Despite being the world’s most popular sport, soccer usually takes a back seat at the Olympics, dwarfed by track and field, swimming and gymnastics.
Even though the likes of Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi are going to China, the spotlight won’t really swing toward them until late in the tournament.
Yet Olympic soccer is already making waves. Clubs are refusing to release their stars even though the players have been called up by countries searching for an elusive gold medal.
The teams argue that this is an irrelevant and poorly timed tournament in which the International Olympic Committee and soccer’s world governing body are trying to give soccer a higher profile at the games.
For decades, Olympic soccer was played by so-called amateurs and dominated by teams from the former Soviet bloc. The big stars from Western countries, who were paid, weren’t allowed to take part.
Now the Olympics are open to professionals in all sports. Soccer is for players age 23 and under, with three overage stars allowed to join the teams.
The prospect of an Olympic gold medal has prompted some of the big names to join their rising stars. While 21-year-old Argentina star Messi falls into the age category, 28-year-old Ronaldinho has decided to join the Brazilian squad to try and add another title to is already impressive resume.
Hope for growth
The competition starts two days before the opening ceremony and most of it is taking place in cities well away from Beijing — in effect taking the Olympics to Shanghai, Tianjin, Shenyang and Qinhuangdo where thousands more Chinese can watch the games.
With 16 teams taking part and a final in the Olympic stadium Aug. 23, the IOC and FIFA hope that soccer will maintain its growth within the Olympics after standout performances in recent games by gold-medal winners Nigeria (1996), Cameroon (2000) and Argentina (2004).
Brazil great Ronaldo and Nigeria’s Nwankwo Kanu have played in the Summer Games. Argentina’s goal-scoring star in Athens four years ago was Carlos Tevez, now with Manchester United.
So those in charge of Olympic soccer hoped that the clubs would be proud to field someone who had won an Olympic gold medal.
Far from it, apparently.
Keeping players away
The clubs, who pay the players’ salaries, are preparing for the start of domestic seasons that begin during the Olympics.
Although Germany doesn’t have a team in the men’s competition in China, some of the Bundesliga clubs don’t want their Brazilian stars to go.
Schalke refused to release defender Rafinha for the tournament. He failed to show up for the club’s training camp and instead joined the Brazilian Olympic squad. Werder Bremen midfielder Diego wants to go to the Olympics, but his club is expecting him to arrive for training Tuesday.
And it’s not just Brazilians.
Hertha Berlin won’t let striker Marko Pantelic play for Serbia, Hamburger SV doesn’t want to release of Belgium defender Vincent Kompany and Bayer Leverkusen has said no to Constant Djakpa of Ivory Coast.
On Monday, two weeks after Brazil announced its Olympic squad, Real Madrid reported that striker Robinho had pinjured his groin and asked for his release from the trip to China. The club says it’s better for him to be assessed for preseason in Spain rather than in China.
Three months ago, FIFA world player of the year Kaka said it would be a dream for him to help Brazil win the only title it has never captured — an Olympic gold medal. That was before AC Milan said it wouldn’t let him go. That impasse was headed off by Kaka discovering he needed knee surgery.
Liverpool is unhappy to lose three players to the Olympics — Argentina’s Javier Mascherano, Dutch winger Ryan Babel and Brazilian midfielder Lucas. Manager Rafa Benitez fears Babel may aggravate an ankle injury that ruled him out of last month’s European Championship.
“We are really worried because after getting him fit it is likely that we could lose him again if he is selected for the Olympics,” Benitez said. “This is a big problem — we prepare him and then he goes away with the national team.”
The squads have been announced and the players are preparing for China.
Robinho may well have a groin injury. Watch out for a few more to crop up in the next week or so.