FIFA president, Joseph Blatter, made an impassioned plea to European clubs Monday, Aug. 4, to allow all under-23 players to participate at the Olympics.
Brazilian Diego departed for Beijing last week amid protests from Werder Bremen
The plea comes ahead of the men's Olympic football tournament, which starts Aug. 7, a day ahead of the official opening of the Beijing Olympics. The tournament is open to players under the age of 23, but three clubs have appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) for the return of their players who are already in China.
German clubs Werder Bremen and Schalke 04, as well as Barcelona, have approached CAS about their players Diego, Rafinha and Lionel Messi, respectively.
Blatter told a news conference at the Beijing Main Press Center that whatever the outcome before the world's highest sports arbitration body, due in the next two days, FIFA would tell the players to stay and play.
"We are bound by the decisions of CAS, but even if it is a decision that is negative for the players, I would say: Let them play."
He also said that even with a CAS rule in favor of the three clubs, the clubs should allow the players to stay.
"The clubs should then say: We were right to appeal to CAS, but in the spirit of the Olympic Games we will let them stay and play," Blatter said.
Finding a balance between clubs and national teams
The soccer head said that he was surprised that these problems had arisen ahead of these Games.
"In 1988 the FIFA Congress made the decision that the Olympic tournament should be open to players under 23," he said. "Since then, we have not had a single complaint or problem with the release of players.
"Also when the tournament was opened to include three over-aged players, it remained without problems," Blatter added.
He said he thought this issue was part of the ongoing problem of trying to combine the interest of clubs with that of the national teams.
"We have to find a balance," he said.
At the same time, Blatter complimented the English Premier League and the Italian Serie A for releasing all their players, irrespective of whether they were under-23 or not.
"We need solidarity in soccer" he said. "We need everybody to work together. Players should be given the opportunity of playing at the Olympics."
He dismissed the argument put forward by some clubs saying that as the Olympic tournament was not on the international match calendar, players need not be released for it.
"The match calendar deals only with the senior national teams; it does not mention youth tournament," he said.
Revised rules for London?
He also said that the FIFA Congress in 2006 had decided that the format of the Olympic tournament will stay the same for 2008, but that the issue would be revisited after the Beijing Games for the 2012 Olympics in London.
"In England there will also be the issue of one British team instead of four associations which FIFA recognizes," said Blatter, referring to FIFA's special dispensation which allows Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland to field their own teams in other FIFA competitions.
"The Olympic body will allow just one team, Britain," Blatter said.
The 72-year-old, who said that this tournament was a special one because it marked 100 years of Olympic soccer, thanked the IOC for allowing 12 women teams and 16 men teams to participate.