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Clubs win appeal in Olympic soccer case

Aug. 06, 2008, 5:04 p.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Three European clubs won an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport on Wednesday to keep their players out of the Olympic football tournament. Two, however, will still play, and the other might.

Sport's highest court ruled Argentine forward Lionel Messi, Werder Bremen's Diego and Rafinha of Schalke can be kept out of the Beijing Games by their clubs.

Despite the ruling, Messi still wants to play for his country instead of returning to FC Barcelona, according to Argentina coach Sergio Batista.

Barcelona postponed making a decision on whether to demand Messi's return until its coach talked to the star. Team officials were unable to contact Messi in China, club sporting director Manel Estiarte said in New York.

Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola planned to call Messi again either before or after Wednesday night's exhibition game against Major League Soccer's Red Bulls in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Barcelona was scheduled to return home to Spain immediately after the match.

After the ruling, Schalke and Werder Bremen offered to let Rafinha and Diego stay with Brazil for the Olympic tournament.

However, both demanded the Brazilian football federation quickly "create the conditions" for the players' involvement - for example, by providing evidence of insurance coverage in case they are injured.

"We are pleased that CAS has confirmed our legal interpretation," Schalke manager Andreas Mueller said. "It is laid down quite clearly in the FIFA statutes."

Bremen manager Klaus Allofs said the club's preparation for the beginning of the German season, "which, because of the legal dispute, largely had to be conducted without Diego, is so far advanced that a recall at this point in time would no longer make any sense in sporting terms."

Schalke's Mueller echoed that.

"We don't feel we're the big winners because an impossible situation has arisen as a result of the delay," he said. "Five minutes before the Olympic football tournament kicks off we now have to decide whether to recall the player or not."

"Our decision would have been different if the legal position had been clarified earlier," Mueller said. "In that case we wouldn't have let Rafinha go under any circumstances."

"FIFA and the CBF were aware of the situation months ago. I believe the matter was deliberately delayed until just before the Olympics to put the clubs in an awkward position."

Argentina opens Thursday against the Ivory Coast in Shanghai and Brazil plays Belgium in Shenyang.

CAS secretary-general Matthieu Reeb said the three-member panel ruled in favor of the clubs because the Olympic tournament is not on FIFA's match calendar, and because there was no evidence that the football body's executive board obliged the clubs to release the players.

FIFA ruled on July 30 that the players must be released for the Olympic tournament because they are under 23.

Batista said Messi and the team were relaxed despite the apparent setback.

"He (Messi) told us he wants to stay," Batista said. "He's relaxed and asks the people at Barcelona to understand his situation. The club is relaxed, and I was figuring to put Messi in the starting 11."

The ruling in sport's highest court could be bad news for countries relying on young talent.

"Theoretically the clubs could ask their players to go back to Europe because they would be entitled to do so," Reeb said. "And if the players do not come back there could be a case of a breach of contract."

Reeb said the case was narrowly focused on the three under-23 players and did not address the question of the over-23 players who are playing in the Olympic football tournament.

"This decision does not affect the eligibility status of the players who have been validly entered by their national Olympic committee and who remain fully eligible to compete in Olympic Games of Beijing 2008," CAS said.

The three-member panel consisted of Efraim Barak of Israel, Michele Bernasconi of Switzerland and Ralph Zloczower of Switzerland."FIFA is surprised and disappointed by this decision, but we respect it," FIFA president Sepp Blatter said in a statement.

The men's Olympic football tournament is for players 23 and under, with three exceptions for older players.

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

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AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum in New York contributed to this report.

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