to grant some of South America's best players the right to showcase their talent at the prestigious event. The African Cup of Nations was involved in a similar battle earlier this year when a number of clubs suggested that the continent's governing body, CAF, move the competition from January to the summer months so as to avoid clashing with vital league fixtures.

It's a seemingly never-ending battle with the players carrying the biggest burden. Most players want to represent their nation, which is rightly regarded as an honour and a privilege, but because of club demands they are all-but forced to obey those who support their livelihood.

US teenage sensation Jozy Altidore addressed the issue in his New York Times blog, saying: 'I want to play in the Olympics, but it's also a critical time for me and my club team. But at the end of the day, it's country over club. It's a tough decision, but anytime you can honour your country you have got to seize the moment.'

Well said, Altidore. However, football is a business and when money talks the issue of sentiment becomes irrelevant, especially to club owners and managers.

He who pays the piper dictates the tune. The club pays the player's salary, takes care of his fitness, and insures his legs, so obviously they are wary of releasing players of the calibre of Robinho, Kaka, or Didier Drogba to represent their countries, even at events as celebrated the Olympics.

Of course, that does not make it right, but with the sky-rocketing transfer fees, salaries and bonuses of today's modern game the clubs want to protect their investment. And can you blame them?

For some players, those who have just moved to a new club and who need to prove themselves to new coaches and acclimatise to new surroundings, it might be in their best interest to stay away from Beijing and the Olympics and focus instead on their club careers.

A good example is Ghanaian-born, American talent Freddy Adu. Adu has played for three clubs in the last 18-months and recently Benfica loaned him to AS Monaco for the season. Adu failed to impress the staff in Portugal, but now has the chance of a fresh start in the French principality. Adu will represent Team USA in China, but at what expense?

Brazilian star Ronaldinho heads to Beijing having only just signed for AC Milan. After the games in China he will have to prove to Milan that he can still perform at the level expected from a player of his quality, despite a sojourn at the Games of the XXIX Olympiad.

Regardless of a reputation for enjoying a party lifestyle whilst at Paris Saint Germain, and despite leaving Barcelona amid doubts over his form and dedication, the Euro 20million signing will surely not struggle find a place in the Rossoneri first team.

On the other hand younger, less-famed players could find if tougher to get their shot at playing consistent football in the competitive world of European football if they choose their country flag over club affiliation.

Club and country, go hand-in-hand, so rather than sabotage one over the other wouldn't it be nice if the two could build an alliance, with FIFA as the mediator, so players caught in the middle of the quandary can don both colours?

Clubs are important, because we watch them every week, but most countries provide the talent, hence without them the clubs might not have the players.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter needs to step in and broker a deal with the national associations and the clubs' management. Not just this one time, but the sport's governing body must address how to resolve this issue once and for all. Perhaps FIFA could introduce an annual quota on the number of international matches a player can represent his country.

Mapping out a year-by-year, event-by-event strategy might be the way forward. That way, clubs can plan going into a season, the possibility of losing a particular player for a certain amount of games.

  • If you have any thoughts you can email Newsdesk, or email Sulaiman Folarin at sulaiman4real@yahoo.com.

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