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Complete archive of Robert Wagman's It Seems to Me.

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It Seems To Me . . .

Politics drain men's Olympic field.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON (Tuesday, September 12, 2000) -- Juan Antonio Samaranch, the Spaniard who has headed to International Olympic Committee for more than two decades had what he thought was a wonderful idea. It was the 1980s. The Olympics were getting away from this whole amateur business, so why not throw open Olympic soccer to professionals. That way, every four years, the best soccer teams in the world would compete for Olympic Gold.

Just think of it, he said. Billions of new viewers around the world tuning in as the best from Europe and South America and other corners of the globe fought it out for world football supremacy. Think of the interest. Think of the fan enjoyment. Think of the hundreds of millions in new revenue flowing into the IOC coffers.

Wait a moment, said FIFA, soccer's world governing body. That vision sounds suspiciously like the World Cup which pours billions into FIFA's coffers every four years. About the last thing FIFA wanted was an off-year World Cup sponsored by some other organization. So back and forth it went, and a compromise of sorts was reached. Menís soccer in the Olympics would be opened to professionals, but teams would be limited to players age 23 and under, making the Olympics effectively a world youth championship. This left the IOC with much less than it wanted, so a little more back and forth and it was agreed that teams could bring three "overage" players.

Samaranch, has strongly suggested that number be raised to five. FIFA has countered: lets make it none. So it has stayed three players over 23.

Over the past few Olympiads, the quality of the soccer has been decent. There have been exciting competitions and some of the best young players have been on display. Moreover, the Olympic tournament has become a showcase for countries trying to develop international soccer reputations, countries such as Nigeria, the 1996 gold medalist.

Things were going along reasonably smoothly until Australia was awarded the 2000 Summer Games. For the first time since professional soccer players were allowed to compete, the Olympics were going to a country in the southern hemisphere. This meant that if the games were played in their normal mid-June to late-July window, it would be winter in Australia, and ice would have to be chipped off the swimming pools, and the sprinters would be competing in possibly near-freezing temperatures.

So the games were pushed back to as late into the Sydney spring as possible. There would still be a chill in the air, especially at night, but daytime temperatures in the 70s would be pleasant, and a great relief after the Georgia summer of 1996. That, however, pushed the games back into the regular seasons of the professional leagues of Europe. Even more damaging, it created a direct conflict with Europe's two most lucrative club competitions, the Champions League and UEFA Cup.

This started a whole new struggle between the Olympics, FIFA and now UEFA, the European governing body. Some professional leagues cooperated, such as the Italian League which postponed the start of its regular season until after the Olympics ended to allow players to go without hurting clubs in Serie A. Others, like the Spanish League, resisted and pressured the Spanish Football Association to agree that no overage players would be taken and that no Spanish club could lose more than one player, no matter the nationality.

Other leagues responded by pretty much ignoring the Olympics with Major League Soccer in the United States vowing, "Our matches will go on!" The MLS league office left individuals teams to decide on an individual basis whether players should go or not. If a club wanted to resist losing players, MLS, which holds all the contracts, would back it.

As far as UEFA was concerned, a plea to postpone the Champions League and UEFA Cup start for a month fell on deaf ears. "Television commitments," was the predictable reason for the refusal.

FIFA could have gotten involved. It could have pressured member countries to pressure their professional leagues to pressure their individual clubs to release any and all age-eligible players plus whatever three overage players a national team coach might want. Instead, FIFA saw this as a way of crippling the Olympic soccer tournament and eliminating competition to the World Cup in any way whatsoever. So FIFA said it was up to the national federations to act as they wanted.

Predictably, the federations left it up to the professional leagues who left it up to the clubs who, by and large, responded by putting tremendous pressure on their players to turn down Olympic invitations.

According to press reports, FIFA privately asked the 16 qualified countries not to call up any over-23 players. The U.S.'s first round opponent, the Czech Republic, agreed, as did Spain, Italy, Brazil, Slovakia and South Africa. Moreover, a number of countries, not wanting to put their players into the middle of a club-country dustup, did not even bother to call in their best under-23s.

The two African countries in the competition, Nigeria and Cameroon, have essentially been decimated by the European clubs refusal to release players. Nwankwo Kanu, Nigeria's captain who led the team to the gold medal in Atlanta, wanted to be captain again in Australia. No way, said English Premier League club Arsenal, and Kanu withdrew himself from the squad.

Salomon Olembe, Cameroon's gifted midfielder who would have given the U.S. fits, is staying in France under pressure from Nantes, his club team. "We asked Olembe to reflect on his commitment to our club and he chose not to participate in the Olympic Games," Nantes president Kleber Bobin was quoted as saying.

Likewise, French side St Etienne said Cameroon's fine young defender Lucien Mettomo, 23, is "too unfit" to travel to Sydney. But he is not too unfit to play French league matches.

Cameroon wanted to bring several key overage players including defender Rigobert Song. His club team, Liverpool, said no. Likewise, English Premier League side Middlesbrough pressured Cameroon's Joseph Job to stay in England.

And the list goes on and on. Even Leeds United is battling with host Australia over releasing forward Mark Viduka. If he goes, he will miss Champions League matches. The Australian federation is demanding his release and he will likely go to the Games, but it might cost him his job at Leeds.

So what is left is something well short of the Olympics even acting as the unofficial world under-23 tournament. FIFA says that the real problem is the late start of the Southern Hemisphere games. Athens in 2004 will be different, because the Games will take place in the European soccer offseason.

Maybe it is an aberration, but this is far from a stellar field. Yes, there will be some very good players on display, but if the Olympics become just another battleground for club-country conflicts, Olympic soccer will become hardly worth the effort.

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at bobwagman@soccertimes.com..

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