Blatter: U23 players should play despite ruling

China Olympics Soccer Argentina
Lionel Messi of Argentina warms up during a training session in Shanghai. The Barcelona star has joined the national team after FIFA ruled that clubs are obliged to release players aged 23 or under for the Beijing Olympics. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Even if European soccer clubs win a court case to keep their players out of the Beijing Olympics, FIFA president Sepp Blatter wants them to play anyway.

With the start of the men’s tournament only three days away, Blatter said Monday that Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazil’s Rafinha and Diego should be able to compete for their national teams no matter what the Court of Arbitration for Sport rules.

After FIFA ruled players must be released for the Olympic tournament, clubs appealed that decision to CAS, world sport’s highest authority. A ruling is expected Wednesday, a day before the men’s tournament starts. The opening ceremony of the Beijing Games is Friday.

The men’s Olympic football tournament is for players under 23, with three exceptions for older players. But FC Barcelona (Messi), Werder Bremen (Diego) and Schalke (Rafinha) have complained they do not want to lose their players for the start of the season.

“I do hope that even if and when the ruling is against the players that the clubs would say, ’OK we are now right, and we were right to attack. It’s good for us to go against FIFA,”’ Blatter said. “But let the players play. ... This is what I’m asking.”

Both Barcelona and Schalke are scheduled to play Champions League qualifying matches during the Olympics, and they could lose out on millions of dollars if they fail to reach the group stage.

Blatter has argued all along that club teams must release their players under a FIFA statute.

“I’m a little bit surprised the clubs are taking such a strong stance. I would say not only against FIFA, but also against the players,” Blatter said. “(The players) deserve also respect when they are asked by their national teams to play.”

Still, Blatter made it clear that he would respect CAS’ decision.

“When (CAS) is taking a decision, we are bound by that decision,” Blatter said.

“It is the interest of the clubs to combine them with the interest of the national teams, and here we must find the balance. And if this balance does not exist, then it is not good for football,” Blatter said. “Let them play. Let them play.”