Soccer clubs must release under-23 players for the Beijing Olympics, said FIFA President Joseph Blatter. The decision could let several Bundesliga players off the judicial hook.
FIFA wants teams to let their eligible players take part in the 2008 Olympic Games
"The release of players below the age of 23 has always been mandatory for all clubs," Blatter said in a statement on Wednesday, July 23. "The same principle shall apply for Beijing 2008."
The statement added that Blatter had sent an according letter to all member federations on that day.
The news comes shortly after Germany's Schalke 04 announced the start of proceedings to go before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) over their 22-year-old Brazilian defender Rafinha and comments from the European soccer association ECA that clubs cannot be forced to send players to the Games.
Confusion reigned for days in the international soccer community over whether or not clubs have to release players for the August 8-24 Olympics, which coincide with the league start in England and Germany and pre-season activities in Spain and Italy.
The Olympic tournament is by definition an under-23 event but each team can field three over-age players, who the clubs are not required to release.
An end to legal limbo?
Schalke is unhappy that Rafinha, right, put the Olympics before his club obligations
Apart from Schalke, the Bundesliga's Werder Bremen had also said before Blatter's statement that they would look to the CAS if their Brazilian playmaker Diego, who qualifies as an under-23 player, has to play in Beijing.
Like Schalke's Rafinha, Diego traveled to Beijing without his team's authorization.
Elsewhere, Barcelona don't want to release star forward Lionel Messi to play for 2004 gold medalists Argentina in Beijing.
Barca said in a first reaction to Blatter's letter that the statement was "not satisfactory" for the club's interest and that a board meeting had been called.
The clubs argued that the men's Olympic tournament is not part of the official match calendar -- though the women's tournament is -- and that they don't have to release players.
This view was shared, among others, by the German soccer federation (DFB) and the ECA, which represents Europe's clubs.
"As the Olympics are not included in the harmonized international match calendar, the obligation to release players for national team matches according to the FIFA regulations on the status and transfer of players does not apply," ECA chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said in a statement issued earlier Wednesday. "We, therefore, support all clubs that currently face losing important players."
Rummenigge also called on FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to set up clear rules for future Olympic tournaments.
FIFA: Olympics mandatory international tournament
Diego was instrumental in Bremen's attack on the Bundesliga crown last season
But Blatter said in the letter to the FIFA members that the Olympic tournament is "deliberately" not included in the calendar, and that this "does not mean that there is no release obligation for the relevant clubs.
"In view of the importance of the men's Olympic football tournament for the entire sporting movement in general and football in particular, and given the specific nature of the event, as well as on the basis of customary law, the release of players below the age of 23 has always been mandatory for clubs. The same principle shall apply for Beijing 2008.
"It would appear to be against the spirit of the Olympic regulations to hinder players under the age of 23, who are actually the core of the squads participating in the men's Olympic football tournament, to take part in the final phase of the event."
Blatter's clarification backed up the comments of IOC president Jacques Rogge who told DPA news agency last week that players must be released.
"The law says that if a club doesn't release a player then the player will be suspended for the whole period of the Games," Rogge said. "FIFA has reminded the clubs of this law. They sent a letter a couple of days ago to remind them of that."
Blatter's confirmation was good news for the players as well, with Diego for instance naming the Olympics "a dream." It could also affect pending cases such as SV Hamburg's Belgian Vincent Kompany.
Players benefit from fulfilling Olympic dream
Argentina are the current Olympic gold medal holders
According to the German player union VDV, the clubs would even benefit from their players going to the Olympics.
"Participating at an Olympic tournament is a career highlight for every player," the union told DPA. "Players who are not given this chance could be disappointed and that could affect their performance in the league. Releasing a player for the Olympics, by contrast, could boost performance, which the clubs in the end will profit from."
Teams have acknowledged that players are under huge pressure to represent their countries where the Olympic event has great importance.
Brazil, for instance, wants Olympic gold at last. Europe's big soccer powers are not represented in Beijing, with the exception of Italy.
Promoted German Bundesliga club Hoffenheim bowed to this pressure when it released forward Chinedu Obasi to play for the 1996 Olympic champions Nigeria. "The pressure on Obasi and his family was unbearable," said Hoffenheim general manager Jan Schindelmeiser. "It would have been negligent to decide in another way."