Lionel Messi may be only slightly taller than the average 10-year-old, but he knows when to come up big. The Barcelona star recently stood up for himself and announced he would be going to the Olympics—if selected, of course—even if it meant missing out on his club’s crucial Champions League qualifying tie.
“It is up to me to decide and the Olympic Games are something I may never be able to play in again,” Messi said. “Barcelona don’t depend only on me to win games. I think the club and the fans will understand.”
In some ways, the Olympic football tournament is the last great “club versus country” talking point. Unlike full-fledged FIFA-sanctioned competitions, it is not played during an international break, which means matches clash with league and UEFA ties.
Olympic football squads are made up of under-23 sides, plus three overage “wild-card” players, selected by the national coaches. The latter are a way to provide a bit of lustre to a tournament that would otherwise be a youth competition.
In 2004, the likes of Roberto Ayala, Andrea Pirlo, and Gabriel Heinze all featured, much to the annoyance of their club sides.
This August, in theory at least, the Netherlands could call up Edwin van der Sar (how would that please Sir Alex Ferguson?), Dirk Kuyt, and Ruud van Nistelrooy if they wanted to. And, if any of those players nurtured childhood dreams of Olympic gold, they may well want to turn their backs on club football and fly halfway around the world for three weeks or so.
Further muddying the waters is a discrepancy in regulations. Clubs have to release under-23 players—which is why Barcelona cannot prevent Messi from going—but they can deny the services of overage “wild-card” players.
So, for example, AC Milan turned down requests from Kaká and Filippo Inzaghi to go to Beijing. The Brazilian was particularly disappointed.
“I did everything I could to go,” Kaká said, before knee surgery made the point moot. “But Milan won’t let me. There is nothing I can do.”
You can see the club's reasoning. They pay the players’ wages, they have key matches in that period, and they do not want to send prize assets into the Beijing smog for a competition that, frankly, nobody in Europe really cares about.
Then again, it is not hard to see why the rest of the world sees things a bit differently. Fans in South America and Africa accept that they have to lose their stars to the cash-rich Europeans.
They may still cheer via the surrogate of club football—becoming fans of, say, Real Madrid or Manchester United, based on whoever is paying the wages of Mahamadou Diarra or Carlos Tévez that year. But, to them, there is nothing like seeing heroes representing their nations.
What is more difficult to accept is why the Olympics—especially in light of the corny ecumenical slogans about “taking part”—should somehow be different when it comes to football. Especially because, for most of the non-European world (apart from a handful of nations), this is the one sport in which they can compete on an equal footing.
And, let’s face it—without wishing to offend archers, kayakers, and pentathletes—it is one of the few sports people genuinely care about.
The explanation, simply put, is political. FIFA could lift all restrictions on Olympic eligibility if they wanted to and we would get a de facto World Cup redux played in Olympic years.
But they will not do that, because it would undermine the supremacy and importance of the “real” World Cup. And they can get away with it because football is one of the few sports in which the governing body is more powerful than the International Olympic Committee.
And so Olympic football continues in this kind of ugly stepsister limbo, despite generating more money and attracting more viewers than any other sport (not that you would notice, given the contempt in which it is held by the European press).
At least there are people such as Messi who are willing to risk the ire of their employers (and, by extension, cash) by turning out for their country. Even if it is in a tournament that we Europeans snub routinely.