Giant on the move
Olympic soccer is a serious business — just ask Messi
The Olympic soccer tournament, which starts next Thursday, has enjoyed unprecedented publicity in the run-up to Beijing, unwittingly helped by the belligerent attitude of the European clubs.
In their attempts to avoid releasing Argentina striker Lionel Messi for the Games, Barcelona helped raise the profile of the competition to a level it has rarely enjoyed in the past.
Barcelona finally relented last Wednesday when FIFA reinforced its ruling that clubs must release their under-23 players, although the Spanish club have appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sports and will demand the player fly back from China if there is a ruling in their favour.
Earlier, Barcelona had dragged Messi off for a pre-season tour to Scotland and the controversy dominated headlines on both sides of the Atlantic.
Messi’s presence, even without the added publicity, is a huge boost and and means soccer will have one of the most illustrious athletes in the entire Games.
German pair Schalke 04 and Werder Bremen also helped the Olympic cause by refusing to release Brazilian pair Rafinha and Diego. Like Barcelona, they too are awaiting a ruling from CAS.
Unlike Messi, however, Rafinha and Diego took the case into their own hands as they simply defied their clubs and flew to join the Brazilian squad on a pre-Olympic tour.
Their actions show how seriously Olympic soccer — an under-23 tournament with three overage players allowed per team — is taken outside Europe.
Brazil, five-times winners of the World Cup, have never won an Olympic gold in soccer and will not consider their trophy cabinet to be complete without it.
Dunga, coach of the senior side, will be in charge of their team here as well. Already under pressure, he could lose both jobs if they fail — just as Wanderlei Luxemburgo did after a quarter-final exit in Sydney eight years ago.
They tried to include Kaka as an overage player but, after AC Milan refused to release him, called up Ronaldinho instead.
It is not just in South America that Olympic soccer is taken seriously.
Just listen to United States midfielder Freddy Adu. ”Most of the players, I’d say about 99.9 per cent, want to go to the Olympics. This is a big, big, big deal,” Adu told a news conference on Friday.
“Guys want to go but they’re just being held back by their clubs. They’re important for their clubs and you can understand it but I think it’s a great rule that they have to be released.”
Argentina also boast Sergio Aguero, the overage Juan Roman Riquelme, Real Madrid’s Fernando Gago and Liverpool’s Javier Mascherano in an impressive line-up and start as favourites to retain their crown.
Brazil, with AC Milan’s Alexandre Pato leading the attack, look capable of mounting a serious challenge if Dunga can overcome naturally cautious approach.
Netherlands and Italy are likely to lead the European challenge while Africa also look strong, represented by Nigeria, winners in 1996, and Cameroon, who won four years later.
PHOTO: Lionel Messi arrives in Shanghai, August 1, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer