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German clubs fight to keep players from Games

/ Source: The Associated Press

Schalke and Werder Bremen have used a flurry of legal steps in a bid to keep their players away from the approaching Olympics, with the German clubs hoping for final victory this week over FIFA.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) will hand down a ruling by Wednesday — only one day before Thursday's start of the football tournament. If the decision goes in the clubs' favor, Brazilian players Diego and Rafinha will be recalled at the last minute by Bremen and Schalke respectively.

The two teams responded quickly to last week's ruling from FIFA which said they must release players aged 23 or under for the Beijing Games.

"We expected exactly that FIFA ruling," Schalke manager Andreas Mueller said in a statement last week. "We would have been very surprised if the judge had let down his president, Sepp Blatter."

Within hours, the clubs filed an appeal with CAS. They were joined by FC Barcelona, contacted five days earlier, who want to keep Lionel Messi in Spain.

The sports court's ruling is likely to be followed closely across Europe, since it deals with the disputed issue of a player's release to national teams.

Both German teams say their goal was to take the final decision out of the hands of FIFA — where they didn't think they could win — and move it to the more impartial CAS.

"I don't know how it will turn out, but we have succeeded in getting a ruling from the highest sport court," Theo Paeffgen, lawyer for Bremen and Schalke, told The Associated Press. "We have succeeded in not giving in to the political statements of Blatter."

‘The loser is the clubs’
Blatter angered the two German clubs with remarks about how keeping the players home would be "against the spirit" of Olympic regulations. From their view, football's highest official should represent their interests, Paeffgen said.

Bremen was also upset because it believed that FIFA had months to deal with the clubs' objections. Bremen manager Klaus Allofs has said he believes the conflict could have been avoided if FIFA had handed a clear ruling months ago.

"The loser is the clubs, because we pay the players but don't get anything from them," Allofs was quoted as saying by the local Kreiszeitung newspaper. "No, the loser is actually the people from FIFA because they have shown themselves to be incapable in this whole affair."

FIFA argues that the release of young players has traditionally been accepted by clubs since the rule first came into force 20 years ago.

Bremen fears Diego, one of the Bundesliga's best players, could be injured in the Olympics. In a worst-case scenario, Barcelona and Schalke could lose $45 million or more if they are eliminated from the lucrative Champions League.

They will be out if they lose qualifiers scheduled while Rafinha and Barcelona's Messi may be away at the Olympics.

Accelerated moves
The German teams accelerated their legal moves on July 23, according to Paeffgen, knowing the Olympics start was closing in.

FIFA allegedly goaded them into action by making it clear they would not take action, despite German pleading for a clear ruling.

"You are not going to get a ruling. Guess why?" Paeffgen said they were told by a FIFA official. "Can you imagine how we felt?"

Legal complaints were filed by Bremen and Schalke with CAS and FIFA on July 23, and the move allegedly pressured FIFA to hand down a ruling on July 30.

On July 25, the German teams contacted both Barcelona and Real Madrid in hopes of cooperation, with Barcelona agreeing to join forces.

In the meantime, CAS handed them a schedule which showed they would get their ruling before the Olympics started.

The three clubs have the support of the European Club Association (ECA), representing Europe's top clubs, which believes the law is on their side.

Paeffgen said other top European officials and clubs are on their side, although they won't go on record. Releasing some of the world's most expensive players to national teams — taking them away from the clubs who continue to pay their salaries — has been a thorny issue for years.

In the end, the CAS decision may well come down to the vote of Efraim Barak, a Tel Aviv lawyer who is the independent representative on the three-man panel.